Homestar Runner, Trogdor the Burninator, and the Birth of the Internet
Before the inception of Twitter and Buzzfeed, there was Homestar Runner. As the aging homepage wallpaper peeled away revealing the html beneath, Strong Bad and the gang finally returned to the Internet.
If the Internet had a god, a creator, a primogenitor, it would be a 3D animated dancing baby riding a one-eyed, winged toaster reciting Monty Python sketches. As that primordial stew receded and the eldritch horror of the old gods faded away, Matt and Mike Chapman, along with their website HomestarRunner.com, emerged as the Internet’s Cain and Abel.
Debuting at a time when Napster was still the king of piracy, HomestarRunner.com was a Flash animation site that realized much of the web’s multimedia potential. The site updated frequently with new cartoons, soundboards full of character’s catchphrases, and obscure homages. Typical cartoons didn’t let viewers passively sit through a show, forcing them to search around the mise-en-scèn for interactive elements to advance the story. Like in the first Halloween short, “The House That Gave Sucky Treats,” where every knock on the door revealed a new guest to whom one could give a selection of off-brand candies, each triggering a unique response. Like a Buzzfeed quiz to determine which Hogwarts House one really belongs, at least part of the fun came from replaying the toon and selecting different options.
On April 1st, 2014, as the aging homepage wallpaper peeled away revealing the html beneath, HomestarRunner.com updated for the first time in almost four years.
The short cartoon featured the eponymous armless protagonist, the one-time villain turned comic relief in a máscara de luchador, Strong Bad, and Hairstyle Runner, a digital Flash version of perennial children’s classic, Wooly Willy.
At the end of the animation, users were offered free downloads of Windows 98 theme packs, one designed by Strong Bad and the other by Homestar Runner. They feature custom wallpaper, system sounds, and desktop icons for My Computer, Recycle Bin, and Network Neighborhood.
From the beginning, the Brothers Chaps had a vision drastically different from the world and time they inhabited. Created in 1996 to fill a perceived decline in the quality of children’s literature, Homestar Runner first appeared in the self-published book The Homestar Runner Enters the Strongest Man in the World Contest. What sets the book apart, even to this day, is that the protagonist Homestar does not win. He sacrifices his chance in the competition to expose series villain Strong Bad’s cheating. The prize goes to his friend Pom-Pom.
In a 2003 interview with G4, Matt Chapman, who performed almost all the voices, talked about how the character of Homestar came to life when “Mike had his first computer and didn’t know how to use it.” To play a prank on his brother, Matt replaced the Windows system sounds with the voice that would eventually become Homestar. The name came from a childhood friend with whom the brothers once created fake radio broadcasts of baseball games. “Our friend knows nothing about sports, and so he would always do his old timey radio impression” Matt said in a 2003 interview. “Not knowing any positions in baseball or whatever, he’d just be like, “Homestar Runner for the Braves.” And we were just like, “Homestar Runner? That’s the best thing we’ve ever heard!””
When the character debuted online with the launch of HomestarRunner.com in January 2000, the Brothers Chaps never intended their cartoons to go viral. For that matter, their Homestar Runner cartoons were created at a time when “viral” meant nothing other than the communicability of non-bacterial infectious agents which only replicate in living cells. And yet, through word of mouth alone, their cartoons spread all over the Internet. NPR discussed the cartoon in 2004 in a story exploring the growing mainstream acceptance of Internet animation and again in 2005 to focus specifically on the site’s star character, Strong Bad.
More than Homestar himself, Strong Bad stands out as one the most memorable characters from the cartoons. Although he first appeared as a cheating villain, he began appearing in a series of animations answering viewer fan mail. To begin, the emails commented on the state of already outdated computer technology and the quality of HomestarRunner.com itself, with Strong Bad originally responding to mail on a Tandy 400 and explaining why he always wore a mask and boxing gloves to another commenter. The email responses were also a snapshot of early web communication at a time when the mode received very little, and often dismissive, attention. Strong Bad was not shy about correcting or commenting on an email sender’s grammar or screen name, and some of his responses have become well known, inside-internet jargon like “fhqwhgads.”
Unlike many Internet products, HomestarRunner.com never sold ad space. T-shirt and DVD sales alone financed the site. Updates came regularly from its launch until 2009. The original four characters expanded to include a world of spin-off video games, action figures, and the band Limozeen (whose hit song Trogdor appeared in Rock Band 2). When the site posted its April Fools’ update earlier this month, even Time magazine took notice.
