The ‘Incredible Treasure Chest’ of Homestar Runner

Photo: homestarrunnerdotcom/YouTube

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

For a certain microgeneration of millennials, Homestar Runner is exactly correctly rated as one of the most important humor moments of early Weird Internet. Along with videos like “End of Ze World” and “Badger Badger,” or sites like You’re the Man Now Dog, Homestar Runner perfected a specific kind of “random” humor that proliferated like radioactive material in a breeder reactor. And then, suddenly, it was gone. Flash died, and along with it did most people’s fondness for Strong Bad, Strong Sad, and the Poopsmith. Created by brothers Mike and Matt Chapman, Homestar Runner produced videos and games on a freakishly regular basis from 2000 to 2010. Rather than spinoff Homestar into a show of their own, the Brothers Chaps put Homestar on hiatus and went to work on such series as Gravity Falls and Yo Gabba Gabba, and other comedy memes took Homestar’s place. But certain catchphrases have remained stuck in fans’ heads since 2002. They’ll probably be the last thing left in our dementia-riddled brains in 2080.

Murderville showrunner Krister Johnson is one such fan. Johnson discovered Homestar when he was still a struggling comedian in Brooklyn. “I found it so amazing, and I also found it completely disheartening,” he remembers, “because it felt like I was so far away from knowing how to do the kind of stuff that they were doing, or having the courage to just put it out there.” Since being inspired/disheartened by Homestar, Johnson went on to work on Childrens Hospital, Medical Police, and now improv murder-mystery series Murderville. He recently spoke about the magic of visiting websites, having your work labeled “stupid,” and the accidental Homestar reference that made its way into Murderville.

What made you want to talk about Homestar Runner?
I just remember being so utterly blown away by what they were doing. What shocked me was that there wasn’t anything like it from a comedy perspective, and I mean that both technically and conceptually. It was at a time when you couldn’t just Google who these people were and find their Twitter page and figure out exactly what they were doing day to day. It felt very mysterious and mythological.

Every day there seemed to be new content that didn’t look shitty, that looked really cool and unusual, that played with endless genres from TV and video games, and would go to black-and-white randomly, and would have these absurd asides. And you could tell that they were just fearlessly creating these characters, not editing themselves too much, but then incorporating anything they did into this whole mythology. It was a website that instantly rewarded you for falling in love with it, because if you watched the Strong Bad Email about Trogdor, suddenly you knew who Trogdor was. And that might not even get mentioned again for a long time, but it would come up, and you would get that inside joke. Since then, I’ve never really seen a website as a sort of destination like that.

It was a destination website, and now it’s kind of forgotten.
I also still don’t understand why it or those characters or those guys didn’t become titans of industry. In my head, it should’ve been paired with South Park on Comedy Central for 15 seasons. I did a little research and they seem to have resisted all that, and I don’t know why. The sense that I got was they didn’t really have an interest in turning it into a linear story or a TV show. I can’t fault them for their choice; that’s what they wanted, and it allowed them to keep doing it exactly the way they wanted. But it just feels like this crazy thing that showed up feeling fully formed and then kind of disappeared. Life moved on.

It just feels like a wild time capsule of the time when I was trying to figure out how to do something that I didn’t know how to do, and I had discovered these people who found a way to do exactly what they wanted to do and on their own terms. So it was both depressing and also exhilarating.

You did get the sense, especially when they were uploading more regularly, that you would never, ever reach the bottom of the content.
Ever! And you just keep clicking and discover more things. Even the interface, which you can still see on their website. If you go to the main page, and you roll your cursor over the main buttons, these voices come out: “Toons!” And the animated graphics pop out. But if you go away from that page and come back a second later, it’s a completely different interface. Suddenly it’s old-timey, or whatever. It’s not just the funny videos they created — they created the entire apparatus to be entertaining and unusual and surprising. If you clicked a button on an image of a VCR, suddenly a tape pops out and you’ve found a video. It was this incredible treasure chest you could dig around in.

