Nick Prueher, together with his co-host Joe Pickett, is the founder and curator of the Found Footage Festival, a traveling show that takes the very worst of random VHS tapes and puts them all together into one two hour show. With the festival now in its fifth incarnation, Prueher took some time out from preparing for tonight’s two shows at Providence’s Cable Car Cinema to talk with us about digging through yard sales, 80’s dating reels, and why YouTube has made people more interested than ever in found footage.
By Justin Marble.
ArtsFuse: So for those who have never been to one of your shows, what is the Found Footage Festival?
Nick Prueher: First and foremost, it’s a live show/screening featuring videos that my buddy Joe and I find at thrift stores and garage sales and dig up in out-of-the-way places across the country. We sort of take people on a candid tour through our latest finds, make smart-ass remarks during the videos, and just sort of come out and give our take on the material.
AF: There’s sort of a stand-up edge to it in addition to the footage. Do either of you have a background in stand-up, or is that just stuff you guys come up with when watching the tapes?
NP: Neither of us have really done stand-up, although I’ve done some sketch stuff. But mostly we’re comedy writers. We’ve written for The Onion, and I was at Letterman for four years, so we just sort of come at [it] from our point of view and just point out things to people that we’ve noticed. I wouldn’t call it stand-up, but it’s sort of a comedy show, yeah.
AF: I know in the last show, in addition to the found footage, there were these clips where you guys would go and actually hunt down the people behind the videos. Is that something you look to put into every show, or is it just something that occurred naturally?
NP: For us, it’s all about the back story of the footage. We find this thing and we’re curious—“Who was behind this? How did it get made?” To that end we try to do our homework and figure it out. Whenever we’re successful with that and can meet people, we bring some cameras along and try to make something out of it. I think people enjoy the fact that it’s not just some YouTube clip that people are watching on a little two-inch screen on a laptop screen. We’ve lavished these videos with more attention than they probably deserve.
AF: Do you guys do the show full-time now?
NP: Pretty much. Nine months out of the year, we’re on the road touring.
AF: And then in the off-months it’s mostly compiling stuff for the next show?
NP: Yeah, basically we get to a city and we go to the Salvation Army and see if there are any garage sales or estate sales happening. We just go scavenging for VHS tapes, taking extra boxes home with us. We just come back with thousands of new tapes. And then we take the summers off from touring and just lock ourselves in a room and get through as many tapes as we can. Hopefully at the end of it, we’ve got a show.
AF: That process of watching thousands of these tapes sounds truly horrifying. What would you estimate is the percentage of stuff that is actually usable compared to the stuff that is really terrible?
NP: [Laughs] Maybe one percent of the stuff we find is just right [for the show.] Most of it is just the most dreadful stuff ever committed to video tape. You know, somebody sets up a tripod up during a conference call—we sit through that. We try to avoid fast-forwarding just because you never know what’s going to come up. Something great might happen, and we’d gyp ourselves if we missed it. So we just sit there and hold hands and try to get through it together. It’s a safety in numbers thing. We’ve developed a pretty high tolerance over the years, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But we’re professionals.
AF: Do you guys have your own language now? Watching so many obscure videos must lead to tons of obscure references and quotes—do you guys have so many inside jokes that won’t even translate?
NP: We have the ones that we say on the microphone and then we have the ones we say to each other. It becomes its own lexicon. There’s a quote from every video for every situation in life. There’s one in the new show that I already know, because we watch these videos—we did 100 shows last year. And that’s on top of watching them a lot of times to put it into shape. So, we’re inundated with this stuff.
At one point on the road, we just had to ban it. When the show’s not happening, no references to the things at shows, because it’s just getting out of hand.
But there’s a line from a public access pet show that’s in the new show that I’m already quoting, and we haven’t even done it yet. A monkey on this pet show grabs the host’s filter cartridge for a fish tank. And he just says offhandedly, “Anybody that cute deserves a filter cartridge.” That just struck me as so funny, so anytime we see an attractive girl on tour it’ll be “hey, anybody that cute deserves a filter cartridge.” So I encourage people to work that into their lexicon.
AF: I know mostly you guys get this stuff from thrift stores and yard sales and stuff like that, but I know you mentioned that the 80’s dating-reel montage that you closed the last show with was given to you by David Cross.
