Before YouTube, On Demand, and DVD, there was VHS. Once upon a time these clunky lumps of black plastic were a godsend to movie and TV junkies who, up until then, had been at the mercy of distributors and broadcasters to get their fix.

So what if the cassettes were unwieldy, noisy, and the tapes got chewed up in your machine sometimes? They revolutionized viewing habits, encouraged a whole new generation of couch potatoes, and enabled thousands of really bad filmmakers to get their projects out into an unsuspecting world.

Like most great inventions, the benign videotape was misused in horrible ways. It could be used to instruct, to market products, to show home movies to your friends. A lot of this was done very badly. But that was part of VHS’ charm — it could provide an alternative to TV, with shoddier, nastier, weirder content that made a refreshing change from network pap.

From an early age, Nick Prueher (The Colbert Report, Late Show with David Letterman) and his friend Joe Pickett (The Onion) scoffed at that pap. Small World, a notoriously execrable sitcom about a robot girl, was the butt of many jokes. “It was horrible,” Prueher recalls with a shudder of delight. “I loved it ’cause it was so bad. I had viewing parties where we made fun of that show.” The sixth graders fostered an ironic appreciation for terrible shows and sought out even worse material, which they found on videos that were so bad people couldn’t even bear to keep them in their homes. In 2004, after years of collecting crappy videos, Pickett and Prueher created the Found Footage Festival. It’s a live show where they screen clips culled from the discarded tapes and rip the piss out of them.

The footage ranges from mullet-packed video dating and Barbie exercise workouts to birthday parties and instructional videos like How to Seduce a Woman through Hypnosis. “It’s like vinyl,” explains the New York-based Prueher. “It was so cheap to produce albums, even a high school marching band could put out a record. There’s some real esoteric stuff out there. Everybody had a home video camera. Even beard trimmers came with a how-to video of how to use it.”

Now that DVD is the format of choice, people are getting rid of collections en masse. That means a thrift store bonanza for the comedy duo, who have been sifting through bargain bins and garage sales for tapes for almost 20 years.

Their quest forms a part of the show’s narrative, before Pickett and Prueher present each clip and put it in context. Their big rule: the footage has to be unintentionally hilarious. If it’s well made, it has no business being in the festival. “We have a montage of VCR board games where you were supposed to interact with your game,” chuckles Prueher. “It was a terrible idea that really didn’t work too well.”

The Footage Festival has worked far better, touring internationally and getting heavy mentions on NPR, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Attack of the Show. The one-of-a-kind show’s highlights include overacting pirates (is there any other kind?), rapping celebrities, blow gun enthusiasts, talking Rubik’s cubes, and brief, non-erotic full frontal male nudists that will have the audience tittering, not titillated. “If anyone gets any prurient thrill out of this,” Prueher concludes, “there’s something wrong with them.” —Nick Smith

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