Homestar Runner is really of that moment in the internet when you went to certain sites, rather than having everything shunted through the content-delivery systems we have now. Are there any old internet websites you miss besides Homestar?
I miss the time of Gawker and Deadspin when I would go to the site to see the updates. Once Twitter took over, everything got shunted through that system. People tweet out their articles, and you can see which ones people are liking. Things are kind of pre-chosen for you, in a way. It’s like, Oh, this article, everyone’s freaking out about it. I better read this. Going to a website isn’t something I do that often anymore. It’s very weird, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing. There’s something about how when you step in a store, you’re committed to looking around a bit — walking down an aisle you might not necessarily walk down. Whereas with Twitter, it’s a much more passive experience. That’s what I loved about Homestar: You could just go get lost on that website for a long time.

Were there any particular videos that stand out for you?
“A Jorb Well Done” was really funny. But to me, the Strong Bad Emails were it. It was a mechanism for any kind of joke. In and of itself, the response was entertaining, with Strong Bad reading out the typos or whatever, but then it became an opportunity to introduce something like Teen Girl Squad. It felt like in any given email, you might suddenly be given a piece of the world that was brand-new that you had no idea existed, and maybe they had no idea existed three days prior.

There’s one, No. 118, where he gets a virus. It is a remarkable piece of comedy. It’s so funny, and then they dissolve the actual world that you’re looking at. He gets the virus and it’s not just in the computer, it becomes a virus that infects the entire reality. It’s just great writing. It’s this amazing cross-section of the ideas — the comedy, the artistry, the characters they’ve drawn — and the technical ability to animate this stuff, in a way that still feels really sophisticated today. But it especially was, you know, 15 years ago.

It’s sophisticated, but they also use their limitations to the best effect. Like, they’re not confident about arms, so most characters don’t have arms.
Exactly, and that adds to the absurdity. But there’s something about it that’s unapologetic. His sometimes-girlfriend doesn’t have arms, but somehow she can still play the guitar. All the absurdity that comes from that is just accepted, and it becomes part of the world. It never feels like they’re trying to create something they can’t. It always feels like exactly the thing they want to create.

There’s something that the Strong Bad Emails have in common with Murderville, and that’s that they come from the interaction of multiple brains. You need multiple people’s input to create the moment. What appeals to you about that style?
What appeals to me about it, and what was so scary in making it, was that you couldn’t count on one thing that you knew was going to be there. If you make a scripted show, at the very least, you know you’ve got a great script. Endless variables come after that: how much money you have to shoot it, how good the sets are, how good the actors are, the editing. But you at least start from a place of knowing what you want it to be. With this show, I knew how I wanted it to feel, but we didn’t know what it was going to be. We didn’t know what the guest was going to do.

I did a Twitter thread recently about the Kumail funny-walk moment. When you look at the script, it’s just Will [Arnett]’s character saying, “I want you to go in, but instead of doing a cool walk, I want you to do an uncool walk.” I certainly didn’t know how that was going to play out. Will had a sense of how he wanted to escalate that moment, but none of it would have worked if Kumail hadn’t wanted to play along. He walked this perfect line between a little suspicious and willing to dive in headfirst. You can see in the video that Will kind of glances over at him. I can literally see him realize he’s gonna take it to another level, and he says, “And you have a signature sound.” And that was nothing we had planned. That came from Will in the moment. It only works because Kumail came up with the perfect sound. Neither of them can handle it; they’re both doubled over trying not to laugh, and yet they both try to get into the scene. That was the magic we were trying to create.

We create these parameters, and a story line, and lines and setups for these opportunities for things to possibly happen. We didn’t know until we were done with an episode if we had what we needed. We knew even less until we started editing. We had to find a way for funny things to happen, but also have them work narratively in the scene. That’s why, for people who enjoy this show, it works. You’re not stuck in a bit. We find a way to stay on the tracks of the story and move it along.

You said you knew how you wanted the show to feel, as a finished product. Can you explain what you wanted, vibe-wise?
The show is putatively a cop show, a procedural, and it’s also obviously an improv show, and it is a mystery that people can follow along with at home if they want to. But at its core, the real story people are watching is What happens when someone you know from TV is thrown into an impossible situation? We wanted to play with all the tropes of the cop world and give Will all the traditional problems that a down-on-his-luck, hard-boiled homicide detective would have. But to me, that’s the least important stuff — to me it was a delivery vehicle for a kind of scary but occasionally euphoric gameplay where really unexpected things could happen. People could succeed or fail, but it wasn’t really about solving a crime.

