Culture jamming for the masses

Improv Everywhere pulls off comedy "missions" on a regular basis, spreading its message via the Web. Now the world is following its example.

On January 31, 2008, a video depicting hundreds of people standing perfectly still in New York's Grand Central Station was posted on YouTube. The video quickly became a phenomenon, and to date, nearly 9.5 million people have watched it.

Why, you ask? The standing still was actually part of an elaborate prank, pulled off by "agents" of a group called Improv Everywhere. The idea was that the hundreds of people would simultaneously "freeze" in the middle of Grand Central, with no warning nor explanation to those nearby, and stay that way, no matter what, for five minutes.

In the video, you can see dozens of perplexed onlookers, confused as to what's going on. In their midst, the participants look like statues, comic in their stationary poses. When, after five minutes, they all suddenly began to walk away and to blend back into the crowd, the onlookers broke out in applause.

At its essence, Improv Everywhere is a group of pranksters that strikes here and there, around New York and the occasional other city. In that regard, they aren't much different from other groups that have come and gone, playing practical jokes on an unsuspecting public.

But what makes Improv Everywhere different is that it has mastered the art of documenting, with rich videos and lots of photography, their work and then disseminating the documentation to the world at large via the Internet, both on YouTube and other services, and on the group's own Web site.

And while Improv Everywhere itself is based in New York, it has spawned what might be called a worldwide spinoff movement of people who love the idea of impromptu pranks and want to follow the group's footsteps. The resulting network, known as Improv Everywhere Global, helps those in other cities and countries coalesce behind the notion of creating and perpetrating pranks, all in the spirit of Improv Everywhere itself.

But while the global arm has managed a few pranks, Improv Everywhere remains a New York phenomenon, the brainchild and the passion of its founder, Charlie Todd.

improv everywhere

In 2001, Todd--who, to some, is a dead-ringer for rock star Ben Folds--found himself onstage at a West Village bar, impersonating the singer. He got a positive response from the crowd, and decided to use the experience as the jumping-off point for a new form of prank theater.

In the years since, Todd has recruited hundreds of so-called agents to help him with what he calls "missions," the pranks Improv Everywhere runs. Among the most notable are the annual "No pants" subway rides, in which hundreds of participants show up on New York City subway cars in their underwear; "Food Court Musical," the group's most recent mission, in which a number of agents materialized in a mall in Los Angeles and suddenly broke out in what, to onlookers, appeared to be an impromptu musical about several people's simultaneous and coincidental need for napkins; and one of my favorites, in which dozens of participants dressed in blue shirts and khaki pants and flooded into a Manhattan Best Buy store, attempting to look like the store's easily recognizable employees.

But Improv Everywhere has pulled off many other pranks as well. A visit to its Web site reveals a wide range of concepts, some quite simple and others much more complex.

So what ties them together?

"We never break character, and we never have a reveal moment at the end of the mission," Todd told me recently. "From the beginning, we've been interested in the idea of doing something that's unusual, doing something out of the ordinary, and then vanishing, leaving without taking credit or giving explanation."

In actuality, the explanation is little more than the act itself. In the group's videos, you can see the bewilderment on onlookers' faces as they witness what, to many, is the oddest thing they've ever seen. But in most cases, when the mission is finished and the agents disappear, it's quite obvious what's happened, and you can see the delight on witnesses' faces at having seen something so bizarre.

To Todd, that's exactly the point. His goal with the various missions is to surprise an unsuspecting crowd with something they've never seen before and then to walk away as if nothing happened, leaving nothing but smiles in his wake.

Of course, as the missions have gotten larger and more sophisticated, the group's need to stay below-radar and out of trouble hasn't changed. That means that the group strives mightily to stay true to its roots, even as it works to bring the pranks to the world at large.

"One big challenge we've been wrestling with is riding the line between the events being pure and special for people who see it in person," Todd said, "versus also the importance of getting awesome video footage and photographs as well."

What that means, practically, is finding ways for the group's cameramen and women to be discreet yet manage to be right in the middle of things.

One good example of that was when Improv Everywhere pulled off its Best Buy prank. One video camera was hidden inside a modified Xbox 360 package so that the person shooting the video looked like a store customer thinking about buying one of the Microsoft video game consoles.

Other strategies have involved shooting video through windows and having the photographers pretend to be onlookers who just happen to have cameras.

One of the most important things in pulling off these kinds of pranks is being prepared to handle any security or law enforcement that may come along.

Even though the pranks are designed specifically to be harmless to people and property, they sometimes cross the lines of what authorities are able to deal with.

That's why participants are told that if anyone asks what they're doing, they should answer something along the lines of, "I'm just here to meet my girlfriend," even when they're dressed the same way as dozens of other people answering the same way.

Todd said that while they have had very few run-ins with the police, one of the earliest no-pants pranks did draw some angry cops to the scene.

"A cop encountered it and didn't know how to handle it," Todd said. "He was freaked out."

The upshot of that event is that the cops ended up putting eight participants in handcuffs and citing them for disorderly conduct. However, he added, all eight had their tickets thrown out later "because it's not illegal to wear (nothing but) underpants in New York City."

The best part of that whole experience, he said, was that the police officer in charge of the scene was Officer Panton. Seriously.

But Improv Everywhere has also managed to demonstrate that its missions are meant as nothing but fun.

So, Todd said, when everyone gathered for the 2008 version of the no-pants prank, there were three police officers waiting for them. But they weren't there to stop the event. Rather, they were there to escort them and to make sure everything went smoothly.

"Now the NYPD just knows that on a Saturday in January," Todd said, "they have to assign some (officers) to the no-pants detail."

Still, there are always going to be detractors, even when groups like Improv Everywhere goes out of its way to make sure its missions are done in a purely positive spirit, something Todd is proud of given that many pranksters on television strive to make fun of people in front of the whole world.

"If you're doing something that pleases 100 percent of the population, it's probably not very interesting," said Todd. "Every year, after we do our no-pants mission, there will be comments on the Web site that say, 'How dare you do this in front of children.' My practical response is, 'Are you going to raise your child and never take him or her to the beach?'"

One thing that makes it possible for Improv Everywhere to continue to succeed with its missions--at least in terms of finding many surprised onlookers--is that the art of so-called culture jamming, or flash mobs, is still foreign to most people.

That may change over time, however, especially because as Improv Everywhere's popularity has grown, so too, has worldwide interest in bringing its message, well, everywhere.

That's why Todd turned to the custom social-network service Ning to create Improv Everywhere Global, which is enabling culture jamming fans in other cities and countries to band together to create their own missions.

So, there have now been "freezes" in many other cities, and you shouldn't be surprised to see a group of people on the subway in your city in their underpants.

But even as the Improv Everywhere Global community--there's now more than 12,000 people signed up--gets going, the mother ship is continuing on.

Todd said that last weekend, the group carried out its latest mission and that in a couple of weeks, it will be posted to the Web site. He wouldn't say much about what it is, except to say that it involved identical twins.

"That's one of the (great) things about having a giant mailing list," Todd said. "We're able to make requests for unique types of people and to get responses. I sent out a request for identical twins and got 50 offers."

 

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