When Ryan Gosling turns to Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love and says, “Will you do me a kindness?” he becomes the latest movie character to reveal the unlikely influence of Jack Rebney, the cantankerous eccentric turned cult figure who is the subject of the film Winnebago Man.
Director Ben Steinbauer’s movie charts his search for Rebney, who had vanished even as his fame was growing. Partly a suspense film and partly a documentary with a fun, breezy feel, the film also illustrates how catch phrases and fringe characters make their way into pop culture.
Rebney’s slim claim to our attention is based on outtakes from his appearance in a Winnebago sales video. It was not a happy shoot. The sun was blazing hot and so was Rebney’s temper as he flubbed lines, shouted, cursed and - in a moment of calm - quaintly asked a crew member, “Would you do me a kindness?”
Videos of the outtakes were passed around and Rebney went viral before there was viral. After the clips hit YouTube, his catch phrases began popping up as reference points – almost a secret handshake – among viewers. And when Winnebago Man was released last year, the movie itself became part of Rebney’s snowballing fame as he turned up on talk shows, playing his cranky-old-coot character to the hilt with Jay Leno. (This preview gives you the full force of his unprintable language.)
Today there are fan-made YouTube videos, including one that portrays Rebney and his Winnebago made from Legos. You can buy an official Winnebago Man coffee mug with one of his more printable phrases: “My mind is just a piece of sh*t this morning.” (The asterisk is on the mug, making it more suitable for work.) And naturally there is a T-shirt reading “Do Me A Kindness.” (That iteration sounds more like a command than a question, sort of Rebneyesque.)
The phrase has morphed beyond Winnebago Man. Alec Baldwin’s network-suit character on 30 Rock uses it with Rebney-like annoyance when he berates Tina Fey’s character. “Do you realize that your little show accounts for 3% of our revenue but takes up 90% of my time?” he says. “Now would you do me a kindness, please, and handle your problems yourself, and stop bothering me?”
Ben Affleck uses it absurdly when he crashes with a stranger played by James Gandolfini in the movie Surviving Christmas and asks, “Would you do me a kindness? Put this hat on. My dad always used to wear a Santa hat when we went Christmas tree shopping.”
Rebney can’t take credit for inventing his phrase. Mark Twain used it in 1889 in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The time-traveling Yankee arrives in the past and, assuming he has landed in a certain kind of hospital, asks a stranger, “Friend, do me a kindness. Do you belong to the asylum . . .?"
The British novelist Maria Edgeworth used it even earlier. In her 1801 novel, Belinda, the rich Lady Delacour asks her husband to donate to charity instead of giving her a present. “If you wish to do me a kindness, I will tell you what I should like much better than diamonds.”
And Gosling’s womanizing character in Crazy Stupid Love echoes that benign use of the phrase. During his romantic first night with Stone, the kindness he asks for is so rare for him that it’s touching: he wants her to ask him something personal about himself.
Maybe cranky Jack Rebney was just being old-fashioned with his best-known phrase after all. But the fame that resulted is entirely from the age of celebrity and on-screen images. Nothing says 21st century like a YouTube Lego tribute.
Caryn James writes the “James on Screens” film and television blog for IndieWire and contributes to other publications including The New York Times Book Review and The Daily Beast. She was previously a film critic, chief television critic and culture critic for The New York Times.