Thrift stores are magical places. Shift through the garbage, and you can find amazing things: first-edition copies of The Great Gatsby, designer jackets, and out-of-print psych vinyl records valuable enough that they could pay off a few semesters of community college tuition.
But there’s something even more amazing buried in the racks and bargain bins: the homemade videos, music tapes, and DIY publications that some lunatics let out into the world. You know, the weird shit.
When it comes to rooting out the choicest oddities in the thrift world, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are truffle pigs. The co-founders of the touring Found Footage Festival (with Geoff Haas) have spent years combing secondhand establishments across the country to find hilarious and unusual VHS tapes.
The Found Footage Festival is part storytelling show and part film event. Founded in New York in 2004, Pickett and Prueher show off their oddball collections of videos, tell the stories about how they found them and the bizarre characters they’ve come across on their quest.
You can expect to see exercise videos, deranged karaoke performances, public access disasters, and completely off-the-rails religious programs when their popular internet talk show VCR Party rolls through Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Tempe on Friday, February 28.
We talked with Prueher about the festival's origins, his most-wanted VHS tape, and if buried A/V treasure can exist in the age of memes.
Phoenix New Times: How did the Found Footage Festival start?
Nick Prueher: I guess boredom is probably the best answer. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and there wasn’t a lot to do, so my buddy Joe and I would hang out at Goodwill’s and Salvation Army and look for things.
We’d find answering machine tapes that still had messages on them. We’d play those on long road trips and listen to people’s incoming messages. And then in the ’90s, we started finding VHS tapes: McDonald’s training videos, Hair Club for Men, that sort of thing.
We’re just like, "We’ve got to have screening parties for these!" So we’d invite friends over to our parents’ living rooms and watch these videos on Fridays and Saturday nights and develop a running commentary of jokes and observations to entertain ourselves and our friends.
It wasn’t until about 15 years later — I guess it was 2004 — we had enough videos in our collection that we thought, "What if we took this out of our living room and put it into a theater?"
The fun part about doing the show is that they’re always at night, so we’re free to bum around at thrift stores and estate sales during the day. That’s how we spend our waking hours: searching for videos.
Fewer and fewer thrift stores are accepting tapes these days, though. There just aren’t a lot of people out there who still have VCRs. It’s kinda heartbreaking to think that so many videos will just end up in a landfill.
But the encouraging part is that we’ve become kind of the go-to place if you find a VHS tape that looks unusual or is unintentionally funny. People will bring stuff to us at shows. I just opened a box in the mail today that had a bunch of autographed videos from Branson. Somebody in Branson sent us Yakov Smirnoff autographed tapes. It’s been a pretty exciting day!
Do you have a dream tape you’re looking for that has eluded your grasp?
There’s one I have in mind. We don’t take any videos off the internet. It’s all stuff we physically find. But occasionally somebody will send us a YouTube link and be like, "Guys, you should find this one."
There’s one in particular called "The Super Broker Shuffle." It came out after "The Super Bowl Shuffle." Other sports teams did their own shuffle videos. This one was a video made by brokers of grocery store products. Imagine a bunch of middle managers from the mid-'80s trying to rap about placing Heinz beans in grocery stores — guys who just have no business rapping. They’re wearing glasses and sports coats and singing about broccoli and kids' cereal. It’s so good! It’s right up our alley. I just don’t know how to get the actual videos. I’ve tried and tried to find it, to no avail.
Do you think it’s harder for these sorts of oddities to exist today? Considering the speed in which things get turned into memes and go viral, is it possible for something crazy like the “Super Broker Shuffle” to come out today and get ignored so it can be rediscovered years later?
In some ways, I think the turnaround is faster. Someone will discover a clip online that’s instantly funny, but those are kind of flash-in-the-pan videos. The ones I think that people will discover 20 years later are things that nobody knew were funny at the time. It’s only with that distance that the videos that people are making now are going to look dated and misguided. I think people will be doing a version of our show in 20 years by pulling stuff from the cloud.
It’s hard to get back to the glory days of VHS. It was such a unique moment. It was the first time that this kind of technology was in the hands of amateurs. Film was so hard to use. You couldn’t really start up a mom-and-pop film production operation. But anybody with a camcorder and a tripod and an idea, no matter how misguided that idea was, could get a video commercially released.
There was a wide-eyed innocence about it that’s hard to go back to. Everyone is savvy now and has an awareness that their video might be seen by the world. But back in 1988, when somebody made a video about how to care for your pet ferret, they didn’t think that anyone beyond ferret owners would be watching that video.
We started watching a video the other day called “How To Spot Counterfeit Beanie Babies.” That was probably made with an audience of 10 people in mind. Or another one we saw was an hourlong video on how to identify machine-made marbles. It’s an hour long! That level of specificity, with the internet and unlimited bandwidth, you can still do that, but the context is different.
When people made those videos, they never thought that anybody beyond their immediate context would be watching it. Part of the fun for us is taking a video like an exercise tape that was meant to be watched by moms in a living room and throwing that onto a big screen. That change in settings instantly makes it funny.
Found Footage Festival Presents: VCR Party takes place on Friday, February 28, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Tempe. Show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $14 via the Alamo Drafthouse.