Years before mashup trailers and gotcha political videos, there was Flash animation: the Web’s first true viral phenomenon and still its most daring and original genre. For proof, look no further than Homestar Runner (at homestarrunner.com), where kid-friendly slapstick rubs elbows with sly pop-culture references in hyper, bite-size cartoons. Its titular hero, an armless little guy with a lot of heart and not much brain, has been dubbed by some the Charlie Brown of the Internet age. But it’s the domineering Strong Bad, a lovable metalhead with a Mexican wrestling mask and a huge chip on his shoulder, who has fueled the site’s meteoric rise: He receives more than 1,000 viewer e-mails a day, and his animated responses are still the site’s most popular feature.
Started by brothers Matt and Mike Chapman in January 2000, Homestar Runner has shown remarkable staying power for a Web phenomenon (it gets several million hits a month and now features numerous spin-offs), perhaps because its infectious, irreverent animated shorts speak to both 3-year-olds and their media-savvy parents, who get the jokes about eighties hair metal bands. "When we started, everything online was South Park–style humor," Matt Chapman recalls. "But we had a fondness for Looney Tunes and the Marx Brothers as well. So we mixed that with slightly more subversive stuff."
Homestar Runner’s irreverence is no pose (the Chapmans refuse to buy or sell advertising). And their word-of-mouth success has attracted notable kindred spirits, such as the band They Might Be Giants, which has scored two episodes and invited the Chapmans to animate a recent music video.
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Think of it as the YouTube of animation. Billing itself as “Everything. By everyone,” it originally started in 1995 as one plucky teenager’s personal site for his own goofy games. Today, newgrounds.com racks up half a million users a day, thanks to its massive clearinghouse of user-generated toons, series, and games.
The Meth Minute 39
In one episode of Dan Meth’s surreal series on odd subcultures (at danmeth.com), a young Mike Tyson joins the Sunday brunch crowd; in another, two geeks argue over who’s the biggest Led Zeppelin fan, until the winner gets abducted in a lead zeppelin. The first series, Internet People, a tour through the world of Web stardom, became a viral phenomenon itself.
Happy Tree Friends
Condemned as “viral contagion” by Katherine Ellison in the Washington Post, the Flash-animated Happy Tree Friends (at happytreefriends.com) make Itchy and Scratchy look like Ginger and Fred.
It’s Jerry Time!
Thanks to his deadpan delivery of amusingly strange life anecdotes, Jerry Zucker would attract fans even without his brother Orrin’s bizarre animations. Together they create an Emmy-winning series (at itsjerrytime.com)—Harvey Pekar crossed with Python-era Terry Gilliam.