Video Gold 

The Found Footage Festival rescues comedy from the VHS trash bin.

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett

Remember those McDonald's commercials about bright, energetic young people starting their careers with an entry-level fast-food job? Well, Nick Prueher — co-founder, with childhood friend Joe Pickett, of the Found Footage Festival — can relate. Sort of.

For the past five years, Prueher and Pickett have traveled the country presenting clips culled from a nation's worth of VHS refuse, a reservoir of abandoned video from which the duo have discovered copious amounts of unintentional comedy: home movies, exercise videos, local-TV advertisements, training and instructional videos, long-forgotten cartoons, "celebrity bullshit," and so much else. And the roots of the festival lie partly under the golden arches.

"In 1990 or 1991, I was working at McDonald's and I found a training video that looked stupid enough to watch," Prueher remembers. "It tried to have a story, a plotline. It was one of the most insulting things I could imagine. My first thought was, Joe has to see this video. That was sort of the beginning of the Found Footage Festival."

Inspired by the fun of goofing on the McDonald's training video, Prueher and Pickett began to scour thrift stores and garage sales for more potential comedy. Initially, it was just something to do with friends, but five or six years ago the duo — who have worked for such comedy outlets as The Onion and The Late Show with David Letterman — decided to take their hobby out of their living rooms and put it into movie theaters.

Essentially, Prueher and Pickett, both 34, do for their generation's video oddities what cult TV series Mystery Science Theater did for an earlier generation's cheap genre cinema: celebrate through loving mockery.

Since taking the Found Footage Festival on the road, Prueher and Pickett have developed a self-renewing process, hunting for videos at each tour stop and then taking a break between tours to mine their new acquisitions for material for the next Found Footage program.

"We'll be in Memphis the day before, and we'll go to thrift stores all day, collecting VHS tapes that look like they might have something worthwhile on them, and by worthwhile we mean bad in the right way," Prueher says.

Prueher and Pickett are also happy to take tapes from fans at their tour stops, but in an age of YouTube, they do not get any material from the web.

"Taking things from the Internet feels like cheating," Prueher says. "The reason we love the videos is that they all have a personal connection. It's stuff we've found or stuff friends have found. Without context, the videos don't really mean anything."

The program the pair will present at their first Memphis stop is likely to include such examples as exercise videos from Milton Berle and Dolph Lundgren, Saturday morning cartoon clips starring Chuck Norris and MC Hammer, a cat-care instructional video from Golden Girl Rue McClanahan, comically inept regional television commercials, and some cringe-worthy sex-toy how-to videos.

Asked about Found Footage staples, Prueher says, "We always put together an exercise-video montage, because far and away, that's the most common video we find at thrift stores. Anything that involves celebrities rapping. That's always solid gold for us. And training videos."

Prueher says the duo will add some Memphis-specific content for its local appearance in the form of a promotional video for '80s-era wrestling tag team the Fabulous Ones. "It has to be one of the most unintentionally homoerotic videos you'll ever see," Prueher says.

Though the duo sometimes takes material from discarded DVDs, they stick mostly to VHS, which establishes a roughly late-'70s-to-mid-'90s time frame for most content.

"It was a time when you had people with a lot of ambition and access to video equipment who just weren't that talented," Prueher says. "Anybody with a bad idea could commit it to videotape. Luckily for us, those tapes are still circulating somewhere."

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