Viral videos are one of the weirdest unintended consequences of the Digital Age. When the architects of the Internet set about creating the most massive and sophisticated communications matrix in history, I doubt they had the Numa Numa guy in mind.
Viral videos are a legitimate industry now, but some of the most popular artifacts of the genre began as simple happy accidents — kids and pets and home movies gone rogue. Eschewing professional productions, music videos, and deliberate viral marketing campaigns, here are five of the most famous viral videos — and the stories behind them.
Charlie Bit My Finger (2007)
One of the earliest viral videos to go truly supernova, the epic drama that is Charlie Bit My Finger was for several years the reigning champion of YouTube viral videos. Uploaded in May of 2007, it had more than 100 million views within a year. (It has more than 800 million now.)
The clip, which features two English kids, is entirely genuine. It was posted by father Howard Davies-Carr, who wanted to show it to the kids’ grandfather in America. The clip made the Davies-Carr family minor celebrities in the U.K. The kids have been kept off the media circuit for the most part, but the family did make six-figure profits with subsequent advertising revenue, and ultimately signed with a digital management company.
David After Dentist (2009)
Another one for the Cute Kid Hall of Fame, David After Dentist famously documents 7-year David DeVore’s reaction to anesthesia after a trip to the dentist. Once again, the clip was shot by dad, who initially posted the video to Facebook. He was encouraged by family to put it on YouTube, which he did — but neglected to tag the video as private.
Young David’s ordeal quickly went viral online, with more than 7 million views within a week. The family entered a partnership with YouTube to earn a piece of advertising revenue, and later set up a T-shirt business with part of the proceeds going to charities — dental charities, of course.
Ultimate Dog Tease (2011)
Sometimes a viral video hits an interspecies sweet spot that no one even knew existed. That’s the case with Ultimate Dog Tease, in which a poor canine is tortured with the prospect of imminent bacon.
The funny voiceover was provided by former Canadian ad man Andrew Grantham, creator of the YouTube’s Talking Animals channel. Grantham has since produced hundreds of these videos, adapted from viewer-submitted live footage, in a kind of one-man AFV operation. He clearly has an oddly specific gift. In 2012, Paramount Pictures announced it was developing a feature film based on the Ultimate Dog Tease clip, with comedy writers Alec Berg and David Mandel — veterans of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. No joke.
Dramatic Chipmunk (2007)
Dramatic Chipmunk is perhaps the shortest viral video ever to break into the upper echelons of online weirdness. Just five seconds long, the clip features a chipmunk — well, OK, it’s actually a prairie dog — captured in a remarkably cinematic moment.
The footage itself actually comes from an obscure Japanese TV show, and is apparently the result of a camera operator accidentally doing just the right thing in just the right place at just the right time. The dramatic music was added in by CollegeHumor.com; it’s taken from the score of Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Young Frankenstein. Dramatic Chipmunk inspired a legion of response videos as the Internet once again went twirling, twirling, twirling towards madness.
Dancing Baby (1996)
Considered by many to the first genuine viral video of the Internet age, Dancing Baby — a.k.a. Baby Cha-Cha — predates YouTube itself by almost a decade. Oddly compelling and abidingly creepy, the 3D animation of a dancing baby originated as a test clip for a commercial animation software package in the mid-1990s. At some point, a compressed version of the file escaped into the wilds of the then-young World Wide Web, where it circulated largely by way of user forums, email, and shared Web pages.
Dancing Baby entered the pop culture superconsciousness when it was featured on the Fox comedy l, as a recurring hallucination. You now can find approximately one gajillion versions of the clip everywhere from video games to sports arena jumbotrons.