Here’s a wonderfully unconventional little documentary, which looks at what “going viral” meant before there was YouTube or even an Internet.
Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure, made by an Australian team led by director Matthew Bate, tells a very strange story of that spans three decades. It starts in 1987, when a pair of young men — one of whom has the Hall of Fame-worthy name Eddie Lee Sausage — move into an apartment in San Francisco.
The two men occupying the apartment next door are a drunken, demented, real-life version of The Odd Couple, who scream insults and invective at each other nightly. Given that one of the men is a virulent homophobe and the other is openly gay, questions are raised about the nature of their relationship, as well as how they came to be living together.
The two young men begin recording their neighbors’ conversations — using tape-dubbing, of course — and even include snippets on mix tapes they distribute to friends. This leads to a drawn-out, slow-moving 1980s version of a “viral phenomenon,” including the release of a CD version of the recordings in 1993, and even leading to multiple stage plays and talk of a movie version. The film’s second half consists of the the creators feuding with collaborators over the movie rights, and even tracking down their one still-living former neighbor to get his permission.
The story starts off humorous but quickly turns sort of tragic, the more we learn about the sad lives of the two neighbors. There are also some uncomfortable questions: Was it unethical to tape people’s conversations, and then use them for profit? Were they witnessing a domestic violence situation and failing to do anything about it?
If anything else, “Shut Up Little Man” is a fascinating look at the technology of the past and how the crazy viral video craze of today got its start.