When Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher walk onto stage and say they’re about to show some video footage, there’s no telling what you’re about to witness. For the creators of the Found Footage Festival, every evening engagement is an opportunity to shock, awe, confound and occasionally terrify an audience—but mostly to laugh.
In one video, an irate Winnebago salesman rants endlessly, seemingly suffering an existential crisis during a disastrous sales shoot until he explodes in a fountain of hilariously articulate profanity. In another, a yoga guru teaches his audience how to lose weight via wide-eyed, maniacal, hyena-like laughter. In still another, a bald, heavyset man named Frank Pacholski clad only in an American flag speedo and domino mask dances lasciviously in front of a handful of confused and terrified-looking senior citizens, in what will go down as one of the most bizarre public access programs of all time—even by Los Angeles standards. Dredging up such artifacts out of the depths of obscurity is all in a day’s work for Pickett and Prueher.
“Basically what we’re doing is a guided tour through a very well curated collection of unintentionally funny videos,” says Prueher, who began collecting with Pickett in the early ‘90s after discovering a particularly absurd McDonald’s janitorial training video in Stoughton, WI. “They come from an era where there was sort of a naive innocence about the format, and it was really affordable for mom and pop operations, and people who had no business behind or in front of a camera, to make videos. There’s something endearing about that, but there’s also something really cathartic about sitting in a dark room and watching them projected on a big screen in a context they were never intended to be seen in.”
That “live on stage” element is what makes the Found Footage Festival hum—the shared experience of uncovering relics from a bygone era that now seem hilariously earnest in retrospect. The clips get big laughs because they both take us back to the point of their creation but are simultaneously relatable to every audience member who may have been made to watch training videos in a break room, or spent a dull weekend at an aunt’s place as a child, watching cheaply produced Christian Bible tracts. Pickett and Prueher have simply taken those experiences and condensed them into a much more powerful and streamlined distillate; a potent cocktail of the most bizarre moments of the VHS era, strung together into eight feature-length volumes to date. The final product is an endless parade of genuinely fascinating weirdos and unforgettable individuals.
“We have this insatiable curiosity about people,” says Pickett. “Who are they, and what is the story of how they ended up in these weird videos? We try to investigate the answers to these questions whenever we can, because it’s the human interest part that drives us. Hopefully it comes across that we’re not mean spirited, because we genuinely love these clips and these people.”
When Pickett says “investigate,” he’s being quite literal. On several occasions, the duo have turned to private detectives to track down the subjects of decades-old videos. They’ve spent thousands flying across the country for conversations with unusual individuals, only to leave befuddled, with more questions than they had before. Most recently, they were left holding $800 in useless plane tickets after a man with the unusual name of “Ben Dover” changed his mind at the last moment about being interviewed.
“Those are the moments where we tend to ask ourselves what it is we’re doing with our lives, but we love it so much that I can’t imagine stopping,” says Pickett.
Still, there are challenges. Currently, the duo is being sued (you can donate to their defense ) for “fraud and conspiracy” by a Eau Claire, Wisconsin local news station, which found it less than humorous to be pranked by Pickett and Prueher when they appeared on a morning broadcast as “Chop & Steele,” a fictitious strongman duo who perform unimpressive, embarrassing feats of strength. The two have pranked numerous midwestern TV station morning shows in much the same way, with an array of silly characters, from an incompetent “yo-yo champion” to a chef who makes unappetizing meals from Thanksgiving leftovers. The point is simply to illustrate the low bar and lack of research put in by your average local news broadcast.
“Our point was, will news stations believe this clearly phony premise that could easily be googled and verified as fake?” says Prueher. “And time and time again, the answer is yes, they’ll believe it. I honestly think that most of them don’t even realize it’s fake when it’s happening, they’re so used to churning out content and moving on to the next thing.”
Also potentially problematic is the dearth of VHS itself in 2017. As the last vestiges of the VCR age disappear from the shelves of thrift stores and pawn shops, the Found Footage Festival has by necessity become more resourceful in tracking down new tapes from fans, private collectors and even estate sales of the recently deceased. In doing so, they’ve somehow managed to keep the stream of ‘80s workout tapes flowing, while making some provisions for the future. All in all, they’re sitting on a vault of more than 5,000 tapes, which Pickett and Prueher assure fans will keep the tour going for quite a while.
“Some tapes are ending up in landfills, which terrifies us, but we’re still finding more,” says Prueher. “For the last volume, some anonymous person sent us a box of 17 different police instructional videos—no return address, nothing. That made our day. Hell, that might have made our year.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and amateur collector of bizarre films. You can follow him on Twitter, if that’s the kind of thing you’d really like to do with your time.