How Improv Everywhere Works


A man walks on to a subway train in New York City wearing a button-down shirt, tie, suit jacket and boxer shorts. He stands and reads the paper. At the next stop, a woman walks on the train wearing a down coat, scarf, sweater and panties. She sits down and listens to her iPod. A few stops later, there are maybe a dozen pantsless people on the 6 train, none of whom seem to know each other, and most of the people who did remember their pants that day have gone from staring at their laps to looking around quizzically to laughing out loud to placing mock bets with strangers on how many pantsless people will board at the next stop. In fact, at the next stop, a person boards the train selling pants for $1 a pair.

It takes a lot to surprise people in New York, the city where Naked Cowboy roams Times Square in his tighty whities playing guitar on a regular basis. The city where an underwear company sent out men and women in their skivvies to roam the streets as a promotional stunt. But the people at Improv Everywhere try real hard. The pantsless subway ride is a mission (a performance) that the group's agents (the actors) have carried out once a year since 2002, and it's just one of many missions that Improv Everywhere sets up, often with unbelievably meticulous planning. The goal? According to Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd, it's "to create moments that are so astonishing, people will have a story to tell for the rest of their lives."

Charlie Todd was interviewed on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." Charlie Todd was interviewed on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."
Charlie Todd was interviewed on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."
Video courtesy Improv Everywhere

Almost all of Improv Everywhere's missions take place on the streets and subway trains of New York City. It's not exactly improvisation, of course, because the performances are planned out in advance; but many of the initial, core members of Improv Everywhere joined the group when they were students at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a school that teaches long-form improv techniques (and boasts many graduates who went on to do stints on Saturday Night Live). The agents use a lot of those techniques in their performances. And when your audience consists of unsuspecting commuters, tourists and city folk out for a stroll, you've got to be ready for just about any sort of reaction -- and preferably incorporate it seamlessly into the performance with comic results. That's improv.

Charlie Todd came up with the idea for Improv Everywhere after a bar-hopping night out with friends in 2001. That night, his friends mentioned he bore a slight resemblance to musician Ben Folds, and Mr. Todd decided to test the observation by pretending to be said musician. The result was his first successful mission. He drank free all night, received a couple of invitations from apparent Ben Folds' groupies and got ushered into VIP rooms by bouncers who ultimately threw out Todd's friends when it became clear they'd stolen Ben Folds' wallet. And thus, Improv Everywhere was born: A stage for the stageless; a script for struggling actors who have yet to take Broadway by storm; an attempt to get New Yorkers to remove their earbuds -- which is not as easy as it might seem. According to Charlie Todd in a Columbia News Service story, "It's amazing what you have to do to get people to stop and pay attention."

Watch video from the McDonalds' Restroom Attendant mission. Watch video from the McDonalds' Restroom Attendant mission.
Watch video from the McDonalds' Restroom Attendant mission.
Video courtesy Improv Everywhere

Riding the subway without pants is a good way to get people to pay attention. Improv Everywhere has also arranged a subway surprise party, in which agents hung banners, passed out party hats to subway riders and got everyone to crouch down and yell "Surprise!" when the "birthday boy" agent boarded at the next stop. Everyone sang "Happy Birthday," and the agents served cupcakes. The subway wedding proposal was similarly organized except agents had subway riders holding cards that spelled out "Will You Marry Me?" and one of the agents proposed to his "girlfriend" (another agent) when she boarded the train. This mission had some of the female subway riders a bit teary. The subway is one of Improv Everywhere's favorite stages. But it's not the only stage. Some of the group's finest missions take place above ground. There's the one where a tuxedoed agent set up a fancy amenities table in a McDonald's restroom and offered customers hand towels and cologne when they were done at the urinal.

In another mission, agents staged a time loop in a Starbucks, repeating the same, five, very noticeable actions, in the same order, every five minutes for an hour:

"Come back here! Katie!" "Come back here! Katie!"
"Come back here! Katie!"
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agent Winckler
  1. An agent sitting at a table spills his coffee; he runs across the Starbucks for some napkins.
  2. An agent at another table receives a call on his cell phone; the ringtone is "The Entertainer," and it's loud; he goes to the window for better reception.
  3. An agent heads to the bathroom and bumps into another agent on the way; he apologizes; he waits in line for the bathroom for a minute and then returns to his seat.
  4. An agent enters the Starbucks with a boombox playing "Shiny Happy People" by R.E.M.; he walks through the store and exits.

And in a fountain in Washington Square Park, agents making up the New York City Synchronized Swimming team performed a routine to Styx's "Come Sail Away" in front of delighted onlookers and three, very serious-looking agent-judges. The team needed a total of 28 points to go to the Athens Olympics. They just made it.

