In 1997, John Silveira was asked to come up with fillers for unsold ad space in the magazine he was writing for. The clock was ticking, and he decided to just place two ads of his own. He needed to get the page filled up fast and get on with his day.
The first ad that Silveira placed was a personal ad he'd written in hopes of finding a girlfriend. For the second, he chose a fake "wanted" classified. In it he included the opening lines of a sci-fi novel he'd been working on.
Here's the ad:
WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
Posting the ad in the magazine was hilarious, an inside joke Silveira had with himself. He figured no one would really notice it.
He was wrong.
The ad led to an explosive volume of letter responses, a series of internet memes with millions of views. It was the inspiration for a critically acclaimed indie movie in 2011, "Safety Not Guaranteed," starring comedian Aubrey Plaza, 14 years after the ad ran.
And it still won't die.
Letters from prison
We heard about the story of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" meme, as it's known, on "Reply All," a podcast about the internet produced by Gimlet Media. Co-hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman give a peek inside the madness of the meme's origin.
You can listen to their episode here:
So first, that magazine Silveira was working for. It was called Backwoods Home Magazine, a small Oregon publication specializing in "practical ideas for self-reliant living." It's still active today and publishes six issues a year. Its website is a tribute to '90s internet; there's an animated American flag and Comic Sans MS headers. It's surprisingly kept up to date with select material that the editorial team puts online.
It has a small but seemingly loyal readership. Topics Backwoods Home covers include weaponry and home canning. It has, Levy says, a "survivalist vibe." It's not People or US Weekly or Vogue, and it definitely does not have the audience of a renowned print publication.
It was the night before the September 1997 issue was to go to print when Silveira and his boss ran into the space issue in the advertising section. There was room for two ads and barely any time to fill them, so Silveira threw in his own — the "Safety Not Guaranteed" ad being one of them.
It was brief and intriguing, and Silveira expected a handful of funny responses to the P.O. Box he listed.
He got tons of replies, from curious to desperate to potentially crazy. Silveira read some of his favorite responses to Levy during their interview.
"How are we going? Why is it dangerous? Why do we need weapons? What kind of weapons should I bring?" one reply read.
Another asked if there would be toilet paper — or "do I have to bring my own?"— while another was penned by a bunch of felons writing from prison. "We would like to go back and not get caught."
The joke ad, the space-filler, became a weird beacon of hope for readers who had major problems or devastating histories. Silveira said the letters from prison were especially tough.
He told Levy:
Dozens, in prison, asked me to go back in time and talk them out of committing the crime that put them away. Others (and not a few) were from people who begged me to go back and save a loved one from a tragic death. Those letters were so heartbreaking I almost couldn't read them and I felt a certain amount of shame for not anticipating the false hope I placed in so many hearts.
This emotional can of worms was an unanticipated consequence of Silveira's flash decision to post the ad.
The responses went on for a few months, but eventually letters were no longer overflowing Silveira's mailbox. It seemed as if the madness was coming to an end.
But not so fast.
'You're the man now, dog!'
It’s tough to trace incidences of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" ad appearing between 1997 and the early 2000s, but we know it was read on NPR's "Car Talk" radio program on March 31, 2001, though we don't know what sparked the show's producers to choose to include a four-year-old meme in that particular installment.
Silveira claims it was featured in a "Tonight Show" monologue, but the internet has turned up no proof of that.
So now it's 2004, and a new internet sensation was gaining popularity: YTMND.com. The acronym stands for "You're The Man Now, Dog"— a quote from the movie "Finding Forrester."
In this bizarre moment from the movie, Sean Connery’s ornery character barks the line at his black protégé.
A man named Max Goldberg heard the quote in the movie’s first trailer, and "immediately recognized the power of the catchphrase." He purchased the domain and went to work.
The original page features a tiled photo of Sean Connery and WordArt-era text, with a sound loop of the ludicrous quote, and to this day the site remains home for a perfect formula for internet humor: static image + text + sound = unlimited possibility.
The rules seemed simple. Choose a photo, pair it with audio that enhances the level of weird humor, and give it a catchy URL.
So how does this involve "Safety Not Guaranteed"? OK, stay with us.
People loved"You're The Man Now, Dog." Remember that trope from a few years ago, "Shit ______ say"? It was kind of like that. With YTMND, other people began creating inspired spin-offs, hosted on their own sites, but with the same formulaic approach to get the same punch line. Goldberg began archiving all of the spin-off sites in another section of the original YTMND URL, giving all of the inspired meme-makers ultimate visibility on his already major platform.
So on October 27, 2005, user "AxlBonBach" created an inspired YTMND site titled "Safety Not Guaranteed." Using the URL www.timetraveler.ytmnd.com, he Photoshopped a serious-looking man with a mullet next to the ad, and chose "Push it to the Limit"— the popular montage song from "Scarface"— as the audio.
People loved it. "LMAO," one user wrote. "This is bound to be an instant classic."
While "Safety Not Guaranteed" as it appeared on YTMND was many folks' first time seeing the ad, some users criticized the post, claiming that it was plagiarized or simply old news (they had supposedly seen the ad on Jay Leno).
