‘Holy crap’

When the residents on the seventh floor of Stevenson Hall returned for the spring semester, an odd, shirtless man wearing a Mexican wrestling mask and a pair of boxing gloves awaited them.

The shirtless character was not there to frighten or rob the residents, but to make them laugh.

His name? Strong Bad; a cartoon character brought to life on Mike, 30, and Matt, 27, Chapman’s Web site www.homestarrunner.com.

Cara Moran, the resident assistant of the seventh floor, decorated the hallway walls with the Homestar Runner theme. She is just one of the thousands of people who have already become intense fans of the site and continue to spread the word about Homestar Runner, Strong Bad and the rest of the cast of bizarre characters.

“It’s just one of those sites you find and instantly it’s e-mailed to you six times because everyone has found it and it spreads like wildfire,” Moran said.

Moran, a junior elementary education major, said she spent a couple days turning the hallway on the seventh floor into “Strongbadia,” the country over which Strong Bad claims to reign. The hallway had an uncanny attention to detail featuring a tree, a stop sign and The Cheat’s light switch, all elements any Homestar Runner fan would instantly recognize. When she was done, residents had varying emotions about the floor’s new decor.

“I got mixed reviews,” Moran said. “Some people were like ‘what is Cara smoking?’ and other people were really excited about it. Some people who didn’t live on my floor would knock on my door and say ‘that’s so cool.'”

One of the seventh floor’s residents, senior finance major Sean Cusack, had never heard of the site before this semester. When he first saw the new decorations he was a little confused.

“I thought it was weird and somewhat childish, but I enjoyed it,” Cusack said.

The response to “Strongbadia” is a testament to the “love it if you get it, hate it if you don’t” sense of humor the Chapman brothers use on their site.

Childish beginnings

Homestar Runner can trace his origins to the summer of 1996. While working as a lighting technician for an Australian television crew during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Mike Chapman started a children’s book titled “Homestar Runner Enters the Strongest Man in the World Contest.” The book introduced Homestar Runner, who got his name from a friend of the Chapmans’ that mixed up his sports vernacular.

“He just ran together these slew of words that sounded like sports terms and we thought it was a funny phrase and decided to use it,” Mike Chapman said.

The book also introduced Strong Bad-the aforementioned masked man-and his furry, yellow sidekick The Cheat as the villains of the story.

Mike Chapman only made a few copies of the book for friends and family and didn’t intend to do much else with the characters.

“We wrote another story for another book, but we never made it into a book,” Mike Chapman said.

Homestar and Strongbad would not make another appearance until 1999 when Mike Chapman made the short “Where My Hat is At.”

Shortly afterward, the brothers created the Web site so their friends and family could watch the cartoons the pair was creating. The site started to travel by word of mouth and was receiving thousands of hits a day two years later.

“I thought it was pretty cool (when they started the site),” said Don Chapman, Mike and Matt’s father. “I was amazed when it really took off.”

The real star

It is Strong Bad, not the sites namesake Homestar Runner, who sets the tone for the site. Thousands of visitors return to the site each Monday for Strong Bad’s latest reply to real fan mail.

After Strong Bad mocks and ridicules everything in the e-mail, including spelling and grammatical errors and usually the fan’s name, he proceeds to answer whatever question the fan poses, from help with a research paper to his thoughts on techno music.

Strong Bad’s trademark insults -directed at his fans and the other characters on the site-have only endeared him more to fans’ hearts.

“Comedians have been doing that for ages and ages,” Don Chapman said. “Everybody likes a cynical guy.”

It was obvious to the Chapman brothers early on that Strong Bad was the star of the site.

“I think it was the first Halloween episode, the one where Strong Bad was dressed up as Carmen Miranda, that’s when I first started to realize how popular a character Strong Bad was,” Mike Chapman said. “I kind of knew he was the funniest, but he is everyone’s favorite.”

The question surrounding Strong Bad is where did the Chapman Brothers come up with the inspiration for such a delightfully cynical character?

“He’s the bully that’s kind of your friend that you would hang out with after school, but in school he would make fun of you,” Mike Chapman said.

Giving characters voices

Matt Chapman gives Strong Bad his distinctively low, muddled voice. Matt Chapman also lends his voice talents to every other character on the site except for one – Homestar Runner’s girlfriend Marzipan, who is based on and voiced by Melissa Palmer, who married Mike Chapman in February of this year.

