It’s always instructive to take a mental step back from total immersion in our day-to-day concerns and think about what an anthropologist from another planet or a historian from the future would make of the world as we know it. As the Information Age whizzes by in a blur, like a hokey time-lapse-photography montage intended to show the passage of years in some old Hollywood movie, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the ever-erupting mountain of data out there, even as we dream up creative new ways to mine it.
For every home video that goes viral on YouTube, millions more surface and then submerge again, unseen but by a few. Those future historians will not lack for material as they delve through the electronic detritus of the 21st century – though whether it will show us in a favorable light seems as dubious as the question of whether such documentary pursuits will be worth anyone’s time as our planet’s remaining viability ticks away.
And that’s just considering what’s out there on the Internet now; what about all the stuff that people were churning out before it existed? What earnest labors of some inspired or merely dogged mind will be lost to human memory just because hardly any of us owns a VHS player anymore?
Luckily (perhaps), that question has been obsessing two TV comedy writers associated with The Onion and The Late Show with David Letterman since 1991, when they stumbled across a training video titled Inside and Outside Custodial Duties at a McDonald’s in Wisconsin. It was the beginning of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher’s mind-boggling collection of what they describe as “strange, outrageous and profoundly stupid videos” from the pre-DVD era, and it’s a comfort somehow to know that somebody else is doing this so that we don’t have to.
For ten years now, Pickett and Prueher have been culling the weirdest of their discoveries into a traveling show called the Found Footage Festival, which they describe as “a one-of-a-kind event showcasing videos found at garage sales and thrift stores and in warehouses and dumpsters throughout North America” and “a lively celebration of all things found.” Think of it as the love child of America’s Funniest Home Videos and Phoenicia’s Mystery Spot Antiques.
The Found Footage Festival has been featured at the HBO Comedy Festival and the Just for Laughs Festival, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and National Public Radio, and been named a critic’s pick in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. It can also be seen as a twice-weekly Web series on The Onion’s AV Club, in the documentary Winnebago Man and in Pickett and Prueher’s book, VHS: Absurd, Odd and Ridiculous Relics from the Videotape Era.
The Found Footage Festival mutates every year as its masterminds expand their collection, but 2014 being its tenth anniversary, some special treats are in store when the road show lands at Upstate Films in Woodstock on Tuesday, September 16. Among the latest additions are a bizarre exercise video montage, exclusive footage of a fake chef prank that the curators pulled on news stations in the Midwest and newly unearthed footage of what Pickett and Prueher call “the world’s most obnoxious home shopping hosts, John & Johnny,” along with a reunion that they themselves orchestrated. Also included is the full version of an instructional video titled How to Have Cybersex on the Internet from way back in 1997, when presumably even the geekiest wannabe virtual stud still had some protocols to learn.
Leaving aside the question of whether we truly want stuff like this preserved for posterity, showing turn-of-the-millennium culture as it does in such an embarrassing light, one cannot deny that sitting through a couple of hours’ worth of screenings and associated live comedy would provide a happy distraction from worldly cares. Pickett and Prueher promise “live commentary and where-are-they-now updates on the people in these videotaped obscurities” peppered throughout the evening of choice clips, and the mirth is bound to be contagious in such a public venue. If your spirits are in need of a lift, I recommend the Found Footage Festival as your tonic of the week.