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For Improv Everywhere, pranking society is high art (Q&A)

The improv group has long brought its blend of culture jamming to people the world over. A new film celebrates the prank collective. Founder Charlie Todd sat down with CNET at SXSW to talk.

Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd poses for a picture in front of a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan in Austin, Texas, wearing headphones as he prepares to take part in the running of an "MP3 Experiment" mission.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--If there's one man in the world who can convince thousands of people to take off their pants in the subway, to follow the disembodied instructions of a downloaded MP3, or to high-five a stranger on an escalator, it's Charlie Todd.

The brainchild behind Improv Everywhere, a New York-based "prank collective" that has been culture jamming society since 2001, Todd knows a thing or two about how to get a group of perfect strangers involved in something very unexpected and very funny.

Over the years, Improv Everywhere has grown from Todd and a couple of roommates into a group whose YouTube channel has more than 1.1 million subscribers, all of whom eagerly await the next video depicting what in some circles might be called flash mobs, and what in others might simply be called troublemaking.

But Improv Everywhere has made some very important friends over the years, and Todd is still at the center of it. From inspiring a prank performance at TED to being invited to highlight the Grand Central Terminal centennial celebration, the collective is still getting noticed all these years later -- and is still making people think about the kinds of things they see in public and question what they think of reality.

This week at South by Southwest, Improv Everywhere fans got their first chance to see a new film about the collective. Titled "We Cause Scenes," the documentary provides an in-depth look back at how Todd's baby grew up, first as a small project he and some friends would work on from time to time, and then as an NBC television show (that got canceled). Finally, the film shows us how Todd and his friends leveraged the newly launched YouTube and growing social networks like Facebook to build a prank empire.

While in Austin to promote the film, Todd sat down with CNET to talk about the art of pranking the public and about why what Improv Everywhere does should really be considered art.

Q: What has doing Improv Everywhere all these years taught you about society's attitude to being pranked?
Charlie Todd: One thing I've learned is that if you give people an opportunity to engage in something fun, most of the time, they'll say yes to it. If you put up five signs next to an escalator encouraging people to give you a high five, 75 percent of the people are going to stick out their hand and give you a high five. So I think that's what we try to do: Create these moments where people can engage in something positive.

I love giving strangers a chance to share a moment with each other and interact with each other, because typically the only time you talk to strangers in public is if something terrible or annoying has happened. So I think since strangers generally only interact in moments of negatively or crisis, it's nice to give them opportunities to interact in a moment of happiness.

Do you have someone you think is a model for culture jamming that you look up to?
Todd: I'm a big fan of the Yes Men, and I've met them, and I've worked with them a little. And I'm a big fan of Steve Lambert, who specializes in creative activism. He does stuff that has a cause which may seem very different than what I do, but he uses comedy in a very similar way as I do.

There were two separate missions in the film that struck me for how differently the public reacted: The Amazing Hypnotist and U2 on the Roof. The hypnotism crowd was almost ready to kill somebody, and then with U2 on the Roof, they were super supportive. What do you make of those two disparate reactions?
Todd: I think the film shows how Improv Everywhere matured over the years and found its voice over the years. I love the hypnotism prank. I think it's really funny video. I'm a prankster, and I'm very proud of that one, but I made a decision at some point after that to try to focus as hard as I could to do things that were positive, just because I think it's a greater challenge, and it's more fulfilling.

I think a lot of people who saw that hypnotism prank laughed and walked away and maybe figured it was a hoax, or didn't care. As the film says, I think the guy who freaked out probably had an appropriate reaction, if he believed it, and I think he did. But in general, I get most excited about the things I do where we sort of across-the-board make people smile.

Over the years, has your goal as an artist changed?
Todd: I don't think that's changed. I think my personal reasons for doing it have changed. When I was 22 years old, I was doing it because I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to be on camera, and nowadays, I'm more at home sort of lurking at the background pulling the strings. I'm more interested in being a creator and a director of things than I am being a performer. That certainly changed. But in terms of the basic reactions we're trying to create, it's still all about giving someone a great story to tell. Making people smile.

In the movie, one of the participants in a mission was quoted as saying, "It was one of those things where your face literally hurts. I could not stop smiling." How does that make you feel?
Todd: That makes me feel great. That is the goal. I've had experiences like that, like going to see a Flaming Lips concert, and I remember the first time I saw them, I just smiled for an hour and half because of the music, and the balloons everywhere. I love being able to be an active participant in the entertainment rather than just sitting and watching something. That's just so much more exciting and stimulating, to not just watch something, but to have a chance to be the thing.

In a description about Improv Everywhere several years ago, NY1 wrote that it was "a cross between thespians and hooligans." What do you think of that description?
Todd: I think it's funny. Even though we've gotten really big, and even though people know who we are, and we now know what we're doing, and we're not just kids with crappy cameras, the spirit is the same and I still like to do unauthorized projects. We do things with permission from time to time, but I got thrown out of a Staples in October.

We're just showing up and doing it. But for me it's important, it's part of the message of Improv Everywhere, that you don't have to have permission to have fun, so long as you're not harming anyone else. Part of the message is that public spaces should be used for creativity and not just recreation between the lines. So I hope no matter how big we get, I hope to have that rebellious nature still be a component of what we do. I'm not sure if "hooligan" will be the right term, but I think it's funny that the anchor said that.

If for the rest of your life, you could only tell people who didn't know about Improv Everywhere about one mission, which one would you enjoy talking about the most?
Todd: I sort of always gravitate to the ones that are very simple, that I can describe it once and people get it right away, like 200 people froze in place in a train terminal, or 100 people put on a blue shirt and went into a Best Buy. I think probably, we did one in the windows of a department store in New York, and I had 80 actors take over these 80 windows one by one without permission. That one was just so logistically complicated, figuring out all the windows, and doing it without permission, and the results were just really cool, so I think that might be the one.

In the film, your wife is quoted as saying, "part of me feels like he does it because he can't not do it." Is that true?
Todd: I don't think this is what she meant, but part of why I do it is I sort of trapped myself into having to keep doing some of these things, like the No Pants Subway ride. I realized a couple years ago, we had the 10th annual No Pants Subway Ride. I thought, maybe this should be the last year.

Ten years, it's gotten really big. And it's spread to so many other countries on the same day, if I say this is over, people are still going to do it. People are still going to show up in New York and do it, and somebody will register a domain and take charge of it. It's going to happen. And I realize, this is a thing I created, and I'm associated with it, and if it's going to keep happening, I want to make sure it happens in the right way, and that it doesn't get out of control, and that it doesn't become something I wouldn't want it to be.

I realize that for the rest of my life, I have to be the guy who runs the No Pants Subway Ride, whether I want to or not.