It was a McDonald’s training video that fundamentally upended Nick Prueher’s perception of VHS tapes.
“I was working at a McDonald’s in high school, and I found a training video in the breakroom called Inside and Outside Custodial Activities,” Prueher said. “It just couldn’t be more dumb and insulting.”
Prueher showed the VHS to his best friend, Joe Pickett, with whom he shares a love of comedy with.
They sensed a comedic goldmine in the abundance of horrible ideas committed to videotape, and since they were still too young to drive away from their hometown just outside of Madison, Wis., a hobby was exactly what they needed.
For 15 years, Prueher and Pickett tirelessly scoured garage sales, thrift stores and even estate sales to unearth the gems that lay hidden in the reels of VHS tapes.
They were so committed to their quest of amassing cheesy corporate videos that they would go any length to obtain one.
“I heard a rumor that SunCoast Video had a really stupid [employee training] video featuring Wayne and Garth teaching you customer service,” Pickett said.
He filled out an application and worked a four-hour shift just to get his hands on the video.
“It turns out they had a video with Siskel and Ebert [impersonators] giving customer service employees thumbs-up and thumbs-down for customer service instead,” he said. “I totally wasted four hours of my life.”
Not even the dead were safe from Prueher’s ravenous hunger to feed his growing collection. He once plundered the home of a deceased person in New York during an estate sale and found a video that featured a bare-chested old man dancing to the Phantom of the Opera while wearing women’s lingerie.
Prueher and Pickett entertained friends on Friday nights by showcasing their collection and giving running commentary of the videos with snarky remarks. Eventually, someone suggested that a theater could showcase their wacky videos better than living rooms can, and the Found Footage Festival was born in 2004. Its most recent incarnation will be unveiled at the Latvian Society Hall on Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
It was mind-boggling, Prueher said, to sell out at venues across the country for something he and Pickett regularly did in their college dorm rooms for free. He was also amazed that people from New York, Los Angeles and even countries like France and the Netherlands, all bellowed with laughter at his terrible VHS footage.
“The language of really horrible videotapes is universal,” Prueher said.
There are several recurring themes in the Found Footage Festivals, the most common being exercise videos featuring B-list celebrities like Marky Mark and O.J. Simpson. Another smorgasbord of unintentional hilarity comes from public access messages that feature celebrities like Gary Coleman and Henry Winkler. Of course, there are no junk-like videotapes for banal products, such as the EZ Catch Chicken Harvester, a post-apocalyptic device that scoops up live chickens with tiny, metallic fingers and puts them in holding cages.
“It’s for mowing a lawn made of chickens,” Pickett said. “You’re laughing and screaming at the same time.”
Superfluous as Prueher and Pickett’s runaway hobby may be – their everyday jobs include producing segments for The Colbert Report and writing for the Onion – it epitomizes the relationship between man and technology of new and old.
“When people come to the show and they laugh at videos, I think they’re laughing beyond the funny hairstyle and the silly outfits. We turned out as a society that made way too many videos,” Pickett said. “We just bombard you with so much stupidity. It’s like, man, what have we done?”
Jimmy Viola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.