News Column

Unintentionally wonderful (because it's terrible) [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

October 26, 2013


From the latest viral videos on YouTube, to sharing Vines on Twitter (ask your kids), to the surveillance camera at your local convenience store, we live in a world saturated by video.

It's almost hard to remember, but it wasn't always like that. Only a few decades ago, video technology was something strange, new (to the general public, at least), exciting and full of endless possibilities.

Of course, it took some trial-and-error to figure out this startling new medium. The traveling Found Footage Festival mostly collects the errors.

There's an unintentionally terrifying "clown ministry" for nursing home residents. A crudely animated, Caribbean-influenced potty-training ditty, "Me Potty Wotty." Mr. T's heartfelt hip-hop tribute to mothers ("M is for the moan and the miserable groan/And the pain that she felt when I was born"). The 1986 Los Angeles Rams squad making a music video for their not-quite-a-hit song "Let's Ram It!"

The Found Footage Festival is coming to Pittsburgh on Oct. 26 as part of the Brooklyn Brewery MASH, a week-long festival of food, art, comedy and beer.

The idea came to comedy writer Nick Prueher and his friend Joe Pickett from a familiar source.

"Well, boredom, really," says Prueher. "We grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. There wasn't a lot to do as teenagers. I got a job at McDonald's in 1991, and found a video in a break room -- a training video for McDonald's janitors.

"I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was. Everyone is really excited -- they just can't wait to get in there to clean the bathroom. They tried to have this plot to it, if the janitor cleaned hard enough he could see 'Mick-C.' "

From then on out, whenever they met somebody who hadn't seen it, they'd get out the video and play it.

Prueher has worked at the satirical newspaper The Onion, "The Late Show With David Letterman," and "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (which began as an ultra-low-budget video-clip show on public access TV in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul area), so it's not hard to figure out the style of humor that the Found Footage Festival is going for.

They show their collection of hilarious "Found" videos and sarcastically comment on them. In spite of this, Prueher has really come to love this long-gone, unironic era of video expression.

"Certainly, the hairstyles and (poor) production values help," Prueher says. "But I think it also shows the wide-eyed innocence of early video productions, from the Golden Age of VHS. People forget how revolutionary that was. For the first time, you had film you could control, and mall mom-and-pop production companies."

The criteria for a great "found" video are fairly broad. They're not really looking for home videos.

"For us, it has to be found on physical video," Prueher says. "No Internet videos -- we avoid them at all costs. We'll be looking at thrift stores and garage sales and will do that in Pittsburgh."

The best videos usually come with "bonus features," of a sort.

"The story of how you found something is often as fun as the actual footage," Prueher says. "It has to be physically found by us, or somebody, with story behind how you found it. It has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever it was trying to do -- train you to flip burgers, trim your beard, or whatever -- it has to fail at that in an entertaining way."

Celebrities-before-they-were-famous are a reliable source of Found Footage Festival videos.

"In a video store going out of business in New York, we found a video about Carnival in Rio," Prueher says. "It turned out that it was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1983. He basically gropes everyone in sight. It's 'Arnold's Groping Tour of Rio.' We started showing clips of it during his run for governor. I guess it didn't dissuade people from voting for him."

Sometimes, it takes some creative editing to get the true brilliance of a particular video across.

"Probably my favorite one is the 'Magical Rainbow Sponge,' " Prueher says. "We were a little wary, because it's a crafting how- to video, and there's so many of those. They're always boring. But this one is put over the edge by the host -- she's so excited about this sponge-painting technique, that she makes all these excited yelps every time she makes a pattern. We put all her yelps together into two-minute clip, and it turned out great."

Of course, the Golden Age of VHS is long over, and these precious remnants of unintentional humor are getting harder to find.

"Taking out the trash, we found a bunch of tapes on the Dumpster. One was hand-labeled 'Bunion Surgery' and both words were misspelled. That raises so many questions."

Some of the best videos have come from fans and people at their events. Prueher says. Pittsburghers are invited to bring their own amazing/terrible videos to the Regent Square Theater on Oct. 26, to contribute to future Found Footage Festivals.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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