Q&A: Nick Prueher, Curator of Found Footage Festival
It’s been 10 years since the first Found Footage Festival, a collection of weird and funny videos curated by comedy veterans Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. This year, they’re bringing the festival to Arlington Cinema Drafthouse.The Eagle’s Devin Gannon sat down with Prueher to discuss what audiences can expect from this one of a kind event.
The Eagle: Can you just tell me a little bit about the Found Footage Festival? Was there one tape you found that got you interested in finding more?
Nick Prueher: Joe, the other guy who does the festival with me, we’ve known each other since sixth grade, and we grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and there wasn’t a lot going on. You had to make your own fun and entertain yourself.
So when I was in high school, I was a freshman, working at McDonalds, not to brag. But I was working at McDonald’s, and I found a training video in the breakroom there that was for McDonald’s custodians [and] McDonald’s janitors, and nobody had watched it in years. It was collecting dust, but I popped it in out of curiosity and watched it. And my jaw hit the floor. It was so over-the-top ridiculous and it was kind of insultingly dumb. They tried to have a cute little plot to it about this janitor’s first day on the job. Anyway, I was so enamored with it, I thought, ‘The world has to see this.’ This cannot just stay in the breakroom. And any opportunity we had, Friday night, I would have friends over in my parents living room, and we’d pop in the McDonalds video and make jokes about it. It was how we entertained ourselves.
And, that just got us thinking if there’s videos like that, that are so entertaining, right under our noses, imagine what else is out there. And that’s what kind of began the foundation of what we do now. So then we started looking at thrift stores and garage sales and other workplaces for videos and anything that looked interesting. Now we have over 6,000 videos. The collection keeps growing.
E: So when you’re on tour, do you look for more tapes or how do you go about finding more?
NP: Yeah, the routine, yeah. We did a 50-state tour last year, and we’re doing a pretty ambitious tour this year. And every time we do it, if we get there early, like 10 or 11 in the morning, we just spend all day looking in thrift stores, usually the Salvation Army or estate sales. When somebody dies and they’re getting rid of all their stuff or [if] the[re are] garage sales going around. We’re digging around for videos and other weird stuff. And that’s kind of how we’ve been able to sustain it—this is our 10-year anniversary— the reason we’ve been able to sustain it is because we keep finding new stuff, and we keep traveling around to find new stuff. So yeah we’ll be digging around when we come to town next week.
E:Okay. Do you think the supply of footage will decrease because not many people are in the market for VHS tapes anymore?
NP: (Laughs) Yeah. Yeah, I mean that’s the scary part of it, it’s not a renewable resource anymore. People aren’t producing new VHS tapes. I mean the good part is that all of the VHS tapes that are out there are out there right now. I think the last are like nursing homes and day cares, but they finally get rid of them too. They probably just upgraded to DVD players now. But all of the VHS tapes that are out there are circulating somewhere at a thrift store, but you’re right, the scary part is we’ve talked to thrift store workers, people you know, who manage the store, they aren’t even taking submissions or donations of VHS tapes because nobody buys them. So that’s the scary part, that’s why we continue to do these really extensive tours to try to rescue all the tapes we can before they’re gone forever.
E: Do people send you submissions, do you accept those?
NP: They do! I just got a box in the mail today, actually, from somebody in California who found a bunch of tapes. There is one called “How to Have Fun…Safely.” And it’s an educational video, and I was just about to pop that in this afternoon. That’s one of the best parts of doing the show. It’s inspired people to look at where they are able to find videos, too. It’s totally like Christmas morning whenever someone sends us a box of tapes, you can’t wait to open them.
E: Is there a particular decade you found videos were the most ridiculous?
NP: Yeah, it’s funny because you’d think the 80s, since it’s the most dated, ya know. I think in a way that’s true because VHS was such a new technology at time that people were trying out all sorts of weird ideas and just seeing what stuck. And because you get a lot of amateurs making videos you get a lot of weird, esoteric stuff that ended up on tape so yeah I think that’s the most overtly weird ones.
But then we also found a tape from the early 2000s called ‘Sing like the King.” An instructional video for Elvis impersonators about how to be a better Elvis. So you think, you know, wow, people get better at using the technology but the bad ideas are still there. That’s pretty refreshing.
