Found Footage Festival showcases weird and hilarious obscure VHS tapes

For the last eight years, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have curated and hosted The Found Footage Festival, a showcase of strange and hilarious found VHS videos that have been rescued from the trash bins and spotlighted for all to enjoy.

Sunday Sept. 30 at The Granada, Prueher and Pickett are bringing the newest and funniest batch of videos found this year to Lawrence, adding of course their own comments and observations for a unique night of live and taped comedy. The difference is that the people on tape had no idea at the time that their video would be used in such a way.

The 2012 touring edition of The Found Footage Festival offers up something called “The Sexy Treadmill Workout,” bizarre classroom films from the 60s and 70s, highlights from a 1986 video about how to care for your ferret, and "a video featuring a woman whose enthusiasm for craft-sponging borders on psychotic."

Also this year, the hosts are adding into the show some never-before-seen clips from a running prank that they pulled on local TV stations in 2010. A man calling himself Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser was booked on local TV news programs claiming to be a yo-yo champion who uses his skills to spread environmental awareness.

He would then proceed to make a complete disaster of himself and stop the demonstration while the cameras were still rolling. K-Strass got so big on the Internet that he even appeared on "Conan" this February.

Pickett used to write for The Onion and Prueher researched for the "Late Show With David Letterman," but now the duo has a VHS collection of at least 6,000 tapes and are able to do the FFF full time. Besides publishing a book last year, and touring the country, the FFF can also be seen twice a week as a web series on The Onion’s A.V. Club.

I caught up with FFF co-founder and co-host Nick Prueher and asked him the tough questions:

Eric Melin: How easy is it to find obscure found-footage gems now that you've been doing this for eight years? What percentage of great videos just come to you and what percent do you discover on your own?

Nick Prueher: It’s still 90% stuff that we do have to physically find somewhere. We do get submissions and are always grateful when people come to a show and have videos for us, but Joe and I are still out there every day going to thrift stores and garage sales and digging through filthy tapes and seeing what we can turn up. That’s part of the fun for us. We wouldn’t appreciate the tapes as much if they just came to us. And that’s what’s fun about the show for us—lavishing these videos with more attention than they deserve. We just get kind of obsessed. It’s personal for us.

Eric: What defines a found-footage gem? How do you draw the line on what to include and exclude from the festival?

Nick: The basic criteria is it has to be on physical media somewhere. We don’t take any videos off the Internet because it feels like cheating. Sometimes the story of how you find something is just as interesting as the footage. The other main thing we’re looking for is it has to be unintentionally funny. So whatever it was trying to do, it has to fail at in some entertaining way. That happens quite a bit; more often than you think. It might just be because the VHS era was a time when it was so cheap to produce tapes that you had a lot of amateurs behind the camera—and in front of the camera—making videos. A lot of the videos that we gravitate towards involve people with a ton of ambition but maybe not that much talent. There’s something very charming about that.

Eric: I noticed that this year you've added in videos of pranks that you pulled on local TV news stations. How did you come up with the idea for K-Strass? Why did you decide to get yourselves in on the action and what does it say about the state of journalism that you succeeded?

Nick: In promoting The Found Footage Festival, we would get invited to go on local morning news stations and they all asked the same questions and you’d have to wake up at 6am and we always questioned it: “Who’s up at 6am watching this? Farmers?” Are they going to go to our show? Just to make it interesting for ourselves, we started doing pranks. So before any live TV interview, Joe would whisper a two-word phrase into my ear that I’d have to work into the conversation without the other person knowing. It’s been this challenge and we’ve been doing it for the last two years.

I’d say one of the highlights was we were doing this morning show in Houston and Joe said “basketball murderers,” which is complete nonsense. So I had to work it into the interview at some point. It was down to the wire, but I just barely got it in at the end. The guy asked me: “What are the kind of people that make these videos?” and a little lightbulb went off in my head and I said: “Well, they could be crazy— they could be basketball murderers for all I know.” And he didn’t bat an eye. You just keep going, you know?

But we even got bored with that last year, so we decided to make a press release for a fictional character. We were trying to think, “OK, what will for sure get booked on a morning show?” Because they got 90 minutes to kill every morning. So we thought: He has to have a demonstration, so he’ll be a yo-yo expert—they’ll eat that up. And he needs to have a message behind it so he’s going around to local elementary schools promoting environmentalism through yo-yos—but it doesn’t make any sense! When you stop for just one second, it’s total nonsense. We also said that whatever city we were going to be in, that was his hometown, so then you had a local angle too.

