How Two Comedians Made It Onto TV as a Strongman Duo — and Got Sued for It
Imagine you're a producer for a small(ish)-town morning show and you get an email from someone named Jerry Chubb pitching a segment about his clients, a "strongman duo" called Chop & Steele. Now imagine that you're the sort of dear, darling person who's devoid of healthy skepticism, genuinely loves educating your audience on health and fitness trends and apparently lacks the wherewithal to do a simple Google search on these prospective guests. How do you respond to Mr. Chubb? If you work at Good Morning Wisconsin — or six other stations throughout the country — you respond with an enthusiastic fuck yes.
For more than a decade, New York–based comedians Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher — aka Chop & Steele and also Jerry Chubb — have been touring around their Found Footage Festival, an annual cavalcade of weird, awkward, funny VHS clips. This year, thanks to their appearances on several morning shows performing "feats of strength" such as stomping on wicker baskets and smacking two tennis rackets together, they're actually part of their own festival, which stops by the Downtown Independent on May 25 and 26.
The Chop & Steele appearances are objectively funny — well, almost. Pickett and Prueher are currently being sued by Gray Television, the parent company of the Eu Claire, Wisconsin, station they appeared on, which is claiming to be the victim of fraud and copyright infringement. Pickett and Prueher find this hilarious. We asked Prueher some questions about pulling off an epic prank, the lawsuit and the fest.
How/when did you guys decide to sort of create found footage so you could be part of your own festival?
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We've been doing the show for 13 years now, and very early on we started doing morning news shows in whatever city we were in to promote our show. Just as quickly, we dreaded doing them because we had to wake up extremely early for news anchors who generally didn't understand or care what we were doing. So about seven years ago, we got the idea to try and book a fake person on these morning shows to see if they were paying attention. Together with our friend Mark [Proksch], we sent off a press release pitching an environmental yo-yo expert named Kenny Strasser, and we ended up getting this fictional person booked on eight morning shows. Mark played the yo-yo guy and proceeded to make a fool of himself on all these morning shows. That is, until a memo went out warning news stations to be on the lookout for a yo-yo expert and start doing the research they should have been doing all along. We waited a few years and then tested the waters again by booking me as a celebrity chef named Keith who had just written a book on creative ways to spruce up your Thanksgiving leftovers. Again, I got booked on a half dozen morning shows, no questions asked. And last November, we tried it again, pitching [Found Footage Festival co-founder] Joe [Pickett] and I as a strongman duo called Chop & Steele. Very few stations did even basic Google searches and we got booked on seven morning shows within 24 hours. I guess having seen so much awkward moments on video, we had a pretty good handle on how to create them ourselves.
Did you have other ideas or was appearing on a morning show your first thought? Had you already come up with the Chop & Steele characters?
We always have ideas cooking, but Chop & Steele seemed to be the one with the most potential for physical jokes. And the absurdity of seeing Joe and I as strongmen was too good to not pursue. I mean, I weigh 140 pounds soaking wet. And yet, the news stations we appeared on did so little vetting that we got on easily.
Were you surprised how easy it was to get on the air? I mean, the email was from "Jerry Chubb."
Yeah, even after doing pranks like this twice before, we were surprised at how quickly news stations jumped at booking Chop & Steele, despite the fact that we didn't even make a fake website or mock up any photos. We just claimed we had been favorites on America's Got Talent in 2013 — a very easy thing to fact-check, by the way — but we got emails back right away saying, "We'd love to have Chop & Steele on the show!"
Had you tried other stations? How many tries did it take to get a station to bite? How many morning shows did you guys end up being on?
We ended up doing three morning shows before we thought we had made our point and so we canceled the remaining appearances. The funny part is, we were booked on two stations on the same morning in our college town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We showed up to one, WQOW, and the anchor said they couldn't find any information on us so they couldn't have us on the show. Fine, we headed across the street to WEAU and they had us on, no problem. They even asked us to stick around after the segment and record a promo for the station! So we were very surprised to find out in the New York Post that they'd filed a lawsuit against us three months after the fact. It's absurd.
Once you're there in the studio, did you guys get nervous or were you just excited? Did an anchor ever give an indication that they knew the routine was bullshit? Was anyone rude to you?
Oh yeah, we get very nervous before going on these shows. It's hard to sleep beforehand because you're going over the script in your head, rehearsing something as stupid as hitting two tennis racquets together. But no one was rude to us or let on that they knew we were phonies, at least during the appearances. Afterward we got an email or two from stations wanting to know what happened but, honestly, we billed ourselves as entertainers in the press release and I defy anyone to say it wasn't entertaining. In fact, the station we were on in Bismarck, North Dakota, posted the segment online afterward, billing us as "Comedians Chop & Steele." They got it, just a little late.
Do you guys have an attorney? Does this fall under protections for parody or performance art?
Luckily, in this country, there are great laws protecting the ability of people like us to criticize the news, and we were well within the grounds of "fair use" in doing this experiment. Unfortunately, this giant news company that owns the station in Eau Claire and 90 others around the country has decided to waste our time and the court's time because they're embarrassed. Now we have to deal with the very real costs of hiring an attorney and going to court. Luckily, we found a great one, Anderson Duff, who's taking on our case and capping fees so we don't go bankrupt. However, we are launching a GoFundMe campaign to help us fight this important First Amendment battle in court.
What else can people expect to see at this year's Found Footage Fest? Any favorite videos?
I think I'm most happy that our friends at Late Show With David Letterman donated the show's entire VHS collection to the show when Dave retired in 2015. We spent about two months watching hundreds of tapes from Dave's video collection — everything from a Pete Rose baseball instructional video to a program on breeding ferrets — and we'll be showing our favorite parts at the Downtown Independent this week. Oh, there's also a video about training your cats in there and one called Nude Cigar Smoking. If that doesn't sell some tickets, I don't know what will.
Lastly, the ladies on The Talk discussed your current legal predicament on their show. Were you offended when Sara Gilbert said that you guys were "not in very good shape"?
Deeply offended. I spend all this time in the gym working my plaps and for what? To have Sara Gilbert say I'm out of shape? Maybe I'll try and sue her out of embarrassment. That seems to be the trend lately.
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