Homestar Runner, and The Brothers Chaps, tapped into something that, at the time, most media couldn’t or wouldn’t dare. In a 2003 Cincinnati Enquirer review of the site, the style was described as “the wacky goings-on of a motley crew of animated heroes… combines Gen-X humor and childhood innocence, seasoned with a dash of pop-culture cool.” And that cool has a tremendous half-life. Recent reviews of popular TV shows like Bob’s Burgers and Degrassi: The Next Generation include passing references to the popular HomestarRunner.com feature “Teen Girl Squad.” And references to Trogdor the Burninator, are everywhere from sports nicknames to Buffy the Vampire slayer comics.
Perhaps most importantly, the Brothers Chaps knew computers. One of Matt Chapman’s first jobs out of college was for online services company EarthLink creating banner ads and custom icons. In 1999, the year that Mark and Matt started getting serious about Homestar Runner, mainstream film and television only understood computer technology insofar as they sometimes had “mainframes” that could be “hacked.” Even big blockbusters with gigantic budgets like The Matrix envisioned a future where sentient robots had enslaved humanity but computers still connected to the Internet via telephone.
The technological awareness allowed the brothers to expand their animations with hidden content and Easter eggs. Discoverable by clicking around or typing commands, these hidden features included entire new cartoons, or even simple gimmicks. Almost every episode of the recurring site feature “Strong Bad Emails” offered users clickable keywords that unlocked something. The Trogdor game allowed players to “kick” the console, like an old school arcade machine. And even the Flash files contained secret messages for enterprising fans such as a hidden picture of Strong Bad’s parents that, when decompiled, featured no image but the text “nice try, dodongo!” Speaking at Georgia Tech in 2005, Matt Chapman said “People [were]…poking around…they decompile our Flash files and look at stuff, and so [we] started adding a few things here and there.”
Interactivity was also unique to the medium and a dealbreaker for Homestar Runner development on other platforms. In 2007, Wired.com reported that the Brothers Chaps shot down deals from both Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. “There was a brief flirtation with Comedy Central and Adult Swim,” Matt said. “The whole TV thing seemed creepy. They wanted to plug it into their model—that all comedy was gag-related, not character-driven. They left the door open, but we liked what we were doing and kept doing it online.” But the brothers were unexcited about the possibility as far back as 2003, with Matt telling Kevin Scott: “on TV you can’t make Strong Bad’s Web Page that you can go and visit.”
The brothers’ technical ability was also showcased in Marzipan’s Answering Machine, a series of cartoons that featured voicemail from other characters to HomestarRunner.com’s only major female character, Marzipan. Voiced by Missy Palmer, Marzipan was a vision of ‘90s feminism that fellow character Strong Bad described as “a dirty hippy without the dirt.” She played the guitar, stuck to a vegetarian diet, and dated around the main cast. With the humorous messages on her answering machine, Palmer and the Brothers Chaps explored an area of American female life that, even today, has never received enough attention: unsolicited personal romantic attention from the series’ male characters.
While a male HomestarRunner.com character would rarely express romantic attention to Marzipan when they appeared in a cartoon together, characters would proposition her over voicemail. In one of the first Marzipan Answering Machine animations, regular character Coach Z left a message asking if Marzipan “needed somebody to go get doughnuts with sometime” and advising her that there was “no reason to, uh, mention this to Homestar, you know…”
The Internet, and the Brothers Chaps, have changed since 2010. Matt Chapman is a writer and voice actor for several Disney shows including Gravity Falls and Yo Gabba Gabba. Mike Chapman is married to Missy Palmer, the voice of Marzipan, and has worked on her first documentary D’artagnan is the Champion. Adobe Flash (née Macromedia) has declined in use thanks to Steve Jobs’s irrational hatred of the platform, but the application is still popular for 2D animation such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and the feature length film The Secret of Kells. The April 1, 2014 Homestar Runner cartoon ends with Strong Bad saying “that wasn’t so bad! We should do this again soon.” Although, when Homestar asks “Three years soon, or like five years soon?” Strong Bad replies “Y'know, five, ten, fifteen, whate— whatever it takes.”
HomestarRunner.com is every bit a product of its time, an epoch which, at least in the Internet’s reckoning, is as far distant to us today as the cuneiform tablets of ancient Assyria. But the spirit of adventurous irreverence never fades. Even after all the heroes are gone, it lays dormant, waiting for light to coax it out of the shadows. To early adopters, Homestar Runner was that light, in vector graphics with actionscript.