When I read comments on Twitter, the most popular statement is, “Oh my God, this is so stupid and I love it and I can’t stop watching it.” I always feel weird when people say the things I do are “stupid,” because I have a defensive response like, “No, I’m smart! I worked really hard to create this! We tried to come up with funny lines!” But I know what they mean. It’s intentionally unserious, and the characters are intentionally not that smart. The only straight man or woman is the guest. And even there, who knows what they’re gonna do?

I would label the Homestar universe as dumb. So much of it is just Matt Chapman making noises with his mouth. But you get a little defensive when people label the stuff you do as “dumb” or “stupid”?
I would say I get initially defensive because the word “dumb” typically is pejorative. I guess my initial defensive response is that “dumb” equals “lazy” or “didn’t work too hard on it.” But making comedy is hard. Making stuff funny is hard, and that applies to very “sophisticated” comedy and very “dumb” comedy. It’s all difficult to do. I think I’m drawn to dumb characters — to dumb people and thoughtless people — but I think that the comedy that can come out of those moments can be pretty unique and original.

That’s what I think I love about the whole Homestar Runner world. Yes, it’s all silly and goofy and kind of feels like something I’d do in high school with my friends, but the construction of it is very sophisticated and thoughtful. It doesn’t feel haphazard or thoughtless. You really felt like these guys were making decisions because they really believed in them. I think that their hit rate was incredibly high.

When revisiting the different videos, I was struck by how many phrases still live in my head. Like “I have a crush on every boy!” That’s in there, and it’s never going away.
Oh, totally. In one of the Strong Bad Emails, he’s asked to create a video game. It’s a really funny video because he goes through a pong version of what he’d do, then a vector video-game version. But then they released the actual vector game on the site, so that you could actually play it. And every time you die, it would flash across the screen, “YOUR HEAD A SPLODE.” It was one of those things where I saw it and went, That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. And still, on a weekly basis, I mutter to myself, “Your head a splode.”

Is that something you go for, a comedy earworm?
In the Sharon Stone episode, when they go to do the surgery, Will’s character is called Brett Bretterson. I’m pretty sure I put that in there. It wasn’t until someone commented on Twitter, “Love the Homestar reference!” that I was like, What?! I went back and found that Brett Bretterson is the fictional boyfriend of one of the Teen Girl Squad. It was just stuck in my head. Suddenly it ended up as an unintentional homage in a TV show, years later.

Going back to something we were talking about earlier, I loved the sort of pixel-hunt aspect of the site, where you could click on a word in the email and get taken to this whole other thing.
It blew me away. It was the first time I was able to interact with a website like that. I’m still in awe of how much effort they put into those details, because they were so easily missed. They were putting work into creating these experiences that a lot of people would never even see. It’s not like they made a video explaining, “Be sure to check for this, that, and the other.” They just hid all this gold in various places. And if people found it, that was great. And if they didn’t, that was fine too.

Would you ever want to write something more interactive like that?
In my head, I wouldn’t be very good at those. But also, when we got the show, I also thought I didn’t know how to write mysteries. Maybe it’s one of those things you learn just by doing.

Will we ever see more Medical Police? That show was really fun.
As of now, not that I know of. It debuted in January of 2020, and it’s a story of a global pandemic. I think our timing was a little off. Certainly unintentional. We wrote it a full year and a half before that. I’m immensely proud of that season of TV. We were able to do a comedy in the thriller genre that wasn’t just a send-up of that genre, but actually really 100 percent bought into that genre and tried to pay it off. Our only goal with that was to write a season of TV that, even if it didn’t have the absurdity of Childrens Hospital attached to it, would still be an entertaining thriller story. Who knows what the future holds? Some shows that seem to be done suddenly come back. I know that everybody on our side still adore it and would love to make more if we got the chance.

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The ‘Incredible Treasure Chest’ of Homestar Runner