Joe Pickett, left, and Nick Prueher, right, are the subjects of a new comedy documentary called Chop & Steele that shows the legal fallout from a series of pranks they played on local morning news shows and the lifelong friendship their comedy and the long-running Found Footage Festival.Keith Guerke
There's a fun little bit of irony shared between comedians and Found Footage Festival founders Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, and it plays out in their new documentary Chop & Steele.
Pickett and Prueher have spent 18 years touring the country with the Found Footage Fest, a screening of weird, cringe-worthy and real instructional videos that they've found in thrift stores and garage sales. Thanks to a new documentary, they are the ones we're watching on screen during one of the most vulnerable and trying moments of their lives.
"When I'm watching the movie, my knee jerk reaction is to make fun of the screen," Pickett says. "I'm excited to do a commentary. Do they still do commentaries on DVD?"
During their tours, the pair started a prank in which they would pretend to be a fitness duo called Chop and Steele. They went on several local morning TV news shows pretending to be a pair of mighty strongmen who would share their exercise moves — involving air bicycling and lifting milk jugs — to unwitting anchors because no one at the station bothered to vet the two before they stepped in front of the camera. Grey Television, the parent company of one of the TV stations, got so mad at Pickett and Prueher that it filed a multimillion-dollar federal fraud lawsuit against them.
"We found out in the New York Post we were being sued," Preuher says. "We had to turn over a year's worth of texts, emails, documentary, anything that mentioned the news. Joe's dad got subpoenaed. It was just a huge pain in the ass for about a year."
Pickett says a process server tried to serve the lawsuit to him following a Found Footage show in Wisconsin in 2017.
"I remember the scene in Pineapple Express where if he can't see you, he can't serve you the papers," Pickett says. "So I saw him reach in his bag and I said, 'I have to go to the bathroom. I waited in there for a half an hour and looked for, like, ducts. Finally I came out and he served me the papers."
The legal fallout brought out a new perspective on a friendship and comedy partnership that's lasted since the sixth grade, and now these guys who mock people doing bizarre things on long-lost tapes are the subjects being analyzed on a big screen. A new documentary called Chop & Steele tells Pickett and Prueher's story, and it's showing Saturday at the Texas Theatre as part of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. Pickett and Prueher will also hold a special Found Footage Festival screening following the movie.
"It's basically about when you're doing any sort of creative endeavor that doesn't hit super big, how do you find the motivation to keep going big?" Preuher says. "We've avoided having real jobs for most of our lives, and the Found Footage Festival reached its 18th year. How do you stick to your guns and keep going?"
Director Ben Steinbauer, the filmmaker behind the 2010 indie comedy Winnebago Man, about the elusive former Winnebago pitchman Jack Rebney who became an internet star, followed Pickett and Preuher with cameras all through the yearlong hell created by Grey Television's lawsuit. Preuher says the movie is about more than just the lawsuit. It's also about he and Pickett's friendship, which is why Preuher says Steinbauer calls Chop & Steele "the I Love You, Man of documentaries."
Pickett says they planned to call Steinbauer to help them film a similar prank they planned to pull "one of the biggest heists of all time" on the NBC reality show America's Got Talent when another story about their lives emerged from the lawsuit.
"I didn't realize that there was more of a story to it," Pickett says. "I thought America's Got Talent was going to be the end of the movie. It was Nick and I's relationship and it took a documentarian outside of ourselves to see this because we couldn't see it ourselves."
Pickett and Prueher are best friends who've spent a long time pursuing creative endeavors. During childhood, they made a humor newspaper and prank call tapes to sell to friends at school to the Found Footage Festival they started in 2004.
"I've always been two feet away from Nick at all times," Pickett says. "He makes me laugh harder than anybody in the world. We're also Midwesterners, so we don't emote."
The legal fallout from their prank was actually the easier part of the movie to produce, Prueher says.
"The lawsuit was a walk in the park compared to having to talk about your feelings on camera," Prueher says. "We were taking photos at the premiere and the photographer said, 'Can you put your arm around Nick?' and we said we don't normally do that, but OK."
Grey Television withdrew its lawsuit right in the middle of a story that Vice was producing on the pair's legal battle. The public fallout from the suit did more to boost the duo's status and bring them online support — including from comedy greats Bobcat Goldwaith, Reggie Watts, David Cross and The Yes Men.
They also just premiered the Chop & Steele documentary and presented a Found Footage Fest screening at the Tribeca Film Festival that also earned them a page in People Magazine. Pickett is also working with Steinbauer on a documentary about the history and impact of the humor newspaper The Onion. Prueher has also produced a top-selling, comedy board game called Dream Crush released by the pop merchandising Mondo that the Alamo Drafthouse recently sold to Funko Toys.
"It takes a crisis to show how strong of a thing you've got," Prueher says. "For us, it's a goofy hobby to help keep ourselves afloat and helps us do what we like to do. It took this crisis to help us realize, I guess, this is a career. You don't have to do a living doing the prescribed thing people tell you that you have to do. If you're willing to take a few licks and have some lean years and do without luxuries other people have, you can do what you want to do and find ways to make it work."
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune,Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.