Ten years ago this week, Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah's couch like a madman. He pumped his fists in the air and shook Oprah around. He was a Scientologist seemingly going insane. At least, that's what we remember about Tom Cruise's couch jump. But our memory lies to us.
On May 23, 2005, the season finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired with an interview with the notoriously press-shy, incredibly profitable actor Tom Cruise. The interview was 46 minutes of in-depth personal questioning by Oprah about Tom Cruise's love life, his new affair with Katie Holmes, and his career. The audience oohed and ahed over every anecdote. They stood and applauded him three times in the first ten minutes of the aired interview. (You can watch the whole thing in four parts here)
"She's truly extraordinary," Cruise said of Holmes. His love, his excitement, his exuberance was contagious. The audience members shouted questions to him from the audience.
He went on to express the kind of head-over-heels love that only Hollywood has shown us: motorcycle rides on the beach at sunset; a surprise hotel room in Rome full of flowers; a man who is so deeply, fully excited about a relationship that he jumped up on a couch in front of the 300-member Harpo Studio audience with hands raised over head. And then he jumped down.
Cruise expressed his love with a physical exuberance. He pumped his fist. He pointed to the sky. He shook Oprah by her shoulders.
"Dear God, you are gone," Oprah told him between laughs.
"I'm gone and I don't care," Cruise responded.
He wasn't talking about his conversion to the controversial religion of Scientology, or losing his mind. He was talking about falling in love, and what that felt like for him and Katie.
The man becomes the meme
When Tom Cruise jumped on the couch, he was still one of the best movie stars. Sure, he had been the face of Top Gun and Mission Impossible, but he was also an actor with a vision. After Risky Business made him a superstar at 21, he took time off instead of signing to another contract. He was consistently careful in the movies he chose to sign onto. Instead of becoming a part of the brat pack, he made movies like Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, which were eerie, complicated films that pushed the limit of blockbuster media. Even his straight-forward box-office smashes like Collateral and War of the Worlds were twisted and difficult.
"Y'all are gonna have to calm yourselves, or you won't make it through the hour," Oprah said at the start the show, because the audience was roaring. Tom Cruise was one of the most famous actors in the world, and he was also one of the most private. He rarely spoke about his personal life to the press, and before the internet, that kind of self-control (or publicist's control, in Cruise's case) was enough to keep him safe from gossip magazines and tabloids.
But the internet changed all of that. Suddenly, being careful with the press wasn't enough to keep your behavior from becoming fodder for gossip. In a 2014 article, Amy Nicholson — the head film critic for LA Weekly and the author of Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor — blamed YouTube and internet journalism for the demolition of Cruise's career based on this clip. She wrote:
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 only been uploaded a few weeks before. Even Baio didn't hear about YouTube until June 14. "Wants to be Flickr for video," he wrote on his blog.
A week later, [Andy Baio of waxy.org] hosted another funny video he found on a private sharing site, a short mash-up ofStar Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Cruise's appearance on Oprah, two pop culture jokes from that May. Dubbed "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah," the movie star cackles 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, just as "Star Wars Kid" had before, it blew up.
This time, however, it wasn't just the geeks linking to his video — it was MSNBC and USA Today.
At only 15 seconds long "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" contorts the sweet exuberance of Cruise's new-found love and gives it a very different tone. It's menacing, and strange, and all around pretty funny. In some ways, this video was the forefather of viral content. In 2012, Complex magazine ranked "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" the 55th best internet meme of all time saying, "The term “jumping the couch” is a phrase now used to describe someone “going off the deep end” in public."
Nicholson's whole article examines how the rise of sites like PerezHilton and TMZ played into the fanfare and excitement that surrounded this clip, and throughly expounds upon how differently fame existed in the '90s than in the internet age.
"Certainly, I did not think it would turn into the brouhaha that it did," Oprah later told TV Guide Magazine, "I thought it was an expression of delightful exuberance and love that any woman… would be thrilled to have her man jump on a sofa in love with her… I think the use of that clip was really, really unfair."
The movie Tom Cruise was promoting when he jumped on that couch was War of the Worlds, which earned $200 million dollars in its first 24 days in theaters and has brought in more than $704 million in total gross. It was the 66th highest-grossing film of all time. His next movie, Mission Impossible III, made almost $400 million in total. On July 31, Cruise will star in another Mission Impossible movie. Despite all of the ridicule of his life and work, Cruise has given audiences some of the best action movie performances of the last three decades.
He jumped on a couch ten years ago this week, not because he was crazy, but because he was excited. And there's still a lot about Tom Cruise to be excited about.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.