Homestar Runner is a Flash based website which was made in 2000 originally by The Brothers Chaps (Mike and Matt Chapman). Mike and Matt were born in Indiana during the 1980s and grew up writing comics and messing around with super 8 cameras. Their mutual interest in media creation eventually landed themselves in the creation of a kids’ book during their time in college.
This clunky concept of child-friendly media saw its primary form established when Mike and Matt made an Adobe Flash-based website about the characters in their book. Their use of the Internet and animated Flash allowed them to move away from the conventional expectations and limitations of media platforms (i.e. broadcast, print, and radio). By bypassing the “gatekeepers” of entertainment standards, they gained freedom to add their intellect and humor to develop Homestar Runner into being one of the most popular and unique online media platforms of the 2000s.
So, what exactly is Homestar Runner? It’s a web-series that revolves around its primary and tertiary characters usually in interactions with each other around their enclosed, fictitious world (for the most part). Homestar Runner and Strong Bad are by far the primary characters, Homestar being the goofy lovable dork and Strong Bad being a bit more sinister though mellowing out to be a more “cool guy” character. Strong Bad brought a degree of maturity to Homestar’s childish nature, a yin and a yang in a way. Both of them, and the cast of other characters (The Cheat, Bubs, Coach Z, Strong Sad, The Poopsmith, just to name a few) pushed their world’s limits through Mike and Matt’s free creative expression on the Internet. The only boundary (that also brought their form) to these characters and their escapades was Adobe Flash.
Flash (RIP) was a very popular means of media creation on the Internet before the advent of video file sharing, Youtube, or even affordable digital cameras and editing software. Flash was a proprietary Adobe media format with which one could animate graphics, design artistic icons and text, or design multimedia websites (so on and so forth). Mike and Matt used it to build a website that not only based around its characters, but was also based on its intractability by users, This key element of Flash was not used on other sites that were also doing similar things to Homestar during the early 2000s. Albino Blacksheep (an aggregated flash media site) and Newgrounds (an open submission website of creative content) were deeply steeped in flash animated content at the time but they did not employ much of any unique Flash based interactive elements to their content nor their web interface. Their lack of intractability made the experience feel more one dimensional. Sitting down and only watching something from a screen harkens back to the tradition of watching TV, a static one way relationship between a viewer’s eyes and an intangible slice of visual stimulant. Homestar Runner on the other hand used Flash as its very backbone so that the entire experience on their website was an interactive engaging experience. You didn’t even have to watch a cartoon, there was enough fun to be had just by clicking around and seeing the various menus and animations.
Homestar Runner was the perfect thing for me to find as I was growing up. I didn’t have to wait around for a TV screen, the content was interactive, funny, smart, and fine for a sheltered kid to watch. My favorite cartoon on the site in particular that employed all these things was “Strong Bad is in Jail Cartoon” (Yes, Mike and Matt broke the 4th wall in the title and child me didn’t know it). When we join the characters in this cartoon, Strong Bad and The Cheat are trying to rob Bubs’s concession stand of its premium candies. This plan doesn’t work and so the sudo police (Homestar, Bubs, and Coach Z) apprehend our two crooks and take them off to jail. After some hi jinks, a jail break, and the theft of The Poopsmith (yes, a person was tied up and kidnapped) Strong Bad and The Cheat are once again foiled and peace and order is restored to the land.
For about the 14 years that I have been rewatching this short cartoon, I had never been able to find the interactive elements though. I had clicked around on various frames and scenes and pounded the TAB key on my keyboard to see if anything would pop up, sadly nothing ever did. I had always wondered if Mike and Matt broke out of their mold and finally made a static non interactive Flash piece.
In 2020, Adobe discontinued Flash. I thought my curiosity would never be answered. Homestar Runner had died. All the work that Mike and Matt had done was no longer able to be engaged with by users of the Internet. The Web’s defining pre-video digital entertainment format had been relegated to the archive of archaic technologies.
Thankfully, because of some stubborn and passionate people from around the world, a Flash emulator was created so that old Internet entertainment sites could breathe a second life. Stupidly excited by this I hopped back onto Homestar Runner, found my favorite cartoon for old times sake and gave it another watch. As always I clicked around and still couldn’t find any interactables. As I was about to close out of the window, the screen faded and a new scene emerged, a slice of 2004 (the original date this particular cartoon was uploaded) played to me for the first time. The Flash Emulator had a bug that automatically played and engaged with hidden interactables! After 14 years of searching, the death of Flash itself, and then its cultural re-birth, I finally was able to fully engage with my favorite Homestar Runner cartoon.
Mike and Matt really were on to something when they opened up their website to the public in 2000. Their passion in animation, writing and humor created one of the largest Flash-based websites of the 2000s and set them both on storied career-paths in animation and writing (Disney’s Gravity Falls and others) as pioneers of digital narrative creation. Through moving beyond the traditional means and modes of media distribution and regulation (of their time), they were free to create characters and stories that fully showcased their creativity, humor and curiosity — which went on to influence generations of future digital content creators to come, myself included.