He started the group in August of 2001 when he played his first prank in Manhattan by pretending to be musician Ben Folds at a local bar.
To date, Improv Everywhere has carried out over 100 missions with notable ones including New York’s infamous No Pants Subway Ride, Frozen Grand Central, Mp3 Experiment, The Subway Spa and Black Tie Beach Party.
Todd has also given a TED Talk about the importance of play in adulthood and the philosophy behind his public pranks.
He continues to perform at UCBT where he taught for many years prior.
What’s up everybody you’re here with 20to30, I’m Ari King, and this is Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere.
So, Charlie, what is Improv Everywhere?
Improv Everywhere is a New York City based prank collective. We cause scenes of chaos and joy in public spaces.
So we stage large scale performances that are undercover, surprise moments with a focus on being funny and being positive in nature.
What is the main difference? What is the difference if you’re into acting or if you’re into improv?
….They’re different skills but in order to be a good comedy improviser you have to be able to play a character and act and be believable. And I think in order to be an actor you have to be able to be in the moment and to react moment to moment in a natural way, and I think improvisation helps with that. That’s sort of the interesting thing about Improv Everywhere. It’s that although the word improve is in the name of the group, it’s not really improv. There’s an improvisational nature to the way we interact with people that don’t know that a performance is happening. But our projects are very organized. They’re very planned. You know, I’ll work for a month on a project. That’s sort of the dichotomy of Improv Everywhere. We work really hard to choreograph and execute this thing that then becomes spontaneous.
What is the creative process like for coming up with these pranks and missions which you do?
Next month we’re doing a big project called the MP3 experiment. And this is an annual event that I do. We put an MP3 file on our website or on an app. People download it to their phones and all press play simultaneously. So this is going to be at a public location in Brooklyn and we’ll have probably a few thousand people participating at the same time. So this is a big, open to the public event that I do every year. Last year we did it at the South Street Seaport and we had, we did it twice, and we had about 3,000 to 4,000 at each one. So you’ll wind up having a large crowd of people listening to these secret instructions in their ears but the general public walking by can’t hear. So you might see 4,000 people drop to the ground at the exact same time, or start dancing at the exact same time. And those who are walking by are kind of left to wonder what the h*** is happening.
When you were trying to get into acting, you said you didn’t necessarily get a lot of parts, so you took the initiative yourself. What advice were you given, or what advice do you have for those who have a passion and want to turn it into a career?
… It was something I was doing on the weekend with friends, outside of my day job. And I never dreamed that it would be my career, but now, 13 years later, it is what I do full time. So my advice to people is always, whatever it is that you love doing, don’t wait for someone to give you permission to do that. If you’re a musician, you don’t need a record deal. If you’re a filmmaker, you don’t need to sell your script. You can just go make it. And I think now, what’s happened over the last decade is the tools of creation have become so affordable. Everybody’s got an HD video camera in their pocket at all times. Distribution is now free with YouTube. Crowdfunding is possible with Kickstarter. So there’s no excuse to not make your thing. And do what you want to do and do it for free and don’t expect to be paid for it and don’t worry about a business model. Just go do it. And I think in doing it you’ll get better at it and over time you’ll improve and eventually, you know, good stuff rises to the top and you’ll have a shot at making it your life.
It sounds like you’ve got to take some initiative but be prepared to fail a little bit. When you get knocked down, get back up.
Yeah, I mean if I look at some of the things that I was doing for Improv Everywhere ten years ago, you know, they weren’t all massive hits. And I think you learn as much from the ones that don’t go as well as the ones that go great. And you learn, okay, I see why this didn’t work and I know how to iterate on that the next time. And I think being prolific is important. I think artists and creative people can be so precious And I think being prolific is important. I think artists and creative people can be so precious with their ideas and they can spend five years working on their seven minute short film, when it’s like, no, just crank it out and move on to the next one and make it better.
Keep it simple stupid.
Keep it simple, yeah.
They say that for a reason.
It is, yeah. And I think a lot of our best ideas are the ones that are very simple. Let’s get 200 people to freeze in place in Grand Central. Let’s have 100 people wear a blue polo shirt into a Best Buy. These ideas that can be described in the title of the video tend to be the ones that work the best.
When you have strangers, I imagine there are some people who are unhappy, New Yorkers who don’t want to be on video.
