In the early 2000s, two Wisconsin teens named Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher began assembling a collection of old VHS tapes they found at garage sales and thrift stores. Among the videos were corporate training and fitness tapes: ’80s-era footage both immensely corny and wickedly entertaining. (Think imitation Richard Simmons and early instructional videos about how to use the Internet.) So the teens started treating the tapes as a kind of oddball party favour. Throughout high school and university, they showcased the cheesiest material at parties and, in 2004, they decided to take their hobby to a professional level. That’s how the Found Footage Festival was born—a live comedy show featuring delightfully bad vintage VHS clips with a side of glib commentary. The festival has since run at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and Montreal’s Just for Laughs. In addition to funny clips, it features original comedy routines by the creators themselves. Fast-forward nine years and the Found Footage art form lives on, albeit in a more current fashion.
Like Pickett and Prueher, Canadian YouTube aficionados Andrew Gunadie and Andrew Bravener have mastered the art of curating offbeat video footage, but they aren’t laughing at the past—they’re laughing at the present. Gunadie and Bravener are the twentysomething web curators behind Cringeworthy! The Best of the Worst Videos Online, a 12-hour mockery extravaganza set to run from sundown on Saturday, Oct. 5 to sunrise on Sunday, Oct. 6, at Toronto’s annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche arts festival.
In a downtown movie theatre, they will deliver the same hour-long show, chock full of carefully selected cringe-worthy YouTube video clips, live dance numbers and, they hope, interactive audience participation. “Our art piece,” says Bravener, “is watching our sanities disintegrate over the course of 24 hours.” Bravener is a 25-year-old Sheridan College graduate and native of Fredericton who works at a Cobs Bread in Toronto. He is also a minor celebrity, having amassed, since 2006, a total of 71,380 subscribers to his personal YouTube channel. Gunadie, a filmmaker and musician who goes by the Internet handle “Gunnarolla,” is no less prolific. In 2009, his comedic YouTube music video, Canadian Please—in which he sings an original song in a Mountie’s uniform—went viral. Today, it has more than three million views. Still, the pair consider themselves “B-list celebrities” in the home-video world, which suits their project perfectly.
Cringeworthy!’s calling, it turns out, runs deeper than laughs. Gunadie notes that several conferences and film festivals already exist to honour the stars of YouTube. Cringeworthy!, on the other hand, is about the little guy: “I really wanted to focus on the old spirit of YouTube,” says Gunadie. “There isn’t really an event that showcases the weird stuff, the amateur stuff. We specifically focus on the videos that are not necessarily viral.” Among the amateur videos to appear in the show are clips of subpar scat singing, failed twerking, an adolescent girl sneezing with her eyes open and, to balance the outsider humiliation, an almost unwatchable clip of Gunadie and Bravener botching their shared hosting gig at a high-profile social media award show last year. It’s this kind of self-deprecation that saves the event from coming off as mean-spirited. That clip will be the first of the night, says Bravener, which means “they’ll start the show laughing at us.” But the Cringeworthy! creators will also feature unknown quality amateur content every hour, and footage of local sketch-comedy teams, something they feel compelled to do in response to YouTube’s creeping commercialization.
“YouTube is becoming a very corporate space,” says Gunadie. “People are creating content with the goal to make money, to become famous, which isn’t a bad thing.” But, he adds, “The YouTube we were a part of in 2007 was more about community and making friends.” That is also the year in which YouTube launched its Partner Program, enabling users to turn a profit through advertising. And, in 2010, Google (YouTube’s parent company since 2006) announced its YouTube Partners Grant Program, which financially rewards YouTubers who are “able to generate substantial revenues but lack the resources of studio-backed production houses.” (In other words, users whose content has potential viral material.)
Still, it’s nearly impossible to make a fortune through the site, let alone a living. As business writer David Lazarus wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year, “The vast majority of the site’s hundreds of millions of users will barely earn enough cash annually to buy a pizza.” That doesn’t mean the site’s atmosphere hasn’t changed. Ad revenues and a heightened corporate presence don’t by any means restrict users from making wacky videos for fun, but they change the nature of the game: from previously scoreless and care-free, to slick and competitive.
“The downside is a lost sense of community,” says Matt Stempeck, an associate researcher at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. “It’s good to celebrate creativity in the face of commercialization,” he says, referencing Cringeworthy! “If they were opening an Applebee’s next to my corner restaurant, I would definitely go to an event in support [of the latter].”
Gunadie and Bravener aren’t removed from the rise of a corporate YouTube. Both of them belong to the Partners Program and sell merchandise associated with their online personas (T-shirts, buttons, etc.). But it’s obvious they care deeply about preserving the pre-commercial, pre-celebrity, “old spirit” that attracted them to YouTube in the first place. What’s more, Cringeworthy! hearkens back to something older than YouTube’s about-face; to a time before YouTube existed.
The appeal of the show, after all, isn’t just raw and ridiculous video footage, but the pre-Internet way in which it’s consumed: en masse and seamlessly. The viewer can’t click away, or opt for videos recommended to him by YouTube’s personalization algorithms. Instant gratification is not an option. He is forced to sit back and watch the show—or participate in the action. He is welcome to walk out, but he can’t log off. As curators of the YouTube art form, Gunadie and Bravener have pulled off a paradoxically liberating online experience writ large: one that is free from distraction and, more important, the tyranny of choice.