While scrolling through comment sections and message boards on the internet, Matt Chapman will occasionally come across a person calling for something to be "burninated."
"I love seeing someone talking about burnination, or making an 'arrowed!' reference, or having their head essplode," he says. "But you can tell that if you asked them what Homestar Runner is, they probably don't know. To me, that's really cool that we did these weird things that permeated people's vernacular. They don't know that a cartoon character said that, like, a decade ago."
Throughout the 2000s, a time when people were still trying to wrap their brains around the limitless creative potential of the internet, Matt and his brother Mike ran one of the most popular, most pioneering, and most hilarious websites on it. They had no funding, no employees, and no rules—just two guys in their mid-20s running a site that brought in millions of viewers and would influence web culture for years to come. On the surface, it was just a web cartoon starring a cast of characters they created, but for thousands of aspiring creatives, it paved the groundwork for how to monetize the internet with nothing but a modem and a good idea.
It began early, near Atlanta, Georgia, where the brothers were raised on a healthy diet of comedy and music, devouring shows like Mystery Science Theater and Tiny Toons, and albums by bands like They Might Be Giants and Fugazi. In college, they fiddled around on guitar, bass, and keyboard, and made music together in what they describe as "crappy indie rock bands" that no one came to see.
"With our bands in college, we'd make a song and record it immediately, and then go drive around the neighborhood and crank our own song, which is maybe weird and narcissistic, but we always tried to make things that we would enjoy," says Matt. That penchant for self-amusement would eventually become the key to their success.
In the last days of 1999, as the Y2K hysteria had the world panicked over the possibility of global infrastructures collapsing at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, the Chapman brothers registered the domain name for a website that would map out the next decade of their lives: HomestarRunner.com. It was an inside joke for them, which seems to be their humor of choice. The site was a placeholder for a children's picture book they had created three years prior with their friend Craig Zobel about its title character, a competitor in an Olympic strongman competition.
They developed a cartoon web series on the site, doing their animation with Adobe Flash, a medium that was newly popular due to its interactive capabilities and compressed video which went easy on low capacity internet connections. Matt performed the voices for the characters, and the remaining responsibilities—writing, animating, programming—were split equally. The two pumped out a new cartoon or game every Monday, with the humor of them deeply entrenched in inside jokes, recurring gags, and hidden Easter eggs which led to even more inside jokes and recurring gags. It was unclear who the target audience even was. On the surface, it looked like a children's cartoon, but the subject matter was typically appealing to all ages. There was a fake commercial for marshmallows, celebrations for made-up holidays like Decemberween, and an entire skit based around a character who couldn't say the word "job" ("great jorb!"). It all piled up until the Chapmans had built their own little virtual world.
Since Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace were all still years away, Homestar Runner started to catch on in its early days simply by word of mouth. "It wasn't as easy to share the stuff you liked at the time," says Matt.
"You would have to email people or literally just call people and tell them—like, use your actual voice," Mike adds.
In 2001, following a more aesthetically pleasing redesign, the site launched a recurring feature that would quickly become its most popular and take their internet fame to new heights: Strong Bad emails (or sbemail), in which a Mexican wrestler named Strong Bad responded to actual fan mail. Strong Bad fielded queries from viewers about everything from the IQs of butts to the meanings of weird dreams, and was sure to mock their spelling and grammar in a snarky, no-nonsense tone that fell somewhere between Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Beavis and Butt-head. Strong Bad struck gold on his ninth email, "i love you," in which a fan wrote simply:
i love u
The Chapmans attribute this garbled text to some sort of error with their email client, but whatever the cause, they ran with it.
"Can I just call you Fhqwhgads?" Strong Bad responded. "Look, Fhqwhgads. I'm sorry to say, but the feeling's not mutual, mainly because of your long freakin' name."
As with most things they do, the Chapmans revived the gag whether people thought it was funny or not, but this time, they dusted off the instruments from their college band days and set it to music in the form of an animated music video for their "#1 summer jam," entitled "Everybody to the Limit." The song saw Strong Bad rapping over a Sugarhill Gang style beat, and was basically an excuse to say "Fhqwhgads" as many times as possible within two minutes. "Come. On. Fhqwhghads. I said come on, Fhqwhghads. Everybody to the limit. Everybody to the limit! Everybody come on, Fhqwhghads." It was simple, catchy, and instantly quotable.
Though its reach was difficult to quantify—there were no view counters below it— it seemed like more and more people were quoting the song, both online and off, and the Chapmans had a hit on their hands.
"Everybody to the Limit" pre-dates almost every pre-YouTube internet sensation—the Star Wars kid, Numa Numa, "It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time," and 2 Girls 1 Cup (no link, sorry)—just about everything except the dancing baby. This was even before people really started using the term "viral video." The internet was a sparsely populated place then, and Homestar Runner got to reign as a big fish in a small pond. Strong Bad was soon receiving over 1,000 emails a day, and the Chapmans learned a valuable lesson about the internet: Set something funny to a musical hook and it will catch on.
