Analog & Ironic

The Found Footage Festival Resurrects Ridiculous VHS Tapes in Unique Comedy Show

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett introducing their wacky videos at one stop on the Found Footage tour. Courtesy of Found Footage Festival

In the Internet age of whiny memes and re-posts galore, it can be hard to find fresh and original content. Enter the Found Footage Festival—a celebration of the weird, forgotten VHS tapes of a past era and home to some of the strangest footage on Earth.

FFF is a hybrid event: part clip screening, part stand-up comedy, part historical anthropology, but all thoroughly bizarre. In its 10th year, the FFF showcases all the kooky videos that long-time friends and festival founders Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett discovered over the past year, with the pair telling the tales behind the videos on stage and adding their own comedic commentary as well.

Prueher discovered his love of eccentric VHS videos when he came upon a janitorial training video in a McDonald’s break room in 1991.

“It was so ridiculous. It had this perky trainer and this dope of a trainee who like, couldn’t wait to clean the garbage,” Prueher said.

“Through the whole video she says, ‘Do you see McClean yet?’ and he’s like, ‘Not yet!’ so they created this whole ridiculous mythology for this stupid training video, and my thought was, ‘This cannot stay in the break room, the world needs to see this video.’”

He and Pickett played the tape for a small audience of friends and developed a running commentary along with it, which set the groundwork for the festival they would eventually found in 2004.

The pair have written and researched for a number of high-profile comedy programs, including The Onion and The Colbert Report.

“I interned at the show Mystery Science Theater. That was the first time I realized, ‘Wow, you can be a professional smart ass.’ So that was a big inspiration,” Prueher said.

When curating videos for the festival, there are only two rules: the videos must be in a physical format, and they must be unintentionally funny.

This means the festival’s bread and butter are bizarre training videos, exercise videos, promotional videos and even old home movies, all scavenged from thrift stores and garbage cans in their original glorious and clunky VHS format straight out of the ‘90s.

Prueher is adamant about the merit of this unearthing as opposed to traversing the re-post wasteland of the Internet.

“[The show is] curated by us, and we’ve selected videos that we’ve personally found and have stories behind them. We put them in what I think is the proper context, which is the live setting,” Prueher said. “That’s something you don’t get with the Internet, you don’t get that communal aspect of being in a room together, and the contagious laughter that happens. Watching something in a two-inch window on your laptop just isn’t the same.”

One of Prueher’s favourite videos being shown at this year’s festival is “How to Have CyberSex on the Internet,” a name as absurd as it is redundant.

“It’s an instructional video put out by this company in 1997. I think they were trying to cash in on the newfound popularity of the Internet,” Prueher said.

“The thing I can never tell is, it’s too sexy to be an informational video, because they have topless ladies in it using a computer, but it’s not sexy enough to be titillating. So there’s no reason for it to exist.

“It’s just an oddity, I don’t think they even knew what they were going for,” he said with a laugh.

Cultural Anthropology through Tape-Hunting

Prueher considers himself and Pickett as amateur “cultural anthropologists,” documenting and preserving humanity’s most cringe-worthy moments in the ‘90s by rescuing the tapes and bringing them back to life.

“Mostly what we’re doing is a comedy show, but I think there is a value to it, because there’s a lot of film preservation societies and there really isn’t that for VHS —we’re kind of it,” he said.

“I think that these mostly regrettable VHS tapes we find are worth hanging onto—I think they’re in some ways more truthful than the top 100 films of the last 30 years,” he continued. “Our desire to be recorded and videotape even if we don’t have any good ideas, I think that says almost more about us as a people than our greatest works of art do.”

As for the VHS community, Prueher said what they lack in numbers, they make up for in zeal.

“It’s a small community of people who grew up with VHS, and appreciate it in the same way that record-collectors appreciate vinyl,” he said.

From Garbage Cans to Ritzy Hotels

The Found Footage Festival’s 10th edition will make its way to cities all around the world on a three-month voyage.

“We do about 130 shows a year now, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. It’s crazy because a lot of these videos we actually found in garbage cans, and it’s just weird to be in Paris showing these,” Prueher laughed.

“The whole thing seems like an inside joke, but I think we started at the right time when people were ready to look back at the VHS era and laugh, so it was almost accidental.”

Along with hosting the festival, Prueher and Pickett have written a book on their unique trade of VHS-hunting, and have produced a documentary about their adventures as well.

In each city the duo will be searching for tapes during the day before taking the stage at night. Prueher implores anyone who has tips on hidden nooks in Montreal that might have obscure tapes to reach out to them before the show.

Prueher was frank was he described what the audience should expect when attending their show.

“They can expect to see the craziest footage they’ve ever seen, stuff they can’t see anywhere else. I describe the show as a guided tour through our VHS collection,” he said. “We’re sort of the straight men to all this very weird footage, and your hosts for a bizarre evening. They can expect to laugh.”

The Found Footage Festival // March 24 // Theatre Sainte Catherine (264 Ste. Catherine St. E.) // 9 p.m. // $12 + fees