Charlie Todd, Founder of Improv Everywhere, has transformed the idea of pranking into an uplifting brand of public theatre. In an age when viral videos have become cultural currency, and companies often struggle to create one hit, Charlie has succeeded in creating over 100 videos with a million plus views each.
Charlie and his team create “missions” that hold the same magical qualities of a Broadway show but are performed to an audience of random pedestrians. Missions include hiring a Rocky look-a-like to run through Philadelphia and coordinating a “No Pants Subway Ride” in which thousands of pant-less participants across fifty-nine cities around the world all board the subway on the same winter day. The comedian, television producer and Ted Talk speaker has turned a series of whimsical ideas into an entertainment brand with a loyal following and in the process helped influence trends in advertising and pop culture.
Each still photo below links to one of Charlie’s Missions. I highly recommend you watch at least a few!
Zack Seckler: When did you cause your first “scene?”
Charlie Todd: The first performance that I would consider Improv Everywhere happened the summer that I moved to New York. I had probably only lived in the city for a month at that time, and I had a college friend who was visiting me, staying at my place. We were going to a bar, and he remarked that I looked like Ben Folds due to a shirt that I was wearing. And I thought that was funny because I don’t really look like Ben Folds. I think he’s 10 years older than me. But it occurred to me that, at least at that time, he was a level of celebrity where unless you’re a fan of his you probably don’t know exactly what he looked like. And another white dude of medium height and build might believe that I was Ben Folds. And this was back in 2001, so no one has an iPhone in their pocket. I said, “You know what? That’s funny that you think that. Let’s see if we can get people to actually think that I’m Ben Folds.”
So we went into a bar in the West Village. We entered separately and I went and sat at the bar and ordered drinks. My friend entered ten minutes later and approached me and said, “Oh my god, I’m a huge fan. You’re Ben Folds, right? I’d love to have an autograph.” I gave him an autograph and he walked away, and word spread. People who were sitting next to me at the bar, the bartender, all of a sudden everybody realized that, oh my gosh, Ben Folds is here in this bar drinking by himself.
So people started taking pictures of me, people started buying me drinks, people started asking for autographs on napkins. It turned into this great thing. And it was a hoax, it was a prank, but at the same time it wasn’t a con because I didn’t ask for anything from anybody, nobody got hurt. Everybody just had this fun, quirky experience where they met a celebrity at a bar in New York. And at the end of the night, I just said “Hey, time for me to go. Bye, bye,” and walked out the bar.
That decision is really what created Improv Everywhere because it got me excited about staging undercover performances in public spaces that were announced, then just sort of disappeared. A couple of days later I wrote it down and I created the website, and that’s how Improv Everywhere started.
So, it seems to me that I mean there is a difference between what you do and a prank, because a prank involves people getting conned, in a sense, right?
I mean, I’ve always used the word prank to describe what we do casually, but to me a prank is just any performance that is altering reality in some way and making people believe that something is true that is not true. And there are multiple ways to approach that. They could be mean spirited. You could make someone think that their dog died, as Ashton Kutcher once did to Justin Timberlake on the television show Punk’d.
I take no joy in upsetting someone or embarrassing someone in any way. So I strive to figure out ways where we could do this sort of secret, underground performance, but where no one is the butt of the joke. Or if anybody’s the butt of the joke it would be us, the people performing. People literally standing on the train in their underwear.
Tell me about the process of coming up with ideas.
So I’ve got a long list of ideas and half-ideas from the last sixteen years of doing this that I maintain in a Google doc. Included in that are suggestions that people email to me. And I’ve got a great team of collaborators that I work with on the video production side of things. If I have an idea I’ll go to them, or if a brand approaches us. So it’s a collaborative process.
The best ideas that we do are the ones that are site specific, where I or somebody from my team comes up with an idea because they noticed a quirky thing about a particular public space.
For example, I was riding the subway at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue, making the transfer from the E train to the 6 train, and realized how massive the escalators are there and how annoying that transfer can be in the morning when it’s incredibly crowded. So we come up with an idea called High Five Escalator where we had actors holding signs on the side of the escalator that said in, ascending order, “Rob wants to give you a high five.” And at the top there was a guy with a sign that said “Rob” with his hand out.
Has this turned into an actual business for you, or is this really still mostly something that you do for fun?
It’s turned into a business. Improv Everywhere is a full-service production company and we’re producing content throughout the year. It’s definitely full-time. One way me make content for clients is through sponsored projects that they release on Improv Everywhere’s YouTube and Facebook channels. And we also frequently have brands approaching us; they already have an idea, they just feel like our team is the right team to produce it because they’re not sure how to do what we do. So we get brought in as a production company for hire.
