A Concise History of VHS According to the Found Footage Festival

Taking time after their hit Found Footage Festival show in the Grosvenor Cinema, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher spoke to A Cinema Down A Lane’s Alan Mahon about the FFF and the enduring appeal of VHS.

It’s a cliché but I really didn’t know what to expect from the At Found Footage Festival which screened as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival at the Grosvenor Cinema on Thursday Marc 21. I vaguely anticipated outtakes and clips that make me cringe more than laugh, and embarrassing home movies that would make the head-in-hands reaction the order of the day. I was surprised at just how funny the Found Footage Festival but at a loss to explain why a night spent in the company of a dead medium left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling that went beyond mere nostalgia. The guys gave me some time at the end of their show to share their insights…

I stated off by asking how the Found Footage Festival came in to being:

Nick: We were bored. We were very bored. Growing up in a small town in the mid-west we needed to find a way to entertain ourselves. We spent a lot of time in thrift stores and garage sales.

Joe (eager to include me in the conversation from the off): You guys call garage sales jumble sales, right? I like ‘jumble sales’ better. I want to find a jumble sale…

Nick: Yea, we just found old clothes and then answering-machine tapes and then we started finding old VHS, like a Mr T video. I was working at a McDonald’s and I stole at raining video. That was the catalyst really. It was so insulting and dumb that we arranged viewing parties for it and developed running commentary and jokes.

Joe: You know how training videos are? They are so patronising. You’re already working this shitty job and now you have to watch this stupid video were everyone is so excited to clean the bathrooms and the toilets. Nick stole one from McDonald’s and that was the start of Found Footage I guess…It became a quest to look in out of the way places for VHS.

The Found Footage Festival at the mercy of lady luck. The guys can only exhibit what they find, and what they find is largely someone else’s junk. But their US and UK tours have broadened their access to ‘new’ material and made this year’s Found Footage Festival more eclectic and diverse as the guys explained:

Joe: It’s a great time to be in the middle of a 50-State tour and a European tour. Everyone is getting rid of their VHS tapes. DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming means that there are tonnes in thrift stores; people even bring us their old VHS to shows. It means that we can pick up tapes from everywhere we go and bring them into the show.

Nick: From our UK tour last year we have ‘Famous Tits and Arses’ [a catalogue of either the tits and arses of famous people or famous tits and arses that are attached to no one really in particular] and ‘Jig Don’t Jog’ [an Irish exercise video that’s only serves to promote false Irish stereotypes and gives the interviewer blushes at his cultural heritage] so we’ve got a few in their from last year’.

The Found Footage told me they had some time to kill before moving on to Leeds the next day and spoke highly of a Salvation Army store close by and wondered if I knew any great ‘thrift stores’. As a true purveyor of knowledge on the Byres Road/Great Western Road’s charity shops I obliged with a few suggestions of my own. I even offered to act as a tour-guide, leaving my name and number, living in hope for the phone call that will surely someday come. I then asked them about why they thought it was that VHS appealed to so many and whether current formats can emulate the appeal of VHS when they become ‘obsolete’?

Joe: I think we are working with a special thing. VHS dominated the market for like 15 years. That’s what everyone watched growing up. How long is Blu-Ray gonna last? VHS was around for a long time so there’s a nostalgia factor to it. It’s like the ‘new’ vinyl because it has that charm to it. It’s a little grainy, washed out, back-tracky…

Nick: But it’s more than just the nostalgia. It’s a unique moment in time for video. It’s the first time that you could bring film into your home – affordably – so it became ubiquitous.

Joe: It was an amateur thing. You just had to press the red button and you had a video. So everyone was just constantly shitting out videos.

It was clear that they Found Footage guys believed strongly that VHS was a populist medium, one with clear eccentricities which became both its fault and its triumph. Because, in a way, we have all made a VHS recording we can all relate to it as a cultural touchstone that goes a long way to explaining  why 100 18-30 somethings packed the Grosvenor just an hour earlier to share the VHS experience.Nick went on to explain that a Jane Fonda exercise video was an unlikely watershed in the history of VHS.

Nick: The Jane Fonda workout tape was such a big seller that everyone wanted to get on that bandwagon. So you got ‘mom and pops’ trying to cash in on it. So it kind of became like the gold rush were everyone was trying to find the next big thing that would stick for home videos. But that meant that you had a lot of unusual, esoteric things that ended up on VHS.

Joe: With DVD you will have better quality sound, video and editing but you will still have shit ideas. But people would rather watch bad ideas on home video.

I was interested in how the phenomena of YouTube affected their work with Found Footage. I couldn’t decide whether viral access to an endless stream of funny videos via the internet was an ally or a foe for their act. So I put it to them:

Joe: We thought it would be an enemy at first, like ‘the competition’. But really with YouTube you get a video in your inbox and you watch it and then you forget about it. With our show we act as tour guides and curators. We separate the wheat from the chaff and annotate the videos for you. That’s what we’ve got that you can’t get with YouTube.

And the tour guide dimension of the Found Footage Festival is really what makes it special and, most importantly, funny. Throughout the show Nick and Joe are keen to commentate on what they see. They repeat aloud the phrases that each member of the audience is running over in their minds and that vocalisation connects everyone in the room and end in collective laughter.

Aside from being genuinely nice guys Nick and Joe are your everyman type. What makes them laugh will make you laugh. They are disciples of VHS, a church we all once belonged to and like good shepherds of the medium they welcome our heretically DVD stained souls back into the warm, fuzzy and amateurish arms of their fold. Extended metaphor over – go and see these guys when you can.

Alan Mahon in conversation with Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher

For more information on the Found Footage Festival’s UK Tour visit www.foundfootagefest.com

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