Matt Chapman’s real voice in no way resembles any of the voices of the characters on the site, however.

“None of them are even close to his ordinary voice,” Don Chapman said. “He is very soft spoken. If you would see him walking down the street, you would think he is just an ordinary guy.”

Coming up with outlandish voices is something Matt Chapman has been doing since he was in elementary school when he would make home movies with his friends.

“When I would get a new video camera, (Matt) would ask me for the old one,” Don Chapman said. “He and his friends would make movies and take on different personas.”

One persona in particular still stands out in Don Chapman’s mind.

“One that Matt did was based on those late-night car salesmen called ‘Crazy Manny,'” Don Chapman said. “I still beg him to do ‘Crazy Manny.’ He might do it every once in while on my birthday or something like that.”

Mike Chapman said there is no method he and his brother use to come up with the voices for their characters. Most of the voices come from kidding around and finding something the Chapman brothers find funny, he said.

Wholesome entertainment

Besides obscure references to the indie rock scene and old Nintendo games, one of the most defining aspects of Homestar Runner cartoons is its lack of expletives, nudity and vulgar topics. The language doesn’t get much worse than Strong Bad’s random use of the expression “Holy crap!” A character called “The Poopsmith,” who shovels poop for a living, is the site’s only use of lowbrow humor.

“Its just kind of our sense of humor,” Mike Chapman said. “It’s not like if you hung out with us we are opposed to foul language, but with the site we choose not to do that.”

Keeping the site’s humor is something in which the Chapman brothers’ father takes pride.

“I’m very pleased that they did that with everything as raunchy as it is today,” Don Chapman said. “That type of humor is better, longer lasting. As a parent I’m proud they’re doing it that way – the clean way.”

Don Chapman, a catholic, said he and his wife Harriet, a methodist, instilled good values in their children.

“They were raised in a religious family and have stock in good moral values, but that hasn’t stopped them from being uproarious,” Don Chapman said.

When it comes down to what goes on the site, Don Chapman said his sons have a very simple motto, “It’s not illegal if it’s hilarious.”

Making a living

When the Chapman brothers started homestarrunner.com in 1999, they decided not to have any banner or pop-up advertisements on the site.

“From day one it’s been a conscious decision (not to have ads on the site),” Mike Chapman said. “It just makes the experience that much better because there are no distractions to take you away from that.”

Even as the site’s popularity grew, the brothers resisted the desire to have ads on the site.

“I had been wrong minded about it the whole time,” Don Chapman said. “When they started getting more people to the site, I told Mike ‘You need to sell some pop-up ads and make some money off it,’ but they wanted to keep the site clean.”

The Chapman brothers found another way to make money off the site. Fans started e-mailing them asking for T-shirts and other merchandise.

“Mike bought about $1,800 worth of T-shirts and stickers,” Don Chapman said. “They lasted about four months.”

Don Chapman let his two youngest, of five children, set up shop in his basement to mail merchandise to fans.

By the end of 2001, business was getting too big for the Chapman family to keep up with demand.

“Around Christmas time in 2001, they started getting about 20 orders a day and we thought, ‘Man this is wild,'” Don Chapman said. “By mid 2002, I knew we had to do something other than push everything out of our basement.”

By 2002, the Chapman brothers were making enough money off merchandise sales to quit their day jobs and work full time on the Web site.

Running into the future

Almost everything in entertainment has a limited shelf life. Most television sitcoms are lucky to last five years, which is how long Homestar Runner has been on the Web. Don Chapman isn’t worried and doesn’t even think of Homestar Runner in the same category as sitcoms.

“I think of it like a weekly comic strip,” Don Chapman said. “Some comic strips I read as a kid, I still read 50 years later. As long as they keep their fingers on the pulse of their culture, they will continue to be popular.”

The Chapman brothers also have an advantage over sitcoms. Because they run the site themselves, they don’t have to worry about a network executive cutting the show. Success doesn’t really matter to the Chapman brothers. They just want to make their friends laugh.

“One reason it’s successful is they don’t really care about the success. They care about the viewers,” Melissa Palmer said. “They’re just doing it because its fun. So as long as they are doing it because it is fun, it will last”