If there’s one Macromedia-powered website that ushers in waves of millennial nostalgia like no other, it’s Homestar Runner. What began life as a hand-drawn parody evolved into one of the early Internet’s best-loved animated series, before everything went a bit quiet in 2010.
This week saw the first major update to the project’s website in four years, with a brand new short to watch and flurry of activity on the official YouTube channel. Hopefully we won’t have to wait four more for the next.
Scroll down to see what’s new, or read on for some background on this piece of Internet history.
Homestar What Now?
Homestar Runner is a long-running animated web series centred around two main characters – Homestar Runner and Strong Bad – incorporating a variety of additional characters, themes and interactive elements. The series is notable for its refusal to sell advertising space (relying entirely on merchandise sales) and having spread like wildfire among a generation of users who cut their teeth on Windows 98.
The series itself started out as a hand-drawn parody of a children’s book, called The Homestar Runner Enters the Strongest Man in the World Contest (a modern Flash remake can be seen above). Written by Mike Chapman and friend Craig Zobel while studying at the University of Georgia in 1996, it wasn’t long before Mario Paint was used to bring the series to life with the first cartoon.
“We just used Homestar Runner and the guys pretty much as a way to learn Flash, and it took off on its own.” – Mike Chapman
In 1999, when Mike and his brother Matt were learning Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash, they made Homestar Runner a part of their learning materials. The two were looking to make money from their use of new web technologies and alongside Photoshop and Illustrator, Flash was a promising platform to invest in.
The name itself was revealed in a now-archived Kevin Scott interview with the brothers, in which much of the series’ history is revealed. James Huggins of the band Of Montreal came up with the name after mishearing a baseball-themed commercial for an Atlanta grocery store:
“[James] knows nothing about sports, and so he would always do his old-timey radio impression of this guy, and not knowing any positions in baseball or whatever, he would just be like, “homestar runner for the Braves.” And we were just like, “Homestar Runner? That’s the best thing we’ve ever heard!” – Matt Chapman
Word of Mouth
The brothers registered their domain in December 1999 and the site was live by the new year. Initial growth was slow until the introduction of what was to become the site’s most popular format, Strong Bad Email – watch it below. The two brothers maintain they did nothing to promote the site, its success came entirely from word of mouth.
Remember, this was long before Facebook, when message boards and IM services like MSN Messenger were the primary forms of online communication. Over a ten-year period the series went from obscure to mainstream, shooting to the top of the iTunes Podcast charts in 2006 with the release of video podcast Podstar Runner, which is no longer available for download.
“There was a brief flirtation with Comedy Central and Adult Swim. 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.” – Matt Chapman
Over the years, Homestar Runner embraced the original line-up of characters across a range of formats, turning their sarcastic, witty yet family-friendly brand of humour toward a variety of topics including poorly made Internet cartoons with their “Powered By The Cheat” series, poking fun at G.I. Joe cartoons in “Cheat Commandos” and “Teen Girl Squad” which acts as a humorous parody of teen culture and commodification by the media.
In 2007 the Chapman brothers turned down offers from both Comedy Central and Cartoon Network to turn Homestar Runner into a TV show due to concerns about direction, preferring instead to maintain a personal level of control over the show. It must be said that Homestar Runner isn’t so much a series or set of characters but an interactive rich web experience. It’s a big mess of .SWF files that just beg to be played with, and it’s full of treasures like the Trogdor The Burninator game.
The first new episode of Homestar Runner in four years parodies the longstanding belief that a mainstream hip hop video involves lots of standing around and a fisheye lens. Needless to say it’s brilliant.
And below you can see the April Fools video uploaded earlier this year, also brilliant.
You can subscribe to Homestar Runner on YouTube if that’s your preferred method of consuming video, but don’t forget to check out that wonderful (and now quite retro) homepage at HomestarRunner.com too.
Where were you when you saw your first Homestar Runner cartoon?