Why are those headphone-wearing New Yorkers crawling?

For its latest bit of street theater, "prank collective" Improv Everywhere has participants following the silly prompts of an omnipotent voice delivering commands via MP3 file.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read
First up on the list of synchronized moves: crawling. Improv Everywhere
After crawling, participants were told to lay on their backs. Improv Everywhere

You're milling about Manhattan's South Street Seaport, when suddenly a bunch of people wearing "I heart NY" T-shirts simultaneously get down on their hands and knees and start crawling. What's going on?

The easy answer is that it's just another day in New York City. The other explanation is that Improv Everywhere's at it again.

The N.Y.-based prank collective "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places" in a kind of street theater that turns unsuspecting passersby into the audience. Past hijinks have dispatched an excess of Best Buy clerks, simultaneously triggered a symphony of ringtones in a bookstore, and filled the New York subway with pants-less riders.

For its latest stunt, called The MP3 Experiment Ten, more than 7,000 participants with headphones pressed play at the same time to listen to an MP3 file filled with ridiculous instructions. Jokesters were told to dress as tourists to blend in with the crowd and thus better surprise prankees with their wacky synchronized moves.

Paper airplanes! Yes, pranksters were told to clean up after themselves. Improv Everywhere

"I want you to find a stranger who's not wearing headphones and stand behind them, following their every move," disembodied narrator "Steve" commanded, as amused and bewildered spectators looked on, snapping pictures with their smartphones. "Find a new random stranger and give her a dollar bill."

The hoards of pranksters also waved red flags, made and tossed paper airplanes (yes, they were told to clean up after themselves), and blew bubbles.

Participants were asked to bring a red fabric item that could be waved in the air. Improv Everywhere
Bubbles, bubbles everywhere! Improv Everywhere

The MP3 Experiment Ten earlier this month marked a decade of Improv Everywhere's MP3 Experiments, which have brought synchronized silliness to cities like Berlin and Adelaide, Australia, and to college campuses like UNC Chapel Hill and Texas Tech.

Created in 2001 by performer Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere has been labeled hilarious, annoying, and "a cross between thespians and hooligans." But as my CNET colleague Daniel Terdiman noted in a recent feature, "if there's one man in the world who can convince thousands of people to take off their pants in the subway... it's Charlie Todd."

A new documentary about the group, called "We Cause Scenes," takes an in-depth look at Todd's endeavor, which started as a small project, became an NBC television show that got canceled, and proceeded, with the help of growing social social networks like Facebook, to become a veritable prank empire.