In garages, basements, and attics across America, VHS tapes are gathering dust. Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett want those tapes.
The founders of the Found Footage Festival travel the country sharing funny videos they’ve found while scouring thrift stores, garage sales, and storage units. “We’re looking for children’s videos and workout videos and things that weren’t really meant to be shown in public, which is why it’s so much fun to show them in public,” explains Prueher.
Friends since middle school, the duo bonded over their ironic sense of humor. “I remember one of the first things we did was watch the show Small Wonder about a robot little girl. It was one of the first times I remember liking something ironically,” Prueher says. “We didn’t excel in academics or sports, but we had an advanced sense of irony from an early age.”
But it wasn’t until the friends were in high school that Found Footage was born. “I was working at a McDonald’s as a freshman in high school and was bored in the break room and looking through the training videos. I found one that was covered in dust, and it was a training video for custodians, a typical training video,” Prueher says. “They invented a whole mythology around custodial duties. It was insultingly dumb.”
Prueher thought the world needed to see that video. “Admittedly, I stole it and had people over to watch it,” he says. “Friday night, we played the video and made jokes. After we played out the McDonald’s video it started the journey.”
The next video was a lawn mower educational video, hosted by, of all people, Mr. T. From there Prueher and Pickett’s tape collection just kept growing.
But the Found Footage show isn’t just another version of America’s Funniest Videos. Although the shows do share some similarities, Prueher and Pickett look for different types of videos.
“We’re looking for outrageously bad,” explains Prueher. But what does outrageously bad mean? Pickett’s a big fan of training videos. “They’re the hardest to find, but on the rare occasion when we find one, it’s time to rejoice. Most of the time we have to steal them,” he explains. “For example, back in 2000, I had heard that Suncoast Video had really awful training videos, so I filled out an application, interviewed, and actually got hired. I worked a four-hour shift, stole the training videos, and then quit the next day. The rumors were true: their training videos were awful.”
To find other classics, the pair follow a standard plan. Once Prueher and Pickett arrive in a town they start searching thrift stores for VHS tapes. “Everyone is getting rid of their old tapes, so thrift stores are seeing a glut of crappy videos,” Pickett says. “Unfortunately, I think there’s going to be a quick decrease in VHS tapes at thrift stores soon. They’re bulky and heavy and nobody really buys them, so we’re grabbing as many as we can while we’re out on the road.”
And the comedians have been touring for so long now — since 2004 — they’ve found their favorite stores. There’s the Bishop Attic in Anchorage, Alaska. They usually have to ship back two or three boxes since it’s such a VHS gold mine. On the otherside of the country, there’s The World’s Largest Thrift Store in Memphis, Tenn., where they found Sing Like the King, a training video for Elvis impersonators.
In order to find show-worthy gems, the friends must search through a lot of trash. They watch all the videos all the way through, since they can never tell when something funny might happen. “We watched one on cash register training, a training video for different types of cash registers. I’ll never get those two hours back,” Prueher says.
Although their process is time consuming, it can pay off, like the video on birthing puppies. The tape started out bad but ended up providing a good, albeit explicit, montage. Prueher explains, “They kept saying things like ‘if you have an overweight bitch’ and ‘calm your bitch down,’ so I cut together all 87 bitches and all of a sudden you have a video.”
For this tour, Prueher and Pickett have selected the videos they’ll show and worked out some commentary, but every show is a little different. “It always starts with us in a room with friends watching videos,” says Prueher. “The jokes that work we keep in, but [the tour] is pretty loose and off-the-cuff.”