When you started this, was it something planned to eventually turn into a business?
It was not. Improv Everywhere started out as a way for me to express myself. And you have to remember that this started in 2001. YouTube wasn’t really around until 2006. So we have five years of just going out and making things, taking a few digitals of them, writing some text, and slapping it on a website.
This kind of stunt or prank advertising has become a trend in recent years. Do you think that Improv Everywhere has had an effect on that trend?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes that stuff can be infuriating, like when you’re watching the Super Bowl and a Bud Light commercial comes on where it’s pretty much Bud Light expressing the ethos of Improv Everywhere.
I mean, two or three Super Bowls ago, Bud Light Canada finished a project where they found a rec league hockey game and had a bunch of fans show up and treat it like it was a professional game. And that’s something that we had done way back. We found a little league baseball team out in California and turned it into a Major League game, with hundreds of fans showing up, and a blimp overhead, and we had a Jumbotron rise up out of the outfield. One of our favorite projects. But then five years later, you see a Super Bowl spot where the same thing unfolds but it’s for Bud Light and it’s hockey instead of baseball.
So we’ve had projects that were lifted beat-for-beat by brands, which certainly is not ideal. But at the same time it’s flattering, and it’s flattering that we had a part in creating a genre of content. It’s definitely ultimately been a good thing for our business and for our longevity, because being able to produce things for clients is what enables us to keep all of our fun, free, independent projects going.
Earlier you mentioned having a hand in the original flash mob trend. Did you guys ever create branded flash mobs?
I don’t like that term and it’s a term created by the media and it can be exploited by the media as well. And then all of a sudden a few years after our Grand Central project went viral people were like, groups of like 20 teenagers were robbing stores in Philadelphia and the press was saying, “It’s a flash mob robbery.” Which wasn’t a flash mob robbery—it was just a mob, just a robbery. So I’ve been careful to stay away from that term for that reason. But yeah, in terms of clients coming to us and saying, “Hey, how do we do something with this giant number of people in a public space?” We definitely are experts in that.
For example, we worked with Fox Sports this summer. They said, “We want to do a big thing to announce the fact that Fox Sports has the Big Ten this year,” And they had an idea of getting a hundred performers dressed up in Big Ten uniforms to basically do a running of the bulls, through Times Square. And we were able to pull it off. It was super fun.
So I think, as resistant as I have been to that term and that fad, we definitely know how to do it, and know how to do it well.
What do you love most about Improv Everywhere?
My favorite thing is coming up with an idea, seeing it through, and the moment when it first starts happening. That moment of “Oh man, we’ve been working for almost a month on this idea,” and just watching it unfold. And for us, sometimes we really just have one shot. We’re going to put an Apple logo on the side of this subway elevator, and it might be that somebody from the MTA or the police see us shut us down in thirty seconds.
Have you guys ever been shut down like that before?
We’ve been shut down pretty quickly a time or two. We staged a project at a Staples where we had a boardroom meeting in the office chairs section. I think that one probably lasted four minutes before the manager said, “You guys gotta get out of here.” But the video still works. We planned for that.
I mean, when we’re working with a brand or any type of client we always have permission for what we’re doing and permits and all that. But when we’re doing stuff just for fun it’s often unauthorized, but we’ve learned to plan for, “What will this video look like if in five minutes we’re told, ‘You guys gotta go’?”
What about the flipside? Do you have a story of something that happened that wasn’t quite expected but made the scene better than you thought it could be?
I do. We had the idea of giving a free wedding reception to two random people who were getting married at City Hall in New York City. The idea was that we would go down to the Mayor’s office, where weddings happen, and I would approach a random couple and say, “Hey, I’m from the Mayor’s office,”—which is not true—“and we’d like to offer you a free wedding reception.”
We got down there and it was raining a little bit, and it was like, Oh no, we got all these props here, we got a wedding cake, we have ten bridesmaids, and ten groomsmen, and a wedding DJ, and all these things prepared. I noticed that there was a job fair happening in the very park where we were going to stage this, and they had these massive tents up. So I went up to the person running the job fair and said, “What time are you guys ending?” “Oh we’re ending in about a half hour.” “Can you keep the tents up?” “Well, we don’t know, but here’s the phone number of the company that put them up.” So I was able to call the company, and they were like, “Oh yeah, sure, we’ll take them down two hours later.” And they charged me a couple of hundred bucks or something. But this is a project with no authorization whatsoever; we could have never gotten permission to put up tents in this park, but just gratuitously they were already there. It just made the project so much better because they looked like tents that had been rented for a wedding reception.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.