Curating the Cringe-worthy, with Commentary: A Chat with the Creators of the Found Footage Festival

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When Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher stumbled onto a custodial training video at a McDonald’s in 1991, they never would have guessed that it would inspire a life-long obsession with found footage. The two created the Found Footage Festival together, and will appear at the 92nd Street Y’s Tribeca outpost on Friday and Saturday nights to host a screening they’re calling “Bad Movie Night.” Together, Pickett and Prueher hope to canonize the badness of their chosen flick, an ’80s sex comedy called Computer Beach Party.

Co-curator Nick Prueher chatted with us about the Golden Age of VHS, why Bob Saget sucked as host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the one video he never wants anyone to see.

Flavorpill: You must have hundreds or even thousands of videos at this point. How do you keep them organized? Have you considered using Dewey decimal-style cataloging, which might allow for the scatalogical cross-referencing of subjects, e.g. “leotard” and “Kentucky Fried Chicken”?

Nick Prueher: We’ve got thousands of videos right now, cluttering up my apartment, [co-curator] Joe’s apartment, and a storage locker in Long Island City. Right now, we’ve organized some of the videos by categories we’re working on for the new show: Hair and Makeup, Sports Team Music Videos, Bad Cartoons, Educational, Sex Instruction, etc. A Dewey decimal system is a good idea. That way, we’d know right where to look the next time we needed some full-frontal male nudity.

FP: Your site seems to fit into the whole retro revival that’s so in right now, from the comeback of plaid and scrunchies to the books that glorify childhood embarrassments (Mortified, Cringe), bar mitzvahs (Bar Mitzvah Disco), and summer camp (Camp Camp). What do you think it is about videos from this time period that strike a chord?

NP: The ’80s and early-’90s were the Golden Age of home video. The format was so cheap to produce that anyone with a video camera and a bad idea could make their own tape. If you bought a bag of cat litter, it came with a VHS tape back then. So you got all these weird, esoteric things captured on video for some reason. For those of us who grew up in that time period, there’s something uncomfortably familiar about the hairstyles, fashion choices, music, and production values. But recently, we’ve found a lot of good stuff on DVD from the 2000s and beyond. The formats may change and the production values might get better, but bad ideas are here to stay, thankfully for us.

FP: You’ve said before that the best videos are “unintentionally funny.” Do you ever get flack for being too mean or snarky about some of the more earnest footage you find? Do you think there’s room for earnestness in the world of vintage found video footage?

NP: We’re definitely having some fun at the expense of these videos, but it comes from a genuine place of love and affection for the footage. I hope that comes across in the show, because a mean-spirited snark-fest is not what we’re going for at all. We’ve personally found a lot of these videos, we research the stories behind them, and we lavish them with far more attention than they deserve. Actually, because of our attachment to these clips, the line between ironic appreciation and earnest appreciation is very fuzzy for us at this point.

FP: With FOUND Magazine and other user-generated projects, more and more of our pop culture is starting to come from a viral, from-the-ground-up kind of place. To play devil’s advocate for a second, are all you dumpster divers and flea marketeers just too lazy to create your own art? Justify the “found” movement.

NP: We’ve been collecting videos and showing them to friends since 1991, so we find the recent “found” movement pretty exciting. It’s like we’ve discovered there are kindred spirits out. Like us, I think most of the people involved with these projects do create their own art, but find a lot of inspiration in the stuff that other people discard. For instance, we wrote and directed a short film called “Gas ‘N Fuel” a few years ago based on a McDonald’s training video we uncovered in a break room, and we just finished a feature-length documentary based on a cassette tape of filthy country music that we found at a truck stop.

FP: How do you think your narration-style compares to any/all of these famous narrators and video curators: Vincent Price, Bob Saget, Rod Serling, The “Mystery Science Theater 3000” guys?

NP: We like to offer our commentary on the videos, but we also let videos speak for themselves when appropriate. That’s the exact opposite of Bob Saget, who ruined otherwise hilarious videos by talking over them the whole time, using his high-pitched voice for animals, and just generally being really unfunny. The Vincent Price and Rod Serling comparisons might be apt, because we’re often narrating some pretty creepy footage, but I think the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” guys are really the benchmark to aspire to. Back in the day, I was an intern on that show, and it was like an apprenticeship in making fun of bad footage.

FP: YouTube: best thing since sliced bread or opiate of the masses?

NP: YouTube is great, but it’s made people lazy. We are decidedly old-school when it comes to video procurement. We like to get our hands dirty, digging through bargain bins at closing video stores, rooting around in garbage cans for tapes, and hunting for gold at thrift stores. It makes the discovery of a VHS gem so much more personal and rewarding.

FP: Can you give us a sneak preview of any of the new footage that appears on your spring tour?

NP: We’ve got outtakes from a local mattress commercial from Texas, an anti-drug video starring Chad Allen and Louis Gossett, Jr., an instructional video for a masturbatory device for men, and a video called “Hip to Be Fit,” starring Kristy Yamaguchi and The California Raisins. It’s going to be one hell of a 2009.

FP: You two have known each other since sixth grade. If someone happened upon your childhood home movies or videos of your adolescent years, what footage would you be most tempted to destroy?

NP: We both have some video skeletons in our closets. Joe has a home movie from Christmas 1987 where he’s very seriously demonstrating karate moves for his family. I got this tape from Joe’s parents last summer and showed it at his wedding in Wisconsin, much to Joe’s embarrassment. My humiliating video is called “DJ Jazzy Jess and the Fresh Nick,” and it’s a music video my younger sister Jessica and I made at Disneyland in 1989. We sang “Parents Just Don’t Understand” while dressed in giant novelty sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, and my sister’s voice was deeper than mine. Joe stole this tape in high school and broadcast it on our public access station for all to see. I drove down to the station, pressed eject, and destroyed the video with a hammer. So basically, we can dish it out but we can’t take it.

FP: Infomercials and training videos seem to be the bread and butter of your enterprise. What are the strangest products and training instructions that you’ve come across?

NP: People actually buy the weird juicers, health and beauty products, and exercise equipment advertised on infomercials, and then they quickly realize it’s all crap and drop it off at the Salvation Army. That’s where we find this stuff, and it often comes along with the instructional videos. The strangest one we’ve found by far was this facial mask called the Rejuvenique with all these little electrical probes on the inside. Linda Evans is on the tape endorsing the product, and the mask was made to resemble her face. That, combined with the fact the device actually electrocutes your face, makes for some truly terrifying footage.

FP: In addition to the Found Footage Festival, you made a documentary together, Dirty Country. Any other projects on the horizon?

NP: We’re really excited about “Bad Movie Night” because we come across a lot of terrible movies on VHS but never have the time to properly showcase them in the Found Footage Festival. This gives us a chance to showcase one remarkably bad movie — in this case, “Computer Beach Party” — and deconstruct and dissect it. Plus, there’s more time for smartass remarks, comedy bits, and audience participation. If people get a get a kick out of “Computer Beach Party” as much as we think they will, look for more “Bad Movie Nights” on a regular basis in New York.