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Champion of the Pre-YouTube Era Likes His Chances

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 10, 2011 4:40PM

2011_11_10_found.jpg When the Found Footage Festival rolls into town tomorrow night there will be more than the expected array of unintentionally hilarious, often cringe-worthy and downright bizarre gems dug out of an ever-growing stockpile of home videos, corporate training tapes and instructional VHS cassettes.

Yes, there will still be entertaining finds like Heavy Metal Parking Lot's companion footage, useful discoveries like a video that will help you know be sure that hospital clowning may not be for you, or inexplicable artifacts like the saddest video ever made, because Found Footage Festival co-hosts Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett know where all the VHS bodies are buried. But tomorrow they will also be staking their claim to the throne as kings of found media in a contest with Peter and Davy Rothbart from FOUND magazine. The face-off between the all-time favorite found videos vs. the all-time favorite found notes should be epic.

On the eve of the battle, we spoke with Found Footage Festival founder Nick Prueher about seven years of taking the odd hobby of video collecting on tour, the difference between the VHS and YouTube eras, and why he expects to come out on top in tomorrow's contest.

Chicagoist: How did the Found Footage Festival end up joining forces with FOUND for this tour?

Nick Prueher: It just so happened that they do a tour and we do a tour, and we were booked at the same venue on the same night. The venue didn't realize that we would eat into each other's audience, so we combined it and said we'll do the late show, you do the early show, and we'll bring both of our crowds to both shows. We ended up appearing at the FOUND guys' show, and they did a ten minute set to open ours. It was really fun and we got along well, so we thought it would be fun to do a tour together and combine both of our audiences. And the best way to frame that is a bitter, bitter fight to the death.

C: I think of you guys as digging through basements and sorting through a ton of things and FOUND as sifting through all this stuff that people send them.

NP: I think we both started off with just being finders ourselves. I know Davy and his brother and Jason Bitner were collectors of things that they had found and then they were able to foster a community of people who did that, through their magazine and their website. We have found that people send us more and more stuff. My room is littered with boxes--just huge diaper boxes filled with tapes that people sent me that they had found--but we still do a lot of the ground work ourselves. When we go on tour we go to local thrift stores during the day, and then we get home from the tour we end up with a lot of boxes.

With FOUND, it was like when you meet somebody who has the same weird hobby as you and you almost feel like long-lost brothers. We had this very specific thing that we could talk about. Like "Do you ever get this cough from being around dusty old notes or videotapes?" "Yeah, I have that!" We have the same weird affliction, so it's kind of a support group.

C: Have you noticed any change in the appetites, the reception or the ecosystem around what you do over the last seven years?

NP: Definitely there is more of an appreciation for what we do, I think. At the time when we started doing the show it was kind of a foreign idea, that people would come and pay money to watch things that were not very good. We would try to explain that these videos were unintentionally funny, or even really bad... but why would people want to come and watch that, you know? Now you can just say that it's like some videos you've seen online before, like this or that, and they will instantly get it. There's more of a shorthand to explain to people what the concept is.

The other thing is that we started doing this before YouTube existed. We weren't sure how the popularity of YouTube would affect the show, but if anything we've found that it has increased people's appreciation for what we do. With so much material out there online, some of it good, most of it lousy, people appreciate having the role of the curator. This is the cream of the crop and we vouch for its quality. People appreciate having tour guides to take them through this morass of found videos.

C: It probably also helps that you can post things online when you're not doing the tours.

NP: Yeah, if we find something that doesn't quite make the cut for the live show, we'll put it online and give people a little taste of that. For us, it's all about the live experience. There's something that you don't get from Youtube or a computer, the shared experience. I guess you can invite a friend to watch on your little two inch by two inch window on your laptop, but the experience of being in a theater or in a bar with a bunch of people, seeing things that were never meant to be seen in public, projected on a big screen... there's some sort of alchemy that happens. It's almost magical. There's contagious laughter, and we've seen the crowds get bigger and bigger every year.

C: When the theater is filled with people wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, it's infectious and just makes it that much more fun.

NP: Especially with comedy. You need a quorum. You need enough people huddled together, and then everything becomes funnier. I find that to be true of watching these things that weren't meant to be watched. It makes people identify: "Oh this wasn't meant to be funny, but we also think that it is." The fun part of this for us is sharing it with people, and they feel that too when they come to the shows and then want to share it with their friends and turn them onto it.

We thought that finding videos and sharing them was something only our friend group thought was funny. We thought it was this weird little hobby that we had and nobody else would really find funny. It took a lot of prodding to do the first show and actually get us into the theater. We thought nobody was going to show up unless they're like friends of friends who've been corralled to come, but we ended up selling out the show and people really dug it. It's been one of the coolest things to see that maybe this hobby wasn't so weird after all.

C: Reflected in what you guys are doing, and in a lot of things going on right now, is this appetite for all this stuff that's locked up in people's basements from the 80s and 90s. Is it triggering nostalgia?