NP: Yeah, he had that footage that came from an editor friend of his in California. We were trading videos with him last year. It was just in amongst a bunch of tapes he gave us. The whole tape was like three hours long, and it took a lot to sit through it. But we were like—wait a minute, I think in short doses this could be gold. So we cut together a few of our favorite guys and lines from the video.
AF: What’s the oddest place you’ve found a video? Or the oddest source you’ve had for a video?
NP: One thing we’re doing in this new show—most of the time we just find videos. But some videos will just be lying around, like corporate training videos and the like. But we’re interested in them, so we’ll lie and or steal the videos. There’s one video in this new show for a meat separation factory, like separating the meat from the fat, and it has this plucky music along with it. Joe heard about this tape, so he called the company and pretended that he owned a meat separation factory. He said they didn’t have the internet and to please send him the original footage. They complied. We’ve pretended to be chicken farmers, all sorts of things.
Other times we’ll just find stuff. Joe and I were at an estate sale—somebody had died and they were selling his stuff. One of the things for sale was a VHS camcorder, [we were] thinking, “Oh we could shoot some sketches on this thing.” But when we got home we found out there was still a home movie inside. So I pressed eject and hit play and just couldn’t believe what was on it. It was just a little window into this guy’s very strange world. You just gotta keep an eye out. When you have an eye out for VHS, this stuff just turns up.
AF: You guys started around 2004, correct?
NP: We’ve been collecting since 1991 and doing it for friends, but our first official show was in 2004.
AF: Do you feel like YouTube has stolen any of your thunder since then? And is there something to be said for the days of VHS when people weren’t recording on high-quality DVD?
NP: I think so; I think there’s sort of an analog charm to VHS with the bad tracking and the washed-out colors. It’s on tape, and there’s something charming about that in the same way that vinyl collectors like all the hisses and pops on records. I think those little inconsistencies add to the charm of the format and its clunkiness.
We started doing this show before YouTube, and we didn’t know how it would affect it. But we found out that if anything, it actually increased peoples’ appreciation for the show. Once there’s such a glut of material out there, people appreciate more than ever the ability of somebody else to wade through it, start separating the wheat from the chaff and present the best stuff and do it from a humorous point of view. And then apart from that, I think people appreciate the fact that it’s a live thing, and they can enjoy it with 300 other people in a theater. It’s a totally different experience than watching something on your computer by yourself and then forgetting about it. It’s a communal experience. Something magical happens when you’re watching this stuff that was never meant to be seen in public projected up on a big screen.
AF: When I first saw the show, I just found myself sitting there and thinking over and over again—“How could this happen? How could these people do this?” Has finding all of these videos changed your perception of human behavior?
NP: Yes. I think it says a lot about us as a disposable culture and a video-obsessed culture. We deem so many things worthy of committing to tape. There’s a video in the new show hosted by Linda Blair of The Exorcist called “How to Get Revenge.” And it lays out all these very cruel ways to get revenge on people who’ve wronged you. And like, “how did Linda Blair . . . why?” So beyond just being funny, it’s sort of interesting anthropologically. I think if you’re looking at, say the AFI Top 100 Films of the last 50 years, it’s a very incomplete picture of who we are as a people. I think this kind of warts-and-all, goofy footage that people would rather forget about is a lot more honest in many ways.
AF: VHS tapes obviously aren’t being made anymore. Do you ever foresee yourselves running out of material, or do you have a lot of shows backlogged in what you’ve already found?
NP: Every time we finish a show we’re like “Well, that’s it. We’ve found all the stupid videos.” And then we realize no, no—there’s so much more. We have an abundance of material that we could’ve included in this show. There’s just too much. But with regards to the format, yeah, eventually all the VHS tapes will be found.
But one thing we’ve found is that lately we’ve been finding more DVDs. And they’re just as ridiculous and silly. Maybe the production values change, and people get a little bit more savvy, but the bad ideas never change. As long as there are people with bad ideas and access to recording equipment, we’ll never run out of material.
The Found Footage Festival will be at Providence’s Cable Car Theater for two shows at 7 and 9 p.m. The show will return to Boston in late January 2011.