In the spring of 2005, an unknown 20-something in California uploaded a 19-second video of himself to the internet. “Me at the zoo,” the first YouTube video, featured cofounder Jawed Karim rambling about animals. “The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long trunks,” a man said, gesturing toward an elephant enclosure. It was boring, but it was the beginning of something.
That same spring, Karim’s YouTube quickly found one of its first hits. Its origins were far less obscure than a tech guy on a field trip. At the time, Tom Cruise had a more-than-reasonable claim to the title of biggest celebrity in America. He was the movie star, a leading man with mom-approved handsomeness, a nimble physicality, and a gung-ho intensity that played on the big screen as magnetic instead of disturbed. He counted Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, and two Mission: Impossible movies among the idol-making roles under his small belt. Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey had already established herself as not only the biggest celebrity on daytime television, but the biggest celebrity in media. She’d made the careers of Drs. Phil and Oz. She’d debuted O, the Oprah Magazine. She’d hollered “You get a car!” to a euphoric crowd. Cruise’s May 2005 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show seemed destined to be yet another fluffy meeting of monstrously famous minds. Instead, traditional media’s powerhouse duo was about to provide the new video-uploading service with a clip that would demonstrate the format’s growth potential far better than a rinky-dink recording of a random dude musing about zoos.
Before Cruise came out on stage that day, the crowd at Chicago’s Harpo Studios had already hyped itself into an ecstatic frenzy, whooping and clapping and jumping in overwhelmed pleasure at being in the presence of Winfrey, in her space, living their best lives. By 2005, Oprah had transformed her daytime talk show from a variation on Phil Donahue’s talk theme into something new, something that took the voyeuristic thrills of seeing televised confessions and elevated them with the language of self-help seminars and the polish of Hollywood. “Oprah is sitting in the throne of American pop culture,” said WBEZ anchor Jenn White on the podcast Making Oprah, describing Oprah’s cultural cachet in the early aughts. “She commands a regular worldwide audience of tens of millions. She can turn a book into a bestseller, a product into a trend, and people into stars.” At that point, Christianity Today had identified Oprah as “one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America.” Her audiences resembled gaga congregants.
Cruise was in Chicago to talk about his upcoming movie, Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds. Instead of sticking to the promotional script, though, the compact action star gushed about his new girlfriend, actress Katie Holmes. “You’re gone,” Oprah said, searching for words to describe Cruise’s over-the-top infatuation. Within 15 minutes, Cruise had leapt onto Oprah’s couch in a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm for his personal life. Cruise’s offbeat showboating was memorable in part because of its unusual setting; The Oprah Winfrey Show was where celebrities traipsed to shine up their reputations and get a warm embrace from a sympathetic fellow star. Oprah would polish, not grill. But Oprah, usually so masterful at empathizing with her guests, appeared to be at a loss. “You’re gone,” she repeated. The charismatic preacher had been sidelined by an even more earnest proselytizer.
People hated it. More importantly, they loved to hate it. Most importantly, they loved to talk about hating it. Divorced from its context and remixed into YouTube clips and GIFs, Cruise’s couch outburst looked far more bizarre than it had during the episode, when at least the studio audience had been equally hyped up and Oprah had encouraged him to talk about his personal life. Within the context of the episode, Cruise’s behavior was strange but not outrageous. On the internet, isolated and amplified into a single furniture-leaping moment, it looked like an A-list meltdown. The most popular spoof was called “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah,” where Cruise appeared to kill Oprah with lightning. Family Guy parodied it. Even Sesame Street eventually parodied it. But the couch clip went beyond launching parodies and viral videos. The response to the Cruise episode signaled a changing of the guard in Hollywood media, from a pecking order where publicists and studios could strike deals with access-hungry press toward a more democratic and chaotic media landscape. Even though Cruise had been in a terrific mood during his Oprah appearance, it was appropriate that his tomfoolery was reframed to look far more aggressive than it was. The internet and the media were about to get much sharper.
“Tom’s couch-jumping coincided with the rise of gossip blogs,” Matt James, who runs the celebrity gossip site Pop Culture Died in 2009, told The Ringer. “The entire incident became a testament to the way public opinion could form online in the pre-Twitter era, and how damaging it could be in the long run.”
