ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, has been bringing “scenes of joy and chaos in public spaces” to New York City since 2001. In other words, he organizes groups of people to stage mass public pranks.
Last night Todd spoke at Bowery Electric for Lucid NYC, an events organization that throws “enlightened” parties, which include both performances and presentations. Following two slightly less party-friendly programs, Todd took the stage to shed light on the history on Improv Everywhere’s missions, including the No Pants! Subway Rides and the High Five Escalator.
“My favorite thing,” Todd explained as he screened the above video, “was watching people’s faces as they made the decision of whether or not they were going to stick their hand up. New Yorkers are kind of cynical and they might not want to do something dumb like that, but it was fun to see them look in his eyes and be like, ‘Alright, what the fuck. I’ll give a high five, why not?'”
Todd started Improv Everywhere in 2001, soon after he moved to New York to pursue a career in acting. “I was frustrated with how long it was going take to put my time in,” he said, “so I started doing performances in public places.” His first “mission” – in Improv Everywhere terminology – was to impersonate singer Ben Folds in a West Village bar. “I sat down and drank beer for a half-hour next to two attractive ladies,” he explained, “and then my friend came in and identified me as the celebrity Ben Folds and said, ‘Oh my God, I have all your albums, you’re so awesome, please sign a cocktail napkin for me!’ I gave him an autograph, he very loudly said, ‘thank you Ben Folds,’ and walked away.”
Todd spent the next four hours posing for photos and signing autographs for bar patrons who assumed he was a celebrity, and at the end of the night he left without revealing that it was a prank. “Rather than say, ‘You guys are idiots, I’m not Ben folds. You’ve been punked,'” Todd said, “I thought that it was cool that everyone in the bar ended up thinking that they had a great time with a celebrity. Or maybe they’re smart and googled Ben Folds, looked at his picture and realized that he was on tour in Australia that night and definitely not in the West Village. But that’s a cool story too; that two dudes tricked [them] into having this great time with a celebrity and did not plug a show or try to promote a product – [we] just left!”
While still auditioning for other acting gigs, Todd began to stage more pranks or “missions” with like-minded “agents” – most of whom he met at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre improv classes – under the name Improv Everywhere. He has since staged over 80 missions, the most famous being the annual “No Pants! Subway Rides,” in which participants all board the subway at the same time, and act as they normally would, except that they are not wearing pants. The first mission in 2001 [see video below] involved seven men. In 2009, 1200 people participated on 80 different subway cars on four subway lines. Similar missions took place in 22 other cities on the same day.
Todd has since given up auditioning for other acting jobs, though he still performs and teaches at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Though Improv Everywhere is a not-for-profit website and organization, it has garnered him speaking and book deals. He continues to put on missions in New York City: just last week he and 2,000 “agents” – one can become an agent simply by signing up for the Improv Everywhere email list – hit the streets of Brooklyn to walk “Invisible Dogs.”
What I noticed most about Todd’s presentation at Bowery Electric was how excited he got, while screening his videos, (all of which can be found on the Improv Everywhere website) to point out his favorite reactions from people who weren’t involved in the project. He said that ultimately this was both his favorite part of the missions, and really the goal of Improv Everywhere: “altering reality in a positive way that gives someone a great story.”