There's a fine line between being laughed at and being laughed with -- especially in an "instant video" culture that seemingly loves to see people humiliate themselves on YouTube. But what are we laughing at, really? For example, check out the (extremely profane and NSFW) video after the jump. I'll wait.
OK, the man you just witnessed is one Jack Rebney, an average citizen who got caught on film while having a VERY bad day on the job. Did the clip make you laugh? Was it the profanity? The frustration? The flies? And here's the question that interests me the most: As you watched Jack's meltdown, were you taking pleasure in his misery -- or were you able to empathize with Jack because you know exactly how he feels?
This is one of the themes that runs through Ben Steinbauer's excellent independent documentary Winnebago Man. It also touches on issues of privacy, frustration, friendship, and loneliness (stuff we can all relate to, obviously), but what I found most interesting was the theme of simple respect. Yes, Jack flipped out on camera 20 years ago and then became sort of a mini-sensation on the "funny clips" circuit (before YouTube showed up, I mean), but the question of WHY we laugh and what that laughter does to the man himself, well, that's a pretty fascinating theme to tackle.
A wonderfully "organic" piece of documentary filmmaking (you sense that you're watching the best stuff unfold just as Steinbauer does, which gives the audience a great "in" to the story), Winnebago Man is little more than a brief history of Jack Rebney's ironic infamy, followed by Steinbauer's attempts to locate, befriend, and perhaps help the man find out why a million total strangers think he's so damn funny. And while we're given some strong supporting performances by Jack's great old friend Keith Gordon (and his great new friend Buddha the dog), the best stuff in Winnebago Man comes when Jack is just riffing, ranting, and pontificating for the camera.
By the time Steinbauer takes us to a "third act destination" (trying to avoid spoilers) so Jack and Keith can see what all the hoopla is about, the viewer is knee-deep in the basic-yet-honest humanity on display. Suffice to say that we're privy to a fascinating development, right before our eyes, and it's a testament to this very fine documentary that the change feels completely natural and entirely unexpected. (Dang, I really had to dance around the issue, but re-read this paragraph after you've seen Winnebago Man, and it'll make more sense.)
Best of all, the film leaves us with just a little food for thought: The next time you laugh at a Jack Rebney, a Lightsaber Kid, or a stranger on the internet who really looks foolish ... try to keep in mind that we're all that guy or girl. Most of us were just lucky enough to not get caught on camera.
Warning: This video is extremely NSFW