Bwog respects our heritage/amorous affair by posting each issue of The Blue & White. The latest issue, available this week, is a cornucopia of delights: a gripping debate on the merits of shaving, tales of Columbia’s forgotten protests, and profiles of two truly awesome students, among others. In the Conversation, the magazine locates a cool person, and sits down to talk to them for the benefit of all—simple as that. This month, we sat down with Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere fame.
If you happened to be looking up while walking through Union Square one night in March, 2005, you might have witnessed a peculiar scene. The windows of the Whole Foods building on 14th Street were filled with people doing enthusiastic jumping jacks in perfect unison. A few of the jumpers also held poster board letters which, together, urged their audience to “Look Up More.”
Commanding the troops on the ground with hand-signals was Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere. According to the group’s website, “Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” Improv Everywhere has orchestrated dozens of large-scale pranks throughout New York City, including the annual No Pants Subway Ride. Todd is also a performer at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in Manhattan, and the author of Causing a Scene, a book about Improv Everywhere’s exploits. Blue & White senior editor Hannah Lepow sat down with Todd to learn about pranks from the master.
The Blue & White: So your last mission featured a lone, clumsy ice skater stranded and falling down on the rink at Bryant Park when the ice was cleared, only to turn out to be a professional figure skater. How did you come up with that idea?
Charlie Todd: Two of the more senior members of Improv Everywhere—Matt Adams and Katie Sokoler, my main video person and my main photographer – they happened to be in Bryant Park and they saw something similar. They saw a guy kind of struggling to leave the ice when it was time for the Zamboni clearing. And I think he fell a couple times and a lot of people were watching and kind of laughing. And they suggested the idea to me of trying to find a professional skater who could be in that situation and then all of the sudden start skating really well.
B&W: It looked like the people who were watching really got a kick out of it, but there did seem to be some mixed reactions.
CT: Yeah I’ve kind of been surprised. A lot of the YouTube comments (which you can never take too much stock in because often it’s just 14-year-olds), but a lot of people had the reaction of being angry that people watching were laughing instead of helping. But I don’t think they understood the situation. They couldn’t just run out there and help him. There was a wall all around the ice.
B&W: What are the best and worst reactions you’ve gotten to a prank?
CT: Well the worst reaction we’ve gotten over the years is someone calling the police. We did a prank in the Best Buy on 6th
Avenue and 23rd Street a few years back that had about a hundred people put on blue polo shirts and khaki pants and walk around the Best Buy and they decided to dial 911 as a response to that.
B&W: Because that’s an appropriate response…
CT: Yeah. So it hasn’t happened lately. We still do unauthorized projects pretty regularly but we haven’t had a response that extreme in a while. But in terms of the best response, really the goal is to make people laugh and to make people take a second to take a break from whatever their routine is, and hopefully laugh and smile and become a little bit more engaged with the world around them.
I’m as guilty as anyone else of tuning out my surroundings in New York. It’s very easy to listen to your iPod and read something on your iPhone when you’re riding the subway and ignore everyone else around you. And I think that’s a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the commute. But it’s nice sometimes to find a reason to have people take a break from that and experience something together.
B&W: On that note, your pranks seem so tied to New York – what do you think of New Yorkers?
CT: New Yorkers have an unfair reputation of being cynical and unfriendly. Even some of the reaction to the ice skating video – ‘oh, these are typical New Yorkers laughing at this guy rather than helping him’ – I don’t think that’s accurate.
And also there’s such a great percentage of New Yorkers who are not from New York. And I love native New Yorkers as well, but I think one of the things that’s so special about New York City is that you have people from all walks of life, all over the country, all over the world, who have decided to move to New York and try to make it in whatever their field is. And I think that gives the city such an exciting energy.
But the activities that we plan show the best side of New Yorkers. I think the high-five escalator project we did at the 53rd Street subway stop is a good example. One of the least exciting, most frustrating places you can be in New York – waiting in line to go up an escalator at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday morning in the middle of winter – we provided New Yorkers with an excuse to laugh and smile and interact with each other. And almost everybody who went up that escalator next to the sign gave Ralph a high-five at the top of the escalator.
Also just in general, if you’re in New York, if anything ever goes wrong, if anyone trips or falls, immediately everyone stops and checks if they’re okay and calls an ambulance if necessary. I feel like New Yorkers are pretty willing to give directions. I think we’re more helpful than perhaps the way we’re portrayed in movies or in stereotypes of people who live elsewhere.
B&W: I hope so – that’s nice to hear. Do you try to act differently from a stereotypical New Yorker in your daily life? Do you ever just interact with people on the street, to get a sense of what’s going on in the community?
CT: Just in my general life I’m pretty similar to everybody else. But when I’m presented with something that’s unusual, or a bit of entertainment in an unexpected place, I do my best to pay attention and engage myself with it. Even if it’s just someone coming on to a subway car with a guitar. I tend to press pause on my iPod and at least listen. I think it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and the possibility of creativity happening around you.
B&W: Do you consider yourself funny?
