Exclusive interview with Joe Pickett from The Found Footage Festival

The Found Footage Festival, the life mission of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, is to find, archive and share VHS tapes, capturing pop culture history before it disappears. They’re both huge influences on my sense of humor and my need to write for this site, trying to discover new things and share them with others.

I have no words to explain what a big deal it was to get to speak with Joe — at length, I kept him on the phone way past our scheduled time — and this interview truly makes all the work of creating this site worthwhile.

Joe and Nick as Chop and Steele

B&S About Movies: How strange is it to go from making documentaries to being in one, Chop and Steele?

Joe Pickett: Very, very strange. Especially to see it up on a big screen. But here’s the thing. I really liked the movie. Yeah. I got a draft last January. And I was afraid to watch it. I sent it to my brother first and I was like, “Can you watch this and just make sure I’m not a total jackass?” Because they spent four years with us shooting a lot of footage. And so I kind of forgot all of it.

I remember what we did, but I was like, “What is this gonna look like?”

I was scared shitless and then my brother said, “Go ahead, watch. It’s pretty good.”

I love watching it with audiences especially. I mean, it’s definitely weird, but I think I think it’s done so well. It’s edited and shot so well that I’m proud of it. And I think it’s a good lasting record of what we have and what we’ve done so far.

B&S: I can’t imagine watching it not knowing the history (editor’s note: Joe and his partner in crime Nick Prueher also created characters named Chop and Steele that appeared on morning news shows as real guests and got sued over it, which forms much of the story of the film). So I tried to put myself in the space of someone who had no idea what you did and went in open-minded versus as a fan and I loved it.

Joe: We have a very small niche loyal group of fans. But it’s definitely not a mainstream thing at all. Not everybody knows about it. So that’s good to hear that. I think it’s accessible to people who don’t even know us.

B&S: I’m sick of origin stories in movies, so you really got across how you got here, why you do what you do and then get to the court case really efficiently.

Joe: Well, that’s efficient editing. That’s because we had three editors on it. And then the last editor who came in, he’s just, oh man. It’s like A Beautiful Mind. Like, he can just see things. Originally we were thinking that the America’s Got Talent appearance was going to be last. This is our last hurrah. We thought it was going to be the end of the movie.

This editor steps in and he’s like, no, no, no, that’s the middle of the movie. He said, “I know what the ending of the movie is going to be already.”

So that’s just a genius editor and efficient editing and storytelling.

B&S: The movie gets across how harrowing that day was but it had to be worse than that to live it.

Joe: It’s still the most stressful day of my lifetime. It was just surreal. Like Tyra Banks, heavy with Tyra Banks, all while prepping for our big stunt and then actually doing it and you’re flying all the way there and we have to pull this off and it’s just nerve-wracking.

Throughout the day, I don’t think we talked about this in the doc, but you know, they would say “Alright, you guys are going on at noon.” And we’ve been there since like 9 AM and now we’re ready to go on at noon. Then they’re like, “Oh, wait, no, you’re not gonna go on at noon.” Then they would come in and say, “We need you guys now.” It was all day long. It was just the most fucked up day. (laughs)

B&S: What I loved about that scene is that in the past, you had all the power and were putting those morning shows at your mercy. And now, you’re thrust into the real belly of the multimedia machine and the rules have changed. There is no show I can think of that’s bigger than America’s Got Talent.

Joe: It’s the biggest one. They wanted us to be scripted and tell us what they wanted us to do. And we’re like, “No, we’re not going to go on there. We’re not going to be scripted.” Yeah, it’s just so stupid. Like why would we go on there and do what they wanted us to do? That’s the antithesis of what we would do!

B&S: It’s not reality but reality TV.

Joe: I’ve worked on reality TV. They call it scripted reality now. So you’re actually writing the dialogue. We had to do the dialogue for wildlife hunters, you know, like, we don’t know this world. We don’t know how they talk. Two guys in New York are writing the dialogue for these guys. So stilted and weird. And, you know, we’re trying to write comedy lines for non-comedy performers.

