Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit the Dancing Baby

The world’s first meme, when memes needed much more than the internet

Welcome to part five of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the imagination and attention of the internet for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times, and what they told us about the internet, and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at the Harlem Shake. This week: the dancing baby.

Date: Fall 1996

The story: If you work in the world of computer animation, you surely know a program called Autodesk 3ds Max, the go-to graphics program for 3D images and animation. The program has been around for a long time. So long, in fact, that it was originally called Character Studio, an MS-DOS system operating on old Microsoft computers. Some animators were screwing around with Character Studio one day in the autumn of 1996 when they accidentally created a monster. They made a 3D video of a baby, in a diaper, dancing. They then unleashed it on an unsuspecting populace.

And, boy, did everyone lose their shit about it. I was 19 years old in 1996 and thought the dancing baby was the most mind-blowing thing I’d ever seen. Look, the baby is dancing to that song in Reservoir Dogs!

(That video goes on for an hour.)

There was something about it, I swear, that really did feel revolutionary. It was cutting-edge technology, it was irreverent, it was cute, it was harmless. It was… a meme. And we were not yet ready to handle memes. Suddenly, the dancing baby was everywhere.

Pop culture crossover: All told, the only way the Dancing Baby could really become a massive thing in 1996 was to cross over into popular entertainment. After all, not enough people had computers in 1996 to make anything an online-only phenomenon. The Dancing Baby showed up in many places, from a Simpsons episode (Homer meets a Dancing Jesus), Third Rock From the Sun, and a Blockbuster Video commercial. That might be the most ’90s sentence I’ve ever written.

But all of that sprung from one reference in particular: The Dancing Baby on Ally McBeal, which was hugely popular at the time and, even more, hugely influential to brands and advertisers who were convinced the show had some sort of direct line to the sensibilities of Gen Xers. (Side note: Of all the ’90s staples that have remained popular, from Friends to Seinfeld, the incredible popularity of Ally McBeal is nearly forgotten today. Do people even remember Robert Downey Jr. rejuvenated his career on that show?)

Anyway, on Ally McBeal, the Dancing Baby showed up as a symbol of Ally’s fear about her biological clock, an obvious metaphor that hasn’t aged well but was still sort of charming at the time, as charming as that show got, anyway.

The ’90s were a weird time.

What we’ve learned: It is impossible to imagine anything like the Dancing Baby today. Not because we couldn’t make a Dancing Baby; we do nothing but make dancing babies all day. Everything is so designed to become a meme, to go viral, that the sense of dumb wonder we all had at the Dancing Baby has been vaporized from the cultural consciousness. The only way we could ever embrace a Dancing Baby is if we had no idea what a meme was, what computer animation was, what anything on the internet was. There isn’t a single bit of internet nostalgia that feels more like it came from the Stone Age than the Dancing Baby. If we saw a Dancing Baby for the first time today, we’d immediately assume it was about to start spouting white nationalist propaganda or disseminating Russian bot misinformation. And we’d probably be right.

Got a suggestion for Internet Nostalgia? Send it to me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store