WASHINGTON — “What is this?” asks a young, hip, bearded dad.
“It’s a CD!” says his young daughter.
Actually, it’s a VHS tape.
The family is gathered in the back room of Comet Ping Pong in Northwest D.C. on a rainy spring night for another installment of Playback the Tape.
Beer glasses clink and pizza is sliced as old episodes of “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and “Full House” play in the background.
Every month, Playback the Tape hosts screenings at bars, galleries and restaurants throughout D.C. It’s a way for the culturally curious to gather and reminisce over old movies and TV shows now that the District’s last video rental store is preparing to close.
“It almost makes me wish I hadn’t gotten rid of my old tapes,” says Tom Blue, adding that he attended a previous Playback the Tape screening. “It’s so much more fun to watch TV like this.”
The tapes shown at these events come from old home recordings that have not been scrubbed down or edited in any way. They were collected from donations, thrift stores, trash cans and even estate sales.
The imperfect nature of VHS makes it the perfect time capsule, says Jared Earley, founder of Playback the Tape.
“Modern technology aims to be so pristine,” he says. “I like that [tapes are] almost a vulnerability that we had before and didn’t even realize.”
Earley remembers sitting around the TV with his siblings in the 1980s and 1990s watching their favorite show, which he declines to disclose because he is saving it for a future Playback the Tape event.
What Earley will say is that they watched said show so many times that they memorized the commercials. These advertisements serve as historical artifacts themselves, and provide a glimpse into what was happening in the world when the tapes were made.
“We picked up commercials. We picked up newscasts. If there was a storm outside and your cables were not underground, you might have sketchy reception,” he says. “There were a lot of stories that got told through each tape.”
At Comet Ping Pong, the commercials transport viewers to spring of 1996, when Sprint calls cost 10 cents per minute, the San Antonio Spurs were in the NBA playoffs and “Casper,” starring Christina Ricci, had yet to be released. A news ticker scrolls at the bottom of the screen as Elaine talks to a blond woman about her friendship with Marisa Tomei — it declares that Cleveland will keep the Browns for a few more years.
“The Browns eventually got moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens,” Earley sheepishly says while standing in the back of the room, adding that the tape being screened was, in fact, his from childhood.
“But I’m no authority on the NFL.”
— playbackthetape (@playbackthetape) April 30, 2014
Earley says this historical storytelling makes tapes so much more appealing than online streaming or even recording via DVR. Without a hard copy, those moving images will eventually be lost to time.
In order to help preserve the quickly fading VHS format, Earley offers “mystery tapes” for a $10 donation. He won’t say what is on the those tapes, but that’s all part of the fun, he says.
“We want people to submit their tapes and we want people to come out to these events,” Earley says. “Without them, these recordings will be gone forever.”
Catch the next episode of Playback the Tape May 28 at Bicycle Space in Northwest D.C. Learn more about future screenings here.