Interview: Joe Pickett (Found Footage Festival)
Curators Joe Pickett (left) and Nick Prueher introduce a VHS clip at a Found Footage Festival show in Milwaukee. Photo by Erik Ljung.
The Found Footage Festival is a touring show in which comedians and curators Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher show bizarre and humorous VHS tapes that they’ve collected over the years. Their current tour will stop in Sacramento on December 9, so we decided to interview Joe about the Festival, crazy videos, and the strangest thing he found at an estate sale.
Where did you come up with the idea for the Found Footage Festival?
Nick and I have collected videos for a long time, since we were in the 6th grade. It really started when Nick was working at a McDonalds and at the time they had a really awful, legendarily bad training video. He stole the tape from his job and we got obsessed with it, and that’s where the obsession with bad videos started. In college I got a job at a video duplication house and stole some videos there. We were making a documentary about it and we decided to show some of the videos and charge admission to raise money for it. We finished the documentary in 2007 and we decided to continue showing the videos. We got a place in East Village for our first show and sold it out, which was a surprise. Somebody from a film blog saw it and wrote a review about it which blew up and created a demand for this show. When we were out touring we had free days where we could go to thrift stores and find VHS tapes.
What are the shows typically like?
It’s kind of a guided tour. Each year we put together all of our latest, greatest finds and introduce each one. We give some back story, make jokes over each one, and we’ll track down the people who made it. We really get obsessed with it. We show like 15 videos, such as exercise videos, home movies, public access, training videos, industrial videos, how-to videos, and just stuff that wasn’t intended to be seen by a mass audience on a big screen.
Has it been difficult finding material for the show?
No, not at all. It’s been especially easy now since everyone is getting rid of their VHS tapes. While some thrift stores aren’t really accepting them anymore, I was able to get 10 VHS tapes for 10 cents apiece the other day. While VHS tapes are eventually going to end up going to a landfill in five years, we’ll be set for life!
A woman in a painted sweatshirt works out in the ambitious opening music video to “Totally Tulip,” a 1988 fabric painting instructional tape. Courtesy of the Found Footage Festival.
Some of these tapes you show don’t seem to have any sort of appeal beyond a niche demographic. How did some of these tapes get made?
That’s the beauty of that era, and why we call it the golden age of video. Up until that point they were shooting on film, which was expensive and finicky. When VHS and video came along, it was cheap and anybody could do it. All you had to do was hit the red button and you could make a training video or a home movie, and people got crazy with it.
In Sacramento, we’ll be featuring this video called “How To Have Cybersex on the Internet.” It was made by a studio called Scimitar, and they would crap out anything based on some sort of fad. It was all quantity over quality with them. There’s another one we’re showing that’s all about putting Puffy Paint on sweatshirts, and it begins with a three minute music video just about Puffy Paint. It’s so ambitious and catchy, and it’s just kids showing off their puffy paint.
Have you ever found a tape that was so terrible you just couldn’t even show it to anyone?
Oh yeah, of course. We will show almost anything – all of our shows feature full frontal male nudity, and audiences would be disappointed if we didn’t have it. We find our audiences get more laughs out of that than full frontal female nudity. However, there are certain things we won’t show. There’s a Steve Vai fan video where a woman blows out candles with her vagina – I don’t know if you can report on this – and she’s like, “I’m doing this for you Steve.” It’s funny but you can recognize that she’s psychotic, which ruins the humor. We try to keep it light.
Is there a tape that you’re showing on the current tour that you really like? Why?
I’m most excited about this home shopping one we found in a warehouse in Wisconsin. It has these two obnoxious hosts, John and Johnny, that were making it up as they went along. It came out when home shopping was brand new. It’s so quotable and they’re dropping things all the time. It’s a trainwreck but you can’t look away. We finally tracked these guys down, got their phone numbers, and we flew one of them out from Seattle to one of our shows even though only we wanted it. I think they were confused as to why we wanted to reunite them so badly! They hadn’t been in touch and were confused as to why would want it so much.
Hyperactive home shopping hosts John and Johnny promote Christmas items in newly unearthed footage from the Wisconsin-based America’s Value Network (c. 1987). Courtesy of the Found Footage Festival.
Do you have a crazy story about finding a really good tape?
I used to go to estate sales a lot. We went to one in Queens, and I found a cheap camcorder there. When I plugged in the camcorder, I found an unlabeled video in there! I popped it in and I wondered if I went to David Lynch’s estate sale. There was an old man in a glittery dress and wig. He looked like Buffalo Bill, but he was dancing very seriously to Phantom of the Opera. I felt like I was getting cursed watching it. It stuck with me for a long time.
I feel like videos that are made today don’t seem like the stuff you’re showing. Do you feel that way as well?
I think new videos can be just as weird, but we just don’t know it anymore. Everybody has a YouTube channel now, or some sort of an outlet. In 10 years we’ll find it funny, but we don’t know it now. In the 90s people were sincere and earnest in making these videos, and in time we’ll realize that we are as stupid now as we were back then.
Another reason I think videos today are different is that we’re all very aware of ourselves now, partially because our tastes have evolved. If you see stuff from the 80s, people get really excited to be in front of a camera. People now have this awareness and our production values have increased – for instance, we’re all shooting in HD now – and we all know what looks good.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
We’ll be featuring a video we found in Sacramento, right in time for the holidays, called the Holiday Workout. We found it at Value Village and we’re excited to show it. The woman is very perky, it has awful music, and it’s a workout that you can only do two days a year. It’s a testament to how specific they got with these videos.
Carole Maggio, the host of the 1996 facial workout video, “Facercize,” tightens and tones her cheek muscles. Courtesy of the Found Footage Festival.
Interview by John Kesler