We sent out 10 press releases to TV stations in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Illinois, and seven of them said yes, so now we actually had to go through with it! Our friend Mark who was laid off from his job at a bank in Milwaukee at the time was a friend of ours from college and we knew that he could [do it]. We would always put him up to playing a dumb guy in public. We’d tell him to go up to this waitress and say this with a straight face, you know, and he’d just nail it. So we enlisted him to be the yo-yo guy. We dressed him up in a ridiculous outfit and made a website for him. So we’d rehearse the interviews in the hotel and then send him on his way in his stupid outfit. We’d be recording the interviews in the hotel and then we’d be waiting with high fives when he got back.

This is a guy—keep in mind—who can’t even do a yo-yo trick. He can barely make it come up and down. So we had to come up with new, more creative ways to avoid him having to do an actual trick. One time we put his arm in a sling and said that was his yo-yo arm, and one time he just forgot to bring his yo-yo, stuff like that. It was so much fun. We wanted to keep doing it. We had a few more bookings but one of the news stations uploaded the video and Deadspin picked it up, and then the jig was up. It had like a million hits or something and we started getting cancellations from people. My friend who works at a news station said that there was a national APB going out to news stations saying “If somebody claiming to be a yo-yo expert contacts you, don’t book them.”

At first we were pissed, but we were flown out to LA because people liked this so much and now our friend is a regular on “The Office.” Mark, who played Kenny Strasser works in the warehouse on the show “The Office.” It was a pretty incredible turn of events and I don’t think we’ve ever been prouder of anything we’ve done. We have some new ideas in the hopper for this tour.

Eric: How did the coffee-table book "VHS: Absurd, Odd and Ridiculous Relics from the Videotape Era" come about? Can a book fully capture the glory of found-footage madness?

Nick: I like to think of it less as a coffee-table book and more as a toilet book. You can get through a chapter in one session, so I think it’s perfect for that. It should be in every American bathroom, I think. It came about because we started this segment in the show called the “VHS Cover Slideshow.” A lot of times we find these great covers, but the videos themselves are nothing; they’re not good at all. So we’d have jokes and observations we’d make and we’d zoom in on parts of the covers. We got approached to do a book by running Press, who do the “Awkward Family Photos” book and some other things in that same vein. So we thought, we’ll do 300-plus covers and include our favorite covers with our commentary below each one and it turned out really well. We just promoted the book on the Jimmy Kimmel Show a couple weeks ago! We could do a volume two and three, we have so many covers.

Eric: What do you like doing better -- discovering a found-footage instant classic or presenting each year's best clips to a live audience?

Nick: The harder work is actually watching all these videos—you have to watch so many before you find one that’s great. You could watch 50 videos, you know, and not one of them would be good—and we try not to fast-forward too because you never know when you might miss a great moment. That can be a tough slog, I’m not going to lie. We have to steel ourselves and hold hands and try to get through them together. But when you do find a gem—one you know is going to be a classic—that is exciting and you can’t wait to share it with people.

I think the big payoff is when you’re able to go into an audience full of 200 or 300 people and share the gem that you’ve found. That’s the greatest moment—the show and tell part of it, the fun part.

Eric: Is it tricky getting the right to these videos? How many amazing gems have been lost to recesses of obscurity because of some pesky copyright issue?

Nick: Luckily, we don’t have to worry about the copyright issue because there’s this great law called “Fair Use” and it’s very liberal in its interpretation, so if you’re not showing the whole video— just small parts from it—and you’re talking over it and putting it in the context of a comedy show, you’re covered, because you’re making into something new. For TV—we’re currently developing a TV show—you have to clear actors, the music, all that stuff. It’s a little more complicated, so there are some that aren’t available. But for the live show, it’s like a cover band playing a Def Leppard song.

We always try to track down the people in the videos just to quell our curiosity and whenever we do, they’re always flattered by the attention. They love the fact that these videos that have been in the most cases forgotten about, are being celebrated—and they feel like cult celebrities. And it helps too that the show isn’t mean-spirited. It’s all in good fun, and believe me, nobody’s getting rich off this at all.


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