TSOTA meets Nick Prueher ahead of this week’s Found Footage Festival
Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher began collecting videotapes in 1991. Since then, they have compiled an impressive collection of strange, outrageous and profoundly stupid videos. In 2004 The Found Footage Festival had its first show at Cinema Classics in New York and has since gone on to sell-out hundreds of shows each year across the U.S., Canada and the UK.
TSOTA’s Paddy Garrigan spoke to Nick about what makes VHS tapes so inviting, how you track down unsuspecting VHS stars, and about their upcoming show at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds this Friday!
TSOTA: Hi Nick! The first video you discovered was called “Inside and Outside Custodial Duties” – what was it about that video that made you want to keep it?
Nick Prueher: I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in the break room at the McDonald’s I worked at in high school and spotted a dusty training video for janitors on a shelf and popped it in the VCR. It had all the usual training video tropes – overacting, incessant perkiness, condescension – but what really set it apart was that they invented their own mythology. It was a trainee’s first day on the job and if he cleaned extra well he was told he might see “Mc C,” an elusive entity or condition that is never fully explained. That, and there’s a lot of sexual tension between the crew trainer and the trainee. Maybe that’s us reading into too much.
TSOTA: When/how did you come to the realisation that showing these videos would be something that you could perform as a show (both live and filmed)?
NP: As early as 1991 when we found the McDonald’s video. We were inviting people over to my parents’ house to watch the tape while [co-founder] Joe [Pickett] and I gave a running commentary of observations and jokes. That’s essentially what we’re doing now, except there are a lot more found videos on display and it’s in a movie theatre instead of my parents’ living room.
TSOTA: Other than your official rule (VHS hard copies only) are there any other stipulations you keep to when collecting your videos and planning your shows?
NP: I think our main criterion is that the footage in our show is unintentionally funny. Whatever the video was trying to do – get you in shape, potty train your child, teach you how to massage your cat – it has to fail in some entertaining way.
TSOTA: It’s almost like you guide the audience through a 90 minute YouTube-clip-trawl, but why does keeping to this specific era of videos feel that more special?
NP: The home video era was definitely a unique moment in time. People forget but the VHS format was really revolutionary because, for the first time, you could watch a movie in your home and control it with the touch of a button. By the late-80s there was VCR in every home and the format became really cheap to produce. As a result, a lot of amateurs and mom-and-pop operations were releasing videos, whether they had any idea what they were doing or not, and you ended up with a lot of weird, esoteric stuff on VHS. We’re here to make sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks.
TSOTA: How has the way the shows work live changed much since you started doing them?
NP: For us, the most fun part of what we do is sharing our VHS finds with people in a movie theatre. Something magical happens when you take these forgotten videos that were never intended to be shown in public and show them in public, on a big screen, in a dark room full of people who are there to laugh. I would say the one way it’s evolved over the years is that Joe and I go to greater lengths to track down the people in the videos and interview them to ask them, “What the hell was happening?” We’ve hired private detectives to find people the last few years, which is something we wouldn’t have done in the first few years of the show.
TSOTA: Who’s your favourite of the people you’ve tracked down for the show?
NP: The holy grail of people we wanted to meet from a video was Jack Rebney, a man we dubbed “The World’s Angriest R.V. Salesman.” We had found the raw footage from a sales video for Winnebago motor homes hosted by this guy, Jack, and in between takes he would completely fly off the handle. I guess he was having a bad week on set. Anyway, we cut together his best angry tirades into a two-minute montage and it became a big hit at our first live show. Joe and I tried to track him down but we couldn’t find him; we figured he had died from some sort of anger-related issue. But lo and behold, he was still alive! A filmmaker had found him living like a hermit in Northern California, told him we were playing his outtakes across the country, and when Jack heard that he got pissed off about it. No surprise there. But we managed to convince him to appear with us at a show in San Francisco where he would see the video with an audience for the first time. When we met him, he lived up to his reputation and was very prickly, but when the video played and he saw how much joy it brought people, he totally changed his tune. He regaled the audience with hilarious tales from the shoot, repeated some of his catchphrases, he even gave us hugs at the end! If a man known as the “angriest man in the world” gives you a hug, you know you’re doing something right. It was definitely the highlight of our careers.
TSOTA: The show obviously translates well internationally – what did performing the show outside of the States feel like to begin with?
NP: We weren’t sure how the show would play overseas initially but it has gone over really well in the UK, Scandinavia and even France. I guess the only thing we’ve noticed is that some American celebrities are known overseas and others are not, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. For example, we have an exercise video called “Teen Steam” put out by Alyssa Milano from the American sitcom “Who’s the Boss?” and it didn’t get much of a reaction in England. I guess that sitcom passed you by. But Angela Lansbury’s exercise video got a great reaction because apparently “Murder She Wrote” was a big hit across the pond.
TSOTA: And just what is it about showing dumb videos that people will never stop loving?!
NP: I think it’s a combination of things – nostalgia, dated hairstyles and clothes, schadenfreude – but for us they’re more than just dumb videos. There’s some genuine pathos on display, and these regrettable moments captured on VHS are in many ways more real than any of the polished movies of the 80s and 90s. We see a bit of ourselves in these videos, warts and all, and there’s something comforting about that.
TSOTA: This will be the third time you perform the show at the Hyde Park Picture House, what is it about the venue you enjoy so much?
NP: The Hyde Park Picture House is one of our absolute favourite places to play in the UK. It looks very grand and historic but it’s also really cosy on the inside. I think it’s a good beacon for weird cinema in Leeds and it’s got a built-in audience of weirdos who come out to our show.
THE FOUND FOOTAGE FESTIVAL will be playing at the Hyde Park Picture House on Friday 25th July at 9.00pm (doors 8.30pm). Tickets are £10 each and booking is advisable either by phone (0113 275 2045) or online HERE
Everyone who pre-books tickets will be entered into a draw for one of three signed DVDs of the show, and a pair of free cinema tickets from the Picture House.