Chop & Steele dives right in with an attention-grabbing, deep-shit deposition of its subjects. And while it’s certainly no tawdry tale of true crime, this simultaneously puerile, poignant and punchy documentary (available to stream on VOD starting May 9) boasts narrative twists and thoughtful ideas best left preserved.
Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher have been comedy compatriots since their childhood days crank-calling old folks. Most 10-year-old kids love everything they see. These 10-year-olds hated things together. But they shared an affection for the “garbage heap of pop culture” created by the explosion of cheap, easy VHS production. Over time, they amassed floor-to-ceiling stacks of goofy VHS tapes — from Howie Mandel explaining conception to kids to frisbee sex fetishists — and curated their findings with comic commentary through the traveling Found Footage Festival. As one fan says: “They made up this genre and they’re the world champions.”
But Pickett and Prueher’s itch to pester people about running refrigerators never went away. So they pushed their pranks up a notch. They began duping small-market network-affiliate morning shows into booking fictitious people like Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, yo-yo champion and environmental enthusiast, or Chef Keith, author of Leftovers Right: Making a Winner of Last Night’s Dinner. The film takes its title from their dunderheaded duo of motivational fitness enthusiasts, a sort of heartland riff on Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live.
Like no-budget Borats or a proletariat-level Punk’d, their game concerned being “funny, pathetic and believable enough to not let on that you’re fucking with them.” Pickett and Prueher get their goof on for a few minutes. Morning-show reporters from Nowheresville, USA get their turn in the revolving door of viral fame. Is it mean or is it just funny? Sure seems like no harm, no foul, right? Right? Best to let co-directors Ben Steinbauer (Winnebago Man) and Berndt Mader sweep you along on this story from there. Safe to say Pickett and Prueher find muscle flexed against the mischief that makes them merry (if not much money).
Across its fleet-footed 81 minutes, Chop & Steele unfolds several unexpectedly fulfilling dramatic arcs. Through guest spots from Bobcat Goldthwait and the Yes Men, there’s an unexpected advocacy for activism that suggests the integral role of intervention and mischief to strengthen, or shake, trust in journalistic institutions. Steinbauer and Mader interrogate the conflict between the duo’s artistic integrity and increased success. By sticking together in the past, Pickett and Prueher took a path that diverged from some of their prank partners. Now, they must consider whether to let the establishment appropriate their anarchy in a way that turns a middle finger into a high-five. And the film also explores how ennui for what once excited you settles in as you age and start considering other priorities; Pickett and Prueher have drastically different safety nets to catch them should their sassy stunts go south, and that conflict foments both into tension and a brief riff on Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
Is it possible that all of these more serious notions are simply another Andy Kaufman-ish put-on from Pickett and Prueher? Absolutely. Does a last-act intrusion of reality conveniently arbitrate some of this anxiety? Yes. That last bit is a minor (and admittedly unavoidable) ding on a story that reinforces a necessary reminder for all of us: Whenever you think what you’re good at doesn’t matter or have meaning, someone appreciates it so much they’d go to the mat for you when it counts. Not the sort of thing you’d expect from a documentary with so much talk of dog penises and Dalton from Road House, but such is the delightful surprise of Chop & Steele.