MOVIES

Found Footage Fest screens hilarious videos 'in a dark room with a bunch of other weirdos'

Before Thursday's Wex show, FFF co-founder Nick Prueher talks about stunt specials gone wrong, strongman duo Chop & Steele and feeling like a god

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Joe Pickett (left) and Nick Prueher of Found Footage Fest

In normal times, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, originators of the Found Footage Festival, unearth little-known, absurdly hilarious VHS tapes from dusty thrift-store bins while doing live shows across the country.

“I wouldn't be surprised if COVID started at one of the places we like to find videos,” Prueher said. “They’re filthy.” 

The pandemic changed all that, of course. Last year, Prueher and Pickett were forced to cancel 80 Found Footage Fest tour dates, which meant no more thrifting. Instead, the two friends threw themselves into online shows, launching new YouTube series and paid virtual shows through Patreon. “We actually found a lot of fans who only discovered us during the pandemic from our YouTube shows,” Prueher said. 

They also discovered a new way to find odd, rarely seen videos without leaving the house. “If you go to YouTube and type in the letters IMG and then any four random numbers, it'll pop up dozens of accidentally uploaded videos from people's phones that they didn't even bother to title, because that's just how your phone saves them,” Prueher said. “The reason why we love physical media is there's that thrill of discovery; you could find a tape that no one has found before, and you have a story about how you found it. And here we are finding these insane little snippets of videos that nobody's seen. They have one view or three views or sometimes zero views. And it's given us that thrill again.” 

Prueher and Pickett also enlisted the help of viewers affectionately dubbed “IMG harvesters.” “We'll give them a set of 10 numbers and just say, ‘All right, let us know what turns up.’ So we get these people toiling away, searching for these undiscovered videos, and we've turned up a lot of good stuff. … That kept us going during the height of the pandemic when we couldn't go out at all,” said Prueher, who, alongside Pickett, will screen some of those unearthed oddities during the Found Footage Festival's Columbus tour stop at the Wexner Center on Thursday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m., preceded by a reception with the duo at 6:30 p.m. in the Wex’s lower lobby.

A still from the 1987 Miss Jr. America Wisconsin pageant

The Found Footage Fest live show debuted in New York City in 2004, and at a previous Wexner Center show, Prueher and Pickett got to know Caitlin McGurk, associate curator at Ohio State's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and her partner, Wex staffer Erik Pepple. More recently, McGurk has become a regular guest on “Shaturday Morning Cartoons,” a weekly series FFF launched during the pandemic.

“We look at old, forgotten, crappy animation, mostly from the ’80s. … Caitlin was so great and had all this knowledge of cartoons and comic history,” said Prueher, adding that FFF will stream a Christmas edition of the series featuring McGurk’s commentary on the TV special “Ziggy's Gift.” “Caitlin not only knows a lot about Ziggybut has a ton of Ziggy merchandise and has a lot of Ziggy art at the Billy Ireland. … While we're in town, we're also going to shoot something for that series at the Billy Ireland with Caitlin.” 

While the various online series have taken off, old VHS tapes still provide the comedic core of the in-person fest, and the Wex show will feature some Ohio-specific footage, including Cleveland’s disastrous “Balloonfest ’86,” along with “The First Annual Martin Carlton Stunt Special,” a legendary, tape-traded video given to Prueher and Pickett by Bob Odenkirk. 

“It’s just this dude — I think he's in Akron. His brother is videotaping him, and he decides to jump from one tree to another tree that's about four stories high. And it's not very well thought out. He doesn't even come close to getting it. And then it's mostly the aftermath of how much pain he's in,” Prueher said. “He called the video ‘The First Annual Martin Carlton Stunt Special.’ Well, we tracked him down, and we’re going to have him attempt the Second Annual Martin Carlton Stunt Special, even though it's been 38 years. … We're going to meet him the day after Columbus in Cleveland, where he lives now.” 

Both Balloonfest and the Martin Carlton special are now find-able online, but Prueher said he doesn’t worry too much about the nothing-new-under-the-sun aspect of the footage; it’s the curation that people respond to. “There's such a glut of material out there,” he said. “People appreciate somebody who can give a guided tour and pick out the best stuff and present it with context. That value is still there, even if something's been out there online at some point.”

Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher pose as strongman duo Chop & Steele on a morning TV news program.

Sometimes, Prueher and Pickett create their own hilarious footage, usually in the form of pranks on morning TV news programs. Previously, the pair posed as bumbling strongman duo Chop & Steele, appearing in character on multiple morning shows. They also enlisted their college buddy Mark Proksch (who now stars in “What We Do in the Shadows”) to pose as Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, a painfully awkward yo-yo expert (i.e. not an expert at all).

For a time, it looked like Chop & Steele could be the downfall of Prueher and Pickett. Gray Television, a broadcast company that owns local TV stations, sued the FFF founders for hoodwinking its affiliates. But in 2018, Gray dropped the suit, and Prueher said morning news shows continue to be easy targets.

“They are still looking for content and not doing their homework. … They have not gotten any savvier. In fact, we've done some [pranks] since then that we haven't released yet,” said Prueher, adding that winning the legal battle emboldened them even more. “They tried to sue us, and it didn't work. So we're like, wow, the sky is the limit now. … We're gods. We're untouchable.” 

While we should probably expect Chop & Steele and other characters (like Prueher's "Chef Keith") to resurface in the future, the heart of Found Footage Fest is the in-person live shows. “The fun part for us is still taking these videos that weren't meant to be seen in public and showing them in public, which is a lot different than watching something on your phone,” Prueher said. “Our preferred way to do this is in a dark room with a bunch of other weirdos on the biggest screen possible. There's something transformative about watching an exercise video that was meant for your mom to watch before school and work out along with, or a training video for McDonald's janitors, and instead you're watching it at the Wexner Center.”