You name it, they’ve found it–The do’s and don’ts of caring for your ferret, relics from the golden age of Jazzercise, and brazen fourth wall-breakers like “Rent-A-Friend,” for very lonely people.
Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have curated the great American garage sale of fringe video, one unintentional artifact at a time.
In 2004 they launched the Found Footage Festival, a showcase of VHS tapes scouted over the past two decades. Now in its sixth edition, the festival has continues to tap these resources for comic gold, touring the country with a mind to save the odd institutional or home video from falling into obscurity (re: a dumpster).
With the festival returning to New York this weekend, Pickett and Prueher share some of their stranger encounters with us, and reveal the true identity of YouTube yo-yo hack Kenny ‘K-Strass’ Strasser.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you started collecting found videos?
Nick Prueher: Joe and I have known each other since the sixth grade. We always gravitated toward videos that were so bad they were good. For some reason we didn’t excel at school or anything else, but that was the one thing we had a very advanced sense of– ironic enjoyment of stuff. I think part of that stems from the fact that we’re from a small town in Wisconsin, and there’s not a lot to do in small towns in Wisconsin, so you have to entertain yourself.
Joe Pickett: I think what was really the springboard for the Found Footage Festival was the time in 1991 when I was working at a McDonald’s there in my hometown, and I found a training video for McDonald’s janitors that was just sitting there in the break room. I don’t think anyone had ever watched it. And so I put it in just because I was bored one day, and I could not believe how stupid it was. Just insultingly dumb. It tried to have a cute little plot to it. We sensed some palpable sexual tension between the trainer and the trainee–That’s only because we watched it four million times.
Pickett: Well yeah, we came up with a whole back story for it.
Now that you’ve been at this for over 20 years, do you have any set process for tracking down tapes?
Pickett: It’s mostly the same as right when we started–thrift stores and garage sales and stuff. But now that we’ve been doing the festival for eight years, it’s kind of great because people come up to us at shows and give us videos. People are doing our work for us. It’s pretty awesome. And the other thing is that we honestly thought after the Found Footage Festival Volume 2, we had run out of dumb videos. We thought for sure that the well had run dry. And here we are eight years later like ‘Oh Lord no!’ There’s plenty of videos out there. We have like three storage lockers full of this stuff.
But now that everything is online, do you think that you will eventually reach a shortage of new-found forgotten videos?
Prueher: Don’t say that!…Well there is a finite supply, for sure. The last VHS rolled off the assembly line in 2008, so there’s a definite limit to the things we’re mining for. But I think the good news is that the golden age of VHS–the ’80s and ’90s–gave us such a wealth of material because tapes were such a new and exciting format back then. And they were so cheap to produce that if you just had any–even inkling–of an idea, you could make a tape. And so many people did. If anything our frustration right now is that we can’t be everywhere at once to find it all. Nobody else is buying VHS. We’ve talked to people at Salvation Armies and thrift stores and stuff, and some aren’t even accepting them as donations anymore.
Pickett: Yeah, it’s so cheap to get them at thrift stores anymore, they’re like a dime now.
Prueher: Our fear is that they may circumvent the thrift store and just end up in dumpsters now. That’s why we’re really ambitious this year. We want to try to rescue everything.
Pickett: We’ve kind of altered our world a little bit. We used to take only VHS. We still don’t take anything from the internet. We’ll never mine anything from YouTube or any other website. But we do dabble into DVDs. We’re not proud.
You travel all over the country to find tapes. Are there certain places where you find weirder stuff? Obscure video hot spots?
Pickett: Yes! The best thrift store in the country is in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s totally untapped. And every time we go up there we bring extra luggage with us because we know we’ll end up bringing back a ton of things. I don’t know what it is about that place.
Prueher: It’s funny how you notice things. It’s like how different regions grow different kinds of wine, and you can taste what was in the soil that year. It’s somewhat like that for videos in different regions of the country. We find a lot of employee and industrial training videos in the Midwest, for whatever reason, maybe because they’re produced there. And then in California we get a lot of weird public access footage.
Pickett: In Los Angeles there are great student films. Like painful, hard to watch student films.
Prueher: In Memphis, Tennessee we got a lot of religious tapes, and in Oregon we get a lot of clown videos. I don’t know what that’s about.
Pickett: Well, realistically there were only like three clown videos.
Prueher: Still, that’s a large concentration of clown videos.
Out of the 5,000-plus tapes you’ve collected, do you have a favorite video, or a favorite story behind finding a video?
Pickett: Once I was at an estate sale in Queens and there was a camcorder there and it was super cheap so I bought it. Well I brought it home and out pops this VHS tape still in the camcorder. And I played it and…it looked like David Lynch’s home movie…oh it was just so…frightening. There’s this tall man dancing to The Phantom of the Opera in this glittery vest and wig. It kind of looked like the guy from Silence of the Lambs mixed with Buffalo Bill. And then it just stops and cuts to footage of this guy destroying a house. So we put that in Found Footage Volume 2.
