You’re walking through Grand Central and the people around you inexplicably freeze in place. You’re riding the subway and several sets of twins sit across from one another, perfectly mirroring each other’s movements. You’re waking by a public fountain and a group of synchronized swimmers emerge and go into their routine. No, you haven’t stumbled into an episode of The Outer Limits. Chances are, you’ve happened upon another public gag, pulled off by performers/prankster troupe Improv Everywhere. The performance-art pranksters execute spontaneous public spectacles, or “missions” as they like to call them, for the amusement of the general public. On the dawn of their next big stunt — The Mp3 Experiment Six — we asked Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd to let us in on the joke.
Flavorpill: Why would you start something like this?
Charlie Todd: In 2001, I went out to a bar with two of my buddies and we decided to pull a prank where I would pose as musician Ben Folds. Three hours in “Ben Folds” was drinking on the house surrounded by women and his two big fans, (my friends) were thrown out for stealing my wallet. Or Ben Folds’ wallet. I had always been a prankster, but this experience enlightened me as to how far a prank could be taken. I decided that rather than waiting around for someone to give me acting or comedy opportunities, I would start making my own. I could create my own theatre rather than waiting around for someone to give me stage time.
FP: What do you get out of doing these public gags?
CT: Improv Everywhere is about having fun. Our [pranks] are a source of entertainment for the participants and for those who see us live. We get satisfaction from coming up with awesome ideas and making them come to life.
FP: You’ve been known to pose your people as fans of various events such as when you sent a score of strange fanatics to a Little League game. When you pulled this stunt on touring rock band Ghosts of Pasha, some people (especially the band) thought you had crossed a line. A segment on it even aired on This American Life . How do you feel when people say that your pranks go too far?
CT: We were upset when we found out that the guitarist of Ghosts of Pasha had a negative experience with us. We heard it on This American Life like everyone else. I don’t think bringing 30 people to a rock concert was going too far. Going too far is bringing 30 people to a [real] funeral (there is a parody video where we pretended to do that on our site), but as far as the Little League game, it was a completely positive experience for all.
FP: You claim to cause “scenes of chaos and joy” but have you ever gotten flak from the authorities when causing a public spectacle?
CT: We’re not looking for legal trouble, but on occasion it has found us. We may break some policies or regulations from time to time, but we do not break the law. It is unfortunate whenever a cop has his time wasted responding to something we do.
FP: How did Best Buy feel about when you had your people impersonate their employees on the floor of one of their stores?
CT: The regular employees thought it was hilarious, but one of the managers dialed 911. The police arrived and informed them that it was not illegal to wear a blue polo shirt and khaki pants.
FP: What about Home Depot? What did they do when your group entered their store and started shopping in slow motion?
CT: Home Depot did not express any concerns, no. The mission was over in 15 minutes, so I guess they didn’t have time to respond. Several employees thought it was very cool, and we have a few of their reactions on video.
FP: How about U2? Did their people have a cow when you dressed up like them and pretended to put on a show from a roof before their concert at Madison Square Garden?
CT: I’ve never been contacted by the band and have no idea if they even know about it. The hoax aired repeatedly on VH-1, so I imagine they found out.
FP: The prank you pulled in Grand Central where you had a group of people freeze mid-stance was recreated in a Law and Order episode. Did they approach you before they wrote that?
CT: We had no idea about that episode, and the show didn’t get in touch with us about it.
FP: When you had performers ride the subways without pants, were any of the pants-free performers arrested?
CT: We have performed the No Pants mission eight years in a row now. In 2006, eight people were handcuffed, but all of their charges were dropped. It is not illegal to walk around in your underwear in NYC.
FP: I’ll keep that in mind next time I have that urge. So has the prank ever been on you?
CT: In college, I engaged in regular prank wars with friends. My buddy got me pretty good when he put up fliers around campus announcing a party at my apartment. The posters claimed it would be the party of the year and would feature free drinks and live music. It even included a hand-drawn map. Once I figured out it was him, we decided to join forces and heighten the prank by staging a huge fake fight at another friend’s house party. Friends had to hold us back from each other and some of the females in attendance burst into tears.
FP: How does someone become an Improv Everywhere performer?
CT: Our smaller missions are usually limited to performers who have been with the us longer, but there are a few opportunities each year to get involved with our larger missions. No experience is required, just a desire to have fun and an ability to keep a straight face. Our more veteran members are mostly trained by the Upright Citizens Brigade, but we welcome people to participate from all backgrounds.
Charlie Todd recently co-authored his first book, causing a scene, on Harper Collins; you can also catch up with Todd on Urbanprankster.com. If you live in New York, join him tonight at UCB where the Improv Everywhere guys will fête the new book, screen clips of past successes, and drink themselves silly.