How Improv Everywhere Works

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,, 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 below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • 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. 1267160400&en=33ad0346e2aa25ac&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland
  • Improv Everywhere: We Cause Scenes
  • 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.
  • 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.