Prueher: We’ve been collecting videos for over 20 years now, and sometimes we feel kind of jaded, like we’ve seen it all. But then something like this happens: There was this guy at one of our shows in Vancouver, and he came up to us and handed us a stack of tapes. And I guess what had happened was he had heard about some kind of office in British Columbia getting rid of its entire VHS collection, and he didn’t want that to happen. So he went and rescued anything that looked interesting. The one tape that caught our eye was labeled ‘Hand Made Love’. Now we had some guesses about what was on it, and maybe our guesses were in the ballpark, but we never could have predicted what it actually was: an instructional video for developmentally disabled men on how to masturbate. And it goes through that process in very graphic detail.
Pickett: It was actually a very noble cause. Their heart was in the right place. But like, production-wise, it just looks creepy. It looks like a terrorist movie.
Prueher: I mean when you’re making a video like that, production value really goes a long way. As it is, it’s just one of the most unsettling pieces of footage we have.
Pickett:They use a shaky camera, they don’t have a tripod, and the audio is really rustled. You have to get your masturbation video right, you know, you want it to look good.
Prueher: We also found out that the company, it was an educational company from British Columbia, also made another video for women about the same process. So we actually called and ordered it. The sister video for women is called ‘Finger Tips.’ So, yeah, they get cute with the titles, but those videos will stick with you for the rest of your life.
Since it consists primarily of material from the ’80s and ’90s, the Found Footage collection often ends up feeling very nostalgic for a certain generation. Do you ever come across people who have a personal connection with the videos?
Pickett: We talk to people who had to actually watch these training videos and things at their jobs or back in school, rather than with a group of 150 people who are laughing at it. I feel like for some people seeing these videos is kind of cathartic. Now they’re not in the break room anymore, and they get to laugh at it, too.
Prueher: That is part of the magic, and this has nothing to do with us. There’s one clip in this new show that almost everybody always recognizes, and it always gets applause–this health class exercise video called ‘Slim Goodbody.’ And a lot of people of a particular age had to watch this in school, I know I did. I think a lot of public schools showed it. He was this guy in a skintight bodysuit that revealed all his internal organs. Nobody wants to see that. But when it comes on you can hear the murmur throughout the audience. Everybody between the ages of 28 and 35 recognizes this guy.
At this year’s festival you’re going to publicly announce that you two were the ones behind the Kenny ‘K-Strass’ Strasser yo-yo prank that went viral on YouTube. Why, and how, did you go about doing this?
Pickett: Yeah, this was the proudest thing we’ve ever done. It was the pinnacle of our careers, and it’s all downhill from here. So, the thing is we have to do a lot of morning news shows. And they just suck. I hate them. You have to wake up at six in the morning, we don’t even know if our audience is watching these shows, the hosts always get our names wrong, and most of the time they don’t even know what we do.
So anyway, we just wanted to fuck with them. We got pretty good at writing these press releases, so we wrote one up for a fake guy named Kenny Strasser who’s a yo-yo expert, and he travels around the country teaching elementary school kids about the environment with his yo-yo, which doesn’t even make any sense if you think about it. But we sent out ten press releases to local news stations in Wisconsin and got seven responses saying ‘Yes, we want the yo-yo guy.’ So then we actually did it. We got our friend Mark who was unemployed at the time to travel around with us and play this guy.
But of course he can’t do any yo-yo tricks, and bombs on air every time. Did anybody ever call him out or get angry?
Prueher: After about the fourth show the morning news station sent an alert to all morning news stations in the state, telling them to cancel us. We had to move the operation to Missouri. Things got too hot in Wisconsin. There was this one news station, about a week after ‘Kenny’ had been on, that did an expose on prime time news called ‘Who is Kenny Strasser?’ There was this one really tenacious reporter trying to get to the bottom of it and somehow connected it to Joe, so they posted his photo.
Pickett: And it’s just an awful photo too. I look really fat and sinister. I really do look like a terrorist in that one.
Prueher: And they identified him like he was a rapist or something. And to my knowledge they still don’t have any idea of who ‘Kenny’ is or was, but not for lack of trying, that’s for sure. It was just funny to see how much time they put into this stupid thing we basically just did to entertain ourselves.
So what is your ultimate goal for the Found Footage Festival? Do you see yourselves as VHS preservationists?
Prueher: Primarily we see ourselves as guys with a lot of time on our hands. I don’t know if there’s any high ideals, but I do think there is some value in what we’re doing. These are videos that would be lost to the ages otherwise. In a way, they’re a lot more truthful than some of our more polished works of art. If you’re only looking at the Citizen Kane’s and the Apocalypse Now’s and all that, you’re getting an incomplete picture of who we are as a people–our flaws and our ambitions. And that’s the thing, we do end up with a fairly true portrait of our culture. We are a people with tons of ambition, even when we don’t have the talent to back it up. There’s something uniquely American about that.
The Found Footage Festival will screen tomorrow in Hoboken at 7:30 and Saturday in Long Island City at 7:30 and 10. The curators encourage anyone with a found video of their own to bring it to the festival for consideration.