If you grew up on the internet, Homestar Runner represents a time when the world wide web felt a little bit smaller. It was hilariously sarcastic, but unlike the rest of the Flash landscape in the early 2000s, Homestar was never hateful or cheap.
Matt and Mike Chapman spent a childhood cutting up Super 8 tape, writing amateur comic books, and absorbing every nugget of disposable pop culture they could get their hands on. Years later, they would distil their fascination with the fringe edges of Americana into their very own online cartoon show. Homestar Runner is a place of screwball public access television, byzantine parallel universes, and miles-deep references to sports, music, video games, and everything else they loved. The Chapmans may have chided the stupidity of cultural debris, but they still loved it.
Today, we carry infinity in our pockets and bounce selfies off of satellites. But, in the early 2000s, there was something kind of remote about a homemade Flash animation site. The internet still felt like a secret, and in a moment where it's hard to feel hopeful about the cyberspace coursing through humanity's veins, returning to Homestar Runner offers a shred of optimism.
In recent years, Matt and Mike Chapman parlayed the legacy of Homestar Runner into a number of rewarding (and lucrative) jobs at Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, making television shows like Yo Gabba Gabba!, Gravity Falls, and most recently, Two More Eggs. The era of the weekly Strong Bad email is in the past, but the brothers still make time to update the site when their busy lives afford them the time. We called up the Chapmans, and asked them to tell us the story of Homestar Runner from start to finish.
A Foundation of Snark
The Chapmans' spend their early years learning how to make fun of things and amassing decades of pop culture references in a very short time.
Mike Chapman: We were the youngest of five kids. We grew up in the '80s and I think a lot of our humour sort of developed from taking some terrible Atlanta commercial and exaggerating part of it, and repeating it 5,000 times to make a joke. It wasn't something funny, but the five of us made it funny.
Matt Chapman: We had the collective knowledge of four other siblings, like pop culture knowledge including the '60s and '70s. So from early on we had stuff. I started watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 from a young age, and I would get jokes because I'd be like, "Oh my brother has been saying that since I was a little kid! I know it's from some old bubble gum commercial that isn't around anymore!"
Mike: Our older brother Donny taught us how to be snarky, before we even knew what it meant or how to use that type of humour. I remember him watching The Love Boat just to make fun of it. He did not like The Love Boat at all. He would just sit there and rag on everybody the whole time. He thought it was hilarious. He had this kid's book called The Daddy Book, a very '70s kid's picture book, and it was just a nice book about different dads. "Dads, they're all different! They do different things! They look different!" And he would go through it and add his own commentary, where the dads would do horrible things to the kids, and it was really awful. I mean, that's like straight-up a Strong Bad move.
Mike: When the five of us get together we're gonna reference some dumb commercial from 30 or 40 years ago. I feel like as a big family, it's almost like a defence mechanism. It makes you stick together and bond more. "Look at that sad guy selling used cars! We're all better off than that guy!" Or there's some kid who said something in 1983 that we continue to repeat to this day that would mean nothing to anyone else. I don't know why we felt so threatened at the time. Apparently, we had to put on this weird rough exterior.
Matt: We've tempered it as we've gotten older, but it's probably always been in us to sorta assume everything is gonna suck.
From Kid's Book to Cartoon
The Chapmans decide to author a tongue-in-cheek homemade children's book called Homestar Runner as a goof between friends.
Mike: The whole thing came from our friend Jamie who, again, was mimicking a local terrible Atlanta grocery store commercial with one of the Braves in it. He said, like "Homestar runner for the Braves Mike Lemke!" And Matt and I laughed like, "what the hell is a homestar runner?" That was probably in 1995 or something, the phrase was just bouncing around in our head because we thought it was hilarious. One day Craig [Craig Zobel, filmmaker and friend of The Brothers Chaps] and I went to the bookstore because we were bored and we were just looking at kid's books and were like, "Let's make a kid's book."
Matt: It was like "hey, let's make one of these! Look at these weird kid's books! Kid's books are terrible! Let's make our own terrible kid's books!"
