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Inside The Dumbest First Amendment Battle Of 2017

The guys behind Found Footage Fest have been innocuously pranking local news stations for years. Now they’re being sued for it in federal court.

Inside The Dumbest First Amendment Battle Of 2017
Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher [Photo: Erik Ljung]

When the so-called strongman duo appeared on WEAU’s Hello Wisconsin last November, clad in chef pants and too-tight tops, they looked absolutely ridiculous, an obvious folly. Not everybody got the joke, though.

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Chop & Steele had stopped by the morning news show ostensibly to promote their “Give Thanks 4 Strengths” tour. The pair’s unorthodox exercise demonstration involved whacking a spare tire with baseball bats, stomping on Easter baskets, and throwing gnarled wooden sticks at each other’s backs–all while the hosts looked on, bemused but chipper. If the fitness benefits of these activities sound dubious, it’s because they’re made up. Chop & Steele are made up as well, the alter egos of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, comedians stealthily promoting their actual tour, Found Footage Festival. The promotional effort backfired, however. Not long after Pickett and Prueher appeared on Hello Wisconsin, WEAU’s parent company, Gray Television, filed a federal lawsuit against them. Now the Found Footage Festival is facing an existential crisis and it’s going to take something of a litigious strongman to get them out of it.

Welcome to the dumbest first amendment battle of 2017.

Prior to the lawsuit, Pickett and Prueher had been making a living with Found Footage Festival for 13 years. The show is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, with the two comics commenting over creatively edited clips from videos unearthed in thrift stores and garage sales around the country. The footage ranges from exercise tutorials to home movies and public access disasters that have to be seen to be believed. It’s the kind of unintentionally hilarious spectacle that was once passed around dorm rooms on VHS before YouTube was born. The path to promoting the show as Chop & Steele, though, began with making similar appearances in earnest.

“We hated doing the morning news shows because they’re really early in the morning and we’d wonder if our audience was even up yet,” Prueher says. “So we’d come up with ways to entertain ourselves and to prove that these news stations weren’t really paying attention.”

The main way they would spice things up while out promoting was with the two-word phrase challenge. Pickett would present Prueher with two unlikely words such as “basketball murderers,” which he would then have to casually work into the interview somehow. For that particular example, the news anchor asked Prueher which kinds of people usually make the type of videos they tend to screen, to which he responded: “Oh, they might be anybody. They could be crazy basketball murderers for all we know.” The reporter didn’t bat an eye.

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“That’s when we realized we could probably get away with a lot more,” Pickett says.

In 2010, the duo took whatever they’d started with the two-word phrase challenge to the next level. They forged a press release for a performer named Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, a yo-yo expert who supposedly went to different schools around the country teaching kids about the environment, through the magic of yo-yos. The odds of such an act existing, if you really think about it, are astronomical.

“News stations should have sniffed this out immediately,” Prueher says. “It’s a nonsense pitch.”

K-Strass ticked all the morning news boxes, though. The fictional character had a message, a personality, and he put on a demonstration. He provided 10 minutes that could easily slot into any morning show with a lax booker and a gaping maw of airtime to feed. Several news stations responded to the press release, requesting time with the yo-yo master.

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Pickett and Prueher teamed up with their comedy friend, Mark Proksch, and collaborated on the concept of Kenny Strasser. Proksch went along on tour, donning Peter Pan shorts and suspenders to pop in on every morning news show that would have him. Each K-Strass appearance resulted in painfully awkward banter and malfunctioning yo-yo tricks with scant educational value. In terms of actually creating the kind of stilted TV moment they usually had to search flea market bargain bins for, though, it was a stunning success.

A few years later, they trotted out a new character, Chef Keith, purported author of Leftovers Right: Making a Winner of Last Night’s Dinner. Keith’s specialty was coming up with kitchen hacks nobody should ever use, like mashed potatoes in ice cream cones. Chef Keith somehow managed to get booked on as many shows as K-Strass did, even if he didn’t eventually perform on Conan, as his predecessor did. By the time, Pickett and Prueher dreamed up strongman duo Chop & Steele earlier this year, they were convinced that oversight at local news stations was at an all-time low.

“We couldn’t believe how many of these we got away with,” Prueher says.

Even before the lawsuit, they hadn’t gotten away with them all. Some news stations figured out what was happening, mid-appearance, and would send a friendly email later on, to the effect of “You got us.” On the day of their ill-fated appearance on Hello Wisconsin, Pickett and Prueher stopped at a competing news station nearby to make another appearance, and were denied entry. They were in the lobby, in full costume, cradling a tire and a baseball bat, when a representative kindly informed them that the station had not been able to find any information about Chop & Steele online, and therefore had to rescind the offer. The duo simply nodded and accepted this fair assessment–the news station had done its job–and then went on to their next appearance, at WEAU.

Nothing seemed unusual about the visit to Hello Wisconsin. In fact, after it was over, a producer asked them to film a promo for a later episode. That night, however, Pickett and Prueher received an angry email from Gray Television, parent company of the news station that ran the show. Nearly half a year later, this past April, they found out through a New York Post article that Gray had filed a federal lawsuit against them. The company owns over 90 stations around the country, including stations that incidentally played host to both K-Strass and Chef Keith in the past.

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“I think they were humiliated and they were like, ‘this is going to keep happening if we don’t do something,'” Pickett says, “And instead of putting the onus on their reporters to do their jobs, they were like ‘let’s try to sue these guys and make them pay.'”

The two defendants quickly retained the services of a sympathetic attorney willing to work well below his rate. The amount it’s going to cost to fight the case in court is expected to top out at over $100K, though, so the duo have started a GoFundMe to help with their legal fees, and plan to release some new material for sale on their website to raise funds as well. They also have an extensive touring itinerary. The issue of whether they would push back against the company suing them, though, was never in question.

“We have to fight this no matter what, even if it bankrupts us, because we didn’t do anything illegal,” Prueher says. “I kind of feel like Larry Flynt, in a way. We’re fighting this First Amendment battle because we chopped sticks on a morning show.”

Although relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, the lawsuit strikes a sinister note when viewed as part of a greater trend. Large companies seem to be increasingly throwing financial and legal weight behind efforts to silence their critics. It’s a cultural shift outlined in great detail in the recent Netflix documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which finished editing well before a coal company sued John Oliver in June for his segment on them. People with money and influence are feeling emboldened, and it’s unsettling to consider where it may lead.

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“We certainly didn’t ask for this,” Pickett says, “But now that we’re in this fight, we feel like it’s important to take it all the way and set a precedent so that other people can be free to criticize the news too.”

Perhaps when he and Prueher were beating a rubber tire with baseball bats on TV, what they were really walloping were the forces that threaten our freedom.