Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Do not attempt to adjust the tracking on your top-loading VCR.
The Lorenzo Lamas self-defense video, animated sex-ed film featuring a duck staring at genitals, and public access show devoted to mucous ... these are not aberrations of the magnetic tape. What you are witnessing is the Found Footage Festival, in all of its scratchy and surreal glory.
Founded and curated by Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, the FFF is a traveling road show of unintentionally stupefying recordings—educational, instructional, and mystifyingly miscellaneous VHS cassettes mostly from the '80s and '90s—culled from yard sales and trash cans from around the country.
Prueher and Picket, whose credits between them include "The Onion" and "The Colbert Report," host this screening with equal parts reverence and ridicule. Nick Prueher joined us over the phone to preview their stop in Lawrence and help us determine if Angela Lansbury was really masturbating.
The Found Footage Festival salvages our shameful VHS heritage from the dumpster of history.
lawrence.com: How did the Found Footage Festival come into this world?
Prueher: Well, my friend Joe and I started collecting video tapes that we found at thrift stores and garage sales and other out of the way places about 15 years ago, back in high school. I guess it was five years ago that we decided, "What if we took these videos that we find funny and put them in a theater and made a comedy show out of it?" That's what the Found Footage Festival is—a guided tour through our ever growing collection of found videos.
Most people, if they found these videos, would just sit around getting high and laughing at them in their basement. What inspired you guys to take them on the road?
The very first video that we found, that started us thinking there might be something to this, was a McDonald's training video that I happened across in the break room of the McDonald's where I was working at in high school. It was for McDonald's custodians and was this ridiculously insulting video that tried to have a plot and was a little too ambitious.
I immediately put it in my backpack and took it home to show to Joe. I thought, "God, this video is so ridiculous it needs to be shared with the world." I would invite friends over to my parents' living room and we developed this routine to it. Over the years, as we collected more videos, we'd have friends over and have Friday found video nights to show off our latest finds…
To our surprise, people beyond our immediate friends latched on to it and liked it. There's something about taking these videos that weren't meant to be seen in public, like training videos or home movies or exercise videos, and putting them into a theater with 300 people who are there to laugh—something magical happens. I don't know what exactly it is, but we're sticking with it.
Do you guys still dig through dumpsters and scour the earth for these videos, or do you now have a network of people who just send them to you?
A lot of the stuff we find is still by the old fashioned way. Actually, the other day I was taking the garbage out to the trash by my apartment building, and there was this stack of dusty VHS tapes that somebody had decided to get rid of. I immediately blew off the dust and picked off the banana peels and started going through these old VHS tapes. There was one in particular labeled "Bunyon Surgery," with "bunion" spelled wrong. It was written in pencil with crude handwriting and I thought, "Alright, we're on to something here." When I popped it in it turned out to be actual bunion surgery from the Discovery Channel. I was hoping for something homemade.
The point is that you never know until you make the effort to crawl in that dumpster and get your hands dirty looking for this stuff. We still mostly do it that way, but since touring and bringing this show around the country, we've met a lot of people who have also found tapes and donated them to the cause. We hope to comb the thrift stores in Lawrence while we're there.
Where do you draw the line between bizarre/funny/slightly creepy stuff and flat out disturbing snuff porn?
When you see the show, you'll find that we have no scruples at all about what we play. To us, the only litmus test is whether it's funny. If it veers into creepy or disturbing territory, then it's not funny. One example is this video that's been floating around for years now among touring rock and roll bands. I don't know how they found it, but it's a fan video someone made for Steve Vai, the guitar player. It's this woman who tries to impress Steve Vai, and she's looking right into the camera, by doing various, odd—let's just say "stunts." It could be funny because some of the things she does is pretty goofy, but she's clearly got a few screws loose. In that case, it struck us more as creepy and sad than funny. There we drew the line. But when you see the show you'll notice we have no qualms about showing full frontal male nudity or things of that sort.
Yeah, I saw the penis pump in your last DVD. That was rich.
Why, thank you. There's more in store for you at the new show—be forewarned.
Are you ever concerned that you might come off as mean-spirited or exploitative by showing these videos?
I hope that hasn't happened. Really, we come at this in the spirit of celebrating these odd and forgotten pieces of video. They may be moments that people would rather not remember, but I really don't think we come at it from a mean-spirited place. That really makes a difference in how we frame the show and the context we put the clips in.
Yeah, we're having a few laughs at the expense of these VHS moments, but I think everybody understands that it's in good fun. We revere these movies and videos. We give them far more attention than they ever deserved. I hope it comes across that we genuinely have great affection for the clips that we show. Luckily, so far, all of the people we've met from the videos have been flattered by it. The stuff they've long forgotten about has turned them into something of a cult hero.