B&S: I think we’re sadly past the era of being surprised by what’s on TV.

Joe: Definitely. I think that I think there’s like a naivete that we don’t have anymore. You know, we’re so self-aware. That’s because we all have phones and we’re always on camera. You know, like probably I’m on camera almost daily whether it’s a zoom call or whatever.

If you look back on some of the old videos of sports, the camera guy in the crowd just has shots of everybody yelling “Hi mom” and trying to get on TV. Now, people don’t really give a shit. Everybody’s been on TV at least once. Probably. (laughs)

B&S: The Andy Kauffman moments on Late Night with David Letterman and Fridays wouldn’t mean as much to today’s audience but back then they did.

Joe: Yeah, that was the best. It was just more of an event and you had to see it live at the time too. It was hard to find the tapes and it wasn’t until the internet came around that you could experience it again.

B&S: I always think about the Mr. Show “Tape Trading Underground” sketch. Before the Internet, someone had to be like, “Hey guys, I got this. Do you want to see it?”

Joe: It was a different time. The heyday for tape trading was probably around 1999. I got a job at a video duplication house and I was working as a production assistant. You’d be on the shoots and everybody would talk about tapes they had. One of the guys on a shoot had the Jack Rebney tape and talked it up and kept saying, “I’ll bring it for you.” It took some time for me to get it but it was ten times better than I thought it was going to be.

Today the same excitement is lost. But I’m trying things on our show VCR Party. I love when people buy old digital cameras and send me IMG files. The thrill of the hunt is what I love. That’s lost with VHS now because they’re hardly even at thrift stores anymore. I was in Indianapolis at a Salvation Army and normally those would be fantastic. They would pick up so many tapes and now they have nothing. They have a copy of Titanic if you’re lucky.

Now that hunt is really gone. We do get a lot of people sending us tapes, so that’s cool. But I do miss that, especially the rarity. Just feeling like I have one of a few videos that nobody else has seen and I can’t wait to show people. You know, like Nick and I roomed together in college and he had that McDonald’s training video. We would have people over to watch it with us. We’d have a running commentary and that’s really how we got started. It was just us showing it to friends in our dorm. And then we lived together for a little while after college and we’d have a friend come over and be like, “Oh, you haven’t seen the John and Johnny tape?”

We come from that era where you got tapes and you couldn’t wait to show people. We hope that with our show that it’s kind of like that for people. We want to introduce them to something they’ve never seen, not even on the internet.

B&S: I have a language made up of so many of these videos.

Joe: It’s almost like a language that we speak that only a handful of people speak. For me, it’s always like John and Johnny references and Jack Rebney.

B&S: I’ve always been obsessed with training videos, too. I have to tell you, in no way have they improved since the McC video that you guys stole.

Joe: They haven’t. I think the production quality has because the cameras are better and the audio stuff is better, but the content still sucks.

Did you see that we got a whole box of Victoria’s Secret training videos from a mall in Salt Lake City?

I am confirming what you just said: they suck.

They do the reenactments. They’re cheesy, everybody’s excited. Everybody’s happy to clean the bathrooms. It’s just like not living in reality. At all. But I’m happy for them. I’m glad that those training videos haven’t changed much.

I have a fascination with unimportant things. I would rather talk about a video from the Home Shopping Network than Citizen Kane. The stuff we share says more about our culture and human beings and anthropology and what drives us more than say, you know, something considered essential. (laughs)

Sometimes I struggle with the idea of there’s so much stuff out there that’s just ending up in landfills right now. And we’re never gonna see it. There’s so much gold out there. I feel like we’ve maybe touched like 2% of the videos that came out in the golden age of VHS.

We probably just scratched the surface of what was shot.

B&S: How many more exercise videos were there?

