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How Improv Everywhere Works


The Missions
No one in this picture works at Best Buy.
No one in this picture works at Best Buy.
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agents Nicholson, Todd

Best Buy

On April 23, 2006, Improv Everywhere invaded a Manhattan Best Buy. Eighty agents dressed up as Best Buy employees, sporting Best Buy-blue shirts and khaki pants, and positioned themselves randomly about the store. In addition to the group's usual hidden cameras, Agent Todd came up with a genius back-up video source: They'd use Best Buy's own demo products. "All we would have to do is bring in blank tapes and memory cards to insert in their own video and still cameras." In addition to the very specific dress code (down to the belt and black shoes worn by Best Buy employees), the e-mail instructions for the mission included, "Don't shop, but don't work either. If a customer comes up to you and asks you a question, be polite and help them if you know the answer. If anyone asks you if you work there, say no."

Photography credit: Agents Sklaren, Demblowski, Brady
Photography credit: Agents Sklaren, Demblowski, Brady
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere
Click here to watch footage from the Best Buy mission.
Click here to watch footage from the Best Buy mission.
Video courtesy Improv Everywhere

The uniformed agents far outnumbered the actual Best Buy workers. At one point, an agent overheard a walkie-talkie communication from a security guard saying, "Thomas Crown Affair! Thomas Crown Affair!" When employees, security guards or, eventually, police officers asked what was going on, the agents' response was always along the lines of, "Oh, I'm just waiting for my boyfriend. He's over there in the TV section."

The agents did not seek out customers, but they totally looked like they worked there so customers often approached them. The agents usually did their best to point them in the right direction (and often failed), although the opportunity for improv was sometimes too much to resist. One agent recalls this exchange:

Customer: Do you know where I can find a USB port? Agent: What is that? Customer: It’s a computer thing. Agent: What does USB stand for? Customer: I don’t know.

At that point, an actual employee rushed up to the pair yelling, "She doesn't work here!"

Best Buy employee (to agent): You can’t help her! Agent: Oh, believe me, I wasn’t helping her.

The 80 employee look-alikes remained in the store for more than an hour. The store's managers were, as several agents put it, "freaking out," and some of the agents were escorted out before the mission was officially over. But the majority of agents managed to stay in the store until Agent Todd gave the signal to leave. Best Buy mission accomplished.

Cell Phone Symphony

The conductor
The conductor
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agents Nicholson, Rainswept

In a brilliantly choreographed performance in February 2006, Improv Everywhere created a symphony of cell-phone ringtones in a bookstore called The Strand. The Strand is a huge place with about 120 cubbies in the bag-check section of the store, where lots of people end up leaving their cell phones while they shop. Often, one or two of those phones start ringing, and most people in the store don't even look up from their browsing. Improv Everywhere decided to find out what would happen if dozens of phones in the bag check started ringing simultaneously. But not only that -- the phones would be coordinated by ringtone to go off at different times like the movements of a symphony. Here's how the mission went down:

To create enough of a ruckus to get people in the store to really pay attention, they'd need a lot of phones. One-hundred and twenty agents showed up with their cell phones for this mission, so that meant 60 phones would go to the bag check and 60 would stay outside to call the 60 inside. The group of agents stood in the freezing cold (it was 15 degrees F that night) a few blocks from the store and divided up by phone brand. Each brand group found a ringtone that was preloaded on all of the phones in the group. Half of those phones would go inside. The agents with inside phones programmed their phone to use the appropriate ringtone and gave their number to someone with an outside phone. The agents with an inside phone headed to The Strand, where they would trickle in and each check a bag containing a phone. The agents with an outside phone prepared to wait in the cold for 45 minutes.

Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agents Nicholson, Rainswept

With all of the phones in place at the bag check, the agent-conductor stood outside with his orchestra and began the symphony. All 60 agents dialed their corresponding number and, on the conductor's cue, hit send. Inside the strand, 60 cell phones started ringing, and people looked over to the bag check, where the amused employees tried to figure out where the noise was originating.

An employee of The Strand looks for the source of the cacophony.
An employee of The Strand looks for the source of the cacophony.
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agents Nicholson, Rainswept

And then it stopped ... but not for long. The conductor signaled the Samsung group, the Nokia group, the Motorola group, the Treo group, and the LG group in succession, creating a symphony of different "movements." Employees and customers inside witnessed the show with various reactions -- some were annoyed, some were confused, but most were enjoying it. There were two employees at the bag check in the center of the action, and one of them had a huge smile on his face the entire time. A thesis developed that a single phone was causing all the others to ring, either by defect or by design, and the bag-check employees searched for the "trigger phone" to no avail. A nearby employee remarked "It's like a David Lynch movie in here. It doesn't make sense."

Click here to watch footage of the Cell Phone Symphony.
Click here to watch footage of the Cell Phone Symphony.
Video courtesy Improv Everywhere

Outside, the conductor was directing the final movement:

For the finale we built until every caller in every group was calling back and calling back and calling back. This went on for about three minutes straight until, in true conductor style, I brought my arms down in a big flourish and everyone hung up together in a big "final note." The sound of dozens of flip phones all smacking shut in unison was quite satisfying.

The symphony lasted a total of 20 minutes, and it ended just in time. A manager had just begun marking down the bag-check numbers of the ringing phones when suddenly all was silence. Agent Todd gave the signal, and the inside agents began the process of leaving the scene. Cell Phone Symphony mission accomplished.

Best Gig Ever

For one the most famous and also controversial missions in the Improv Everywhere play book, some of the group's core agents had to really study up. The idea behind the "Best Gig Ever" mission in October 2004 was to give some unknown band with a terrible time slot the greatest gig of its life. After combing the entertainment papers for an out-of-town band with a bad show time, Agent Todd settled on Ghosts of Pasha, a band from Vermont, playing at the Mercury Lounge on Sunday night at 10:30. Under normal circumstances, that show would probably be pretty quiet. The agents of Improv Everywhere altered the circumstances, to put it mildly.

An agent wearing a Ghosts of Pasha shirt he made using the logo from the band's Web site
An agent wearing a Ghosts of Pasha shirt he made using the logo from the band's Web site
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agent Todd

First, each of the 35 core agents downloaded the Ghosts of Pasha album and memorized the lyrics to all of the band's songs. Next, they decorated themselves with "Ghosts of Pasha" fake tattoos and silk-screened T-shirts. Finally, the 35 agents showed up at the gig, which turned out to be Ghosts of Pasha's third public performance ever. When the band started to play, the audience -- made up of 35 Improv Everywhere agents and three other people -- was actually singing along with the songs and yelling out requests for their Ghosts of Pasha favorites. Some people had taken their shirts off and were dancing and moshing. The band members got into it, too, feeding off the energy from the crowd, and gave the performance of their lives. After the last song, a sweaty, shirtless agent jumped on stage and hugged the lead singer.

Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agent Todd

According to Ghosts of Pasha, when the gig was over nobody in the band spoke for a long time. The first words out of anyone's mouth were, "What the hell just happened?" The ride back to Vermont that night was almost silent. The band found out several days later that its best gig yet had in fact been an Improv Everywhere performance.