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Ha-Ha Hunters

The Found Footage Festival creators discuss their adventures in video-scavenging - and on Chicago cable-access.
Wednesday Dec 09, 2009.     By Ben Rubenstein
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett
They say "one man's trash is another man's treasure." They are the ones who try to sell you caved-in furniture and "gently used" undergarments from their front lawns every summer.

Anyone who's attempted to hunt for treasure at garage sales, thrift stores and the like knows it's a thankless pursuit that usually ends in disappointment. No one knows it better than Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, the founders and co-hosts of the Found Footage Festival. The two comedy writers ("The Colbert Report" and "The Onion," respectively) have spent the past several years digging through a whole lot of trash in the hopes of finding their version of treasure: celebrity infomercials, amateur music videos, local ads and other humorous videos that have been - mostly for good reason - discarded from public memory.

Since their obsession was first inspired by a McDonald's training video in high school, the friends have amassed thousands of hours of ridiculous footage, some of it submitted by their growing legion of fans. And each year since 2005, they've edited the best of it together and shown it, live, to an audience while telling stories of where and how each video was found. This year's festival promises a fresh round of hilarity, with clips including a Milton Berle exercise tape and a 1987 video-dating reel submitted by none other than David Cross. We asked Prueher and Pickett to share some of their thrift-store wisdom before the fest rolls into Chicago (December 18 at Lakeshore Theater).

Why should people go to your show when they can just go online and find funny videos? What is added in the live experience?
Nick Prueher: Well, first of all, the footage in our live show is stuff you can't see anywhere else, including on our own website. But more importantly, with the glut of goofy videos out there right now, you need tour guides to separate the wheat from the chaff and take you through it. And luckily, we're willing to dig around and thrift stores and sift through hundreds of hours of discarded VHS footage to pick out just the best stuff. We also share the stories of how and where we found the videos and provide our own unique perspective on the material. Plus, when you're watching videos that weren't meant to be shown in public on a big screen, surrounded by 300 like-minded people who are there to laugh, something magical happens. And that's something you can't get in your inbox on your work computer.

YouTube has definitely changed the found-footage landscape. Is it harder to find those rarely seen gems, now that everyone’s posting up old infomercials?
NP: We've been collecting videos since 1991 and doing the Found Footage Festival since 2004, so we weren't sure how the rise of YouTube would affect what we do. But we've found that it's actually increased people's awareness and appreciation for what we do. When we first started the show, it was really tough to explain the Found Footage Festival. People would say, "But why would I want to watch bad videos?" And while my grandparents are still perplexed by the concept, I think most people have a frame of reference nowadays.

In your expert opinion, what makes for good found footage?
NP: I guess the first thing is that it has to be legitimately found on some sort of physical media, usually VHS. To us, the story of how a video was found is sometimes just as interesting as what's on it, so we're decidedly old school about our video procurement. Second, it has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever the video was attempting to do, it has to fail colossally. And lastly, although this isn't a criteria per se, we've found that a lot of our favorite videos involve people with a lot of ambition and very little talent. Luckily for us, there are a great many folks out there like that with access to video equipment.

Bargain BernieBargain Bernie just wants to save you money.
Tell us about a few of your favorite videos you've found, whether they made the list for this year's fest or not.
Joe Pickett: My favorite this year is this tape a friend gave us featuring raw footage from a local furniture store in Corpus Christi, Texas. It's hosted by the owner of the store who calls himself Bargain Bernie. Nick and I are huge fans of crappy local commercials and this video is a candid look behind the scenes of a pretty typical one. Bargain Bernie is probably a helluva salesman, but he's not a very good pitchman. He repeats his slogan "All I wanna do is save you money!" incessantly and he does this weird tree-hugging gesture while he's saying it. Plus he kind of reminds me of a Muppet. I've seen this video hundreds of times, but I look forward to it at every show.

Can you remember any particular videos you've found in Chicago, or that have a Chicago connection?
JP: Jan Terri, whose incredible homemade music videos were featured in our first installment, hails from some suburb of Chicago. Most of the video for "Journey to Mars" was shot at O'Hare International. Another video we've featured is actually a public access show still on the air - Chica-go-go. It's such a wonderfully bizarre kids dance show featuring kids, adults, puppets and occasionally robots dancing. Most of the time it feels like you're watching a weird dream. Nick and I appeared on an episode when we were in town a few years ago. It was so much fun, but my body wasn't used to dancing that much. I was sweating profusely and wearing a skin-tight leopard costume. I felt like I could've been arrested.

What happens to all the stuff that doesn't make it into your DVDs or shows? Does it go back to the thrift store?
NP: We have about 2,000 videos spread across two storage lockers and an apartment in Queens, NY, that we have yet to go through. But when we've watched a video and decided it doesn't make the cut, we drop it back off at a Salvation Army for other people to find. It's the circle of life.


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