The Found Footage Festival's Nick Prueher Talks About McDonald's Training Videos, Rent-a-Friend and Crowning the King of Found
Photo by Erik Ljung Curators Joe Pickett, left, and Nick Prueher introduce a VHS clip at a Found Footage Festival show in Milwaukee
You might think that a show that features nothing but bizarre moments from the starry-eyed days of the VHS tape wouldn't last five minutes when anyone with two thumbs and an iPhone can download one of a billion embarrassing moments from YouTube or laugh at tragedy after tragedy along with Daniel Tosh on a TiVoed episode of Tosh.0. You might be surprised to learn then that The Found Footage Festival, a roving, live showcase of VHS clip madness, has been continuously touring for just more than a decade precisely because it is not YouTube or Tosh.0.
Besides being screened in an actual theater where the viewers must get out of their homes and put on pants to enjoy them, their videos also aren't littered with negative comments by people who still think lines like "First!" or "Ron Paul 2012" are still clever. Above all else, Found Footage Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher have a genuine affection for the films they showcase and the people who earnestly tried to produce something good only to end up at the bottom of a thrift store discount video bin. Prueher talked to Mixmaster about the history of his live show and his upcoming showdowns with fellow found footage artists from Found Magazine and A/V Geeks tonight at Denton's Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios and Saturday at the Texas Theatre.
When you look back at the history of the show, are you surprised that it is still this popular?
Yeah, we're completely shocked that we're still doing this 10 years later. The first time we did it, we just did it to raise money for a documentary film we were making and we didn't have anything to put up for collateral for a loan. The only thing we had of value was our videotape collection.
It really seemed to us like an inside joke, something that just you and your friends find funny. Ten years ago, we went into the back of this bar in New York and invited people to come out, and I think this was pre-YouTube, so it was kind of the right time for people. They wanted to look back and laugh the VHS era. So we were lucky enough to capitalize on that and just when we think we've found all the stupid videos we'd find, we found hundreds more and we'd hit the road again.
The movie you mentioned, was that the one about the country singer?
Yeah, Dirty Country. We finally finished that and then the show became popular enough that we could keep doing it and touring with Found Footage.
So you already had a videotape collection before you started?
Yeah, when we're on the road, we pick up new videos everywhere we go. Now since people know about the show, people will send us stuff or bring their finds to the live shows so the collection just keeps growing. We started collecting in high school in 1991. I found a McDonald's training video, and that's what started it all. There was just gold sitting there right under our noses. I found it in the break room of the McDonald's where I worked. That just got us thinking: Imagine what else is out there.
What was that McDonald's video like?
It was for McDonald's janitors. It was called The Inside and Outside of Custodial Duties and it was just collecting dust. Nobody had watched this in years but I was bored one day while working at the McDonald's and I just popped it in and I could not believe how ridiculous and insultingly dumb it was. It's already demeaning enough to be a janitor at McDonald's but to have to sit through this video that tried to have a cute little plot to it and there's a lot of sexual tension between the trainer and the trainee, my thought was that this can't stay in the break room. This has to be seen by my friends. Now it's been seen by hundreds of people because it was at our first touring show but that was the spark, the genesis for our collection.
Did McDonald's ever call you about that video?
Yeah, for the first time a couple of weeks ago, we did a show in my hometown [Stoughton, Wisconsin] and my old McDonald's manager came there. It's a small town and we had never done a show there but when we went back for Christmas, we decided after 10 years, it's about time. So we did a show there and my old McDonald's manager showed up and formally forgave me for stealing the video. So all is right but she said that wasn't even the dumbest training video. She told me about a video about how to make breakfast that had a Sherlock Holmes plot to it. So now we need to find that one.
What is your ultimate goal? Is it to find the worst or the most uncomfortable video?
The idea was just to entertain ourselves and by proxy, our friends. Growing up in a small town, there wasn't a lot going on so we just had friends over and watched this McDonald's video and kind of had a running commentary of it. When that got old, we were like we need to find more material. That was really the only goal: to find weird stuff and unintentionally funny things to show your friends. The M.O. is still the same really, except that we're showing it to strangers and not in a living room but in a theater. It's the same idea. It still feels like somebody's basement somewhere and still our motivation is to do like a show-and-tell every night, like you find something incredible and you can't wait to show it to people.
You do commentary on them occasionally and it seems like there is a ton of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ripoffs but it feels like it's funniest when you're just watching the raw footage.
Yeah, we try to stay out of the way of the videos and let them speak for themselves. Sometimes we feel like they may need a little help or people may want our insights with a little tidbit here and there or a joke, but truth is stranger than fiction. Just letting them play out sometimes is the funniest thing you can do.
Do you ever get to talk to the makers of these videos?
Yeah, out of curiosity we try to track down the people who made the videos whenever we can if we have burning questions about something. This special show we're doing in Dallas with Found Magazine and the A/V Geeks, we're going to play a video called Rent a Friend, which is a very high concept video by this guy. The idea was if you were lonely, you could put the tape in and the guy on screen would be your virtual friend or for an hour and it's as weird as it sounds. He's asking you questions like, "Where are you from?" and there's a pause like you're supposed to answer to the TV screen. Then it gets weirder. He starts talking about himself and he's revealing things he probably shouldn't reveal to a stranger. He's talking about guilt in his family and long lost love and all this stuff. It's one of the strangest videos we've ever found. We knew it was made in Chicago and we actually tracked down the guy, the Rent-a-Friend. A couple of years ago, we brought him up on stage with us in Chicago and he invited us to his home the next day so we could get to the bottom of what this whole thing was about. So in Dallas, we'll be showing that video but also our interview with him after we tracked him down.
Can you tell me more about him?
