Visual culture was once the preserve of the privileged few, fed to the masses from corporate studios staffed by shrewd professionals. Then came video. Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, affiliates of satirical champion The Onion, have made a life out of buying up the forgotten VHS tapes of thrift store bargain bins in America and around the world, bringing a whole new audience to people whose camcorders once failed to make them famous. Their live show, Found Footage Festival, comes to Dublin on July 11th as part of Trashfest. Prueher spoke to us about his anachronistic obsession.
What is your aim with the Found Footage Festival?
Our aim, first and foremost, is to entertain people with odd and hilarious VHS tapes that time forgot. It’s a big celebration of our wonderful and sometimes regrettable video past. That said, we’re also preservationists. There is no temperature-controlled vault for all the C-list celebrity exercise videos of the 80s and 90s, but we think they’re worth hanging on to.
What is it about VHS specifically that attracts you, in an era of innumerable DIY YouTube videos?
VHS is the format we grew up with, so we naturally have a nostalgic attachment to it. But there’s also something special about it, in that it was the first time you could have video in your home in a cheap and accessible way. That was revolutionary. People didn’t know what would work, so they were doing a bunch of things and seeing what stuck. That sort of naivety is endearing and you don’t get that on YouTube. People are way too tech-savvy now.
Is there something you look for in a video? What makes it weird enough for a show?
For us, the main criteria is that it has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever the video is trying to do, whether training you on how to work your fast food job, potty train your kids or entertain your cat – it has to fail in a colossal way. The other thing, which isn’t a requirement but is something a lot of our videos have in common, is that they involve people with a lot of ambition, but questionable talent. And damn it, isn’t that what America is all about?
Do any of the stars of the footage ever get in contact?
We always try to track down the stars of the videos whenever possible. Thus far, whenever we’ve met the people, they’ve been downright flattered. This video they made 20 years ago that they’ve long forgotten about is suddenly being resurrected for audiences all over the world. One close call we had was with Jack Rebney, a man we dubbed “The World’s Angriest R.V. Salesman.” He made an industrial video in 1989 highlighting the features of Winnebago recreational vehicles and he kept losing his cool during the shoot. We found the two weeks of raw footage and cut together all of Jack’s angry tirades. When we finally tracked him down, he was pretty angry that we were showing this footage. No surprise there, really. But we managed to convince him to appear with us onstage at a show in San Francisco and, when he saw how much joy the video was bringing to audience members, his heart melted and he soaked up the adulation. There was a line of people ten-deep to get their picture taken with Jack afterward. It was a real career highlight for us.
Have you ever had a problem with figuring out whether something is a joke or not?
Yes, we often have debates over whether a video is trying to be funny or not, but we’ve gotten pretty good about discerning it by now. There’s a video in our brand new show called “Flower Power,” which is a pitch for a movie that an aging hippie was trying to get made in Hollywood. It’s so outrageous and over-the-top that it almost seemed like a joke, but we did our homework and found out that this guy was one hundred per cent genuine about getting this movie made. Unfortunately, none of the major studios wanted to make it.
Gimme Five: Found Footage Stars
He’s an R.V. pitchman with a short fuse and a penchant for colorful language. Jack may be the greatest swearer in recent history. He was the holy grail of people we wanted to meet, and we eventually tracked him down. It’s all documented in the documentary “Winnebago Man”.
John & Johnny
These two hosts of an early home shopping channel from Wisconsin take obnoxiousness to a new level. Their modus operandi was to keep talking about a product, even if they knew nothing about it, with an enthusiasm that bordered on psychotic.
Pretty Boy Floyd
He’s a pool hustler who put out a video called “Learn the Secrets of Hustling Pool”. However, we watched the entire sixty-minute tape and he never gives you any useful information about how to play pool. He talks a lot about sandwiches.
Dressed in what appears to be a trash bag with a belt, Lucille sings her heart out on a local show from New York called “Stairway to Stardom.” The chorus of the song goes, “Hairdresser, hairdresser, oh whoa oh, hairdresser, hairdresser.” It’s about a hairdresser.
Not a person, but a “trained” bunny that wears a Santa hat and plays piano, spurred on by her hapless trainer Jenny, in a 1983 public access TV show from Arizona.
Found Footage Festival hits the Screen Cinema July 11th as part of Trashfest