Mike: We decided to just use Homestar Runner. We made that his name, and then we drew all the characters that day. In that one day, we came up with Homestar, and Pom Pom, and Strong Bad, and The Cheat, and Strong Mad. They were all created in a roughly two-hour period. The characters hadn't existed in our head for a long time, and while they have changed a bit since then, they were all born at once.
Mike: We didn't want to publish it. We just made it for ourselves. We probably printed five or 10 copies and gave it to our friends. It wasn't like "our hopes and dreams depend on Homestar Runner!" But our dad actually sent it out to like 80 publishers without us knowing, and I remember being pissed at him when I found out. I think he got a couple rejection letters. A couple years passed without us doing anything with Homestar when we were in college, so it wasn't until we started making web cartoons and learned Flash that things took off.
Matt: We were just trying to learn Flash using those characters. Once we had enough stuff we were like "we should put this on a website or whatever."
Mike: We had Flash tutorial books and I dropped out of grad school for photography and was like, "I gotta learn this web design stuff man! I mean, it's on the web!"
Matt: I think we intended the cartoons to be similar to early Cartoon Network, like Dexter's Laboratory or Power Puff Girls. Like, those were kid's cartoons but anyone could enjoy them. Very early on, in like 2000 or something, we pitched that version of Homestar Runner where it's like, "every episode there's a new competition! And Strong Bad's the bad guy and Homestar's the good guy!" They passed on that, and we were like "well, let's keep doing this!" The next cartoons were like, "wouldn't it be funny if we made this be about the moments in between the competitions?" And so that was the stuff that was funnier, the stuff happening between the plot points, which is hilarious because we hadn't even established a routine of making cartoons about competitions, we'd made like one.
Mike: A lot of the world-building stuff happened quickly, like the old-timey 1936 version of the characters happened within the first three or four months. We had made like one or two cartoons and were like "we should do old-timey versions!" and soon after that, we were like "we should make anime versions!" The world started building from the get-go.
A Home Run
Without any advertising or publicity, Homestar Runner started to catch on through pure word of mouth, and Matt and Mike Chapman found themselves with truly unique full-time jobs.
Mike: We started selling our first shirt in 2001. There wasn't huge demand or anything. I wouldn't say it had caught on yet.
Matt: I was living in New York at the time and I remember Mike sending me a picture of himself in our shirt, I was very jealous.
Mike: For the first shirt we had, you needed to send a check to our parent's house. So we sold a few dozen shirts by check only. Our dad was our accountant, so he started reviewing all that stuff. It wasn't anything we intended to do full time.
Mike: I had a Cartoon Network calendar, and I kept our traffic stats in it. This was early on because shortly after we stopped looking at our stats entirely because we didn't want that to affect how we made stuff or what we did. But I wrote down how many new visitors we got each day, and I remember hitting 1,000 visitors in a day sometime in 2001 or 2002.
Matt: We started doing a weekly cartoon when I moved back from New York. That's when we first made Strong Bad Emails. I have to thank Earthlink Corporation for funding a year of Strong Bad Emails. I wouldn't actually work on them at work, but I'd come into work after having stayed up all night making Strong Bad Emails on a Sunday night. The fact that I was allowed to go into work at 11am instead of 9am definitely contributed to the rise of Homestar.
Matt: Once we started getting angry emails when we were late getting a new cartoon up, I think it hit us that folks were counting on new stuff from us. That's a cool feeling to know you're as important as a cup of coffee or morning crossword to some folks. And then definitely when we received our first wedding/dating stories from people that bonded over our cartoons or met because of them and put a Homestar and Marzipan on their wedding cake. That's nuts! Makes me feel like I should email the ghost of Paul Newman and tell him that my wife and I bonded over Cool Hand Luke!
Mike: In 2003, our dad told Matt to quit his job and do Homestar full-time. This is our financially conservative dad, telling us to quit our jobs to make Flash cartoons.
