It's the millennium version of the faxed Garfield cartoon - an email linking you to a video clip, usually of someone portly, dancing the Numa Numa. But, unlike Garfield's grouchy-but-wise office humor, that Numa Numa dance was never intended to be seen.
These office distractions are the leaked private moments of non-stars, anonymous people using a camera rather than the mirror to practice their moves, and they are some of the most watched and quickly spread material around. In each piece of humilitainment hilarity, the cringe-inducing potential for emotional pain (or not, if the victims really know how to laugh at themselves) makes funny even funnier and feeds our ever-growing need to be instantly entertained.
If you're in the US, drop by a Best Buy. Walk over to a demo camcorder and look to see if a little red light is on. And be careful about what you do if it is. Bored service providers at the electronics chain are leaving running tapes in the cameras, than uploading the funniest clips onto the Internet. With other humilitainment clips, the authenticity is questionable, like this hidden-camera, dancing-roommate situation that began making the rounds last week.
Small screen Star Wars
The brightest star of the humilitainment industry is still the Star Wars Kid, an eighth grader named Ghyslian Raza from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. In 2003, he filmed himself earnestly practicing his light saber moves with a golf-ball retriever in his high school AV studio. Four of his classmates found the video, digitized it and uploaded it onto the internet.
A few weeks later, it had been downloaded more than a million times. A year after that, the TV show Arrested Development spoofed it Raza was featured in the video game Tony Hawk's Underground 2 and the show Veronica Mars used it as an example of what one character definitely did not want to happen. The clip soon had more than 60 homemade alterations, from the addition of real saber sounds to Raza spliced into The Matrix. Raza's parents have since sued the parents of the four teens for $160,000 in damages. According to the lawsuit, after the video burst on to the Internet, the teasing was so relentless that Raza dropped out of school and finished the eighth grade in the Pavillon Arc-en-ciel child psychiatry ward at the Trois-Rivières Regional Hospital Center. "Ghyslain had to endure and still endures today, harassment and derision," according to the lawsuit, first reported in The Globe and Mail.
'Moping' about fame
Even good intentions spiral out of control. Last December, Gary Brolsma set his video camera up on his desk, turned on the stereo and filmed himself singing along to the Romanian dance hit "Dragostea Din Tei," by O-Zone. Although Brolsma posted it himself on the site Newgrounds, he never intended it to become the humilitainment hit that it did. According to Wikipedia, since then the clip has received 6.5 million hits on Newgrounds alone, and by February had been featured on shows from Good Morning America to The Tonight Show and been the subject of an article in the New York Times. Brolsma has reportedly not taken well to his new-found fame. He stopped taking calls from the media, canceled an appearance on NBC and, according to his grandmother as quoted in the New York Times, "moped" a lot.
Many believe that Internet privacy invasion is tapping into what most repels us. "Mostly I think people feel vulnerable, exposed and probably very angry when their privacy is invaded," says Sharon Priest Nagata, a personal counselor in Vancouver. "After all, the things humans hate most are being taken advantage of and being made a fool of."
This may also be why more people watched Raza's two-minute light saber practice than an entire season of Britney and Kevin. In a culture where media "happenings" are entirely scripted, humilitainment may be as close as we can get to a good-old fashioned shared voyeuristic experience. Even staged shame such as Jackass, Crying, while Eating, and BlackPeopleLoveUs are refreshingly genuine because, when it comes down to it, what's more honest than humiliation (Tom's Oprah experience aside)? They also help remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. "I think people like videos like this because they reassure them that we all act silly at times," says Mark Frauenfelder, editor of the popular blog boingboing and a former editor at Wired magazine. The world doesn't always have to be serious. Remember Colin Powell as a Village Person? Even powerful people are playful." Kevin Dabbs isn't serious. He calls the large amounts of money he's made from his experience "mucho dinaros." And unlike most humilitainment "stars," he is far from embarrassed.
Sordid humilitainment stories
Dabbs was arguably the first humilitainment star, before Paris Hilton and her "leaked" sex tapes, before the Internet even. In 1992, Dabbs, wearing Bart Simpson shorts and a white house-painters cap, filmed himself air drumming along with three Metallica songs in what looks like his parents' Edmonton, Alberta living room. It seems like exposure that would make anyone want to crawl into a hole, but one of the reasons why the tape was a hit is because it's so impressive - Dabbs eerily doesn't miss a beat.
After filming it, Dabbs lost track of the tape. Somehow it ended up in Calgary's The Night Gallery (legend points to Neko Case's dumpster diving) where it was played on a screen above the stage between live music sets. From there, it migrated to San Francisco, where it was sold for $10 a copy and became a huge underground cult hit. It then made it on to the Internet, and Dabbs is still reaping the benefits.
"I actually quite like it," he recently told The Tyee, "and I've become quite proud of it. I've heard crazy clips from people out there in the music industry who just love it." Those include Steve Albani, producer extraordinaire, who has shown it in his studio, and Metallica band members themselves, whom Dabbs heard "loved it." A German site has asked Dabbs to teach an on-line air-drumming course, and he was recently flown to Calgary for a cameo in a music video.
'It's the details'
For some, what makes a clip like Star-Wars-Kid popular is a matter of refinement. "It's usually the details," says the founder of the ever-popular Farq.com, Drew Curtis. "And it's real fine, too. Like the difference between good restaurants. The difference between a good restaurant and a great one is the little tiny details that you would never in a million years notice."
And there's an even darker side to humilitainment. "Revenge sites," an explicit way for a jilted lover to get back at an ex, are growing more and more popular. Most are a kind of pornography (but not all), and many are fakes. But hundreds feature real women (most are made by men) in a moment of letting their guard down with someone they thought they could trust.
Complaints about abuse of the Internet are common. Constable Mark Fenton from the Vancouver City Police says that the harassment unit receives calls frequently, mainly concerning teenagers and stalker boyfriends. But what is increasingly becoming a concern, says Fenton, are camera phones. With the advent of the cell phone capable of recording stills and video, "everyone becomes the paparazzi," says Fenton.
One ex-University of Victoria graduate was caught taking pictures of women's visible thong underwear then posting them on his site. His defense, as posted on his site? "If you don't want your thong displayed online then keep it in your pants."
Whether silly or sick, humilitainment stars are yet another example of the virtual meme's viral effect. Regis and Kelly had to go chasing after the Numa Numa dancer -- not the other way around. And ad execs foamed at the mouth about Crying while Eating because instantaneous social networks of pople decide the material's value -- not them. The Garfield fax never looked this much like a grassroots movement.
Carrie-May Siggins is on staff at The Tyee.