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"YouTube changed everything," says Portland, Oregon–based Andy Baio, a writer and coder who would go on to help build Kickstarter. He could upload a video to YouTube's servers and people could watch it on their browsers: no downloads, no long waits, no plug-ins, no bandwidth fears, no cost. "That was mind-blowing," Baio says.
Neither Tom Cruise nor Oprah was likely aware of YouTube when he agreed to tape an episode in early May. The site's first video, "Me at the Zoo," had been uploaded only a few weeks before.
A week later, Baio hosted another funny video he found on a private sharing site, a short mash-up of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Cruise's appearance on Oprah. Dubbed "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah," the clip features the movie star cackling in slow motion as he blasts the talk-show host with a jolt of Jedi lightning. Baio thought the video was "awesome." He put it online and it blew up.
This time, however, it wasn't just the geeks linking to his video — it was MSNBC and USA Today.
"It's hard to imagine now, but six months before I posted that Tom Cruise video, that viral spread was practically impossible," Baio says.
Tom Cruise and Oprah talked on TV for 43 minutes. "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" lasted all of 15 seconds.
With all context gone, we're judging sound bites of Cruise on a screen. We forget he was experiencing a live, long, and loud interaction, a literal stage performance before a raucous crowd.
Harpo Studios seats 300 audience members. The show's producers try to match up their spectators with their guests. It's a recipe for good TV. "They want the batshit people," Tugman explains. "All those people that were in there were most likely picked because they're Tom Cruise fanatics."
If you track down the full Tom Cruise episode on YouTube — only one user from Spain has bothered to upload it — the room is deafening. Oprah's first words to the live audience are, "OK. Let me just say you all are going to have to calm yourselves." They don't. They're on their feet jumping up and down. She has to ask them to settle down twice more before Cruise even walks onstage, and then the screams get even louder. Oprah starts screaming, too. If you listen closely, you can hear Cruise say, "Wow! Is it like this every day?" "No," Oprah says, shaking her head. After a full minute goes by, Oprah starts to look annoyed. "It's too much," she commands the audience. "Sit down, sit down."
Cruise plays to that screaming room. When a fan in the crowd pumps both his fists in the air, Cruise pumps his back. When kneeling on the floor makes the audience holler, he simply keeps doing it.
Cruise was also playing to the daytime TV viewers at home, predominantly female like the studio audience. He flatters them. He brings up being raised by women, how he loves to treat women right. The women wanted to hear that he was in love, and Cruise — who had just been anointed the Third Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere magazine, beating out Paul Newman at No. 6 — was finally ready to loosen up and tell them.
Oprah was thrilled. Cruise was giving his first unchecked TV interview, well, ever. She ups the energy by getting physical, ruffling his hair with both hands and grabbing his legs and arms as she presses him with personal questions about his public girlfriend of a month: Is it love, will he marry her, has he asked her father, does he want more children? She clutches both of Cruise's hands, pulls her face close to his, and asks if he will propose to Katie Holmes today. Cruise gives a reasonable answer, "I've got to discuss it with her," and Oprah leans back, disappointed.
When Cruise finally stands and grabs her shoulders — the moment that was remixed into "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" — it's while jokingly begging if they can talk about his new movie, War of the Worlds.
It's a performance reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated role six years earlier as Magnolia's Frank T.J. Mackey. In that film, Mackey gets into a showdown with a pushy interviewer and deflects questions by showboating. When Mackey gets antsy, he does a backflip in his underwear. When Cruise doesn't want to say if he's marrying Holmes, he distracts attention by falling to one knee — a crowd-pleasing move Mackey stole from Elvis.
It wasn't until after the show aired that Tugman realized he'd been a witness to pop-culture history: Tom Cruise scaring Oprah by jumping on a couch. "I heard about it as more of an Internet thing and was like, 'Oh my God, I was there for that,'" he says.
Except Cruise never jumps on a couch.
It is Oprah who seeds the idea that he should stand on it. She thanks Cruise for attending her recent Legends Ball, where she honored Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. "I turned and looked at one point and you were standing in the chair going, 'Yes! Yes!'" she gushes to Cruise. "I loved that enthusiasm." Minutes later, he stands on the couch for a second, and after she and the audience cheer that, he does it again. When she continues pressing him about marrying Holmes, he exhales, "I'm standing on your couch!" as if that's the answer he thought was enough. All told, Cruise on the couch is less than three seconds of airtime.
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