NP: It's nostalgia but it's not just blind nostalgia. There was this zeitgeist when home video technology was still new. It finally reached the point in the late 80s where everybody's home seemed to have a VCR and a camcorder. I remember my dad bought a beard trimmer in like 1990 and it came with a video on how to use it. It was so cheap to produce. It's similar to the reason why people collect vinyl, because in the 60s that a high school marching band could press 100 copies of their performance. All kinds of stuff ended up on vinyl because it was so cheap to produce and it was everywhere, everyone had a turntable.

Even though people were late to appreciate VHS and maybe there is a smaller community, it's the same. VHS is a cheap format that got in the hands of people who probably shouldn't have been behind the camera. Everybody could put out a video, and a lot of them did.

C: You've got to feel like the era of ubiquitous digital video is seeding a future generation of crate digging, so to speak, for Youtube gold. I can't even imagine how much stuff is produced every day that nobody's even looking at.

NP: Maybe mining that will be the future but, to me that has a lot less charm than actually getting your hands dirty and finding a piece of physical media. There's something about blowing the dust off things. Taking this partially melted VHS tape and respooling it, popping it in and seeing what's on there. It's kind of like being a really lame Indiana Jones. With Youtube, you type "funny cat" into the search engine and it does the archeology for you. It's just not as charming. We're just kind of stubbornly old school in that we don't take any Internet videos. We don't think it's as fun. It's like cheating to us, still.

C: Having some sort of physical incarnation of the media allows it to be lost and re-found. There's no algorithm governing its provenance. It's like how Steve Albini talks about always wanting more than just a digital copy of music because he wants a physical copy so that hundreds of years from now someone could build a machine to listen to it, no matter what.

NP: It's just so transient. Also, (and there are some glorious counterexamples to this) people today are for the most part so much savvier. They know they're on camera, they know it could get out there. Now the technology is so old that people are just comfortable with the idea of being in front of a camera. In the late 80s early 90s you had that sort of wide-eyed naivete about how the technology works, and that's something that can't really be duplicated so much. When it is, it's really appealing.

There was a video that came out a few weeks ago of two old people trying to use their webcam. They couldn't figure out how to do it and it ended up being recorded and somebody uploaded it. And like 6 million people watched it on YouTube. That's part of why 89-99 was such a golden age for video. It's hard to duplicate that now. People are a little more cynical about it and a little more savvy.

That said, there will always be people who are just charmingly clueless, or who will have bad ideas. Bad ideas never get old. As long as there are people out there with bad ideas, in one format or another we will be in business.

C: So how did you end up putting out a book?

NP: We have over 5,000 videos. Sometimes we'll find videos and the cover is so great that we can't wait to pop them in, and then we do and what's on them is just disappointing. Or not funny. But the covers are so awesonme! A couple of years ago we decided to do a slideshow of our favorite covers from 20 years of collecting. We just take people through the covers and tell jokes about them. It proved to be a really popular segment, so we did it again last year and because of that we got a book deal to collect 300 of our favorite all-time covers along with commentary by us on each page. It's full color. There's a chapter called "Unusually Specific," and there's a video in there called "Identifying Machine-Made Marbles," An actual 60-minute video. "How to Spot Counterfeit Beanie Babies" was another interesting cover. A lot of Kung-Fu instructional tapes. Some graphic design atrocities, all sorts of shiny leotards and regrettable choices, even some hand-labeled videos of something someone taped off TV. It's the perfect bathroom read, basically.

C: Does mining the cultural output of the VHS era give you any insight into human nature? Certain things jump out, maybe because they are particularly funny to me, like the seduction videos and aerobics instruction tapes and machine safety instruction. These things feel particular to our era in some weird way.

NP: The overwhelming thing is that people want to be on camera, no matter what. Whether they should be or not. We're a video-obsessed culture. We want to document things and get them on tape. That's what really sticks out. Also, and this may just be a particularly American thing and not just from that decade, but there's a lot of people out there with a lot of ambition and very little talent. There's something about that combination, when they get it on camera, that is just magical.

C: So in the battle, why should I lay my money on video over notes?

NP: There's full-frontal male nudity, so that's one thing. Although that may have actually dissuaded you. That may have just put the odds way in FOUND magazine's favor. We're gonna have the cream of the crop, and there's going to be some new stuff. We're doing a collection of the greatest weirdos that we've ever found on tape. We'll be choc full of hard-hitting laughs. I might put our money on Found Footage Festival.

C: You are a really bad trash talker, I have to say.

NP: Ha, I know. I have to step up my game. Uh... Fuck those NPR-appearing pantywaists?

The Found Footage Festival vs. FOUND Magazine extravaganza takes place Friday, November 11 at 8 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Tickets are $13 (with one dollar benefiting the local non-profit Intonation Music Workshop) and are available online.