Matt: Mike and I would collaborate together all the time when we were kids, and when were home for Christmas break we'd always end up making something together, so doing Homestar full-time was really fun - but I remember friends saying "can we come over when you make a cartoon?" And we would be like "ok," and we'd have a couple beers while we brainstormed an idea, and then it's like "ok, Mike and I are going to put on headphones for 18 hours now and you're not going to talk to us anymore until we're done." It was super fun, but it could also be hard work, which is also why once we had children and wives it made it a little harder to pull all-nighters and not sleep for three days to make a cartoon.
Matt: The Homestar references in the Buffy and Angel finales forever ago were huge. And there was this picture of Joss Whedon in a Strong Bad shirt from around that time that someone sent us that we couldn't believe. Years later, a photo of Geddy Lee from Rush wearing a Strong Bad hat on stage circulated which similarly freaked us out. We have no idea if he knew what Strong Bad was, but our dumb animal character was on his head while he probably shredded 'Working Man' so I'll take it!
Matt: I have no idea when our peak was viewership-wise, but 2002-2005 was definitely when we got to go the most nuts creatively. We expanded into weird live action and puppet stuff, CD's, DVD's, video games, toys, all kindsa crazy dream-come-true stuff we never thought we'd get to do. But, for me, if you want a more precise moment, I would say February of 2004, when on the same day we received a demo of a song that John Linnell from They Might Be Giants recorded for a Strong Bad Email and a full-size working Tom Servo puppet from Jim Mallon from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I remember specifically thinking, "It's ok if no one watches another Homestar Runner cartoon or buys another t-shirt now, because today happened."
"...Never a Real Business Plan."
By 2010, Matt and Mike were both married with kids and were looking for other jobs in the television industry. They have had a hand in a number of acclaimed kid's shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! Gravity Falls, The Aquabats Super Show, and Wander Over Yonder. Unfortunately, this didn't leave a lot of time for Homestar Runner.
Mike: We always knew our business model was temporary. Everyday it was like, "We're on borrowed time here, there's just no way to make a living off of this, because it's unsustainable." We didn't want to start selling ads, and this was before the era of Kickstarter or Patreon and other ways of artists monetizing directly from their audience. We were just like, "Let's just do it this way, rather than try to change our business plan," which was never a real business plan. Our mindset was, "We're lucky to make money off this in the first place, and if it's no longer making enough money to not have other jobs, we'll not worry about it and get another job." We didn't to be one of those things that started selling e-cards or whatever.
Mike: There [were] definitely people who bought way more shirts than they had any business buying, and it's great that people felt that way without us having to be like,"Hey guys, we're having a pledge drive." It's just a double-edged sword. Homestar needed to be supported somehow, but you never wanted to come out and say,"Hey, remember the only way we're able to do this is if you buy a shirt, so buy a shirt!" We've always been uncomfortable with that. Our dad suggested adding a button to the end of the cartoons that said "Buy a shirt with Strong Bad on it!" And we were like "No, dad! That's so lame!"
Matt: We have a property in Homestar called Cheat Commandos, which is basically making fun of old G.I. Joe cartoons. We eventually made Cheat Commandos toys and we wouldn't even put an ad for the toys in the cartoon. That's like, part of the joke, why didn't we just do that and make some money? Like there was someone who told me recently that their favourite thing we ever did was Cheat Commandos, and they had no idea we'd even made toys! Probably a missed opportunity there! If anything we might've taken our punk rock status too far.
Mike: We went on hiatus after Matt had his second daughter. Around that time we knew we were going to have to start looking for other jobs, and we really just didn't know how long it'd be before we could get back to Homestar. Maybe one month, two months, six months. After a certain point it almost became weird to say something about the break. In retrospect, we probably could've handled it a little better, but we just didn't know.
