July 22, 2016, is a date that will live in infamy for pop culture geeks, film fans and tapeheads. It's the day that could be the first step of the long, slow death of the videotape.
This was the day Japan's Funai Electric manufactured the world's last new video cassette recorder, or VCR. The bulky, rectangular box of wires, belts and anti-static brushes that in the '70s, '80s and '90s, stood as the simplest and best way to enjoy a movie at one's leisure at home. Thanks to the rise of the DVD, Blu-Ray and digital streaming, the VCR seems like a remnant of another time, when you actually had to leave your home and borrow physical media to see the latest film, television and home video releases.
Even though the technology that powers these plastic tapes of joy is slowly going away, VHS tape culture is still thriving, as collectors amass tapes from website forums and tape swaps so they can watch mainstream movies and cheesier fare, just like they did decades ago.
Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, the creators, hosts and curators of the longtime touring video comedy show The Found Footage Festival (coming this Saturday to the Texas Theatre), which screens awkwardly filmed how-to training videos — like How to Spot Counterfeit Beanie Babies and oddities like the unique Rent-a-Friend video companion — have over 10,000 tapes in their home office in Brooklyn that are "literally stacked to the ceiling," Prueher says.
He estimates that they've only gone through one third of them, and the stack keeps getting bigger thanks to their fans.
"Every week, we get a couple of boxes in the mail that have 50 to 60 more tapes that other people have found," Prueher says. "They've really kept it going and thriving all these years. We've connected up with other like-minded weirdos who find tapes in their attic or while they're working in a library and they find the VHS collection."
Since 2004, Prueher and Pickett have traveled the country with stacks of strange tapes they've been collecting as a traveling VHS circus where the awkward and overly enthusiastic performances of real people are turning into comedic art. Their tapes elicit unintentional laughs and gasps that transform them from occupiers of thrift store shelf space into deep tomes portraying the human spirit by showcasing the loves, tragedies and even horror associated to human emotion.
Prueher says despite how their show may seem on the surface, their goal isn't to mock or humiliate the people in these videos, unlike the usual viral strains of the modern internet.
"We have very little interest in being a snarky show," Prueher says. "It would wear out really thin, and the fact that we literally found these videos, it gives us an attachment to them. We had to get our hands dirty to find it and we like to afford it with more attention than some even deserve so we like the people who are involved."
The reason for their massive tape collection is because they've been scouring shops, swap meets and garage sales for years. They've even accepted part-time jobs at places like McDonald's and the now-defunct Suncoast Motion Picture Company store, just so they could get a copy of the training videos.
"One features two actors impersonating Wayne and Garth taking you through the training of how to work at Suncoast," Prueher says. "Joe got the job, worked a four-hour shift and took the tapes home. Ironically, there's a shoplifting video in there. They must have updated the video because it's a Siskel and Ebert parody, so we have a feeling the Wayne and Garth one is out there."
The fans who watch Prueher and Pickett's finds have turned the people into these videos into bona fide stars in their own right; like Jack Rebney, better known as the "Angriest Man in the World" or the "Winnebago Man," thanks to a video of outtakes of the man swearing and screaming up a storm during a difficult shoot for a Winnebago training sales video. Prueher and Pickett played a crucial role in the 2009 comedy documentary Winnebago Man, in which filmmaker Ben Steinbauer tracks down Rebney to learn more about the famous video and the fan base behind it.
Prueher and Pickett were also among the first of Rebney's fans to watch the tape that went viral on the tape trading circuits.
"We were working as [production assistants] on commercials in Minneapolis and crew members would share stories about the worst shoots they were on," Prueher says. "Someone told us about a host who had a bit of a temper and the crew couldn't believe it, so they kept the cameras rolling between tapes and he handed us all of the footage. We cut together our favorite parts and passed around the tape and it became an early staple of our tour and our DVD and stuff."
The climax of the film features Rebney attending a special screening and his first public appearance for a crowd of screaming fans at a special Found Footage Festival event organized just for him.
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"At first, he was pissed off about it, which didn't surprise us because he's known as the 'Angriest Man in the World' but we became friends," Prueher says about Rebney. "We came from that era of tape trading, making mix tapes, and he's been canonized to what we consider to be classics now."
The duo continue to find tapes that are added to the list of modern classics of cringe nostalgia, and their latest show promises more gems from their latest VHS expeditions. Prueher says tapes of something called the Miss Journal America Wisconsin Pre-Teen 1988 and a dance show from 1982 called Chicago Party are destined to become new classics of their patented form of cringe cinema.
"I got it from a friend in Chicago," Prueher says of the latter. "It's a 1982 dance variety show that aired on some UHF station for 13 weeks in the summer of '82 and it only aired on the south side of Chicago in a three-mile radius. ... And oh my God, if this is what Chicago parties are like, it's something to behold. It's got incredible dancers with an amateur vent, a guy who invented a dance called the Jerry Lewis, people doing the Android and acting like robots. ... It's a show I genuinely love. The acts are silly, goofy and fashionably dated. I would watch the show today. I love it."