E: I think YouTube is kind of the modern VHS tape.
NP: It is. there certainly is great stuff on there, but it doesn’t have quite the same appeal because I think everyone’s a little more self aware now. They didn’t know that they could end up on Tosh.0 or something. Occasionally, some things slip through the cracks but there’s a certain innocence and naivety that’s really appealing about the VHS era.
E: Yeah no one expected their videos to go viral, I’m sure.
NP: No there wasn’t any such thing. So what you used to do was trade tapes with people, you’d find a good piece of footage and dub it and then trade it for somebody else’s great piece of footage, and it kind of circulated that way.
E: Has there been one clip that has made you laugh or cringe the most?
NP: They all kind of fit that description. But there’s one in the new show that’s kind of like the highlight because it’s so ridiculous. It plays really well. It’s a video from 1997, again later than you would expect. But it’s called “How to Have Cyber Sex on the Internet,” so it’s an instructional video, how to log on, how to choose a chat name, all this stuff, and the video can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or instructional. So it ends up really being neither. It’s just like, what were they going for, ya know?
It just raises more questions than it answers. Even the title is “How to Have Cyber Sex on the Internet.” It retailed for 40 dollars when it came out in 1997. You couldn’t just figure it out for yourself— you needed an instructional tape. At one point during the chat sesh, they show that a person on the other line gets a phone call and it interrupts the chat because it was a modem at the time. It’s one of these weird anomalies that you wonder, how did that get made?
E: In the 10 years you’ve been doing this, how have the videos evolved? Has the audience changed at all? How has it changed in the course of a decade?
NP: Yeah one thing we do now, like at first we were just playing videos we found personally. But now with people sending stuff it’s expanded. So we have videos from all over the world, from different parts of the country. Initially it was all from Wisconsin, where we grew up, so there’s more diversity there.
Also, we go to greater lengths to find more about these videos now. For example, in this new show theres a video we found from the home shopping show from 1987 from the “John and Johnny” show. And we loved the two hosts of this show, they were so obnoxious. I think their idea of being broadcasters was to be as obnoxious as possible, fumbling all over their words, and dropping things. It was just chaos. So we fell in love with these guys and thought for this 10-year anniversary show we should try to track them down, we should see if they’re still around. So we actually hired a private detective. We tracked down both of these guys, and we got them somehow to agree to reunite for the first time in 26 years. We paid way too much money to fly a guy from Seattle to Tampa, Florida to meet the other guy. Then we videotaped the reunion. Now we show the big reunion after we play the footage at the show. So we go to pretty great lengths to do stuff like that that we wouldn’t have thought to do 10 years ago
E: What do you hope the audience gets out of this festival? Will they preserve more videotapes or look into their own collections?
NP: Yeah I mean I think if we leave people scratching their heads that’s one goal. And also in just sort of in awe of what things people deem worthy of videotaping. A lot of people are like ‘Man people were so stupid!’ But we’re like ‘no people were amazing and weird and isn’t that great?’ That’s kind of our attitude. Maybe some of them are regrettable moments on videotape, but we think its a pretty life-affirming thing to see all the warts and the sort of history of amateur video makers. We think it says a lot more about our culture than some of the great works of art. If you’re only looking at the top 10 movies of the last 30 years its a pretty inaccurate picture of who we are as people. So yeah we hope people leave scratching their heads but kind of affirm the weirdness of humanity. The main thing today is if they laugh a lot that’s generally a good sign.
E: I’m sure this has taught you a lot about U.S. culture during the time and how people spent their time.
NP: Yeah, exactly. We think its sort of an uniquely American thing. But then we go to like Europe and everyone’s telling us about their dumb videos, ya know ? It’s kind of like a human being thing to want attention. Maybe it’s sort of American to want to be seen and heard even if you don’t have anything to say. So that’s something that comes across in a lot of our videos. It’s a lot of people with a ton of ambition even if they don’t have the talent to back it up. There’s something about that combination that is pretty magical to see on screen.
_The Found Footage Festival will be at the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse on Friday, Oct. 3. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.foundfootagefest.com