Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 19, 2009

Pranking the Pants Off You

Charlie Todd, comedian and founder of public nuisance-makers Improv Everywhere, will go to extraordinary lengths for a chuckle.

Max Lakin

New York City-based comedy troupe Improv Everywhere doesn't do stand-up. You won't ever see them at Caroline's, and you can't buy tickets to future performances. If you hang around densely-populated locales long enough, however, you stand a decent chance of getting enmeshed in their next act.

Birthed in 2001 by Upright Citizens Brigade-alum Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere operates by the creed of "causing scenes." And their estimated 10,000-large roster of participants do a good job of just that—getting moderately indecent on subway cars, neutralizing the Best Buy dress code, and generally just screwing with the sensibilities of unwarned passersby.

Charlie Todd. Photo by Chad Nicholson.
"I've worked on these projects because I find the ideas to be funny. I've always kept my politics completely separate."

Charlie Todd. Photo by Chad Nicholson.

Todd, who lives in New York and teaches more formal improvisation at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea, says the idea is to encourage people to break from their inner monologues and notice the world around them; when that world consists of two-dozen operatives extolling the glory of lunchtime, it isn't difficult to do. This past May, he co-wrote a chronicle of the group's greatest hits, Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere.

In the following interview, which was conducted by email and edited for clarity, Todd spoke with Gelf about his well-meaning prank ethos, making enemies with Best Week Ever's Paul F. Tompkins, and getting ripped off by REM.

Gelf Magazine: So this is a black-market front, right? Like, sleight of hand—while the guys in the blue shirts are singing, do you have half a dozen guys loading the plasmas up out back? Just kidding. What's your comedic background?

Charlie Todd: I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and studied drama. I did a bit of extracurricular improv comedy, as well. When I moved to New York, I was more focused on getting involved with theater, but the moment I saw a show at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, that all changed. UCB was basically my grad school.

Gelf Magazine: People will say this isn't really improv—it's planned in advance and highly choreographed. What was the impetus for making your good-natured pranking a formal collective?

Charlie Todd: I've always regretted putting the word "improv" in the title of the group, as it certainly confuses people who want to take it literally, but there is definitely an element of improvisation in every project we do. Something like a musical breaking out in a grocery store is obviously completely scripted.—although we still don't know how the customers there will react, where they will stand, or if they will get in the way of the choreography, so there is still an element of improvisation needed. Other projects are simpler—let's grab a blue backdrop and a stool and take "yearbook photos" on the subway. For something like that we don't have any script in mind besides the idea itself—all of our interactions are improvised.
Improv Everywhere just evolved to be a collective as years went by. The first couple of years, it was always a struggle to get people to come out and play. The participants were mostly my friends or new acquaintances I met through improv classes. As the group grew, I started coming up with ideas that used more people.

Gelf Magazine: Though your FAQ dismisses any resemblance to a flash mob, many of your better and best-knows stunts are, in fact, flash mobs. Do you take offense to the nomenclature?

Charlie Todd: Improv Everywhere was created in 2001 and had already done dozens of projects by the summer of 2003 when the first "flash mob" happened. In NYC the flash mob was a fad that lasted about three months. The creator of the project literally ended it and said it was over. It was a huge international media craze while it lasted, and I was absolutely terrified that the work I had been doing for two years was going to get tied to the trend.
I think flash mobs were pretty much dead, at least in the US, until January 2008 when I released my Frozen Grand Central video on YouTube. The video went on to get 20 million views and sparked imitators in hundreds of cities across the world. I do think that video is at least in part to blame for the flash mob returning to the zeitgeist. I don't refer to that project or anything I've done as a flash mob, but sure, it's a large group of people coming together as a mob to do something in a flash, so I see the obvious similarity. However, it was also something that was planned out in advance and coordinated by many people. There was a meeting where everyone synchronized their watches and talked strategy. These are subtle differences, but you'd never have an organizational meeting before a flash mob. Most importantly, Improv Everywhere can be any fun project in the public space—it doesn't have to come and go in a flash and it doesn't need a mob. It can be five people standing next to an escalator for 45 minutes giving out high fives.

Gelf Magazine: Between impromptu musicals and pantsless transiting, no one would accuse you of being incendiary. What do you think your saccharine approaches accomplish?

Charlie Todd: Improv Everywhere has been focused on being a comedy group. From the beginning I've worked on these projects because I find the ideas to be funny. I've always kept my politics completely separate from the group as to me [politics] takes away from the magic. I want someone to see, for example, 200 people frozen in place for five minutes in Grand Central and wonder, at least for a moment, if time has suddenly stopped. If those people are wearing T-shirts that say "U.S. out of Afghanistan," it's not as interesting. It's obviously a protest. I'm a big fan of The Yes Men and have collaborated with them in the past as an individual. I helped out with the fake New York Times project last year. But when it comes to Improv Everywhere, I keep it about the ideas and not about a message.
Of course there is the underlying message of exercising our right to express ourselves creatively in the public space. The idea is that the public space is something shared by all of us.