What do you do to combat those people who could be contributing negatively to your event?
Well the projects that we design, we design them in a way that if you want to participate and you want to be a part of it, then you can. And if you want to just keep walking and go somewhere else, then you can do that too. So we try not to get right up in anybody’s face. You might be in a subway car and we’re doing a performance and you’re sort of captive audience on that subway car, but you can always just put your headphones back in and read your book. And that’s totally fine. Every now and then someone might be irritated by what we do, but we work really hard to try to make them so funny and so positive that even the most cynical New Yorker would enjoy it.
You said in an interview, “I think as adults there is no right or wrong way to play.” That’s a specific short sentence but can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, I just think that, what I was speaking about in that talk is that, the negative feedback that Improv Everywhere gets. Someone will look at our videos and make a comment on our blog like, oh these people have too much time on their hands. Or these people need to get jobs. And the vast majority of people that are performing, of course they have jobs. Of course they have busy schedules. But they’ve chosen on a Saturday afternoon to participate in something absurd and to go do something silly like wear a tuxedo in the Atlantic Ocean. And I think what I was trying to get across in that talk was that that is just as valid as going and watching a football game, or taking a bike ride through the park. Any way that you’re playing and expressing yourself is completely valid. And I think as you get older you tend to think, okay, I can’t just go out and play for the sake of play. There’s no more recess. As kids it’s like, here’s the hour of the day where you go play. Go play. And as adults that sort of goes away and I don’t think it has to.
One of the videos I watched was the Grocery Store one, and I’ve been in grocery stores a lot where a kid will just start spontaneously crying or yelling, and I’ve kind of wanted to do that myself but that wouldn’t really work. So when you see children act a certain way or people who act a certain way, does that inspire you or give you ideas?
Yeah, definitely, I think a lot of the best Improv Everywhere ideas are site-specific. So I see something unusual in a public place and that inspires an idea. You’re standing on a subway platform and you realize that it’s 100 degrees and humid and you have the instinct of whoa, it’s like a sauna in here. Well why isn’t it a sauna? That would be really funny. Why not make it a sauna? Why not give people towels and bottles of water and make it a fun…make it the most miserable place in New York, which is a hot subway platform into something that’s super fun?
Starting now. My nose is twitching. (Laughs). I beat him. Charlie Todd goes down.
I have a question. Why do you think that people lose a sense of play as adults?
…Yeah I think as people get older and all of a sudden you have lots of responsibilities in your life and you have rent to pay and you have a 9-5 job and you only have so many hours in the day, and I think at a certain point, people can really get onto their career paths and really focus on that. And somewhere in that rut, you sort of forget having fun for the sake of having fun.
Yeah, I mean when I first moved to New York and I was in my early twenties, I supported myself through temp jobs. I just worked whatever reception desk kind of a temp job that I could. But I made sure that that didn’t define me in any way. I never cared about it anymore than…I would sort of…I guess this is not good advice but I would sort of do the minimum amount to not get fired. Put forth the minimal amount of effort. Be competent enough to not get fired. But then spend every other minute planning and scheming what I really wanted to do. When the boss isn’t looking, write your novel at your desk at work.
I like that, do just enough to not get fired.
Yeah I mean if you’re 23 and you’re in a job you hate, you know, keep doing it because you’ve got to pay rent. But figure out how you can sneak in your passion during your work day.
I want you to use your imagination. If you could pick any time period to do a prank in any public space, going back to the beginning of time, what would you like to do?
…That’s a tough question though. I don’t know. I’d love to take like a drone, like a tiny drone…we use drones in our production now to get sometimes the aerial viewpoints, but it’d be great to take a drone back like 50 years and have a robot invasion.
That’s pretty good. And lastly, Do you have any advice for those who are looking to do something as the next step? Or have a passion project on the side but just can’t seem to get over the hump?
I think collaboration is really important. I started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and in doing that I met other comedians. I met other people my age who had the same kind of goals and the same mentality and I found collaborators and people that I would go on to work with for years and years and years. And now I know when I’m shooting a new project, I know that I have this big pool of actors from the community that I can use and camera people that I can collaborate with. I think try not to…work together and find collaborators.
Thanks so much Charlie.
Cinematography: Danielle Calodney & Dyani Douze
Edited by: Danielle Calodney
Interviewed by: Ari King