CT: Yeah! I consider myself to be a funny person. I perform improv comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and have a show there every week. Improv Everywhere is primarily, in my eyes at least, a comedy group. It was started by comedians. And my interest in doing things is in doing things that are funny. There may be all sorts of other things going on in a prank, but I generally won’t do something unless it’s funny in some way.
B&W: Did you pull pranks when you were a kid?
CT: I did, yeah. My mom and dad always made April Fools’ Day a big deal for my sister and I, so I grew up with an interest in pranks. I definitely pulled pranks with my school friends, and a lot of pranks on college roommates and stuff like that. But it wasn’t really until I moved to New York and saw the potential of the anonymity of New York and the great public spaces that I got inspired to do any organized pranks.
B&W: Aside from your parents emphasizing April Fools’ Day, what are your inspirations?
CT: I was really inspired by a book I read in college about Andy Kaufman called Andy Kaufman Revealed! by his writing partner Bob Zmuda. It had a lot of descriptions of Andy and Bob together doing impromptu performances in public places. A lot of them were sort of argument-based, where they would get into a fake fight in a diner by the side of the road. So, stylistically a little different from what Improv Everywhere does, but in terms of technique very similar.
B&W: You’ve talked about doing things just to get a laugh. Are you trying to do more than that? Are you trying to start a movement?
CT: Well I wasn’t trying to start a movement and then I think I inadvertently did.
B&W: That’s how the best movements are started, right?
CT: Yeah, and I think that’s great. I never really intended…I mean, I was very surprised when I started getting emails from people in other cities saying, ‘I love what you’re doing, can I do it here?’ And while we don’t have official branches or chapters of Improv Everywhere, we’ve encouraged people who want to try out their ideas or do similar things to absolutely go for it. We do some events – our No Pants Subway Ride is an example of an annual event that we do where we encourage people in other cities to organize their own. This year about 50 cities around the world did.
In terms of a larger message, I think the inherent message is that creativity in public spaces is a good, positive thing that should be encouraged, as long as it’s not disruptive or affecting people in a negative way. Also, it should be allowed to happen freely, without permits or bureaucracy.
B&W: Off of the YouTube comments you were mentioning earlier, has social networking affected your missions or how Improv Everywhere works?
CT: I think primarily social media has served as a great way for us to distribute the documentation of our events and to spread the word whenever we have a new project and a new video. Using Twitter and our Facebook page and YouTube of course, we’re able to very quickly spread the word of a new project.
In terms of the projects themselves, we still primarily recruit participants for our events by email, and quite a lot of them tend to be secret and covert, and we can’t announce ahead of time publicly on Facebook or Twitter exactly where we’re going to be and what we’re going to be doing. But for some of the open-to-the-public annual events, like the No Pants Subway Ride, we definitely create a Facebook event. And this year we had 10,000 RSVPs on Facebook. Only 3,500 showed up, which is pretty interesting. And actually it’s kind of good. I don’t really want 10,000 people to show up.
B&W: Yeah, that might bring up the police again… So you’re saying social networking doesn’t ruin the spontaneity or the surprise of the moment?
CT: There can be concern of news of an action getting out before we want it to, due to social media. For example, last spring we did a project called the Tourist Lane, where we used chalk and painted a line down 5th Avenue and stenciled signs that said “New Yorkers” and “Tourists” – giving tourists a walking lane and New Yorkers and fast walking lane. So we did that, and we were planning to release it about a month after we did it. We were editing the video and preparing it, and the chalk was still on the street for several days before it washed away. One person took a photograph of it on their iPhone and put it on Tumblr, and it just completely blew up from that one photograph. All these blogs were posting it, and then all of the sudden the mainstream media found out and there were articles in the Post and the Daily News about it, and someone asked Mayor Bloomberg about it at a press conference, and the Department of Transportation found out about it and sent a crew to clean it up.
So all this happened before we had a chance to reveal it. We were sort of beaten to the punch by someone with an iPhone. But it ended up being fun because there was this mystery of who was this mystery artist who had done this. So we let a couple weeks go by and then we announced that it had been us.
But it can be challenging to do a very public stunt and not have the news of it leak out before you want it to.
B&W: You’ve mentioned so many different types of technology – iPads, iPods, iPhones. Do you think people need more of an absurd public outlet – like your events provide – now that we live so much of our lives on the Internet and are constantly checking our phones or listening to music, or what have you?
CT: Yeah, I think so. I think one thing that’s nice about Improv Everywhere is that while it primarily lives on the Web and is a website, it gives people ways to use social media and tools of the Internet to meet each other in real life and to go out and participate in something and to meet new people and interact with the real world. While so much of what we do is about organizing online and documenting online
it’s nice to have that real life component.
B&W: It seems like that’s the message of what you’ve said in previous interviews is one of your favorite projects – “Look Up More” with people in the windows of the Whole Foods building in Union Square doing jumping jacks to the astonishment of the crowd below.
CT: Yeah, exactly. That’s the point of our projects. To get people to look up more.