11 Almost-Forgotten Moments That Would Have “Won the Internet” If They Happened Today

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Dec. 23 2013 5:10 PM

Lost Viral Hits of the Pre-YouTube Era

Almost-forgotten moments that would have “won the Internet” if they happened today.

Billy Squier's Rock Me Tonight.
Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonight"

Screenshot courtesy of YouTube

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.

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1. Rep. James Traficant’s House floor speeches (1985-2002)

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.”

Two years later, Traficant was expelled from Congress and jailed for seven years on bribery and racketeering charges. This was probably for the best in terms of American democracy, though it deprived the Internet of what would have been a guaranteed YouTube sensation. —Joshua Keating

2. Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite” trainwreck (1984)

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.

Perhaps the video could still go viral. “I saw it last night on YouTube, and I almost peed,” Squier’s former manager recalls in the book. “All I could do was call friends and say ‘You must go to YouTube right now.’ The response was extraordinary. ‘You mean, this was on television?’ I said, ‘It was on television. I promise.’” —Forrest Wickman

3. Crispin Glover on Late Night With David Letterman (1987)

In many ways, The David Letterman Show (1980) and the early years of Late Night With David Letterman (1982­–93) were one long proto-viral video waiting to happen, crowded as they were with weirdos, metastunts, stilted interviews, kooky remote segments, and reliably bizarre staples ranging from Larry “Bud” Melman to Stupid Pet Tricks to Letterman’s greatest guest, Andy Kaufman, whose infamous fight with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler cemented Late Night’s status as a cult phenomenon in the summer of 1982. If we’re picking more or less at random from this trove, I’d reserve a spot for Crispin Glover, whose unhinged, to-this-day-never-adequately-explained Letterman appearance—culminating in a high kick that barely missed Letterman’s forehead—succeeded in deeply rattling the seen-it-all host in a way that even Kaufman never did. If the Glover catastrophe had hit 25 or so years later, it would have been comprehensively GIF’ed, Songify’ed, and BuzzFeed-listicled by morning. —Jessica Winter

4. Painfully honest New York subway ads (1989)

“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.)

Presumably unable to find a single New Yorker who could praise the system with a straight face, the MTA settled for people expressing vague confidence that things might be turning around. The result: Zagat-worthy endorsements like, “They are working on it. They’re doing the best they can!” accompanied by B-roll of subway workers harriedly welding and hammering things. My favorite bit of faint praise: “Can you imagine if we didn’t have the subways what would happen?” The New York subway, ladies and gentlemen: It’s better than nothing! —Will Oremus

(Hat tip: Gothamist)

5. Lee Elia unloads on Chicago Cubs fans (1983)

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.

It’s not just Elia’s unhinged rage that would’ve made the tape go viral; it’s the way the tape captures one of those rare Howard Beale in Network moments when a public figure abandons the standard clichés and says exactly what he thinks, consequences be damned. Sure enough, Elia was fired later that year. But his tirade ought to be in the Hall of Fame. ­—Justin Peters

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