Greetings, Internet historians! Some of you may remember a little television show from 1997 called Ally McBeal (come on, it was only 21 years ago). When you think of that show, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I’ll wait.
If you didn’t say “that stupid dancing baby,” then you’re a damn liar.
Don’t get me wrong, Ally was a compelling protagonist — and who didn’t love the frequent cameos from theme song performer Vonda Shepard? We all loved all that shit.
But the thing that stuck in the deepest recesses of our craws was the animated dancing baby, AKA Baby Cha-Cha, AKA Oogachaka Baby (I swear to God I’m not making these up).
When Ally McBeal tanked, the baby didn’t get thrown out with the bathwater. In fact, to this day, Baby Cha-Cha holds a revered place in Internet history. Called “the granddaddy of memes,” the dancing baby was one of the first ever GIFs, as well as a pioneer of what it means to go viral.
A Brief History of Dancing Baby
The story of how the dancing baby got on the Internet is actually a fascinating peek into the history of modern technologies.
Back in 1996, animators Michael Girard and Robert Lurye developed Baby Cha-Cha as a product sample to demonstrate what their 3D character animation software could do. Why they chose to create a weird dancing baby and not, say, a sick as hell werewolf snapping zombies in half and firing a machine gun at a blood-red moon, is beyond me. But, okay, a dancing baby. Fine. Cool. Whatever.
Impressed by the 3D animation, Ron Lussier of LucasFilms fixed up the file and emailed it to a slew of co-workers. They, in turn, forwarded it to their pals, and so on. I’ll beg the reader to remember a time before Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, etc., when people actually had to EMAIL interesting things to each other.
It didn’t take long before the baby danced into email inboxes all around the country. Says Lussier, “I heard people say they had received it back again from people outside the company, across the country…it quickly traveled to the Internet and became the strange phenomenon that it was.”
Then, the dancing baby became one of the first ever GIFs. Perhaps even THE first. Web developer John Woodell, whom I will now call a “GIF pioneer” created a compressed animated file from the source, to demonstrate a new technology that converted moving images into GIFs. By the way, GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and you can pronounce it any way you damn well please.
And that’s when Ally McBeal got hold of it. Used as a metaphor, the dancing baby appeared often on the show as a hallucination, meant to represent McBeal’s biological clock. (I found out recently that the character of Ally was ONLY 27 YEARS OLD! Come on, The Patriarchy, give a lady some time!) The baby usually sashayed along to Blue Swede’s cover of the B. J. Thomas song “Hooked on a Feeling.”
Since Ally McBeal averaged about 12 million viewers per episode, the dancing baby immediately became a superstar. Its image was brandished on merchandise and parodies swept the cultural landscape. Even The Simpsons did a take on it, called “Dancing Jesus.”
On January 15th, 2006, some horrible person uploaded a video to YouTube called “Oogachaka Baby,” enabling people to watch the dancing baby at their leisure. The video gathered over 3.3 million views, prompting The Washington Post to call it “the granddaddy of Internet memes.” But, in my opinion, it’s a crime that not all of the 1,300 YouTube comments said: “please remove this immediately.”
Don’t worry, the good news is that the dancing baby swiftly declined in popularity. People stopped feverishly searching the term “dancing baby” near the turn of the 21st Century, or, when they did, they meant to see actual footage of real babies dancing. Still, it’s not hard to stumble into long-running fan sites, like dancing-baby.net.
Shake Your Booty Into The Sunset
Let’s close it out with a quote from Ron Lussier (Remember him? He’s the one who emailed the dancing baby to all his friends in 1996). This comes directly from the FAQ section on his fan site.
Q: That baby is so stupid and ugly! Why did you do that?
A: I’m glad it bothers people. I think that’s cool! 🙂 I fixed up the file because I thought it was really bothersome in a cool way, but also bothersome in a crappy unfinished way. I tried to, at least partially, finish it. That’s my “enhanced” version you used to see on many web pages.
Thanks a lot, Ron! See you in hell, buddy!