In the dead of winter, 2001, a woman riding the New York subway looked up from her book and saw a passenger wearing no pants. She was puzzled, but ignored him. At the next stop, another pantsless passenger joined him. And then more. By this time, she had put her book away. A hidden camera captured her reaction as it evolved from confusion to delight. She traded looks of amazement with the other passengers—a group called Improv Everywhere was responsible for breaking their routine.
For a decade and a half, the group has built a global reputation for pulling stunts like the Grand Central Terminal freeze. If design is about the capture and channeling of attention, Improv Everywhere has a lesson for us in how to achieve that. We spoke to founder Charlie Todd to get some backstory on his benevolent guerrilla art troupe.
Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere.
How did Improv Everywhere start?
Charlie Todd: I totally blundered into it. I was 22-years-old, and moved to New York to be an actor in improv comedy. I said to some friends, let’s go play a prank in a bar tonight. We did it for five years, and then when YouTube was created, I already had a library of content. A thing we did in Grand Central Station got 10 million views in the first week alone. I’ve spent the last eight years following that viral breakout.
The "Grand Central Terminal freeze" prank. Watch the video here.
What’s the audience meant to take away from such stunts?
When a load of people turn up at Coney Island in eveningwear and jump in the ocean, and people ask why, the answer is that there is no why. We’re all conditioned to assess for some extrinsic motivation, like the thing was for charity or a comment on global warming. It’s okay to just do a thing because it’s silly.
The "human mirror" prank. Watch the video here.
So, it’s simple whimsy with no purpose?
Well, I’d like to think that having that experience maybe alters people’s perception in some small way. We’re encouraging people to express themselves in a public space, in an unauthorized manner. In this post-9/11 security world we live in, we’re trying to make people realize that they don’t have to ask permission to express themselves creatively.
Is it also important to be connecting people?
I grew up in South Carolina, in a small city. I was used to people making eye contact and smiling. Moving to New York, everyone is busy and has a smartphone. It was like the only time you made eye contact was if something bad was going on: a train being delayed, or a crazy person shouting. People would unify around shiftiness. So we thought: can we create something that is positive in nature, something so unusual and joyful that you have a positive connection with someone?
Do you always get a positive reaction?
During one of the No-Pants pranks we had some police trouble. An officer stumbled across the event, and didn’t like it. Our people stayed in character and said they had forgotten their pants. The officer took the train out of service. But everything was eventually dismissed. It turns out that there’s no law against being in your underwear. When we did the event the next year, the police were there, to help escort us and make sure people had a good time.
The "no-pants" prank. Watch the video here.
What do you do when you’re not freaking people out on the streets of New York?
I get hired by brands to create surprise moments or spectacles, or brainstorm ideas for a brand campaign. I get to direct and produce TV. Last year I was the show-runner for a show on MTV. I’ve also been at the Upright Citizens Brigade for 15 years, as a performer and teacher.
Tell us about the teaching. Can you teach someone to be funny?
All you can teach is for people to learn how to be themselves—to be honest, and react in a truthful way. Everyone’s unique personality and viewpoint is funny. It’s counter-intuitive: when trying to be funny, people often try to be something that they’re not, by imitating stuff they’ve seen on television and so on. Instead of trying to be something you’re not, you need to be more authentically connected to what you are. That applies to creativity too: instead of reaching outside and trying too hard, focus in on what truly inspires you.
Photos courtesy of Improv Everywhere.