Was Jack Rebney, the foul-mouthed RV salesman whom you've featured in the show, flattered when you tracked him down?
This guy was the Holy Grail of special guests we wanted to meet. If people haven't seen the video, it was this popular clip we cut together for our first show. It's outtakes of this guy, Jack Rebney, doing a promotional video for Winnebagos. He kept getting so angry that the crew left the cameras rolling between takes.
They gave us the raw footage and we cut it together for a segment we called "Jack Rebney, the World's Most Angry RV Salesman." It was just one expletive after the next. Anyway, this was a big hit.
Unbeknownst to us, one of Jack's friends had come to see us in Las Vegas. He bought one of our DVDs and brought it to Jack, who was living like a hermit in Northern California. Jack was apparently furious. Believe it or not, Jack Rebney was angry. Through some finagling, we were somehow able to convince him to come to a show in San Francisco and see how people reacted to this video.
When we first met him before the show, he was very prickly, saying, "Who are the lunatics that are coming to this show?" We didn't know if he was going to take a swing at us or what. We watched him in the back of the room as his video was playing, and as people were laughing, you could kind of see a little grin come over his face. It was kind of like when the Grinch's heart grew 10 times its size—you could see him melt. He came down and regaled the audience with stories of his youth. Afterwards people were lined up 10-deep to get his autograph. You could see him genuinely happy. We actually hugged at the end. It was a remarkable experience for us.
Most of your videos come from the '80s. What was it about that decade that produced so much awfulness?
The fashion is always fun to look at from the '80s. I really think the '80s and ’90s were the golden age of VHS. It's similar to why record collectors have so many LPs from the '60s and '70s. During that time, albums were so cheap to produce, you have all these weird and esoteric things on vinyl. A high school marching band could press its own album, or an opera singer could cover rock and roll songs—you have all these weird things because it was so cheap to produce.
In the '80s and '90's, everybody had a home movie camera and everybody could produce a video pretty cheaply. You could buy a beard trimmer and it would come with an instructional how-to video. You have this whole library of goofy, off-beat, and obscure VHS tapes. As DVD and digital have now become the formats of choice, VHS ends up at thrift stores, just like records did in the '80s and '90s. There's this wealth of material waiting to be discovered. We're doing our darndest to be the preservationists of these regrettable VHS moments.
You're like anthropologists for best forgotten decades.
Yeah, exactly. If you're just looking at the history of videotapes for the great works of art like "Citizen Cane," it's not a very accurate picture of who we are as a people. We like to hold a mirror up to lesser-known aspects. We have a high tolerance for this stuff.
Do you view Youtube as a direct competitor with what you do?
Sometimes we're frustrated, because we don't take anything from the internet—these are all physical videos that we've found. We're stubbornly old-school about that. Youtube is great, though. You can find anything that you could even imagine posted somewhere online. I don't think we're in direct competition with Youtube and other sites.
Really, what you need with this great wealth of material is someone to guide you through it all. It's overwhelming, otherwise. There's definitely a need for a point of view and for someone to curate, to decide what makes the cut and what doesn't. We started doing this show before Youtube was even out, but since it's come out people have a greater appreciation that we waded through everything to bring you the cream of the crop.
It should be noted that you guys edit everything down so it's more presentable in a public forum. It's not just raw footage.
Yeah, we don't want to torture people. We suffer for people's entertainment. We try to cut them down and make them more palatable. We just pick out the funny parts and present them as montages or stand alone videos. We're there guiding people through it. We explain how we found the videos, make smart ass remarks while we watch the tapes, and give our point of view of what we just saw.
Did these particular skill sets lead to your career in late night comedy, be it on David Letterman or "The Colbert Report"?
It's funny, it's like my whole life—and Joe, as well—this was something we were born to do. Right after college, I started working at "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in Minneapolis. That show, of course, was all about making fun of bad movies. It was definitely an inspiration for The Found Footage Festival. Working on Letterman, I started out as a researcher, and part of my job was to find old movies and commercials of celebrities to embarrass them with when they were on the show.
There's an Arnold Schwarzenegger video of him groping a bunch of women in Rio de Janiero from the '80s that we used in our first show that I found while working at Letterman. With Joe's background, he worked at a film equipment rental company that also duplicated videos. Anytime somebody would come through with a video that looked funny, he would just make an extra copy for us. This was the job we were born to do. The Found Footage Festival is our passion. Everything else is a day job.
Finally, the weird Angela Lansbury self help/exercise video that you guys have featured in the past—was she masturbating in the bathtub?
I don't know if she was doing that, per se, but she was describing the sensuality of taking an erotic bath. She was splashing around and tracing lines in the bubbles. Either way, it's more than you ever wanted to see of Angela Lansbury.