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Found Footage Festival brings VHS weirdness back to Los Angeles

From exercise videos to home movies, those behind the Found Footage Festival dig through video relics to find you the best unintentionally funny footage of the video era.
From exercise videos to home movies, those behind the Found Footage Festival dig through video relics to find you the best unintentionally funny footage of the video era.
Found Footage Festival

The Found Footage Festival is on tour, hitting Los Angeles's Largo theater Friday night, Aug. 24. From exercise videos to home movies, those behind the festival dig through video relics to find you the best unintentionally funny footage of the video era.

It all started when friends Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher started collecting old VHS tapes in 1991.

"I was a freshman in high school working at a McDonald's in my hometown, and I was bored in the break room one day and found a video there: A training video for McDonald's janitors called 'Inside Custodial Duties,'" Prueher said. "I put it in just thinking, 'what is this tape?' And could not believe what I saw. I mean, it was one of the silliest, most ridiculous, insultingly dumb tapes I had ever seen."

Prueher snuck it home from work in his backpack and had a viewing party with Joe Pickett and the rest of his friends — a sort of proto-Found Footage Festival. "We'd just sit around and watch this video, and make jokes, and we even made a short film based around the characters in the video. We were obsessed."

They took it on as a quest and began collecting VHS tapes from garage sales, thrift stores and wherever else they could be found.

One of their early finds that became a viral phenomenon started working in production in Minneapolis. "When you're meeting people on the crew, you share horror stories about the worst shoots you were ever on, and this crew member told us about this shoot he was on for Winnebago RVs back in 1988 in Iowa. He gave us the raw footage from this shoot, and the host, this guy named Jack Rebney, kept losing his temper during the shoot, and the crew, as sort of their revenge, left the cameras rolling in between takes and captured this man's descent into madness, basically."

You can see some of that original footage below (warning: includes adult language):

It became a big hit and led to the documentary "Winnebago Man" (also with foul language):

The filmmaker managed to track Jack Rebney down with the help of a private investigator, living like a hermit in Northern California. "We were able to convince him to appear with us at a show in San Francisco," Prueher said.

Rebney was apprehensive at first. "He'd never seen a crowd of people watch his video outtakes before, and he was pretty surley when we first met him. He said, 'Who are the lunatics coming to this show?'" Prueher said. Rebney stood in the back of the theater, arms folded. "He was kind of upset, but once he saw people doubled over with laughter, once he saw the joy that his video was bringing people, you could see this little smile come over. We compared it to the Grinch, where his heart grew three times its size that day."

It's a piece of the found puzzle culture, starting around the same time as Found Magazine. Pruehett attributes the popularity of both those and sites like PostSecret to everyone's innate desire for voyeurism.

One of the things that makes the Found Footage Festival special in Pruehett's eyes is taking the experience of watching these videos by yourself and making it communal. "When you watch that in a big movie theater with a bunch of people on a big screen, something magical happens there. It's almost cathartic. You're watching these videos that were never meant to be seen in front of a big group, in front of a big group."

People also see themselves in the lives of those in these videos. "People recognize something sort of uncomfortably familiar, whether it's a crummy training video that's similar to one you had to watch at your first job, or it's the exercise video that your mom used to watch every morning before school," Pruehett said.

He also feels that the nostalgia found here gives a more complete sense of the culture and who we are than actual produced films.

The whole endeavor could be in danger, though — great VHS tapes may be becoming harder to come by. "We have been talking to people at Goodwills and Salvation Armys as we tour around the country, and they've been telling us, some of them, that they don't even accept VHS anymore, because nobody's buying the tapes, and that scared us to death," Pruehett said.

That inspired them, though, to put on their most ambitious tour to date. "We're worried that if we don't find this VHS, it's just gonna end up in landfills. It might be gone forever. And that's part of our history that's gone," Pruehett said. They're continuing their quest, seeking out those tapes to preserve them.

Are they ready to go digital? Not yet. Itif you find something on the Internet, it feels like cheating to me, and for us, a lot of it's about having the story of how you find something, and it makes it more special when you found something in person rather than just typed something into a search engine."

Besides being on a piece of physical media, Nick and Joe's other cardinal rule is that it must be unintentionally funny. "We have a pretty good radar about when somebody's trying to be funny and when it's not. Of course, sometimes when people are trying to be funny and they're not, that works too, because then it becomes unintentionally funny again. It's like three levels of irony deep."

Awkward comedy can be tricky, and it's not for everyone, as people who try telling everyone to watch the British version of "The Office" know. "What we've found is that somebody trying to be funny and failing is the most excruciating thing to watch for people, and we have to edit judiciously, because crowds just can't stomach it," Pruehett said.

"If somebody's trying to do something dramatic or train you how to flip burgers and failing, that's fine, everybody can laugh at that. Or in the parlance of midnight movies, a movie like 'the Room,' which was trying to be serious, or like 'Troll 2,' which is trying to scare you and failing, very easy for people to understand and laugh at that. But if it's a bad comedy, oh, it just hits too close."

Pruehett tried to explain why failed comedy is so painful. "Comedy is such a personal thing, where you're saying 'Hey, come on, you guys share my point of view on this, right? Right?' ... So when the vision of someone trying to be funny falls on its face, it's a very personal failure you're witnessing, and that's too much for a lot of people."

What strange stuff did they turn up recently? They found a VHS tape hidden inside a camcorder filled with home recordings of one... unique individual's life. "He gets into a screaming match with somebody who's doing construction on his house and being videotaped, and then he's in a dress dancing to 'the Phantom of the Opera' right after that."

Los Angeles plays a big role in the latest edition of the Festival. :We found an incredible public access show from Los Angeles that only ever aired two episodes in 1999, and then was I assume asked to never come back, but it's this show called 'Dancing With Frank Pacholski,'" Pruehett said.

What you get in that video is Pacholski wearing an American flag Speedo while dancing to John Philip Sousa marches in a public access studio. "But that's not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is that the audience for it, the live audience he's assembled, is a group of elderly people who don't want to be there. So they're sitting in a little semicircle of chairs, forced to watch this man pat his butt cheeks and pour salad dressing on his head in some kind of performance art ... you just can't look away. It's just completely and totally compelling."

Nick and Joe hired the same P.I. that found Jack Rebney and flew to L.A. to interview Pacholski. He did the interview also wearing a Speedo. Footage of that interview is also part of the new show.

The Found Footage Festival is at Los Angeles's Largo, Friday night, Aug. 24 at 9 p.m. The festival will be back in California in December, hitting Chico on Dec. 11.