The Found Footage Festival Puts Life's B-Roll on Texas Theatre's Big Screen
Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are professional data sifters. You could also say they watch crap for a living.
In fact, let's say that instead.
The pair harvests and compiles snippets from salvaged VHS tapes for their Found Footage Festival, then screens the stuff publicly. It results in analog peculiarity -- old workout tapes, crafting how-tos and home shopping network goofs woven together with riffy dialogue. It's pop culture, shrinky-dinked in nostalgia. Still confused? Think MST3K on hallucinogenics at a rummage sale.
On Thursday they close their tour, ending a road trip that's lasted for more than a year, at Dallas' Texas Theatre. Then, they'll take a thousand showers.
When I rang 'em up, Joe was driving, so Nick and I discussed why VHS has verve, his own secretly recorded life, hiring private investigators and what an outsider can expect from Thursday night's Found Footage Festival. Then he begged for handouts. (Have old, must-see VHS tapes? Donate 'em to the Found mission, says Nick.)
Mixmaster: You guys have been touring this program since the lower, mid-aughts. I think I was on the brink of getting a cell phone then. How has the novelty factor of VHS changed or increased since you started doing this?
Nick Prueher: Well, it's interesting because it was pre-YouTube when we started taking our collection public. We'd been showing it to friends privately for many years at that point, but we were lucky that people were ready to look back at VHS and laugh around 2004.
Then YouTube came out, and people got more familiar with this kind of material, and the novelty's changed: Now more than ever people want to come in the theater and see it. You have this footage that wasn't meant to be seen in public, it was meant to be seen privately in a living room or a break room, and now you're gathering with friends.
How did you two wind up meeting each other?
We've been friends since sixth grade, and we've always been doing stupid projects like this in one form or another. This is the only one that other people seem to like.
What were some of the failed projects?
We did a pretty embarrassing comedy newspaper in middle school.
What was it called?
The Daily Chimp.
It already sounds gold.
Yeah, it was comics and short stories and only stuff that maybe three people found funny. And we were just very easily bored so we'd find stupid ways to entertain ourselves. But we developed an appreciation for things that were so bad they were good.
I think something you notice when watching these older videos is that while people appear ridiculous when captured digitally now, the way they react to being recorded has changed. It's weird, because the act of actually recording something on VHS should have been so much more intentional, and yet there's this charming clunkiness. This less-polished awareness of how a camera would wind up capturing them. Why do you think that is? Is it the novelty of a new medium?
I think means of distribution had a lot to do with it. It was everywhere too, suddenly everyone had a VCR. So it was a brand new medium but Jane Fonda's Workout came out in '82 or '81 and it was huge. It was the first thing priced for the home video market, rather than for a video store to buy. It was a gold rush. People saw that and thought: "We gotta hop on this train," so we have all of these Mom and Pop operations getting into the video production business. And there was this wide-eyed innocence -- maybe it was a naïveté or a lack of understanding of what would, and what wouldn't, work -- but people were just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what stuck.
It would be hard to create [that], because when everyone has a webcam on their laptop and a recorder built-in on their phone, everyone knows that what they're doing could be seen by a worldwide audience. At the time you didn't know that. You thought you were only speaking to people who collect Beanie Babies for a video called How to Collect Beanie Babies. They're marketing to a more specific audience, and now there's more self-awareness.
Do you revisit your old home movies now?
Oh yeah. And the thing I realize is that we can dish it out but we can't take it.
Here is when we learn about one of Nick's most shameful, taped moments. It happened in a Disney Land karaoke room that allowed you to record a music video for $35 dollars. Nick, then 12, demanded that he and his younger sister duet to "Parents Just Don't Understand," a Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff jam with one sexually-charged verse accidentally directed at his sibling. Having not yet hit puberty, Nick was unaware of the lustful connotations. He also didn't realize that her voice was deeper than his. Years later, FFF partner Joe located the tape and leaked it to the area cable access channel. Nick then destroyed the evidence with a hammer.
Most of the videos we find are awful, but not in a good way. They're plain bad. So to find something entertainingly terrible, takes patience and willpower.
I was digging through your example videos on your site, and some, like the Jazzercise series, I could see being source material for a character comedian like Kristen Wiig. I think of all of these comics who cite old VHS tapes as being amalgamates for some of their best characters -- like Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy. Do you think that the tone of comedy is going to shift in the next generation when these old clips fall through the cracks?
Hmm. Well I do know that we mine this material for comedy as well and we sometimes do our own version that aids the style of it, or adopts the voice of one of the characters. So there's a wealth of material in our shows for any character-based comedian to develop a new one.
And yeah, I wonder if that will be diluted. I wonder if those characters will now be based off Internet memes where you only see snippets, rather than a whole character.
I think everything's going to move faster. I was talking to Joe last night about whether these things have staying power, because it seems like in comedy, things already move so quickly. And pop culture moves so quickly that if you're referencing something, it already might be dated.
That's something we like about the show. With the Internet, it arrives in your inbox, you laugh about it, binge on it, then forget about it. But I think people miss obsessing over something and continuing to obsess over it. So we lavish the videos we find with more attention than they deserve and spend a good deal of time obsessing. Like in this new show, we hired a private investigator to track down a guy in a video that we couldn't find. We flew to California to meet this guy and we play our interview with him at the show.
Was he everything you hoped he would be?
In a way, yes. This guy was just a bona fide weirdo, to the core. It's this cable access show called Dancing With Frank. He's wearing a Lone Ranger mask, patting his butt cheeks and dancing around, but the weird part is the audience is made of 8 or 9 extremely elderly people who clearly do not want to be there. How did he get them there? Why are they there? We wanted answers, and that's why we paid a detective to find him and flew to Los Angeles to interview him. We left with more questions than we arrived with. We'll show the interview on Thursday.
Get lost in found footage with Joe and Nick on Thursday night at Texas Theatre. The show begins at 8 p.m.