Longtime Hollywood gossip blog Lainey Gossip also credited Cruise’s leap onto Oprah’s couch with galvanizing the media landscape. “This rise of the gossip blog quickly accelerated,” site creator Elaine Lui wrote in 2015. “Celebrities were not being contained the way they used to be. And the PEOPLE and Entertainment Tonight coverage just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Not when these illusions were so quickly being destroyed. This incident became one of the most critical chapters in the Origin Story of Internet Gossip.” The intense online response to Cruise’s convention-breaking presaged a shift in how celebrity freakouts were covered, as it was one of the first major entertainment-world meltdowns to saturate the blogging world. “There was something so personal, so oversharey, so necessarily engaged with the audience in Cruise’s couch-jumping that it set the tone for the kind of one-person media circus we’d expect and enjoy in the years to come, to varying degrees of sadness (Britney Spears), amazement (Charlie Sheen) and despicableness (Chris Brown),” Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak wrote in 2012. While the word “meme” hadn’t yet entered the mainstream lexicon, Cruise’s furniture leap went viral. “Culturally, it was, in my mind, one of the first celebrity memes,” Brandon Ogborn, the writer behind The TomKat Project, an excellent play examining Tom Cruise’s reputation, told The Ringer. “That clip was reenacted so many times. It was kind of a watershed moment for internet culture.”
Along with memes came a cascade of internet commentary on Cruise’s behavior, most of it overwhelmingly negative. While Oprah’s studio audience had been pleased with his effusiveness, the story line soured in the digital world. “Now, whenever something happens in the news, we can go online and quickly find the tide in which public opinion is turning. In the early days of the internet, it wasn’t that distinct,” James said. “That changed with Tom. The people who watched Tom’s appearance and felt it was maybe even the slightest bit heartwarming went online to find that the majority opinion was Tom had lost his mind.”
It was an exciting time for bloggers, and terrible timing for Cruise. He had fired his longtime publicist, Pat Kingsley, in March 2004. Kingsley was a powerhouse with a viselike grip on the dicks of traditional outlets. “She was adamant about keeping Cruise out of the tabloids. At press junkets, she demanded that journalists sign contracts swearing not to sell their quotes to the supermarket rags,” film critic Amy Nicholson wrote for LA Weekly in 2014, arguing that internet culture was to blame for Cruise’s fall from grace. “Then Kingsley expanded her reach and insisted that all TV interviewers destroy their tapes after his segment had aired.” Without Kingsley, Cruise didn’t have his usual PR fixer at hand to tell him what not to do, to tell him how to course-correct once the backlash began, or to tell the press to lay off. Instead, Cruise had replaced the flinty Kingsley with his sister, Lee Anne DeVette, a fellow Scientologist. The public reaction to his romance with Holmes was no good even before The Incident. According to a People poll, the majority of respondents saw the relationship as a publicity stunt. “We can’t get enough of the TomKat show because eventually the paint will start to chip and we will hopefully see all the ugliness as openly as we’ve been shoved the lovey-dovey bullshit,” Perez Hilton wrote. Cruise’s past habit of keeping his private life to himself and manicuring his public image had given him an idyllic but distinctly artificial sheen, one that may have counterintuitively exacerbated the response when he finally stepped out of line. “He had never done anything publicly wrong before,” Nicholson told The Ringer. “He’d always been so perfect.” Cruise’s over-the-top display of hyper-public affection, possibly made more intense by his desire to prove that his love was real, backfired. Instead of making people think he was a romantic, Cruise just made people think he was weird.
He quickly got weirder, and darker. Shortly after his couch leap, Cruise started a feud with Brooke Shields by dismissing her experience with postpartum depression. He went on Today to go even further, insisting that psychiatry and psychiatric medicine were dangerous. While Cruise was a longtime Scientologist, he had never openly advocated for the abusive group’s more controversial beliefs so publicly before. “It was a time when he really just let himself go, and let his freak flag fly. And it was also a time when he was really proselytizing for Scientology. I think it was a huge explosion of press that was bad press, because the Tom Cruise machine just stopped,” Ogborn said. “He said, This is who I am, I’m going to jump on that couch, I’m going to tell Matt Lauer he’s glib.”
In less than a year, Cruise contorted his reputation from a hard-working, eccentric leading man into Hollywood’s premiere guileless kook. “Cruise: I will eat the placenta,” a 2006 Daily Mail headline, is a good example of the sort of news he generated. When California banned the sale of ultrasounds for personal use that year, it was known as the “Tom Cruise law” because Cruise had publicly purchased an ultrasound machine to view his daughter in the womb. South Park went for the jugular, as expected, but ridicule came from all over. Noah Baumbach wrote a New Yorker piece where the joke was that his dog was stupid and enthusiastic … just like Tom Cruise. Even Lauren Bacall dissed him to reporters. People still showed up for Cruise movies. War of the Worlds had a huge opening, but studios feared that Cruise’s bankability was tainted after Mission: Impossible III made nearly $150 million less worldwide than its predecessor. Cruise’s reputation was undeniably threatened. His Q rating, used to measure celebrity appeal, dropped 40 percent. “From that point on, we all accepted Tom Cruise was crazy,” James said. “It was a done deal.”