Joe: How many celebrities started one and didn’t finish that cash grab? (laughs)

B&S: I’m amazed that something like Linda Blair in How To Get…Revenge exists.

Joe:  It’s so bad and she’s so mean spirited! It’s really dark. It’s so dark.

Even DMX and the Ruff Ryderz made an exercise video. That’s because anything could get made because they went from film being so expensive to shoot and you need a crew and it’s so much work. Suddenly, video exists and all you need to do is press the red button and shoot.

Any half-baked idea could become real. Rent-A-Friend could happen. Someone said, “I’m going to act like I’m talking to someone for 45 minutes” and sell that!

B&S: It’s even easier to make video now and it feels like less weirdness exists.

Joe: It’s like everyone is in on the joke. Once Tommy Wiseau got in on the joke, anything else he made wasn’t as special. That’s why I love American Movie so much, because it’s just limited resources with a lot of ambition. And that’s just my favorite combination in the world.

B&S: There are so many characters in the Found Footage Festival universe. Who’s your favorite?

Joe: It’s a tough question. The first one that pops into my head is Frank Pacholski.

We tracked him down and it was really mysterious. He was really weird about it.

He told us to meet him in Santa Monica and so we flew out there like the next week. We spent way too much money on this. (laughs) At first he’s like, come to my house. Then he switches it on our way over and tells us to meet him at the second lifeguard stand to the right of the Santa Monica Pier. He’s there in an outfit waiting for us and refuses to answer questions. How did he get all those old people? Why would he dance for them? And he told us nothing. It was a bit for him to not tell us! (laughs)

Before we leave, he tells us to go meet my manager at a coffee shop but no cameras. We get there and it’s him in a suit and tie and he’s a different character and refuses to break. He told us the whole story, but we had to role play and ask Frank as his manager character questions about Frank.

There’s a documentary called Committed about the guy whose real name is Vic Cohen. Howie Mandel produced it and it’s barely seen the light of day. I think it was on Amazon or you can probably buy it somewhere for like, five bucks. But it tells a whole story and just what a weirdo this guy is.

B&S: Have you noticed any of the Found Footage stuff taken into pop culture and appear in places you didn’t expect it? Like you’re kind of flowing back into pop culture?

Joe:  Well, I think with Jack Rebney, that really made a splash in pop culture and was featured in video games and in movies. But like, John and Johnny, the Avett Brothers…have you seen that music video that they did? They replicate the set of John and Johnny. They do an impression of John and Johnny. Andy Daly plays both John and Johnny and the Avett Brothers are in it playing on Home Shopping. So that was a really cool one because that was a tape that we found in a closet in a box in a warehouse in northwestern Wisconsin. We introduced that to the world and then to see a huge band and Andy Daly doing the characters that we fell in love with?

We don’t see it all the time. But every so often, you see a pop up.

B&S: Finally, as someone that’s traveled the roads of America with so much touring, how awesome is the super slab?

Joe: (laughs) Super slab super rapper coming at you know it’s all about that super slab.

Are you into trucker music?

B&S: I grew up in a town where everyone had a CB radio, a scanner and listened to trucker music. I loved the “Rappin’ Trucker” episode of Bastard Tapes so much.

Joe: I toured with Neil Hamburger and we’d go into thrift stores and buy CDs of artists that no one had ever heard of. We’d just analyze them and deconstruct them and it was so much fun. Nick and I do that with trucker music.

You should check out Dirty Country, the movie we made about Larry Pierce. We followed him for four and a half years at a small town in Indiana and he writes these dirty songs on his lunch breaks. He’s a factory worker and would perform them on the weekends for his friends and never really played on the stage before and at the end of the movie he plays a stage for his fans. So yeah, look it up. I think that especially because you appreciate truckstop music, you’ll definitely appreciate this movie.

Please visit the Found Footage Festival web site, order lots of videos, see the guys on tour and watch all of their many streaming shows. I beyond appreciate the time and energy that Joe put into this interview.

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