BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1995, the Internet was in its infancy, cell phones were the size of your head and VHS tapes were all the rage. It would take over a decade until YouTube and viral videos became a mainstay of our online lives. And yet, viral videos began in this decidedly analog year. Your dancing cats, your kids babbling after the dentist, your double rainbows, they all have their roots in an underground video sensation from 1995. Independent producer JP Davidson brings us this story of viral video’s “patient zero.”
JP DAVIDSON: Viral videos have completely changed the way we think about mainstream media, but how did we get here? Who was the “patient zero” for viral videos?
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
The story starts with these two film students who raised $125,000 dollars to produce their first feature-length film, “The True Story of Alfred Packer,” an 1870s prospector accused of cannibalism.
It was a unique subject, especially for a musical.
MAN: And maybe we’ll all get – really sick. [SINGING]: And maybe we’ll all die.
So let's build a snowman!
We can make him our best friend.
[SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER]
JP DAVIDSON: They finished the movie over spring break and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival. And it was rejected. So they rented a banquet hall in one of the Festival hotels and put on their own screening. And it turns out that one of the people lured into the unofficial screening was an executive from Fox Studios.
BRIAN GRADEN: My name is Brian Graden, and I’ve been a television executive for a lot of years, first at Fox and then later running MTV and VH1.
JP DAVIDSON: Brian loved the movie, so when our two filmmakers graduated and moved to Hollywood, Brian did his best to help them out.
BRIAN GRADEN: We developed a couple of pilots with them, and nothing really, you know, got off the ground beyond the pilot stage. And so, it got to be around Christmastime and I think the guys sort of needed, you know, cash to pay rent. And so, I said, why don’t you do a Christmas card for me, a little video that I’ll send out to, you know, a couple of hundred contacts in the industry.
JP DAVIDSON: So the guys went home and wet to work on Brian’s video Christmas card.
BRIAN GRADEN: So they come back two weeks later, and I’m gonna say it’s probably early December at this point. And I – I remember this as, as distinctly as yesterday. They – they walked in to our sort of open office pit area and there were probably 10 or 15 of us that worked in that open area, so we all came out and sort of gravitated to the TV and popped it in and, you know, never laughed so hard in my life as I did during those five minutes.
JP DAVIDSON: But, Brian started to have second thoughts about sending it out to all his TV industry contacts.
BRIAN GRADEN: I loved it but it was so inappropriate that I think I reduced my list from like 200 to maybe 30 people.
JP DAVIDSON: There was a lot of swearing in this animated Christmas card, also, a fight to the death between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ.
JESUS: You have blemished the meaning of Christmas for the last time, Kringle!
SANTA: I bring happiness and love to children all over the world!
JESUS: Christmas is for celebrating my birth.
SANTA: Christmas is for giving!
JESUS: I’m here to put an end to your blasphemy.
SANTA: This time we finish it. There can be only one!
CARTMAN: God [BLEEP], you stepped on my foot, you pig
STAN: Dude, don’t say pig [ ? ][BLEEP] in front of Jesus!
JP DAVIDSON: So by now you may have guessed that our two filmmakers are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the wildly successful animated series, South Park. As unlikely as it seemed at the time, Brian's Christmas card was their ticket to success, about to become the world's first viral video. But how? We’re still only in 1995 here, and YouTube won't even exist for another ten years. Remember, we’re talking about sending out VHS tapes by snail mail, and it wasn't even going to Brian's most important TV industry contacts anymore.
BRIAN GRADEN: So as opposed to even industry contacts, it ended up just going to my friends. But even that backfired because some of them had little kids. I, I want to say it went to like 37, 38 people, something like that.
JP DAVIDSON: And then it's the holidays and he's away for a few weeks.
BRIAN GRADEN: And it wasn’t ‘til I came back and popped by a couple of agents’ offices where they said, oh my God, you have to see this video. And they popped in what clearly was a 17th generation dub of the Christmas video. And nobody even knew where it came from, necessarily, or had an accurate story.
JP DAVIDSON: The video just kept spreading. People all over Hollywood were manually copying VHS tapes and making copies of the copies, and copies of those copies. And somehow, one of the copies traveled over a thousand miles to Dallas, Texas. That’s where Jay Kreibich [?] was working, fresh out of college, at a videogame studio.
JAY KREIBICH: I don't know this for sure but I believe the person in question worked either for Nintendo or was a client of Nintendo, but at some point, you know, during the visit he pulled this tape out of his bag. It was like, hey, you guys should watch this, it’s hysterical. And, you know, of course, we’re all dying laughing, and then it was like, hey, you know, that was awesome, and a couple of guys asked for copies. I was not one of them, but about a week later, people were still talking about it.
JP DAVIDSON: So Jay made a few copies of this mystery tape as Christmas gifts for his friends. Sure, he got the tape for free but it’s the thought that counts, right?
JAY KREIBICH: You know, I had to go out and buy mailers and, you know, walk down to the post office and get – 2.50 or whatever put on each envelope and every – you know, come on. [LAUGHS] This is not like, oh, that was funny, copy, open Facebook, paste to [LAUGHING] You know, I mean it took work!
