Event celebrates absurd, offbeat discoveries among old VHS tapes

Remember when you were a teenager and you sat around in your parents' home outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and watched all of those weird VHS tapes you found at thrift stores with your friends while cracking jokes and providing running commentary?

If you do, you might just be Joe Pickett or Nick Prueher, creators of the Found Footage Festival.

Writer/director Pickett and writer (and former “Late Show with David Letterman” researcher) Prueher started Found Footage in 2004, figuring that if they found this oddball collection of weird and eccentric video clips entertaining, others just might, too.

“It's basically the same idea and ethic we had growing up,” Prueher said in a phone interview while traveling by car between FFF stops. “We explain where we found the tapes [and] occasionally chime in with an observation or joke while the videos are playing. And sometimes we'll have actually gone and found this guy from some video and can share an interview we did.”

Prueher said the format benefits from the “great-big-living-room” approach, contrasting it with watching and even sharing videos on mobile phones.

“It's almost cathartic. Everybody is there to laugh, and it becomes so much funnier than when you're watching on a little phone,” he said.

By virtue of the fact that almost all of the footage is culled from VHS tapes, Prueher said, “This footage doesn't exist anywhere else. It doesn't exist on the internet. So there's a certain novelty that you can't see this stuff anywhere else.”

“We have a soft spot for VHS in our hearts,” he said. “It's the format we grew up with, but also, at the time these tapes were being made, it become so ubiquitous and affordable to produce that every mom-and-pop operation with even an inkling of an idea could get a video produced no matter how absurd the idea. The format was so new. You had a lot of amateurs just figuring it out as they were going. It's a sort of warts-and-all history of humanity on videotape, which is interesting for us.”

This year's iteration of the festival includes the traditional exercise video montage, a collection of videos inspired by the “satanic panic” of the 1980s and selections from David Letterman's video collection, which Found Footage inherited when Letterman retired. The festival will also include clips of Pickett and Prueher appearing on various local morning television shows as fake experts or entertainers, specifically a strongman duo calling itself Chop & Steele.

“One of the things we always used to do was go on morning news shows to promote Found Footage,” Prueher said. “After a while, we realized that none of these news anchors were listening to what we were saying. So, to entertain ourselves, Joe instituted the two-word challenge, in which he would give me two words I would have to work in without the anchors noticing. Like one time, he gave me ‘basketball murderers.'”

“What we realized was that it's so easy to get on these shows, because they're always starving for content. So we thought, ‘What if we invented characters and had this character get on some morning shows. We had a buddy we said was a yo-yo expert promoting environmentalism through yo-yoing. He never once did a yo-yo trick. He doesn't even know how to yo-yo. And I went on as a celebrity chef showing how people could spruce up their Thanksgiving leftovers. I just made the grossest recipes I could think of just to see if the anchors would try it on-air.”

The duo's appearances as Chop & Steele embarrassed at least one local station – Pickett and Prueher were served with papers claiming fraud and copyright infringement during the current tour.

“It's unfortunate and a little amusing,” Prueher said. “We went to another station in the same market later that same morning and they told us they'd Googled us and found absolutely nothing, and that we wouldn't be appearing on the show. It's not hard to research this stuff. Everyone talking about ‘fake news.' We wanted to see how easy it was and also to have some fun and do something funny.”

That said, Prueher said there's no ill will or malicious intent toward any of the subjects of the clips featured in Found Footage. There's actually a warm-hearted appreciation for everyone they feature on-screen.

“We're fascinated by other people. We feel like the people on these VHS tapes are our neighbors, and a truthful representation of who we are as a people. There's a naive optimism about some of these [clips] that's very endearing.”