The Funniest Viral Emails Ever?

Long before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, back when AltaVista provided the search results and Netscape Navigator was the must-have browser, people would send each other jokes by email, or “viral emails” as they became known.

Someone working for a large company might receive a viral email from a colleague which he would then forward to his family and friends. And they'd send it to all their contacts, and so on, and so on. By the time the message arrived in your inbox, it would be encrusted with a dozen > symbols in the left margin and buried under a tangled spaghetti of header lines containing the email addresses of literally hundreds of people you'd never heard of.

Which added to the experience somehow. You felt you were “in on the joke” with all those other people from around the world.

The quality varied enormously, but some of them were genuinely funny and have stood the test of time. I've put together a selection of links to what I think are some of the best viral emails ever. If you've read some of them before, it's because they're classics! Wherever possible, I've linked to the original source.

College Application Essay

First off is the granddaddy of all viral emails and is supposedly a student's highly imaginative and whimsical college application essay for NYU. The student was accepted, or so the story goes. In fact, the essay was written in 1990 by a high school student, who entered it in the humour category of the Scholastic Writing Awards and won first prize. The text was reprinted in The Guardian newspaper from where it made the leap to the Internet and quickly gained legendary status.

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

More commonly known as “Ode to My Spell Checker”. First published in the Journal of Irreproducible Results in January, 1994. Instantly went viral on the Internet, but rarely reproduced in full. The above link is to the unabridged original. Try reading it aloud. It's hard work!

Rejection Letter from the Smithsonian Institution

The famous rejection letter from the Smithsonian sent in response to an amateur paleontologist's submission of a Malibu Barbie head for consideration as a prehistoric find. The letter is an outstanding example of how to be patient and tactful with someone who is obviously a crank and is plaguing the museum with his ludicrously absurd discoveries. The letter's not real, of course. It was written for fun by a college student in Spring, 1994. See the Loony Letters section at for more of the same.

A Modern Noah's Ark

Tells the cautionary tale of what would happen if Noah tried to build his ark today. His efforts are thwarted by environmentalists, unions and government bureaucracy. Scathing satire at its funniest. First appeared in the Frumious Bandersnatch Satirical Newspaper in March, 1997. Spawned many variants, but this is the original and the best.

The Kurt Vonnegut Sunscreen Speech

In July, 1997, the text of a commencement speech purportedly given by author Kurt Vonnegut at MIT was posted on the alt.thinking.hurts newsgroup. The speech contains advice for life and tells it in an eloquent and witty way. It became an overnight sensation. Film director Baz Luhrmann set the words to music and had a huge hit in 1999 with Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen. Trouble is, it never happened. It's an urban legend. See this article for the whole story. Newsgroup message retrieved from Google Groups.

Washington Post Style Invitational

Readers of this long-running column were invited to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and to supply a new definition. The results were posted on the website in August, 1998. It proved hugely popular and was much imitated, but never as good. “Deifenestration: to throw all talk of God out the window” is my favourite 😆

How to Deal with Jackasses

A true story (allegedly) about how to get sweet revenge on a jackass. First posted in the alt.basement.graveyard newsgroup in August, 1998 from where it quickly spread over the Internet like a rash. Click on “more options” and “find messages by this author” for more amusing anecdotes.

San Fransisco Man Becomes First American to Grasp Significance of Irony

This little gem dates from May, 2001. Originally published on the now defunct UK-based satirical website, It struck a chord with people for some reason, and “did the rounds” on email. Web page retrieved thanks to the Wayback Machine.

NASA Fakes Moon Landing

Near as I can tell, the original version of this web page dates from around August, 2001. It mercilessly lampoons the crackpot conspiracy theories surrounding the first Moon landing in July, 1969. A series of increasingly ridiculous images is accompanied by explanatory text that becomes more and more technical. The contrast between the two is irresistibly funny. If this fails to make you laugh out loud, seek professional help!

Donald Rumsfeld's Unknown Unknowns

Believe it or not, this next one is not an urban legend. This actually happened. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made one of his infamous “unknown unknowns” speeches at NATO HQ in Brussels on the 6th of June, 2002. Read the section where a reporter asks him: “…I wonder if you could tell us what is worse than is generally understood.” Rumsfeld's response won some sort of ironic award for mangling the English language. Even funnier on video, but I couldn't find it anywhere 😦

And that's all I have time for at the moment, but I hope to add more in a future update. In the meantime, tell me about your favourite viral emails by submitting a comment.


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