The Invention of the Viral Video

By Megan Robb

Recently I wrote a piece for a different site about the multimedia art group Negativland’s infamous legal battle with the band U2 over a song called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Special Edit Radio Mix)”. But here I’d like to discuss the real highlight of the song, which doesn’t have much to do with U2. Actually, it’s the samples from a recording of Casey Kasem losing his Scooby-Doo cool. The samples are presumably from two different episodes. In one, Kasem is frustrated that he’s left to dedicate a song to a listener’s recently deceased dog (named Snuggles, no less) immediately after an upbeat song had just been played. I can’t say I blame him for that one. In the other, he’s had enough with U2, Bono, and The Edge’s names:” These guys are from England. Who the **** cares?” Maybe he was wrong about the England part, but Bono and The Edge do sound kind of silly.

I’d assumed the clips were really the work of an impersonator, but after some research, I found out that they’re real. A radio engineer captured Kasem’s outburst on tape and the tape was passed around among other radio engineers for their amusement. This is what people did before viral videos came along. This is why vintage clips like Bill O’Reilly’s “We’ll Do it Live!” were in existence long before they became YouTube classics. In Kasem’s case, though,  because you keep expecting him to say “Zoinks!” at some point.

Before the Internet, underground media-sharing was a very cool and secretive and sometimes seedy institution. You didn’t have to be famous. Recordings of The Tube Bar prank phone call series circulated long enough to inspire Bart’s calls to Moe’s in The Simpsons. You can thank the people who were the equipment managers of different Major League Baseball teams in the 1980s for that, since they passed them around the most.

In the 1980s two San Francisco roommates recorded their neighbors Peter and Ray having vicious yet painfully entertaining arguments over the course of a year and a half. The tapes circulated, copies were made, and Peter and Ray became infamous. So much so that decades later, (nonprofane) bits of the tapes were quoted on Spongebob Squarepants. Last summer, a documentary premiered at Sundance that chronicled the Peter and Ray phenomenon. It’s called Shut Up, Little Man! 

The recordings involved in this kind of media sharing was were things that generally stayed out of the mainstream. Of course, once those same recordings hit the Internet, they’re immediately mainstream. This isn’t a terrible thing. Musicians and artists who would have had to spend years on the mixtape circuit can be easily discovered online. Bits of pop culture history can be experienced by those who may otherwise be unable to find them. Of course, laws are sometimes broken when you see or hear some of these clips, but that’s one of the last pieces of its underground history that they retain when they hit viral fame. That and poor sound and/or video quality. But even those can be smoothed over: the Casey Kasem rant has a “definitive edition” with enhanced sound. You could probably look for a hi-def version of the Buddy Rich tapes soon–including the ones that were quoted on Seinfeld.

Contributing writer Megan Robb is a writer, consultant and editor living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles can be found at divot.com, wordhusterink.com, and cracked.com, as well as her personal website, megan-robb-writer.webs.com

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