He's from Chicago. He was working at a video production company and they had seen high-concept videos like exercise videos that did well, video board games, video fireplaces and videos that kept your cats company while you were gone. All these weird things were actually selling. They said come up with the next great idea in the home video market and this was his idea, to keep lonely people company. He was earnest about what he was trying to do. He told us that it didn't move so well and that most of these ended up in a landfill somewhere unsold. The one we got our hands on was still in the shrink-wrap from 1987. So obviously, there wasn't a huge demand for it but he meant well.
That's seems to be a running theme with your videos, that they mean well.
I think that's part of our take on it, too. We want to be OK with having these people in the room while we're doing the show. I just feel like kind of an overly snarky take on this stuff gets old pretty quickly and we have a genuine affection for the videos that we find because there is something about that wide-eyed innocence of the '80s and '90s where people would throw stuff at the wall and see what stuck and even if they didn't have the know-how or the resources, they were trying and they were sincere about it. I think there's something uniquely American about that, maybe some admirable about it. I think that's why we don't take any videos off the Internet because in this day and age, everyone has a kind of cynicism or they're just more savvy with this kind of stuff and they know that their videos might be seen by the world. In the early days of VHS, people didn't know that.
I guess it explains why your appearance in Winnebago Manmakes for such a good climax in that movie. I remember reading some reviews and some said something to the effect of that the movie is making fun of the guy [Jack Rebney] who doesn't know it but when you get to your scene and people are genuine excited to see this guy that they've been laughing at, it's kind of a weird experience because that cynicism that you think permeates the Internet, maybe it isn't that widespread or maybe it's just different when you're watching the video at home or you learn more about the actual person in it.
Yeah, I think that's part of it. I don't know. For us, we're just turned off by all that snark. I really don't like Tosh.0 or those kind of shows. They're just mean-spirited. I hope that our enthusiasm and our genuine affections for the clips and the people on them come across in the show. I think our show would be short-lived if we didn't really love doing this. I also think, and you were kind of alluding to it, you get so used to watching funny content on a little two-inch window on your laptop and that's fine but it's pretty forgettable. When you have that big social experience of being in a dark room or a big theater with a bunch of people who are there to laugh, and you're seeing this stuff projected on the big screen, stuff that wasn't meant to be shown in public, something magically happens. It's a different experience from something you get by yourself or on your laptop or on your phone. I like that we can recreate that experience of having a bunch of people over to watch something in a dark room. I'm glad that there is still avenues for that and I think people appreciate that too, especially nowadays.
How did you hook up with Found Magazine and A/V Geeks?
Found Magazine and A/VGeeks, I think, all started around the same time but we hadn't really connected with each other until the last couple of years. Found Magazine and us were once booked at the same night at the same venue in Madison, Wisconsin, and we both realized it and were forced to get in touch with each other and figure out who was going to get the night. We just said let's team up and do a combined night. All the people wanted to come see both things will be happy. We got along really well with Davy Rothbart, the founder of Found Magazine. Later that year, we were doing a show in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Skip Elsheimer, the founder of A/V Geeks came to the show and we had heard of him because he has one of the largest collections of ephemeral classrooms from the '50s all the way through the '70s. He invited us to his house the next day, which is an old boarding housing. All the bedrooms in his house are filled with film canisters and in his living room, he has a projector and he projects on a wall and just said, "Pick out anything you want. Let's watch some old films." It was great. There was a kinship, but also like we kind of felt like brothers and because of that, we felt competitive. So you want to defeat your brothers and in this very small community of people who find and show old found things, we decided to stage a series of competitions in Texas this weekend to find out who was the best, who has found the best things. It's all in good fun but we do actually want to win.
How does it work?
We nominate three judges for each round and we're going to be taking turns doing 10 minute rounds of showing off our best finds and at the end of each round, the judges we nominate hold up either a film canister, a magazine or a VHS tape. Then we tally the votes and at the end, someone is crowned "The King of Found."
Is it just for bragging rights?
I feel like we should have an actual crown. Maybe we'll have a thrift store find that's coveted that somebody gets when they wi,n but right now, it's just bragging rights. There is no official prize.
Is finding footage harder to do as the Internet gets bigger or do you find that stuff comes to you more now?
We're dealing with a finite amount of material. There's only so many VHS tapes produced and there is a lot of them, so we haven't gotten to the bottom of the well by any means yet. Eventually, we'll have found all the tapes basically or we'll start planning ahead. At thrift stores, we find newer ones that we haven't seen before but the plus side of that is when you do find some unique video that you've never seen before, we get extra excited about it. We really aren't too much into the world of Internet videos. I really don't watch that many. I think that may be a generational thing, but I don't really watch that many videos on the Internet and part of it's just my preference because I don't want to be frustrated by somebody who has found something and beat us to it. Occasionally somebody will forward something to us and I'll be like, "Aw, I wish we had found that one first. I wish we had found that on physical media. We can't use it because it's on the Internet."
In terms of popularity of the show or whether there is still a place for it, that was one thing we worried about when YouTube got big. Now that there is a shortcut for the stuff we're showing, everyone's probably seen a goofy exercise video, whereas 10 years ago, they hadn't. Our show was the only place to see it, but I think I mentioned this before, people's appreciation for having something that's curated has grown because there is such a glut of material out there on the Internet that it's hard to search through what's funny and what isn't. So to have arbiters that you trust, I think people appreciate that. There's also taking you on a guiding tour through the videos so there's some context to it. That's something that's missing on the Internet. Nobody reads the descriptions. There's no context and for us, that's half of what's funny. Where was this found? Who is behind it? The other thing is the setting. You're not in front of a computer by yourself. You're in a dark room with a bunch of people. People appreciate that more. That's a rare thing nowadays.