Matt: We didn't want to believe it either. I didn't want to come out and say "hey we're not doing this anymore for a while," because that sucks! I wanted to be like "yeah we're gonna make one this week! I swear! We'll have time this week to make a new Strong Bad Email!" I know we probably bummed people out or lost some people's respect for not saying anything, but we also wanted the site to be focused on the characters, so it would have felt like pulling back the curtain too far to suddenly be like "Hey! We've got kids! And it's hard!" It didn't seem worth it to be like, "We wrote the Yo Gabba Gabba! Christmas special! That's why we're taking a hiatus!"
Mike: There was also some creative burnout too. We had been doing it for 10 years and we probably stuck to that weekly schedule a little more strictly than we needed to, so we needed a break. It was definitely a slog sometimes. Like Saturday you're at a friend's house and it slowly dawns on you that "ah shit, we don't have an idea for a cartoon." Even during the hiatus I'd feel weird on the weekends because for 10 years there was this cloud looming over me that I had 20 hours straight of sitting in front of a computer bleary-eyed on Sunday night.
On April 1, 2014, a new Homestar Runner cartoon was posted to the site. A few months later, Matt Chapman announced plans to continue the series, and since then they have done new Homestar content every couple of months. Right now the brothers are living it Atlanta again, working side by side on the Disney XD show Two More Eggs.
Mike: When we made the April Fool's cartoon it had been about four years since we put anything on the site. Matt had moved to Los Angeles three years before to work on Gravity Falls and some other Disney stuff. I think he'd just decided that he was moving back to Atlanta, and we knew Homestar was going to make sense for us. The joke of that cartoon was Homestar finally updating his website, which is all dusty and unattended. The process wasn't quite the same because we weren't living together, but we pulled an all-nighter for the next one we did. Well, an all-nighter for us now means like staying up til 1am.
Matt: We really had no idea how many people would care or check back in if we made something new. It was a little scary tiptoeing back into things which is why we made it an April Fool's cartoon. If nobody cared or everybody hated it, we could just say, "that was part of the joke! See ya in another 10 years!" and disappear. Fortunately, we didn't have to do that. And even though we've only been able to make a few cartoons every year since, people still seem genuinely psyched when we are able to update. Coolest fans ever, man.
Mike: It's kind of funny how much it feels the same when we make Homestar cartoons today. for I'm still sitting across my brother with my headphones on, working for 12 hours, putting it up in the early morning, and maybe stopping at Waffle House on the way home.
Matt: We are constantly amazed that we were able to wriggle our way into a tiny, poorly animated corner of popular culture. We recently did a couple Homestar 20th anniversary live shows here in Atlanta and the response was bigger and farther reaching than we could've imagined. A father and son came all the way from Anchorage just to see the show. That blew our minds and made us want to pay for their airfare.
Mike: It was always a very singular creative vision. It's pretty much just the two of us, and there's never a moment where one of us writes something and the other one doesn't agree. Any joke is something either one of us could've written. It's pretty crazy that we have four or five hundred cartoons that are all largely tied together, and it's nuts that 20 years since making that initial book I'm still talking about it.
Matt: We've felt so many times over the years that we are super fortunate, that it can't get any better, that no matter what else we do, we did this one little thing that mattered to some people for a while. Is that a good epitaph, "He did this one little thing that mattered to some people for a while?" We always say that we could get jobs making doughnuts at a grocery store bakery and be totally happy for the rest of our lives since we got to do Homestar. And now we've been saying that for over a decade.
Mike: We do Two More Eggs with the exact same process. We do one cartoon a week. We think of it, write it, animate it, and it's done pretty quickly. I get the same weekly feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. Some of the other projects we've done force you to think about the same thing for a month, and my brain just doesn't work that way.
Matt: It's great to be back working in the same room with my brother, surrounded by the weird junk we hang on our walls, flanked by the wood-paneled television from the basement of our childhood home and a wall of outdated video games and electronics. A few weeks ago we got to spend all day 3D printing a fake action figure and filling it with beef stroganoff for the Walt Disney company. Once you hit that point, I don't think you're allowed to complain ever again.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego and living in Austin, Texas. He writes about music, video games, professional wrestling, and whatever else interests him. You can find him on Twitter @luke_winkie.