In the next section, we'll take a closer look at a few of Improv Everywhere's missions, including Best Buy, Cell Phone Symphony and Best Gig Ever.

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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.

Behind the Scenes

"U2" concert on Agent Todd's roof
"U2" concert on Agent Todd's roof
Photo courtesy Improv Everywhere Photography credit: Agents Arauz, Chunk, Knowles, Marino, Nicholson, Todd, Warren

While Improv Everywhere does some pretty crazy stuff, it's really not an "anything goes" situation. There are a few guidelines for missions, including:

  • Don't reveal it's a performance at any time (even when it's done)
  • Don't take money for performances
  • Don't humiliate anybody -- only carry out "victimless pranks"

That last guideline doesn't always work out. Ghosts of Pasha, for instance, was embarrassed by the "Best Gig Ever" mission when the band found out several days later that the crowd was "faked." The band members felt like they'd been made the butt of a joke (but they soon got over it when they were mentioned in Spin and Rolling Stone and later contacted by an A&R rep from a record label). There was also some embarrassment when Improv Everywhere conducted a "reading with Anton Chekhov" at Barnes & Noble using some old guy with a Russian accent they pulled off the street. Some of the people who'd asked for the Russian playwright's autograph felt pretty stupid when they found out later (presumably from friends or a Google search) that Anton Chekhov died in 1904.

Regardless of whether some people do end up embarrassed by the stunts, most agree that what Improv Everywhere does is good street comedy. In sociology, what the group does is called "norm violation." The missions often represent the ludicrous -- they get people to notice (and often laugh) because they go against everything we've come to expect in the course of daily life. It's funny because the actors behave as if what's happening is completely normal. In San Francisco in the 1960s, comedians Jim Coyle and Mel Sharpe employed a similar technique when they interviewed people on the streets for a radio show, asking questions like, "Are you essentially opposed to taking an animal and trying to evoke music from it?" They acted like the questions they were asking were totally legitimate, and they became pretty famous for it.

Of course, norm violation can occasionally resemble law violation, and Improv Everywhere does occasionally end up dealing with the police. During the "Best Buy" mission, the police showed up at the store managers' request, although the most they could do was advise the managers to ignore the 80 people dressed in blue. Police also broke up Improv Everywhere's "impromptu" U2 concert on Charlie Todd's rooftop in May 2005. In the 2006 "No Pants" mission, one agent was cited by police (Officer Panton, to be specific) for being on the subway in her underwear and "causing public alarm." In a hearing at the New York Transit Adjudication Bureau on April 20, 2006, the cited agent explained that she was in fact wearing "her own underwear plus a pair of 'boy shorts' and boxer shorts." The judge dismissed the citation, stating:


While I find that her "shorts" may indeed have been "short," the allegation that she was wearing "just her underwear" is an overstatement unsupported by the facts and it is unclear (and unlikely) that such an item of clothing by itself would really cause "public alarm" on a New York City subway train.

It's unclear who had to pay that agent's court costs or if there were any. Most costs for missions are covered by Charlie Todd, but the missions usually don't cost much. Improv Everywhere does accept donations via PayPal through its Web site, http://www.improveverywhere.com, in case you'd like to support the madness. Agent Todd would be thrilled to have a bigger budget for his missions, and to that end, he wouldn't turn down a TV deal if it came his way. If you'd like to check out more video footage of the missions, you can watch it on the Web site or wait for the Improv Everywhere DVD to be released, which should be pretty soon (no definite date yet).

For more information on Improv Everywhere and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Callahan, Maureen. “Pranks a Million.” New York Post. Dec. 6, 2005.
  • Damast, Alison. “Improv Comedy Heads for the Streets.” Columbia News Service. May 8, 2002.
  • ”Going for the Gold.” The Villager. July 28, 2004.
  • Grossman, Joe. “Making a Scene.” TimeOut New York. May 1, 2003.
  • Hochman, David. "When Chekhov Meets Whoopee Cushion." The New York Times. Feb. 27, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/27/fashion/27PRANK.html?ex= 1267160400&en=33ad0346e2aa25ac&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland
  • Improv Everywhere: We Cause Scenes http://www.improveverywhere.com/home.php
  • Kugler, Sara. “Young Comedians Stage Scenes on Subways, Streets for Unsuspecting Audience.” The Associated Press. June 9, 2003.
  • "Mind Games." This American Life. Episode 286. April 8, 2005. http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/05/286.html
  • Robertson, Campbell. “Where the Streets Have No Shame.” The New York Times. May 29, 2005.
  • Sanchez, Ray. “Frightfully Entertaining Ride.” New York Newsday. Nov. 3, 2003.
  • Sprague, David. “The Week in Weird.” RollingStone. Nov. 12, 2004.