JP DAVIDSON: Now, this is Christmas 1996, a full year after Brian sent out the original videotapes in Hollywood, glacially slow by today’s viral video standards. But things were about to speed up. One of the friends Jay sent the video to was still in college back in Illinois.
JAY KREIBICH: That was two or three years after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, which is where all of us went to school, had installed networks in the dorms. And so, somebody digitized the film and stuck it up on their personal computer in the dorm.
JP DAVIDSON: The video created a huge spike in the dorm’s Internet traffic.
JAY KREIBICH: The poor guys in their dorm room, I mean, thousands of downloads on this 53-meg file which, you know, back then that was still something, right? [LAUGHS]
JP DAVIDSON: Apparently, the guy hosting the file had to buy a second computer to actually get any schoolwork done. So how did a dorm room in Illinois become ground zero for a viral video revolution?
JAY KREIBICH: The first web browser that was just, you know, download it and use it was NCSA Mosaic. That web browser was developed at the University of Illinois.
JP DAVIDSON: Students at the University of Illinois were among the first in the country to combine fast Internet connections with easy-to-use browser software.
JAY KREIBICH: It, it was all happening right in front of us. We were maybe six months to a year ahead of everyone else.
JP DAVIDSON: But back in Hollywood, Brian, Matt and Trey were struggling to get the South Park series off the ground. Finally, a small, relatively new cable channel said they’d finance the pilot, so in a huge act of faith. Brian left Fox to work on the pilot for Comedy Central with Matt and Trey.
BRIAN GRADEN: But I went from the job at Fox where everyone returned your calls to working above a little grocery store with Matt and Trey every day.
JP DAVIDSON: It ended up taking over a year to finish the first episode, and when it was finally done they still had a huge hurdle to overcome before the network would order more episodes – the focus group.
BRIAN GRADEN: And the focus group proceeded to sort of give it the lowest rating I had ever seen in my life, until that point or since. And I remember a lot of people gave it 1’s out of 10’s. I remember two or three women started crying because they said it was just too inappropriate to have children say those kinds of things. So I thought at that point we were doomed. Like I had to kind of tell the guys that this doesn’t look good. And I remember kind of being, you know, a little heartbroken over it.
JP DAVIDSON: It was crushing. Women had cried. So as they walked into the meeting with Comedy Central, Brian, Matt and Trey brace themselves to be dropped by the network.
BRIAN GRADEN: And really, to our astonishment, they said, well, we still think it’s funny, so let’s take a flier on six. And we went with a major network, I think they couldn’t have done that. But Comedy Central at the time really had nothing to lose.
JP DAVIDSON: So the little cable channel with nothing to lose ordered six episodes. Those guys with the Christmas video had gotten a show.
BRIAN GRADEN: Where it really hit me, what had happened, was when we premiered, ‘cause we premiered in the August – that would be a year and a half after the Christmas video went out, almost a year and eight months and, you know, Comedy Central did a little tiny advertising on their little tiny cable channel, but that wasn’t going to reach many people. But the premiere rating was the highest rating ever to that point in cable for any series.
Well, none of us could explain that. And the – then we figured out that the video had literally went to so many people that, that had been the marketing for it. So it really was the first, in a way, viral marketing campaign. We just hadn’t been clever enough to engineer it. But that’s really what had happened. And I really found out by talking to college kids, college kids who were like younger than Trey, Matt and I at that time, because all of them had seen it, because colleges just had those T-1 lines for Internet, and that’s where tons and tons of kids had seen it in that, in that second year after it was released.
JP DAVIDSON: Brian remembers. It was a strange feeling.
BRIAN GRADEN: Sort of surreal. There was a moment, I remember, with – I can’t remember if Matt and Trey were with me or not but I was walking through Times Square maybe eight weeks after the show premiered, and in every single shop I passed there was counterfeit South Park merchandise. We hadn’t done a single
license yet, but everywhere was Cartman something, and just shop after shop after shop. And they were on the cover of Newsweek, if I remember right. And I remember thinking, this is the weirdest. It‘s like in one of those movies where the newspaper starts pinning with the headlines out of nowhere.
JP DAVIDSON: South Park may never have come to be without those college kids, especially the ones in Illinois. For his part, Jay Kreibich just saw something he liked and he followed that same tug we all feel when we share something new and exciting on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr.
JAY KREIBICH: This is so awesome that I found it and I’m gonna be the one to share it with you.
JP DAVIDSON: Finally, Jay says he’s happy for Brian, Matt and Trey. He’s glad he could contribute to their success. But.
JAY KREIBICH: Well, I was a critical link in the chain that eventually led to this, you know, multi-million-dollar media empire that Trey and, and Matt have. So I figure that they owe me about – six bucks. [LAUGHS] And, and if I ever run across them, I’m gonna say, hey, you owe me a beer. [LAUGHS]
[SOUTH PARK THEME SONG]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: JP Davidson is an independent radio producer in Toronto, Canada.
That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Khrista Rypl, and it was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Frankel.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is Vice-President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.