In the Year 2015 I’m pretty sure the idea of the “viral video” is what we called an “urban legend” way back in the 1900’s.
Growing up it was pretty common that someone would bring up a goofy, scary, intriguing and/or mysterious story about something no one in the group could ignore. Example: The Rod Stewart had to get his stomach pumped, or Gene Simmons had a cow tongue transplanted into his mouth, or ‘In The Air Tonight’ is actually Phil Collins telling his ‘true’ story of when he watched a man drown another man, or the one about KISS stands for ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’.
Any of them were totally far fetched, weird and easy to believe, because – really – who wouldn’t want to believe any of that?
Maybe because I’m now a 40something, I just don’t hear urban legends anymore. What I get are viral videos (or pics). Viral videos happen pretty much every day. Their cultural impact varies, but the question of, “…have you seen that “x” video?” is pretty much as common as asking someone about the weather.
Entertainment Weekly currently has an article about the history of viral videos and their list of what they think are the best. There’s even a discussion of origin videos that first went viral.
As soon as I saw that list it brought to mind what, for me, was the original viral video. But not in the sense of a video I saw on the internet because when I first saw it, the internet was more sci-fi than reality.
It was the moment in my life when the urban legend stopped and in came the viral video.
Back in the late 80’s I was working as an intern at Q102, a rock radio station in Dallas. It was there I was called into a conference room, one with a TV and VCR, because someone had a videotape they wanted me to see. What transpired was about 8 minutes of the hardest laughing I ever experienced – before or since – as I watched a grainy, warped VCR tape today is known as “The Farting Preacher”.
Now, part of why this was so funny arrives in two parts: 1) farting is always funny and 2) the person on the video was Robert Tilton. At the time Tilton was forever in the news. He was that stereotypical evangelical preacher who was flaunting his riches and yet somehow able to trick a considerable portion of the population into believing whatever connection he claimed to have with God was legit. Additionally, Tilton was a wonder to watch perform.
So here appeared this video of Tilton doing his thing, but someone had overdubbed a vast selection and variety of flatulence SFX to perfectly, and I mean perfectly, match the numerous ridiculous Tilton facial expressions. About those. Long before the video surfaced, these faces were the height of jokes about him. In the course of a 30 minute rant Tilton could throw an array of faces that would make any Warner Brother’s cartoon character proud.
A new high bar of funny was stamped in my life – that moment two minutes in- when Tilton gets up from the desk and daintily jogs around a corner of the studio to the phone bank … all while a series of matching *poot-poot-poot-poot* blurt out. I just about popped an aneurysm the first time I saw it.
Tilton’s work was so obviously an act, a put-on of the highest degree, you just couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind would believe the guy – much less send him their life savings. But they did. Sadly, an almost uncountable number of people did just that.
Anyway, you can consume all sorts of accounts about Tilton’s rise, fall and everything in between. That alone is rather fascinating, but the farting video is the best side story.
The video I have embedded here isn’t exactly what I saw back then. At the time it was without a title screen and the editing was even more crude than what’s here. Since then a collection of various sequels, rip-offs and versions have popped up with the same or newer content. (since posting this, the video has become age restricted – so you have to watch it directly in YouTube, sorry)
Back to 1980something: As I rolled on the floor, crying, watching the video for the first time there was also a sense that what we had was illegal, bootleg or something we’d get in trouble for having. When I asked if I could get a copy the reaction was so very pre-Napster. The idea of pirating any video, but a video goof like this was received like it hovered around a federal offense. In hindsight all of that was silly and generated from the person who showed me the video. It would turn out later, sharing it was no different than making a copy of a favorite mix cassette tape.
Because the internet was not something ubiquitous at that time, watching and sharing the video was limited to gathering around a VCR. It just wasn’t something you could share, so the number of people that had actually seen at first was limited, but everyone had at least heard about it. Eventually most everyone had a VHS tape with a sticker with some variation of “Farting Tilton” hand written on the spine. Today, viral videos are championed by how many views they’ve received. The biggest push into the millions, tens of millions in fact. For The Gassy Reverend, we will never know how many of these tapes were in existence, much less how many times they were watched.
Duh, I ended up with one too and it was a prized possession until it was stolen during a break-in. I lost several really great CD’s and videos in that crime, but it was the loss of the Tilton tape that I still hurts most to this day.
The origins of the video are still unknown, at least to me. There’s the standard wikipedia insight and this mention in a recent interview with Chuck Lorre, Marc Marion and Mike Judge:
CHUCK LORRE: I remember seeing Frog Baseball and laughing my ass off.
MIKE JUDGE: Oh, thanks. It was very weird. I’d just been animating things in my house outside of Dallas. I would send them out on tape — I hadn’t seen them play in front of an audience. I think the “viral” concept sort of happened back then, too. You’d get a VHS that had been copied a million times. Like that preacher, Robert Tilton.
MARC MARON: The farting one?
JUDGE: Yeah, everybody had a copy of it.
MARON I remember the first time I saw it. Louis C.K. took this VHS out of a drawer, put it in, and we laughed hysterically. He put it back in the drawer and said, “That’s the last time I’m going to watch this for a few months. I want it to stay funny.”
JUDGE: I remember when MTV was starting a new show — we were in the second or third season of Beavis and Butt-head — called The Brothers Grunt. The producer also worked on Beavis. He played like a 10-minute video of the show for us at lunch. Everyone was like, “Oh.” Then someone goes, “Put in the Robert Tilton fart tape!” And it was through-the-roof [funny].”
That conversation captures the spirit the video created at the time. People universally loved it, talked about it, watched it together and if you met someone who hadn’t seen it – worked like crazy to make sure they did.
That sense of discovery is so much different today.
When my wife finds a new video of corgis doing something cute, or I want to share a video of the new Cayman GT4, or any of the ka-zillion soccer videos that need sharing – its done with a press of a few buttons. Whatever is shared is done so immediately.
Its hard for me to imagine a world where the Tilton video comes out in 2015. Ironically we’re probably approaching the video’s 30th anniversary. It very well would be just as funny (assuming Tilton was as media present as he was at that time), but because viral videos come and go so fast in this age its impact, I’m certain, would be far less. Also because today watching video is soooo much easier – hell we had to actually wait while a tape rewound(?!) to watch it again? – I’m guessing the burn factor would be far greater. I mean, I watched Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video only two or three times before I was over it.
I’m pretty sure I will again never experience that same feeling I did back on that late 80’s afternoon. Sure, there will be plenty of videos delivered into my iPhone I can watch, re-watch, share and enjoy….
..but will I ever have that same feeling I got from Poot-ing Tilton? Not likely. But I can, and will, enjoy the cat riding a roomba while wearing a shark costume videos just like the other ten million plus other people of earth.