Almost-forgotten moments that would have “won the Internet” if they happened today.
Batkid won the Internet. The honey badger won the Internet. Charlie Sheen was #winning the Internet for a while. In 2010, a JetBlue flight attendant lost patience with a passenger for the last time, grabbed a beer from the beverage cart, opened the evacuation chute, slid out onto the tarmac, and walked off the job. He got arrested, but he won the Internet.
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have built a world in which bizarre, infectious, and outlandish moments from anywhere in the world can pervade mass culture within a matter of hours. The result is that we’re bombarded each day with things that are “going viral,” some of which are legitimately moving or side-splitting, others of which are just as well left unclicked. But it wasn’t always this way. As recently as a decade ago, an outrageous video clip could fall in a forest and not make a sound, because there was no YouTube around to upload it to, no Twitter around to give it a hashtag, no Redditors around to upvote it. Some of these would-be Internet winners found their way into pop-culture infamy nonetheless, especially if they involved a major news figure: Dan Quayle misspelling potato comes to mind. But others have been unjustly consigned by time to near-obscurity, due to the misfortune of having transpired in an age when mass media still had gatekeepers.
To remedy this injustice, we asked our Slate colleagues to dredge up their favorite should-have-been viral hits—weird, wonderful things that happened in the decades prior to the founding of Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005 and that risk being forgotten as a result. Read, watch, enjoy, and then send us your own suggestions in the comments. If we get enough good ones, we’ll highlight them in a second roundup.
During his 17 years in Congress, Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) made an art form out of the one-minute floor speeches that most members typically use to honor local dignitaries or enter a soundbite into the record. Whether he was telling Nike to “take a hikey” for shipping U.S. jobs overseas or ridiculing the Department of Agriculture for a multiyear study of cow manure, a typical Traficant address was, as the New York Times put it in 1999, a “verbal blunderbuss loaded with inanities to blast what he sees as Washington's absurdities.” Punctuated with his trademark non sequitur “Beam me up,” these speeches could reach sublime levels of Dadaist absurdity—as on Oct. 5, 2000, when he took to task a recently opened Broadway hit he called Vaginal Monologues for promoting “vaginal titillation” at a time when “men are dropping like flies from prostate cancer.”
And you thought “Bound 2” was bad. As that video and Rebecca Black’s “Friday” reminded us, some things go viral not for being great, but for being astoundingly, mind-bogglingly—and delightfully—bad.
For I Want My MTV, Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ oral history of the network, they interviewed more than 400 people. None could agree on the best music video of all time. “But when we asked about the worst music video,” Tannenbaum wrote, “there was one unanimous answer: Billy Squier’s ‘Rock Me Tonite.’ ” It’s important to note: Before “Rock Me Tonight,” Squier looked like a megastar. His last two albums had gone platinum, and “Rock Me” was set to be his biggest hit yet. But according to rock legend, the horribly miscalculated video ruined his career. After the macho man’s performance pacing floppily around his apartment and crawling passionately on his elbows—how could God allow this video to come out before GIFs?—his sales never recovered.
“Ten years ago, the subway system was the pits,” begins an actual ad for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1989. “But today … ”—actually, pretty much still the pits, the ads go on to admit. But it’s getting better! Seriously! We pinkie-swear!
The MTA commissioned the ads at a time when the city’s crime rate was hitting all-time highs and confidence in public transit was at a nadir. (But “only 3 percent of the crime in the city is committed on the subway,” an official assures us.)
On April 29, 1983, Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia lost his mind. Upset that Cubs fans had been booing his terrible team—which, at the time, was 5–14—Elia unloaded on the Wrigley Field faithful in one of the most memorable postgame press conferences of all time. “The motherfuckers don’t even work. That’s why they’re out at the fuckin’ game,” Elia seethed. (At the time, the Cubs played all their home games during the day.) “They oughta go out and get a fuckin’ job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a fuckin’ living. Eighty-five percent of the fuckin’ world is working. The other 15 percent come out here.”
Local sports reporter Les Grobstein had the presence of mind to record Elia’s profane rant, which continued for more than three minutes, and an expurgated version was soon being played on local radio stations. But if Elia had exploded today, the uncensored recording would have been around the world in hours or less.