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The Viral Videos That Built YouTube

In honor of YouTube’s 15th anniversary, we’re looking back at the site’s most memorable viral moments

Images used in illustration via Youtube

Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has become a home to many things — a place for people to post historic clips, to flaunt their inner selves, to share their latest creation, to share dangerous misinformation. But at its core, YouTube is a place to get lost for hours in viral content. Here, a quick rundown of the most memorable viral videos of the site’s early days, from animated clips to news reports gone wrong to an adorable child calling Will Ferrell a bitch.

Evolution of Dance (2006)

Simplicity was the most important part of early YouTube. Back when the platform kicked off, users and viewers were still figuring out what it was even for. Judson Laipply was touring as inspirational comedian at the time, and uploaded a video from one of his shows. Grainy and shot from the audience, Laipply’s six-minute video captured decades of popular dances from Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” hip swivel to ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” His “Evolution of Dance” video was briefly the most popular video of all time on YouTube and now has multiple sequels, especially now that social media itself has become the biggest breeding ground for new dance fads.

Shoes (2006)

Sure, “Shoes” never became a massive hit song, but the video itself was a masterpiece of the comedic parody song trend that gained momentum after the Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” took off a year earlier. Written by and starring comedian Liam Kyle Sullivan, “Shoes” is told from the perspective of a Valley Girl-esque young woman named Kelly (played by Sullivan) who just wants shoes for her birthday. Sullivan’s song became a viral sensation, racking up millions of views. It’s a perfect dance-pop time capsule, and predicated the type of quick-cut musical moments that would take over viral video culture through TikTok this past year. Plus, Sullivan’s Kelly took on a life of her own, even making a cameo in a Weezer video two years later.

End of Ze World (2006)

Hokay, so: If you went to college in the mid-aughts, there is a 100 million percent chance that someone got you high in their dorm room and showed you this iconic Flash animation video outlining a potential global apocalyptic scenario. Of course, now that the end of the world actually seems semi-plausible, it’s slightly less funny, but the fact that people still regularly say “but I am le tired” on group texts as an excuse to avoid going out is a testament to the video’s cultural significance.

Crichton Leprechaun (2006) 

Ah, the mid-aughts, a time when earnest local news reports were the bread and butter of the viral internet. In this clip, the citizens of Crichton, a neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama, enthusiastically describe a recent rash of leprechaun sightings in their neighborhood. The Crichton leprechaun video hasn’t exactly aged well, with many in recent years correctly criticizing it for trafficking in offensive stereotypes (if Bill O’Reilly says a thing is racist, then honestly it probably is). Nonetheless, the crude “amateur sketch” of the folkloric figure in question is likely to still elicit a chuckle.

“Grape Lady” (2006) 

Georgia’s Château Élan winery just wanted to have a fun little contest on their local Fox affiliate, with reporter Melissa Sander and a winery employee rapidly stomping grapes to see who could make the most juice. But when Sanders got a little fancy with some last-minute steps, she took a plunge off the platform, falling several feet onto the ground. What took it from your standard America’s Funniest Home Video-blooper reel fare to something worthy of a Family Guy send-up were her yelps of pain — and the fact that the camera crew took an uncomfortably long time to cut away. In retrospect, when she yells that she can’t breathe, it’s more than a little cringe-worthy — especially now that we know she ended up with several broken ribs and a lengthy hospital stay.

“Charlie Bit My Finger” (2007)

Some things are just cute, and “Charlie Bit My Finger” is one of those things. Two young, British brothers hang out on their family couch as the older and more verbal one narrates his teething baby bro’s attempts to bite his finger. The video has over 800 million views and was the most viewed and liked video on the platform for years.

“Dramatic Look” (2007)

Animated GIFs have been around since the late Eighties, but they became a major part of the way we communicate with each other online in the Aughts thanks to blogs and social media. The “reaction GIF” in itself has become an art form. Back in 2007, YouTube helped speed things up when an image of a prairie dog making a dramatic turn was ripped from a longer video titled “horrorbeaver.” Equally dramatic music was added and the video became an early YouTube meme, with various users adding a Dr. Evil pinkie or a monocle to the Vine-length clip (which pre-dated the six-second video sharing app by a decade).

