The internet is now something that happens to you. That wasn’t always the case; our time online has been funneled through trend-pushing social media for so long that it’s easy to forget how the experience used to demand decision-making. In the early 2000s, the internet felt like an endless, unknowable thing without consensus. Everyone had their own preferred forums, game pages, and video sites. A piece of content could be omnipresent among your friends for weeks and be completely unknown to someone just a few towns over. So for something to become ubiquitous — a cute animal video, early cringe content, a semi-sexual commercial from Europe — it had to stand out. Every now and then, there was a Homestar Runner.
In 2000, brothers Mike Chapman and Matt Chapman began posting Flash animations on HomestarRunner.com. The original concept was simple: A town full of cartoon characters led by their dopey but lovable hero, Homestar Runner, would compete in exaggerated competitions and events. While the site’s name, design, and aesthetic were dedicated to Homestar himself, his arch nemesis — a boxing-glove-and-wrestling-mask-clad scamp named Strong Bad — rose to prominence.
In early episodes, Strong Bad, wily and rude, served as a foil to Homestar, who was dumb but kind. Homestar played by the rules, while Strong Bad had a tiny sidekick named The Cheat who helped him, well, cheat at things. Characterizations were thin and the stories were simple, but as the Chapmans took the focus away from these competitions between Homestar and Strong Bad, the characters came into clearer focus. Strong Bad and Homestar’s sportsmanlike rivalry transformed into one-sided annoyance. The stories moved away from big climactic events to the characters’ day-to-day lives. Strong Bad stopped lifting weights and started checking his email. That’s when everything changed.
In 2001, the Brothers Chaps, as they’d become known, posted the first Strong Bad Email segment. The sketch consisted of Strong Bad answering emails from fans, typically in a mocking or condescending fashion. At the time, there was no greater piece of middle school clout than having had Strong Bad respond to your email. And as his popularity grew, so did the complexity of the toons themselves. Short, pithy responses gave way to animations that were now often more elaborate than anything else the site was releasing.
Within a year, Strong Bad Email was far and away the most popular segment on Homestar Runner. The obvious explanation for the popularity was the character’s incredible range. One Email segment might be a straight genre parody, like the Toonami-inspired anime world of 20X6 and the ’70s action satire Dangeresque. Then, just a few weeks later, there’d be a more absurdist entry like “Crying,” where Strong Bad made Homestar Runner burst into tears by showing him a homemade drawing of a one-legged dog named Lil Brudder.
Before long, every group of nerdy teenage friends had at least one member capable of doing a passable Strong Bad impression. Quotes from Strong Bad Email were thrown around with the same frequency as ones from any big-budget comedy of the era. With creations like Trogdor the dragon and surprisingly catchy songs like “Everybody to the Limit,” Strong Bad’s consistent batting average turned Homestar Runner into the most popular homemade animation site in the world. But with the Chapmans growing up, starting families, and desiring more stability, they reluctantly put Homestar Runner on hiatus in 2010. The longer the dopey emails went unanswered, the further the internet audience moved on. But for a very specific subset of young people, Strong Bad remained a massive comedic influence and a future point of nostalgia.
Strong Bad wasn’t a mid-2000s hodgepodge of video game references or jokes about George W. Bush, like so much comedy of the era. The character was another weirdo on the internet, and the comedy was relatable. As a teenager, I saw myself in the insecurity lying just beneath the surface of his exaggerated persona. Now, as an adult, I see myself in his other facets as well: his simultaneous obsession with and disdain for pop culture, his overwhelming desire to grab a beer with his friends, and his addiction to posting his every thought online. He was like a proto-dril from a more optimistic era of the internet. Strong Bad posted with abandon while trapped in a town full of people that bored him; every teenager knew that feeling. Ultimately, the character ended up predicting the future. His lifestyle was an early template for the art of shitposting. It doesn’t strain credulity to imagine a modern Strong Bad podcasting his days away with a cooler full of cold ones in Strong Badia.
The specificity of phrasing and unique word choices that became Homestar Runner’s calling card (“I said consummate Vs! Consummate!”) turned out to be a timeless gag, but I believe there’s something deeper to Strong Bad’s enduring appeal: The character was tightly written and more thoroughly developed than any other member of the early-2000s cartoon canon. In early videos, Strong Bad oozed confidence and bravado. But in a video like “The Basics,” after a reader wrote to him, “how do you do it . teach me some of your trick’s,” a half-panicked stream-of-consciousness response immediately colored him as just as clueless as his nemesis, maybe even more. Over the course of the series, Strong Bad was shown to be insecure, lonely, and, above all, nowhere near as cool as he tells everyone he is. For teenagers, there couldn’t be a more relatable figure. And then there was Strong Bad’s magnum opus: Teen Girl Squad.
Originating in the Strong Bad Email episode “Comic,” Teen Girl Squad was teen life filtered through the lens of Strong Bad. The characters, Cheerleader, So-And-So, What’s Her Face, and The Ugly One, attempted to endure the everyday indignities of adolescence in the hopes of meeting boys and becoming popular. Each step the TGS members took toward their goals also brought them one step closer to gruesome and unexpected death. “Teen Girl Squad #10,” from its A-plus lineup of jokes to the way it catches Strong Bad in a rare moment of uncool vulnerability, might be the pinnacle of the Homestar Runner expanded universe: The installment culminates in Strong Bad becoming so enchanted by one of his own characters that he’s caught making out with the piece of loose-leaf paper that she’s drawn on. The episode is a distillation of everything the character did best.
Though the Brothers Chaps moved on to the world of television, working on shows like The Aquabats! Super Show! and The Owl House, Homestar Runner began periodically posting again in 2014, followed by a rerelease of old merchandise and new Strong Bad Email episodes. A vinyl record pressing of Strong Bad’s many songs sold out in a day. “Too Cool,” a Strong Bad Email from 2017, is among the best they’ve ever done, introducing the world to the horrifying concept of a “Family Might/Could.” And with the revival came a reconsideration of the previous run. I can say that absurdist one-liners like “corn is no place for a mighty warrior,” and aspirational “Dudes Rock” moments like Strong Bad’s “Labor Dabor,” feel almost more at home on the modern internet than they did in their original context.
So much time is wasted on the cringe of old online entertainment. On some level, it’s natural to look at the things your teenage self liked with some amount of disdain. To distance ourselves from our most embarrassing years, we often throw the things we loved under the bus. But whenever the grumbly, masked wrestler makes his way across our timelines, old fans remember him fondly. Maybe that’s nostalgia — when I was in high school in the aughts, ’80s theme parties were everywhere; the grunge aesthetic of the ’90s made a comeback in college; and now, as we firmly plant ourselves in the 2020s, it’s the 2000s’ time to shine — or maybe the Brothers Chaps made something pure enough to withstand the sands of internet time.
One of the biggest sins on the modern internet is trying too hard to be funny. It has caused the internet’s sense of humor to turn cruel in the last decade and our knee-jerk response to earnest humor to be negative. Putting oneself out there creates a risk of ending up in a cringe compilation or as the subject of a devastating quote tweet. Strong Bad is representative of a time in the internet’s past when there was something new every day, and there was room for simple jokes. The world of Homestar Runner sprung from a place of passion and caring. It’s possible that nostalgia for the character is rooted in a desire to go back to a time when we embraced that type of enthusiasm. And who wouldn’t want to? At the end of the day, like Strong Bad himself, none of us are truly as cool (or as mean) as we pretend to be online.