Cruise’s uninhibited media blunder bender cost him a lucrative, long-term production deal with Paramount. His behavior was blamed for the deal’s destruction. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount,” Viacom chairman Sumner M. Redstone told The Wall Street Journal. The Oprah Winfrey Show, meanwhile, continued on as an unstoppable cultural force. From all accounts, as much as the couch-jumping episode yoked Oprah and Cruise together for eternity as a punch line, it also ruffled feathers at Harpo. “She was not invited to his wedding, and he was not invited for a very long time to come interview with her,” Ogborn pointed out, noting that Harpo employees would frequently come talk to him after the Chicago run of The TomKat Project to discuss that period of time. “They said she was fucking pissed when it happened.”
Regardless of Oprah’s personal opinion of Cruise’s behavior, the interview didn’t hurt her professionally. A mock set from the show is now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of an exhibit on Winfrey. There was no lasting damage to her legacy. (Curators declined to comment on the role of the interview in her cultural history.) If anything, the couch-jumping episode only provided a bolstering example of Oprah presiding over must-watch TV. The show’s guiding ethos focused on going big and doing the best, resulting in ever-more-elaborate gift giveaways and surprises for the audience. While Cruise’s antics might have thrown off the dynamic between guest and host that Oprah preferred, his interview ultimately fit the bill for the gripping, unexpected, and wholly memorable. “Tom’s televised freakout was just another notch in her belt,” James said. Talk-show hosts now manufacture segments specifically to do well on YouTube and other online platforms, but it was Oprah who generated the first viral talk-show clip.
The incident certainly did not kill Cruise’s career, either. In 2008, his comic turn in Tropic Thunder helped undercut his reputation for unrelenting self-seriousness. (The same year, Cruise reunited with Oprah for a much calmer interview.) Cruise maintained his career throughout his reputational turmoil by sticking with Mission: Impossible and thematically similar films. “He’s always done such great work with this franchise, but he’s almost clinging to it nervously, like he’s afraid to let go and take a real risk,” Nicholson said. “He’ll take risks inside the film with stunts, but he’s not taking risks inside his own career, like doing the dramatic work that marked a lot of what he did in the ’80s, or by chasing an Oscar, which is something he gave up on.” Although he never quite regained his status as a Hollywood golden boy, he has mellowed into an aging statesman of action flicks—and anyway, his divorce from Katie Holmes and continued association with Scientology have left a longer-lasting stink on his name than his exuberant talk-show appearance. In 2015, GQ heralded “Cool Tom Cruise.” This summer, he is starring in the sixth Mission: Impossible movie. The critical response to both the film and Cruise’s performance has been overwhelmingly positive. “What’s always been so ironic to me about the Tom Cruise quote-unquote backlash is that it seemed to me that audiences still really loved him, even if newspapers were telling them that they didn’t,” Nicholson said. “I feel like he’s proving something that never needed to be proven.”
The real legacy of the couch-jumping incident has almost nothing to do with Cruise or Oprah specifically and everything to do with how people reacted online to the moment. Tom and Oprah’s strange conversation, and the reaction it provoked, is now preserved as thousands of digital artifacts, emblematic of how information traveled in the early aughts. Rewatching the episode and the viral videos it spawned feels quaint now. The bloggy media cycle that produced Cruise memes has been replaced by a cesspool of broken newsfeeds smushing conspiracy theories and branded content against real news and irrational presidential tweets with such velocity that it seems deeply unlikely that Cruise’s hop onto a loveseat would provoke much at all in 2018. However, it’s even less likely that Cruise would’ve been able to make it so far into his career without finding his kooky personality exposed as he did in 2005.
Up-and-comers have learned to respond to a different and less controllable form of media attention. There is a whole brand of celebrity in which the famous are expected to engage with fans on social media. Celebrity PR disasters don’t often happen in such glossy settings anymore; instead, they are frequently facilitated by social media and accelerated by fans and detractors who dig up old tweets. The last time a daytime talk-show guest created a media supernova after their appearance, it was Danielle Bregoli, a.k.a. Bhad Bhabie, a.k.a. “Cash Me Ousside” Girl, who parlayed a viral moment shit-talking on Dr. Phil into a viable rap career. I doubt Bregoli knows about Tom Cruise’s Oprah appearance, but her own twist on the daytime meme underscores how much has changed since Cruise took his happy hop. Performative, contrived freakiness in front of a live studio audience can be an asset now. The big leap is figuring out how to navigate internet criticism without spinning out—a frequently impossible mission.