When comedy writers Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett launched the Found Footage Festival out of a Manhattan bar in 2004, it was a means of showcasing the odd assortment of found VHS tapes they'd collected from dumpsters, warehouses and thrift stores over the years. The festival, which is comprised of awkward public access shows, 1980s infomercials and low-budget instructional videos, now claims a cult following, a line of DVDs and merchandise and an annual cross-country tour that stops in Los Angeles this week.
In between archiving long-lost footage from local T.V. networks, professional pranksters Prueher and Pickett drummed up publicity for the festival by pulling a few television stunts of their own. In 2010, they arranged for their friend Mark Proksch to appear on several Midwestern news shows as Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, a bumbling yo-yo enthusiast with a troubled past. The prank was so successful that it led to Proksch's getting cast as Nate, Dwight Schrute's handyman, on The Office.
Late last year, Prueher appeared on morning news shows as the fictional Chef Keith Guerke, who demonstrated how to absurdly re-use holiday leftovers while namedropping G.G. Allin and Judas Priest, alluded to suicide, flipped tables over and asked morning anchors to beatbox for him.
“We were back in Wisconsin and didn't have a lot to do over the holidays. We thought it'd be funny to get on some news shows and say stupid things,” Prueher says by phone. “The other thing is we've developed a keen eye for what makes an awkward moment on television.”
For this year's 10th anniversary of the Found Footage Festival, the Wisconsin natives are paying homage to the unintentional pioneers of awkward television clips – the real life versions of over-the-top characters like Strasser and Guerke – by tracking down the people who appear in some of their most celebrated video clips. One such clip is John & Johnny, a 1987 segment in which pitchmen Johnny Rhodes and John Cremeans employ increasingly obnoxious tactics to sell dresses and jewelry during a Wisconsin-based shopping program called America's Value Network.
In December, Prueher and Pickett tracked down the sales duo after enlisting the help of Hilton Hitt, the same private investigator who found Jack Rebney, the Winnebago salesman whose inadvertent rise to Youtube fame is chronicled in the 2009 documentary Winnebago Man. Both Cremeans and Rhodes, who hadn't seen each other in more than 25 years, were still working in sales, but on opposite ends of the country. Prueher says they spent way too much money to fly Rhodes, an auto insurance salesman based in Seattle, Washington, to Tampa, Florida, where Cremeans now works for the Home Shopping Network.
Prueher says the Tampa reunion was one of his bucket list dreams he never thought would happen. It was also a little emotional for him because the John & Johnny tape was one of the first ones he and Pickett found – in a box inside a warehouse – when they first started collecting.
“It's become this cult thing. We really analyzed every word they said, every facial expression. We can recite it by heart,” says Prueher.
And he and Pickett aren't the only John & Johnny obsessives: Fans regularly show up to the Found Footage Festival dressed in the 1980s salesmen's signature brown blazers and striped ties, spouting catchphrases like “automatically outstanding!”
[Reuniting John & Johnny “felt a bit like babysitting at times,” because both Cremeans and Rhodes were “at full speed obnoxiousness,” just the same in real life as they appear in their now infamous sales routine, says Prueher. He and Pickett are debuting the videotaped reunion footage during Found Footage Festival's current tour across America and abroad. They'll also be screening some newly unearthed John & Johnny footage that Cremeans gave them while in Florida, in addition to exclusive footage of all five Chef Keith Guerke news clips from all five news stations he appeared on.
For this week's L.A. screenings, Prueher says he's trying to track down the star of The Thomas Odatey Explosion, a particularly bizarre public access show taped in Santa Monica from 1987-1988. “This man is in a suit and tie, pretty straight laced, and over the course of three episodes, you see this guy unravel,” says Prueher, adding that this show includes KISS makeup, bull whips, interpretive dance and Hank Williams songs. “Something happened in between those second and third episodes where, it's pretty remarkable to see his transformation.”
It's not unimaginable that Prueher and Pickett will actually find Thomas Odatey. In fact, they succeeded with a similarly ambitious quest last year when they managed to locate the American flag Speedo-wearing host of a 1999 L.A. public access clip called “Dancing with Frank Pacholski.” Pacholski, dressed in a neon Speedo and a cat mask, agreed to meet Prueher and Pickett at a designated lifeguard stand at the Santa Monica Pier for a videotaped interview. He also made an appearance at Found Footage Festival's event at Nerdmelt Showroom in Hollywood.
How do Pacholski, Cremeans, Rhodes and other local T.V. personalities feel about their often awkward and embarrassing amateur videos being screened at festivals around the country? Prueher says they're totally on board with it once they realize that it's all in the spirit of fun, even if that means occasionally poking fun at the memorable characters on screen.
“We genuinely love this footage and don't think its mean spirited,” says Prueher. Besides, the public access and infomercial stars of the 1980s and 90s “love the fact that this footage they've forgotten about a long time ago has made them a quasi-celebrity.”
Get a sneak peek at the Found Footage Festival Volume 7 on Wednesday, May 7 at 8:30 p.m. at Nerdist Showroom, 7522 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. The festival screens – with or without Thomas Odatey – on Thursday, May 8 and Friday, May 9 at 9 p.m. at New Beverly Cinema, 7165 Beverly Blvd., Hollywood.
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