After selling out one of the two larger rooms at Studio on the Square last year, the traveling Found Footage Festival is returning to town this week at a new venue: Young Avenue Deli.
The Found Footage Festival is the brainchild of Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, two childhood friends, now in their mid-thirties, who were raised on VHS and have done for garage-sale and thrift-store video refuse what cult TV series Mystery Science Theater once did for drive-in era "B" movies: Mine it for unintentional comedy and communal, smart-ass good fun.
For half a decade, Prueher and Pickett — comedy professionals who have worked for outlets such as The Onion and The Late Show With David Letterman — have been compiling obscure footage found on used videotapes and DVDs into quick-moving film programs that they take around the country, using two rules: In this Internet era, they only use material found on a physical format (no YouTube) and the comedic effect they're pursuing must be accidental.
In past years, this material has taken the form of regional television commercials, exercise videos, training and instructional videos, short-lived Saturday morning cartoons, and — a recurring category — "celebrity bullshit."
Prueher and Pickett return to Memphis as part of a 75-city tour spanning the U.S., Canada, and — later this summer and for the first time — the United Kingdom.
"It keeps getting bigger," Prueher says from New Orleans, one of the cities he and Pickett are visiting for the first time on this tour. "Last year, we did 60 stops. It's always fun when we do a city for the first time."
Prueher and Pickett have developed a self-renewing process, hunting for videos at each tour stop and then taking a break between tours to mine their new acquisitions for material for the next program. And new cities equal fertile ground for tape hunting.
Last year, the duo had some extra time on their first Memphis stop and spent most of it at the AmVets Thrift Center on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
"We stopped in there and spent most of the day," Prueher says. "They had an incredible number of tapes. We had to take two boxes full of stuff home. And we're featuring a lot of it."
Much of the duo's Memphis material has been compiled in a "VHS slide show segment," a bit Prueher and Pickett have done on past programs in which the packaging of their finds is highlighted rather than the content of the tapes. "Sometimes the video itself doesn't live up to the cover," Prueher says. "But we found a lot of tapes [in Memphis] where people were recording stuff and labeling the tapes. And there are some hilarious misspellings and some interesting pensmanship. Memphis is well-represented. I think we still have some stuff [from Memphis last year] that we haven't even watched yet."
In addition to the Memphis-located material, this year's program — roughly 90 minutes — draws from some 70 to 80 videos.
"There are 12 different self-hypnosis videos — how to be better at making love, how to quit smoking, how to hypnotize yourself into being a better bowler," Prueher says. "This was a trend in the '80s that we didn't know existed."
There's also an instructional video Prueher found in Atlantic City about how to be a ventriloquist and a bizarre video called "Rent-a-Friend."
"We were starting to feel like we were seeing a lot of the same videos," Prueher says. "But then on the Chicago stop we found this tape that was still shrinkwrapped. When we put it in it was this guy on screen — "Sam" — offering to be your friend and trying to have a conversation with you. He asks you questions and pauses for you to answer. It starts off serious, but he begins to run out of things to talk about and starts opening up with things he probably shouldn't be talking about. And you start to watch him unravel."
This was apparently part of an — aborted? — series, with other installments like "Rent-a-Grandma" advertised on the back.
"Just when you think there's nothing new, you find something to reinvigorate yourself," Prueher says with a laugh.
In the recurring celebrity video section of this year's program, Prueher's favorite is "Linda Blair's How to Get Revenge," in which The Exorcist actress — at this point an adult — offers some titular tips.
"You hear the title and you think they're trying to be cute," Prueher says, "but the stuff she suggests is too real and often illegal. Slashing tires. Putting a water hose in someone's home mail slot."
In addition to the Found Footage program, Prueher and Pickett are traveling with an opening act this year: a 25th anniversary screening of the cult-classic short-form documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which surveys the crowd before a 1986 Judas Priest concert.
"It's an amazing time capsule. It has the same aesthetic and comes from the same pre-Internet trading tradition that we were a part of," Prueher says. "I remember getting a sixth-generation version in the '90s. We became friends with the two guys who shot it way back when, and they let us use the original tape, so we're showing it on a pristine transfer."
As for the new venue this year, it's mostly a product of timing. Last year, Prueher and Pickett hit Memphis for a Wednesday night screening. This year, they'll be here on Saturday, which was a tougher night to secure at Studio on the Square. The change sent them to screening sponsor Indie Memphis for a new venue.
"We remembered the screenings we used to do at the Powerhouse and how fun they were," says Indie Memphis director Erik Jambor. "Young Avenue Deli seemed like a perfect fit for this. It's as much a live comedy show as a film screening."
Prueher says that most of the duo's screenings take place in traditional movie theaters, but about a third of their events have taken place in rock clubs or other non-traditional film venues.
"Obviously at rock clubs they serve alcohol," Prueher says. "People tend to like to drink at the show, and who can blame them?"