An informational video called "How to Have Cybersex On the Internet" mixing topless women with lessons on how to turn on a modem. An exercise tape called "Tiger Moves" starring an older gentleman imitating a tiger. A medical video trying to have some fun with hideous, repulsive wounds – starring a "Wheel Of Fortune"-esque wheel of wounds. A medical tape featuring The AMS Ambicor Prosthesis, a surgically applied Reebok Pump but for a man’s privates.
As the creators of the Found Footage Festival, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are no strangers to bad ideas. And they’d have it no other way.
"One thing we just love is a misguided idea that goes horribly awry," Prueher said. "For me, after 10 years, sometimes you can forget why you do it or wonder if you should keep doing it. But when you find a video like ‘How to Have Cybersex On the Internet,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, okay; we have to show this to people.’"
And for the past decade, that’s exactly what Prueher, Pickett and the Found Footage Festival have done: showing people the best of the worst cheap VHS tapes the world has to offer, videos that can often make the tape from "The Ring" seem like a blissful rom-com. At one memorable show, Prueher recalled a fan in the crowd passing out midway through the AMS Ambicor Prosthesis tape, only to quickly recover and stick around for the rest of the festival.
The show comes back to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, Nov. 29, celebrating a decade of sharing VHS debacles and having several good laughs in the process. Prueher, for one, is constantly amazed that their silly hobby, their Criterion Collection of crap, has built such an enthusiastic audience over the years.
"It’s pretty unbelievable to think about, because it really just seemed like an inside joke, something that just you and your friends find funny," Prueher noted. "We grew up in Stoughton, just a small town just outside of Madison, and that’s what our own private little thing we’d do with friends was. We’d watch videos in my parents’ living room on Friday nights and make jokes. It’s been incredible to realize that there’s a huge audience of other people who appreciate this kind of stuff."
To celebrate the occasion, the Found Footage Festival has a special lineup of unintentional comedy genius set for the weekend’s show. Familiar fan favorite segments will make their appearances, including a montage of exercise videos – including "Tiger Moves," a tape called "Butt Camp" and another amusing tape of a woman doing incredibly animated facial stretches – and the VHS cover slideshow, a section of the show actually born out of disappointment.
"I was taking out the trash in my apartment building, and in the dumpster, I noticed a stack of dusty VHS tapes," Prueher recalled. "On top of that stack was a video, hand-labeled in pencil in really bad penmanship, the words "Bunion Surgery" – both words misspelled. Your mind just reels thinking about what it might be.
"I had Joe over, and we’re popping in this video, and all it was was a special about bunion surgery taped off the Discovery Channel," Prueher continued. "But that video is the reason is why we started the VHS cover slideshow. It kind of rescues all of these great covers that we find where the footage might not live up to the hype."
Prueher and Pickett have some special guest footage lined up for the evening as well. They not only got its hands on some uncovered new footage of two of its breakout stars John & Johnny, the wonderfully obnoxious hosts of a short-lived Menards-sponsored regional home shopping network called America’s Value Network; after some hunting, they managed to reunite the two for the first time in 26 years.
"We basically just called them up and harangued them until they agreed to meet," Prueher said. "It was pretty magical. They had fun talking about the old days, and we actually handpicked some items for them to sell to us – just to see if they still had that magic. And they did! They were playing off of each other and saying things that didn’t make sense, just like in the old days."
The festival is also on the trail of bringing together another odd reunion: Tom Lewandowski, the no-nonsense host of a Franklin High School TV production class show, and his guest, an introverted Insane Clown Posse fanatic.
Another new tape for this special 10-year edition of the Found Footage Festival comes from Prueher and Pickett themselves. Last Thanksgiving, the two decided to prank some local TV news programs with a cooking segment about a new book of recipes that made use of holiday leftovers. Prueher played the inept "Chef Keith," who blended and mixed leftovers into repulsive slurries. Their motivation for the silly pranks?
"We just got bored," Prueher noted. "After 10 years of doing the tour, we were looking for new ways to spice it up. Often times, we’d do morning TV interviews, show a couple of clips and try to get people to come out to the show that night. We’re grateful when people cover the show, but we always wondered if anybody watching at 6 a.m. who’s actually going to come out? It seemed unlikely, and we hate getting up early, so we thought if we could get us booked on morning shows, we could probably book a fake person just as easily."
The resulting clips ended up going viral, with "Chef Keith" managing to get four out of the five news anchors to sample his disgusting dishes. Though the anchors were likely unhappy with their leftover creations, Prueher notes that their pranks were "victimless crimes."
"I went on, and all of the places seemed happy with the segment," Prueher said. "I think some of them felt sorry for me because I was incompetent, but they all were very polite, said good luck with my book and thanks for coming. Afterwards, did they think about it and realize something was up? Maybe, but I don’t know if the station in Milwaukee was any the wiser. They were all like, ‘These look like fun recipes!’"
The pranks make for a fun addition to the Found Footage Festival, but in the end, the event is centered around finding the best accidentally genius comedy – the perfect mix of lofty ambitions and complete incompetence – the VHS era has to offer. For Prueher, the new trend of fake kitsch, like "Sharknado," need not apply.
"The main criteria – the thing that makes us laugh – is when something is unintentionally funny," Prueher said. "When they know what they’re doing, and they’re trying to be bad, it just doesn’t work for me. You can see right through it; it’s disingenuous. The thing that’s enduring for us about the VHS era clips is that there’s a naivety and genuine wide-eyed innocence about them. There’s something really charming about that."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.