AxlBonBach paid no mind to the critics. He'd never claimed he created the ad itself, and the site continued to flood with fans of "Safety Not Guaranteed."
Don LaFontaine gets involved
The popular YTMND formula paid off for the classified ad. The added mullet-man and jazzed-up soundtrack had successfully spawned an army of replicas and iterations, bringing us to January 2006, when a user who went by "Scrow" claimed he had found a Civil War-era photo in his attic that looked eerily similar to the time-traveling mullet-man.
He made his own YTMND site to publicize his findings (pictured), which breathed new life into the nearly 10-year-old "Safety Not Guaranteed" classified ad.
From there, a user named "Blackadders2" emailed Don LaFontaine, the iconic voice actor who had recorded more than 5,000 film trailers, asking him to create a movie-trailer style reading of the ad.
LaFontaine came through, and once again another YTMND site was made featuring an iteration of "Safety Not Guaranteed," this time with a sloppily Photoshopped image of LaFontaine's face over the mullet photo and the newly recorded trailer as the audio sample.
YTMND users were stunned and impressed, many of them convinced the voice they were hearing was not LaFontaine's.
Blackadders2 replied to comments calmly, maintaining he had simply emailed the guy and hoped that he'd play along.
When LaFontaine died in September 2008, that particular YTMND page resurfaced and amassed tons of traffic. A new generation of internet users visiting the site after LaFontaine's death had never seen it, nor had they heard of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" meme.
Around that time a screenwriter named Derek Connolly saw the Don LaFontaine version of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" meme and was inspired to write a script for a movie. He, like most everyone who became a fan of the meme through YTMND, didn't know the ad's backstory. He told IndieWire he "immediately wondered if it was real."
Regardless, Connolly wrote the script for "Safety Not Guaranteed" in 2010, and a man named Colin Trevorrow was signed on to direct the film.
Neither had ever heard of John Silveira.
Silveira writes again
It's important to remember that throughout the 13 years the meme had taken on a life of its own, Silveira had stayed silent on his role as the creator. And he also didn't know anyone was writing a script based on the ad. So it seemed serendipitous when Silveira chose to write the story of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" ad as he knew it for Backwoods Home Magazine in 2010.
This was the first time he publicly declared he was the author of the ad.
Silveira, amused by the whole thing, explains the story.
He goes through the issue of the unfilled space and the responses he got. The only mention that YTMND and the "meme-ification" receive is this statement: "Some guy with a bad mullet has run the ad with his picture as if it's his."
From there, Trevorrow — who has already committed to directing the "Safety Not Guaranteed" movie and who has already lined up producers, financiers, and the actors — comes across Silveira's tell-all on Backwoods Home Magazine. It's unclear as to how. Unless Trevorrow is an avid reader of Backwoods Home Magazine, the idea that he happened to stumble upon the article is unlikely, so maybe they had alerts out for the phrase "Safety Not Guaranteed" or similar.
Regardless, Trevorrow is blown away. He needed to call Silveira, who, remember, has no idea this movie is in the works.
Trevorrow recalled that moment in a 2012 Wall Street Journal essay:
We could have simply changed the words in the original ad, moved a few sentences around to create a cheap knock-off of the real thing. But I wouldn’t do it. Not just because it would be a cynical and inauthentic move — but because the source material was flawless.
Trevorrow calls up Backwoods Home and is put through to Silveira. It wasn't long before the two of them met for a meal and got to know each other better.
Trevorrow described Silveira as very different from the "Mullet Man: [Silveira isn't] acid-washed jeans tucked into action hero boots, whittling something lethal with a hunting knife while telling me in no uncertain terms to go to hell."
Instead, he met a gray-bearded poet from Oregon with a soft voice.
The two bonded over their ideas of who the fictional man behind the ad would be.
Silveira, after all, had written it as part of a sci-fi novel. They both agreed, "He’d be a real man, one who has experienced true loss and pain. He’d be erratic, possibly brilliant, and full of contradictions—an outcast who hates being misunderstood while simultaneously not giving a damn. He’d be a survivalist and a poet. And, yes, he’d bring his own weapons."
The movie was made, and in 2012 it made its debut at Sundance Film Festival. At the premiere, Silveira was introduced and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Loyal YTMND users remembered the life of the "Safety Not Guaranteed" meme before it became "Safety Not Guaranteed" the movie, and discussion was rampant online about this next-level meme installation, truly, the finale it deserved after so many of its iterations appeared on the internet over the past 15 years.
Before "Safety Not Guaranteed" the movie became mainstream (it lived on Netflix for a while), the trailer was posted to Reddit, where a majority of the comments made references to the meme's pre-Hollywood life: mullets, "Push it to the Limit," and YTMND.
The movie did all right. Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars out of four. Trevorrow went on to direct "Jurassic World," the blockbuster hit of 2015. Now he's slated to spearhead one of the new "Star Wars" movies, scheduled to debut in 2019.
And as for Silveira? He still writes for Backwoods Home Magazine, publishing articles about climate change, the Second Amendment, and the benefits of homeschooling.
Silveira summed up the life of his ad, the tiny one used to fill some space one night in September 1997: "What lies in the future? ... for all the writing I've done, they are probably the only words I've written that will outlive me."