If it weren’t for Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, we may never have heard about Jack Rebney — one of those early viral video sensations from the bygone era of the mid-aughts. You may know him better as the Winnebago Man. In a montage of outtakes from a commercial selling RVs, Rebney goes on long obscenity-laden tirades. At one point he yells, “Get out of here you goddamn jackass!” at a fly buzzing around him. For some it may just be an exercise in pointless vulgarity, for others it is a goldmine of entertainment.
As the creators and curators of the Found Footage Festival, a live show that features oddball and funny clips, Pickett and Prueher saw the mass entertainment value potential in Rebney’s rants, making it a staple in the show’s line up. Before too long, Prueher got to meet Rebney when he came to a live show to see audiences view his 20-year-old blooperfest. Initially perplexed by the fame he had attained, Rebney grew to enjoy the adulation. To this day, Prueher keeps in touch with Rebney, “I spoke to him the other day. He was railing against Donald Trump. He’s as fiesty as ever.”
Speaking while on tour for the show, Prueher expanded on the live comedy event’s origins, “I think it came out of boredom. Joe and I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. We would entertain ourselves by finding stuff in thrift stores. We found people’s old answering machines with the tapes still in them. It started in the early ’90s, we’d watch VHS tapes. Mr. T’s Commandments, children’s videos, the videos that came along with the beard trimmer … we’d have friends over on Friday nights and we’d do jokes and running commentary along with them. It really hasn’t changed much since then.”
During any live show, the audience has been treated to the best of the worst found footage out there. Poorly staged safety hazard in the workplace videos? Check. Topless exercise videos? Check. Rapping celebrities? Got a few of those. Cats riding motorcycles? It happens. Weirdos massaging their possums? Yep. If any of this sounds alluring, the Found Footage Festival is for you.
Fans of the show have their favorite unearthed footage. Prueher has a couple of his own, two hyperactive, maybe coked-up hosts from “America’s Value Network” during the ’80s, John and Johnny. “These two guys were so obnoxious. They would be dropping things and saying things that didn’t make sense. All we have is 30 minutes of footage and I can’t watch it enough. I notice new things everytime I watch it.”
For all the random strangeness that they’ve seen and shown to audiences, there is one video the guys can’t bring themselves to bring on tour. “There was a tape on the tape trading circuit: a female fan sent a video to guitar player Steve Vai. A birthday video. She says at one point, ‘I know you can make all these gnarly sounds but check out these gnarly sounds I can make with my body.’ It’s not funny, more disturbing,” says Prueher.
Prueher and Pickett lucked out on two counts over the past year. When David Letterman retired in 2015, the duo was given over 30 years of the show’s VHS archives. Very recently a series of news bloopers were given to them by an editor from Charlotte, N.C. who had worked at a news station for 20 years. “He had been saving them for himself. He never did anything with them. He said ‘I think you should have them. You guys do something with them.’ Now we have 20 years of untouched footage. It made our year basically,” says Prueher.
When asked what he thinks is the draw of these videos, Prueher pauses for a moment.
“I think there is something about the era that is charming. For the first time mom and pop production companies could make videos for the video markets. Nobody knew what they were doing yet. I find it really endearing there is a sort of naivete, almost experimental trying ideas and seeing what sticks. It’s a fun nostalgic era but I also think it’s way more truthful.”
While their eye for the bizarre and their editing chops form the basis for the Found Footage Festival, Prueher and Pickett have recently been incorporating pranks into the shows. The first prank involved their friend Mark Proksch as a sadsack yo-yo expert Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser while another involved Prueher as culinary expert Chef Keith serving up holiday leftovers to gross effect.
As much fun as many have found in their exploits, not everyone is as in love with the Found Footage Festival, namely Gray Television, a television broadcast company based in Atlanta, Ga.
Over the past year, Prueher and Pickett appeared on local morning news shows, some owned by Gray Television, as a strongman duo called Chop & Steele promoting their “Give Thanks 4 Strengths” tour. They lifted full milk cartons, chopped sticks in half with their bare hands, and crushed baskets with their feet. Ultimately, they posted clips from some of these segments online. While the goal was to entertain, the pair were also making a point about how easy it is to get on certain news programs that don’t do a basic fact check before having guests on their show.
Their prank has resulted in Gray filing a lawsuit in federal court, claiming copyright infringement, fraud, and conspiracy. Prueher is, to say the least, a bit bummed. “It’s really preposterous. It’s so painfully stupid. Last week we sat in depositions for 14 hours. It’s all because a giant media corporation was embarrassed. It’s concerning and ridiculous at the same time. It’s worrisome because it’s costing us a ton of money. As you’ve seen with Gawker, rich people can shut down whatever they want to.”
The duo has decided to fight the charges. As a result, they have set up a GoFundMe campaign to cover legal fees that are expected to reach $100,000.
Even their favorite RV salesman chimed in on the page with a bit of sage support, “You went up against the first television station in the market to have its own Doppler weather radar?! Are you daft? You obviously need help and lots of it.”