Is there a more lampoonable decade of U.S. culture than the 1980s? Big hair, neon spandex, pastel sportcoats, cocaine, drum machines, synthesizers, prime-time soap operas, preppies, yuppies, neutered muscle cars…the list of generational absurdities is longer than Boy George’s rap sheet. And in an unfortunate historical confluence, the ’80s also happened to be the first full decade featuring widely available consumer-grade video recording and playback equipment. The result of this unholy convergence is untold millions of hours of ’80s culture stashed away on crappily produced VHS tapes all over the country.
It would be nice to think that the technological advances of the last 20 years—DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming video—would forever bury the low-fi evidence of this most garish of eras. But cultural historians Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have other ideas. They’ve combed thrift stores, garage sales and dumpsters across the United States, resurrecting chunks of mostly ’80s and early ’90s VHS video for use in their barnstorming Found Footage Festival Tour. Prueher and Pickett, veteran producers and writers for “Late Night With David Letterman” and The Onion, respectively, show various iterations of the clips on the big screen, and during the show offer commentary and context from the stage. The Indy recently caught up with Prueher on the phone from his home base in New York.
Indy: How did this begin for the two of you?
Prueher: We both grew up Stoughton, Wis., and I trace the Found Footage origins to 1991, when I was in high school and working at a McDonald’s in Stoughton. I was bored in the break room and popped in a video I found, called “Inside Custodial Duties,” a training video for janitors. I couldn’t believe how awful it was. They tried to have this cute little plot to it, and the actors were nauseatingly enthusiastic about windows and garbage. I brought the video home to show Joe, and he loved it. We showed a bunch of our friends, they thought it was hilarious and it just kind of took off from there.
Indy: What do you think these clips say about U.S. culture?
Prueher: The biggest question to us is, why did these people commit all this to tape? One thing we find in common in these videos is people with ton of ambition, but not a lot of talent or skill. There’s maybe something uniquely American about that—it’s so strange and wonderful.
Indy: Why do you think people find this stuff so funny?
Prueher: It’s a gallery of odd behavior, and there’s certainly a voyeuristic element to it. There’s something uncomfortably funny about it. And maybe some catharsis there as well—like if you had to actually watch that McDonald’s video as an employee, and now you’re in public laughing at it with everyone else.
Indy: Speaking of uncomfortable, in the trailer for the tour there’s a clip of a large man, clad only in a star-spangled Speedo, dancing strangely in front of a semi-circle of clearly bewildered elderly folks. What the hell is that about?
Prueher: One of our favorites. We came across this tape from a California public-access TV station, and it’s so bizarre we just had to find the story. We hired a private detective to track this guy down, and when we found him he said, sure, we could come down and interview him, as long as we asked serious questions and would meet him at a specific beach in Santa Monica where he found his inspiration. He showed up in his swimsuit, and when we asked what the whole thing was about—was it performance art? A character sketch?—he got offended. We play that whole confusing interview at the show.
Indy: Do you ever get horribly depressed watching this stuff? It’s not exactly humanity at its best.
Prueher: You can get depressed at some of it. A lot of it is people trying to cash in on trends, creating problems that don’t really exist. But ultimately it’s so ridiculous that you have to laugh at it, you can’t take it too seriously. Our reaction is not to deride it from above but to celebrate it. We all have VHS skeletons in our closet.
Indy: The advent of web and camera phones has resulted in a massive explosion of self-media, exponentially greater than in the VHS era. What will that mean for future curators of this culture?
Prueher: Maybe we are just stubbornly old school, but we don’t find the same charm in internet videos or webcam clips as we do in physical media. But I bet in 10 or maybe even as little as five years from now those internet-age things will seem as antiquated as VHS tapes do now. And maybe then there will be two smartasses who’ll be rescuing hard drives of data and serving those up for audiences. And to those guys, I’d say, “We thought of it first.”
The Found Footage Festival featuring Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett shows at the Wilma Theatre Sat., Dec. 1, at 8 PM. Doors open at 7 PM. $10.