“Leave Britney Alone” (2007) 

What would any corner of the internet be without moments of intense fandom? Chris Crocker engaged with this in 2007 at the height of Britney Spears’ dismally covered fall from grace. From beneath a blanket and sporting very 2007 black eyeliner, Crocker posted “Leave Britney Alone, pt. 1” on his MySpace page, defending the star. When he posted the second part on YouTube, his tearful, passionate pleas became a heavily-imitated and popular clip. Spears stans identified with his dismay at how the media was treating the troubled star while outsiders were perplexed by the level of emotion being displayed. Dramatic vlogs are still an integral part of YouTube and making a bit of a comeback thanks to well-spread “apology vlogs” from various stars on their popular channels.

“Chocolate Rain” (2007) 

Many musical hopefuls have turned to the internet to find fame (and maybe a recording contract). Lots of artists have been proven successful: Justin Bieber, Lana Del Rey, and the Weeknd were discovered via YouTube while Shawn Mendes built his audience through Vine. Very few, however, have found the immediate success of Tay Zonday, whose only hit “Chocolate Rain” was uploaded to YouTube in 2007. The video is simple: Zonday sang his self-penned song about systemic racism in America in his apartment with some captions about how he moves away from the microphone to breathe while singing. The video and song were massive within months, originally gaining momentum through 4chan. It’s one of the early one-hit wonders of the YouTube era, and made the necessary space for even more to exist through all forms of video-sharing tools years later.

“Don’t Tase me, Bro” (2007) 

Some aspects of YouTube’s viral culture became bigger than actually viewing a video. Take, for example, footage of a student being tased at University of Florida during an event featuring Senator John Kerry. During the question-and-answer portion, Andrew Meyer asked whether or not Kerry was a member of a secret society called Skull and Bones and was immediately removed and tased. His shouts of “Don’t tase me, bro!” became an almost-immediate meme, growing larger than the actual reason why he was tased or where it happened. That year, the phrase became part of the cultural lexicon, bringing light to the issues of free speech and police brutality that it raised.

“The Landlord” (2007) 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a very small child cursing is extremely funny. This is the central (and frankly, sole) conceit of “The Landlord,” Will Ferrell’s viral video with frequent collaborator Adam McKay and McKay’s adorable 2-year-old daughter Pearl (who is now a Snapchat filter-using teen. They grow up so fast!) Ferrell’s deadpan reaction to Pearl’s torrent of verbal abuse is the icing on the cake. It was the first video produced by their Funny Or Die platform, which would go on to create juggernauts like Billy on the Street, Drunk History, and Between Two Ferns.

“David After Dentist” (2009)

Nothing is more constant in our viral video ecosystem then kids being wacky. And nothing spread quite like “David After Dentist,” a home video of a seven-year-old’s loopy response to anesthesia after oral surgery. Filmed by his dad, an adorably incoherent David asks why he feels this way before hoisting himself off the backseat to scream before slumping back down. The video felt like the logical evolution of popular, family-friendly shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos and Kids Say the Darndest Things, and with YouTube and later Instagram, Twitter, Vine and TikTok, those short and hilarious at-home moments can be consumed 24/7 (and maybe get you a segment on Ellen).

Antoine Dodson/“Bed Intruder” remix (2010)

The news story itself is pretty brutal: a woman named Kelly Dodson was nearly raped in her room by an intruder-at-large. Thankfully, she was okay and capable of spreading the word via a local news report. Her brother, Antoine, was reasonably furious. “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife,” went his warning. His colorful speech went immediately viral on YouTube but that was only the beginning until musical comedy act the Gregory Brothers got ahold of it as part of their “Autotune the News” series. With their signature pitch correction and Auto-Tune, the group turned the traumatic story into a certified hit that broke into Billboard’s Hot 100. Dodson himself became a star, appearing in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas and getting parodied in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opening credits. His trajectory was imitated years later by Bhad Bhabie, whose appearance on Dr. Phil would spark a Hot 100-charting remix.