At Tonight's Found Footage Festival, Big Ambition and Little Talent Make for VHS Gold

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If, after years of YouTube, unintentionally funny strangers just aren't that funny anymore, there may be only one cure, and -- lucky you -- it's stopping in town tonight at the Lakewood Theater.

The Found Footage Festival is a collection of vintage VHS clips lifted off corporate training videos, low-budget TV ads and homemade workout videos, all gathered by the comic duo of Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They've spent the last four years touring with their show, which they pepper with skits and running commentary, but it's their first time bringing it to Dallas.

These are the guys who first showcased the 'Winnebago Man' footage -- in the pre-YouTube days -- and made Dirty Country, the documentary about a foul-mouthed roots singer with a heart of gold. Prueher was good enough to chat with Unfair Park about how the festival got started, and what makes a prize found video. So if you're taking notes and think you've got an old tape that's got what it takes, Prueher's holding auditions after tonight's show.

So your website says you began this whole thing after "stumbling across a training video in a McDonald's break room." I guess I'm wondering how you 'stumble across' a tape in someone else's employee break room. Where do you draw the line between "found" and, you know, "stolen."

Nick Prueher: It's a fuzzy line for us, and training videos especially don't end up at thrift stores that often, because they're corporate secrets. So yeah, we've stolen. I think it was last week, we were at a FedEx store picking up a package, and while they were back getting the package, we peeked under the counter and they had five training videos. So I sort of kept a lookout and Joe grabbed those videos and we took 'em home.

Most videos, though, we just stumble across at garage sales and thrift stores. Other times, you kind of have to work for 'em. In Minneapolis, we heard about this ridiculous training video for Suncoast Video -- those VHS tape stores in the mall. It was some kind of a Wayne's World parody, it just sounded really dumb. So Joe actually applied for a job there, got the job, worked a 6-hour shift, took the training videos home in his backpack, dubbed them over, brought them back the next day and quit.

So that one you had to work for -- was there another time when you just knew you'd hit the mother lode, the absolute greatest spot for found footage?

NP: Yeah, there was this one thrift store in Alaska we went to called the Bishop's Attic, which somebody recommended when we brought the show to Anchorage. So we drove to this store on the outskirts of town and could not believe their selection of used VHS tapes. We found home movies, we found locally produced exercise videos, we found a huge stash of Blockbuster Video training videos. We had to check two extra boxes on the plane back to New York, because we'd found this untapped gold mine of VHS oddities.

It's like that for a lot of things -- once they get up to Alaska, they don't make it back.

NP: I think that was it, I don't know what it was about this place. Really, though, we've found that bad ideas committed to videotape are pretty universal. We find them in Wisconsin, where we grew up, we find them in New York. Wherever we go, there's regrettable moments captured on VHS.

Apart from regrettable moments, what are the winning ingredients for a tape?

NP: First of all, it has to be legitimately found either by one of us, or somebody else. We don't take anything off the Internet. Sometimes the stories about how the videos were found are as interesting as what's on the tape. The other thing is, it has to be unintentionally funny. If it tries to do something and fails colossally, that's just the perfect thing for us. The other thing -- we don't look for this specifically, but something a lot of the videos we play have in common, is that they involve people with a lot of ambition and questionable talent. That's just the magic combination for a video in our show.

Now when you go from town to town, you also ask people to bring videos to submit to the show, right?

NP: Yeah, we love it when people have found video in their hometown, or they've taped something off the local public access channel, and bring it down to the show. That's really the only way we can keep the show going. When people come up and share stories about how they found tapes, it's like Christmas morning for us.

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