This film was screened at Fantastic Fest
The best documentary films are those that are entertaining, and directors Berndt Mader and Ben Steinbauer’s “Chop & Steele” is one that’s engaging, hilarious, and even thought-provoking. The film tells the true story of two childhood friends with an affinity for hijinks that continued into adulthood and the viral goofs that eventually landed them in federal court, facing the wrath of a vengeful media conglomerate.
Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher knew they’d be best friends when they first bonded over their love of playing pranks on people. Growing up in the Wisconsin suburbs, it was clear the duo were naturally skilled jokesters. They spent years making silly phone calls, participating in wildly original dares, creating a history of hilarious drivers license photos, and starting their own improvisational rock band they called “The Beatles.” In other words, these guys are just naturally funny.
The duo struck cult classic gold when they started riffing over old VHS movies, which led to their creation of the Found Footage Festival, an event where they play carefully-curated, obscure videos plucked from the “pop culture garbage heap.” Joe and Nick found success in compiling the funniest, weirdest moments from old videotapes by creating what one subject in the documentary calls a “niche interest with broad appeal.”
The documentary doesn’t spend much time on the pair’s origins but instead focuses on the more recent pranks that landed them in hot water, like when Joe and Nick decided to make up ridiculous characters like a chef who specializes in making questionable recipes from leftover food, a guy who claimed to be the yo-yo champion of the world, and the strongman duo known as Chop & Steele.
In the boldest prank ever, the men called up regional morning television variety shows to pitch themselves – in character – as guests. It is hilarious how easy it was for them to get booked on live t.v., and even more so when their over-the-top antics didn’t make the unsuspecting hosts blink an eye. By including archival clips of their appearances, the documentary lets the legendary mischief makers’ brilliant comedy speak for itself. Their routines are so silly that what’s really crazy is that people actually bought it.
Eventually, one prank went too far and the men were sued for fraud by a media company. It’s an interesting case that explores retaliatory legal action and the protection of social commentary and performance art. Working comedians often push buttons, and their case could have far-reaching ramifications. The documentary explores the legal ins and outs (the film opens with footage of Nick and Joe’s depositions) but never feels dry or boring. With mounting attorney bills and growing stresses, the lawsuit even threatened to end the men’s decades-old friendship.
Mader and Steinbauer interview friends and fans of Joe and Nick, including David Cross, Bobcat Goldthwait, Reggie Watts, and even Howie Mandel, who himself was a victim of a subversive prank when Chop & Steele urinated live on stage at a taping of “America’s Got Talent.” Yes, these guys sometimes go too far, but they push the envelope all for the love of making people laugh.
“Chop & Steele” is an entertaining documentary about friendship, the art of comedy, and the skill and creativity it takes to execute the perfect practical joke – even if it lands you in serious legal trouble.
By: Louisa Moore