From mermaids to yogis in kilts, morning TV shows have a tendency to book some of the most ridiculous guests. But they’re nothing compared to Chop & Steele, a duo of “strongmen” who lift jugs of gravy, karate chop small sticks, and crush baskets with their feet. If this seems like a joke to you, that’s because it is. The two men behind the feats of strength aren’t strongmen at all. They’re Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, curators of the Found Footage Festival (FFF), and they’re out to prove just how lax a news station’s vetting process for on-air guests can be.
Pickett and Prueher’s foray into TV performance art started several years ago, often appearing on morning shows to promote their touring Found Footage Festival — a kind of combination comedy show and screening of remixed clips from discarded VHS tapes. The TV hosts continuously misunderstood what FFF was or got the title wrong, so Pickett and Prueher decided to have some fun at their expense. “Joe and I have known each other since we were ten, and we have nothing to talk about, so we dare each other to do these kinds of things,” Prueher said in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. For example, there was the “two-word challenge,” where they’d have to weave nonsensical phrases — like “basketball murderers” — into the conversation with the hosts on air. They felt the hosts weren’t listening anyway, so why not? Pretty soon they took it a step further, sending stations press releases for fake people to invite on their shows.
“Seven years ago, with our friend Mark [Proksch], we sent a press release for a bogus character, an environmental yo-yo artist, who would celebrate Earth Day through yo-yoing,” Prueher said. “He took on yo-yo despite the fact that he couldn’t yo-yo at all.” The YouTube videos were extremely popular, so much so that Proksch landed a role on the TV show, The Office.
Three years later, Pickett and Prueher decided to see whether or not the TV morning shows had learned their lesson in researching their potential guests. It seems they hadn’t, as Preuher successfully booked a few shows as a fake chef, blending Thanksgiving leftovers into a “turbogravy.”
“I’m sympathetic to the fact that the news stations are understaffed and looking to fill up content, but there’s some basic fundamental responsibility,” Preuher said. “Morning news shows are just fundamentally stupid. They have five minutes of hard news, and then here’s how to tie a bowtie. We’re pointing out that absurdity.”
In 2016, they came up with Chop & Steele. “We thought surely no one will book us as strongmen,” Preuher said, but a few stations did, and soon Pickett and Prueher found themselves in legal trouble. “The station handled it well, but the parent company was pissed,” Preuher said. “They hired a DC law firm and went after us hard. Maybe they were feeling the burn of journalists being called into question.” A year ago, Gray Television filed a lawsuit against the pair in federal court, claiming copyright infringement, fraud, and conspiracy. After months of back and forth, including 12 hours of depositions, the case was finally dismissed with prejudice in late February.
Although it’s been a harrowing year for Pickett and Prueher, they’re already looking forward to incorporating their legal battle into FFF. They have plans this summer to edit their Chop & Steele appearances with the footage of their depositions. “In retrospect, it’s going to be a really funny story to tell,” Preuher said. “I do love anything that shakes up conventions, to see behind the curtain a little bit.”
While Pickett and Prueher have certainly drawn attention to a lack of fact checking on morning TV shows, is what they do art? Is the Found Footage Festival art? “You could make a case for art,” Preuher said. “We’re recontextualizing discarded material and creating something new out of it. But we self-identify as curators, editors, and comedy writers.”
No matter how they see themselves, Pickett and Prueher’s morning show antics are just the latest in a long history of interventions on broadcast TV, from Chris Burden’s 1970s commercials to Max Headroom’s 1987 broadcast signal intrusion and Mel Chin’s covert project on Melrose Place in the mid-1990s. But perhaps the most relevant comparison, especially considering the legal repercussions, is to The Yes Men, who have been impersonating major corporations in an effort to expose wrongdoing since 1993.
“We love The Yes Men,” Preuher said in a follow-up email. “They are more overtly political than we are, but it’s all part of the same spectrum of challenging the media and those in power through ‘pranks.’ Maybe we could team up to take on the Koch Brothers or something.”