HomestarRunner.com seemed to be racking up clicks, though the Chapmans wouldn't be able to tell you how many. "There's all these all these things to monitor who is online right now and looking at your website," Matt says. "We paid no attention to any of that because we didn't want it to freak us out, and we didn't want to alter how we did things." (They told Wired in 2003 that the site received a few million unique visitors each month, which, even by modern standards, is quite impressive.)
Instead, the Chapmans just kept making cartoons and songs in their own little bubble, continuing to add gags they thought were funny and, as it turned out, the internet did as well. As the Homestar Runner universe grew, so did the Chapmans' operation. They were able to make it their full-time gig and earn a living off of it, something that was never their intention. They could afford a working space, contrary to the common misconception that they were working out of their parents' basement. Mike is somewhat defensive about this. "We had an office!" he insists.
They rented an office space down the hall from a bowling alley with the income they were making from the sale of Homestar t-shirts and DVD compilations of their best cartoons. They were selling shirts as fast as they could print them and their retired parents helped pack and ship orders. For the entirety of its tenure, HomestarRunner.com remained ad-free—no banners, no pop-ups—a refreshing rarity in an advertising-heavy industry. With no corporate partners lurking over their shoulders, the Chapmans were beholden to no one over monthly traffic reports or growth potential, and were able to continue making their weirdo art, influence free.
In the corner of their office, the two set up a small space for their instruments in case they were inspired to make any more impromptu songs. "We had a little studio set up," Mike says. "I mean, a professional musician would have been disgusted by it. But we had guitars and keyboards and whatnot, and for a long time, we used an 80s Casio that had drumkits on it." Garageband would eventually come along and simplify their recording process. Soon, they were able to churn out songs regularly and the tunes became a vital discovery tool for the site, luring in new fans with each one.
In early 2003, the Chapmans struck accidental internet gold again with Strong Bad email #58, "dragon," in which a reader asked: "Can you draw a dragon? I want to see your skills of an artist." Strong Bad went on to give a tutorial which included drawing the letter S (for "snake"… or "dragon," whatever), a "more different S," a beefy arm, some wings ("if he's a wing-a-ling dragon"), and consummate Vs for teeth and "spinities." He named his majestic, fire-breathing creation Trogdor the Burninator. Matt and Mike stayed up all night on a Sunday, cramming in the usual last-minute animation session for Monday's deadline. That would have been the end of it too had Matt not started humming a metal riff he had gotten stuck in his head. He started booming, "TROGDOOOOOR!!!"
"Matt started singing that song at five or six in the morning," Mike remembers. "And we were like, 'Aw crap, well now we've gotta make this heavy metal video at the end.'" That's the way the two work. They don't keep a backlog of ideas. They think of something, execute it as quickly as possible, and send it out into the world, no matter how esoteric or dumb, very similar to the South Park model of creativity. "If we think on anything for too long, we'll decide it was a bad idea and then we won't do it," Matt says.
They broke out the guitar, turned the distortion up, and recorded a song in one take, as they remember it, in which Strong Bad mumbles through a verse about his dragon-man character to lead into the loud but extremely quotable chorus: "TROGDOOOOOOR!" Although the Chapmans describe the 50-second clip as a throwaway, the song became an early meme and a pop culture phenomenon. It was referenced on the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was available as a bonus track on the video game Guitar Hero II, and, most surreal to the Chapmans, Rush frontman Geddy Lee once wore a Trogdor shirt on stage. It effectively took Homestar Runner out of the internet and into the real world. It was so big that they are "pretty sure" it has the most views of anything they've ever done.
Aside from having apparent fans in Rush, Homestar Runner became a favorite among many other bands. In fact, a good chunk of the site's referrals were coming from the "recommended links" sections on bands' websites, back when those were relevant sources of web discoveries in the pre-social media landscape. Artists like Paramore, Butch Walker, and Relient K all linked out to the site. The Chapmans are even thanked in the liner notes of Thursday's War All the Time. (Mike took the photo that became the cover art for their album, Full Collapse.)
"I remember we had a Strong Bad sticker on the back of our van in the early days of the site and slowly but surely everyone knew who it was," says Thursday guitarist Steve Pedulla, who likens the Chapmans' operation to that of a touring band. "I think the DIY nature of it was part of why it happened. People realized having something more than a shitty Geocities site was not only doable, but that if done right, you could actually reach a significant audience."
The Chapmans even became friends with one of their favorites, They Might Be Giants, after members John Linnell and John Flansburgh reached out to them to compliment their work. "It's kind of a mutual admiration society. We really enjoy what they do," Flansburgh said in a 2004 interview. "In a lot of ways, their impulses really remind me of me and John when we started, which is that we were very excited by there being no context for what we were doing." The Chapmans have joined the band on stage (in the form of a Homestar puppet) and directed the music video for their song "Figure Eight." Linnell in turn provided the voice for the cartoon's seldom speaking character, The Poopsmith. In addition to "Figure Eight," the Chapmans picked up gigs directing videos for Of Montreal, Folk Implosion, and the local indie band Y-O-U.