Gelf Magazine: You recently had something of an argument with comedian Paul F. Tompkins. What prompted the discussion, and were either of your views imparted on the other? What did you take from the exchange, if anything?

Charlie Todd: I had noticed Paul was joking about IE on Twitter and had heard him poke fun at us on radio programs in the past. I couldn't really figure out what his point of view was, but it definitely seemed like he didn't like us. I got in touch just to introduce myself. I've enjoyed his work since his days on Mr. Show, and his comments about us were bumming me out so I wanted to know where he was coming from. He replied with a lengthy email detailing what he doesn't like about Improv Everywhere, which basically boiled down to him not liking "chaos," or really any type of disruption in public places. We completely disagree on the value of performances in public places, and I don't think we were able to change each other's minds a bit. That said, it was a nice and cordial discussion, and I'm happy that I at least understand his point of view now.

Operation: Best Buy

Gelf Magazine: Have you been approached to advertise something? Would you entertain such offers? I'm seeing giant-walking-billboard potential.

Charlie Todd: I get contacted by marketers, advertisers, and brands literally every day. I'm sure I've had over 300 requests this year. And 99% of them are projects I'm not interested in getting involved in. Improv Everywhere does not create content that explicitly promotes a brand. We're not going to stand in Times Square wearing Doritos T-shirts. I have taken on sponsorship a couple of times in recent years. Yahoo, for example, has sponsored our last two Mp3 Experiment projects. In these situations we maintain complete creative control and the brand gets a "thanks for making this possible" credit at the end of the video. Their brand is not featured in the video itself. I see it as the TV model: a sponsor supporting the programming.

Gelf Magazine: You got REM's PR firm to apologize to you after they produced a video where a bunch of actors spontaneously freeze. Do you truly consider that the provenance of IE? Smirnoff and Bacardi both have recent ad campaigns that are somewhat similar.

Charlie Todd: The REM situation was unique, and to be fair I'm sure that the band had nothing to do with it. A UK marketing firm representing the label had people go out and freeze in place holding umbrellas that said REM and listed the release date of the new album. The video claimed that the inspiration for the idea came from the title of REM's album Accelerate, and that they decided to "decelerate" to commemorate its release. This was completely ludicrous because the video was made right in the middle of the Frozen Grand Central international craze. At that point people in over 100 cities around the world had gone out and frozen in place for five minutes in the wake of the massive popularity of our YouTube video. So at the height of this international phenomenon being carried out by regular citizens just for the fun of it, a marketing firm took the idea, presented it as their own, and used it to promote a product. It pissed me off.
I don't claim to be the first person to freeze in place. I don't claim to have ownership of public art or performance-based creativity in public places. There were "happenings" in the '60s and there is a rich history of various types of public performance art. However, when you take a specific idea (hundreds of people freezing in a public place for exactly five minutes), use it to market a product, and don't even have the courtesy to say where the idea came from, that's just wrong. The REM YouTube page had our Frozen Grand Central video listed under its "favorites" so there was little doubt where they got the idea from. Anyway, the label apologized and added a link to us to the sidebar of the video. Then the band heard about the controversy and just told them to take the video down altogether.
I sort of regret mentioning the incident publicly because it was sort of a waste of my time dealing with the stir it caused, but I don't regret contacting the company and telling them to give credit where credit is due.

Gelf Magazine: You staged a faux-U2 concert on a rooftop across from Madison Square Garden where they were actually playing, and re-created a living, Star Trek-inspired Moebius in a downtown Starbucks. What's been the most difficult mission to pull off? And has one ever crashed mid-flight?

Charlie Todd: I'd say our "Look Up More" mission in the windows of the Filene's Basement retail complex was probably the most elaborate mission we've pulled off. It took weeks of planning. I spent hours walking through the store and making charts indicating which windows were accessible, which ones were close to security guards, etc. Then I had to make detailed instructions that were unique for each of the 70 participants. There were moments where everyone pointed to one window, so the direction they pointed was different for everyone. It was very satisfying to be standing in Union Square Park when the whole thing unfolded. That building is sort of a disgusting beacon of fluorescent light, so I was very happy to do something fun and cool with it.
In terms of something crashing, I'll never forget the cops showing up in 2006 to our then 5th annual No Pants Subway Ride. We were about halfway through the mission when a cop spotted some participants in their underwear, stopped the train, made everyone exit, called for backup, and started handcuffing people in their underwear. A judge threw out the charges—of course it's not illegal, the Naked Cowboy does it every day—and the whole thing ended up getting us quite a bit of attention. I went on Keith Olbermann the next night to discuss the legality of underwear.

Front-page image of Invisible Dogs prank courtesy of Improv Everywhere

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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