A long line of bands throughout the 2000s were spotted wearing Homestar t-shirts in their promo photos or quoting the jokes on stage or dropping subtle references into their songs and videos, a trend that continues to this day. Blink-182's Mark Hoppus fronted a shortlived project called City (Comma) State, which is said to have taken its name from a Strong Bad email. (There was even a band from Dublin simply called Home Star Runner.) Perhaps most prestigious, the king of all musical comedy, "Weird Al," hid a very small Trogdor drawing in the video for his 2014 parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," "Word Crimes."
At the end of 2003, with the help of Y-O-U, the Chapmans were able to put together a collection of 20 songs for a self-released CD called Strong Bad Sings (and Other Type Hits). "Trogdor" and "Everybody to the Limit" made the cut, of course, as did the sexy R&B jam "Let's Get Started on Doing All Those Awesome Things I Suggested," a nonsensical rap about lasers performed by the character Coach Z called "These People Try to Fade Me," and the love ballad "You've Got an Ugly & Stupid Butt." When asked how many copies the CD sold, the brothers shrug in unison. "Thousands?" Matt offers. "The first order we did was for 20,000 and I know we sold all of those. Unless we were gonna go double platinum, we weren't gonna know the sales." So, somewhere between 20,000 and double platinum (two million), they have no idea.
Even when the site was at its peak, the Chapmans largely avoided doing press. Occasionally, magazines like TIME would give Homestar Runner props in their "best of the web" sorts of articles, but the Chapmans were rarely quoted or seen. There was no "author page" containing their bios on HomestarRunner.com, and they hardly stepped out from behind the curtain.
"It's not like we were trying to be recluses or anything, but we were usually so busy trying to make next week's cartoon that there just wasn't time to do it. We didn't have a PR person. It was just like, 'We have to make next week's cartoon, we don't have time to talk right now, sorry!'" Matt says as he mimes hanging up a phone.
After ten years, hundreds of cartoons, dozens of songs, and a near endless list of running jokes, the Chapmans eased up on Homestar Runner in 2010. By 2011, they were making forays into television. The two wrote and directed episodes of the Nick Jr. show Yo Gabba Gabba! and Matt did some work for The Aquabats! Super Show!. They deny rumors that they turned down offers from Comedy Central and Cartoon Network to adapt Homestar into a television series, though they did create a video game downloadable on the the Wii and Playstation 3 networks in 2008 called Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People.
The site came to an unofficial hiatus by the summer of 2010, but remained on the internet in all its web 1.0 glory. Then in 2014, after four years of inactivity, as if from nowhere, a new cartoon appeared on the site, but it was hard to decipher its implications since it was released on April Fool's Day. The Chapmans have released a few sporadic updates since then, including a great skewering of Record Store Day, with a new song, "The B-est of B-sides."
It's truly an odd experience to look back at Homestar Runner from the lens of today's app-dominant internet world in which social media is essential to building and retaining an audience. The site is still running on the all but obsolete Flash, a format that went from cutting edge to nostalgic in the site's ten-year run. (Flash is largely not viewable on most smartphones and tablets, which comprises more than half of people's digital media time today.) And as the internet operates at an increasingly breakneck speed, it's hard to imagine that a site that updates only once a week would have the power to hold the fleeting attention spans of modern users. To operate today, the Chapmans would have to add social media platforms to their duties—Twitter accounts for each character, daily Facebook dispatches, Vine memes, etc.
"It would have to be on all that stuff—an amalgamation of Vine and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube. It'd have to live in all those places simultaneously," says Mike. "You used to be able to come to the Homestar website and spend ten or 15 minutes there if you hadn't been in a while, but now, I don't think people would have the attention span to do it. Careers are born and fizzle out in a week on YouTube now."
Really, the Chapmans lucked into the ideal time to launch a weekly web cartoon with a cult following, because frankly, they don't think they'd have the patience to invest so much time into supplementary social media efforts. "We had a message board around 2002," Mike remembers, "and even monitoring that—making sure everyone was cool to each other—was too much work. It was like, 'OK, we're not doing that anymore!'"
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of Homestar Runner's loveable, slack-jawed title character. The Chapman brothers don't have as much room for Homestar in their lives these days, though. Mike is 42 with a ten-year-old daughter, and Matt is nearing 40 with two girls himself. Most of their time and efforts are spent creating animated shorts for Disney from their base in Decatur, Georgia. Even with the corporate partner, they still work in the same manner—a two-man operation, covering all the animation and voiceover duties, and they say they're amazed by how anarchic Disney lets them be. They still sneak in an occasional Homestar Runner cartoon on the side when they have time, though it's strictly a passion project at this point.
Matt still listens to Strong Bad Sings often, as his songs have found a new audience around his house. "My kids like it and I wont say no to listening to it in the car," he laughs, "which is really lame, listening to a dumb thing you made 15 years ago."
Dan Ozzi is doing a great jaerb on Twitter - @danozzi