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Prank You Kindly

Improv Everywhere has dropped trou on the train and caused retail mayhem. But is it mean enough for prime time?


Mission: Pantless Subway Ride
Last year, 900 people boarded the 2, 6, and R trains wearing no pants. They told inquiring passengers they had forgotten their trousers.  

Charlie Todd takes off sprinting across the Brooklyn Bridge, past a column of 700 people standing shoulder to shoulder, shouting, “Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!” He does this from one bridge tower to the other, then back, and still back again. A cumulative distance of about a mile. This could charitably be described as Plan B. Realistically, it’s more like Plan E. Plan A was for each of these people to have a digital camera. In sequence, with Todd in the lead, they would shout their numbers and set off the flashes of their cameras. “One.” Flash. “Two!” Flash. “Three!” Flash. And so on. The desired effect would be that from a distance, which is to say from the Manhattan Bridge, where Todd’s team is filming, it would look like a strobe light pulsing across the bridge. Then the participants would all flash their cameras randomly and repeatedly in a glittering riot. Each person would then take a picture of the person to either side and post it to a Flickr page, creating a flip book of faces down the line.

That was the idea, before this storm began lashing down over the East River. But the wind makes it difficult to hear, the rain makes it difficult to see, and after a few failed attempts, Todd legs it. His volunteers are cowering behind their umbrellas, unless their umbrellas have long since flipped inside out and been rendered useless, in which case they are buffeted and soaked. It is hard to imagine worse weather for such an affair—and it is hard to imagine a worse place to be in such weather. But nobody seems to mind too much. If anything, the rain seems to be making the experience more of a novelty.

A bit of good-humored adaptation is part of the point of Improv Everywhere, the public scene-making collective that Todd started in 2001. To date, they’ve staged more than 70 “missions,” as Todd calls them, including the annual No-Pants subway ride that last year attracted 900 people, the Food Court Musical, which is just what it sounds like, and Frozen Grand Central, in which 207 people froze in place in the Main Concourse and held their poses for five minutes. That video went viral, and has so far received more than 12 million YouTube views.

Forty minutes before ascending the Brooklyn Bridge, Todd stands atop the ledge of the fountain in Foley Square, just across the street from City Hall, speaking to a sea of umbrellas. Using his trademark megaphone, he explains the mission, to intermittent cheering. This, perhaps, is his single most impressive accomplishment: that somehow, in abysmal weather on a Friday night in May, he has persuaded hundreds of New Yorkers to gather in front of him and be told what to do. Improv Everywhere has a 13,000-person mailing list, and when it comes time to stage a stunt, he sends out an e-mail outlining the general facts and asks recipients to respond to a Gmail address so he has a head count. For this mission, he simply gave the meeting location and told people to bring a camera with a flash. He got about 750 R.S.V.P.’s, and most of the respondents seem to have turned up.

Todd is mild-mannered and eminently personable. And while he doesn’t come off as slavering for attention, he does like it. He enjoys being the organizer, the megaphone-in-chief. When he moved to New York, in 2001, Todd was just another participant in the familiar temp-job-slash-aspiring-actor grind. He was taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (where teaching is now his day job) and experiencing a creeping disillusionment with the theater world. Improv Everywhere was a way to set himself apart from all the other aspirers.

The project was born on a whim, when Todd and a college friend were drinking one night at Beauty Bar on 14th Street and decided it would be a lark to let the other patrons think he was Ben Folds. It wasn’t hard. “Unless you were a fan,” he says, “it’s like, Five-ten white dude with brown hair says he’s Ben Folds. Who’s gonna know?” They maintained the ruse for about fifteen minutes, long enough for Todd to get his rock-star fix. But the next time it went on for hours, with free beers from the bartender and photos snapped with strangers and British tourists.

Todd doesn’t look much like Ben Folds, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. “They got to feel good, say they met Ben Folds, and get their picture taken with him,” he says. And Todd insists that he doesn’t go for the kind of pranks that annoy passersby or make someone look foolish, even if, occasionally, someone does. (The band Ghosts of Pasha was delighted to see a mob of fanatical concertgoers at its second show ever; less so when its members realized the fans were just Todd’s henchmen.) But a successful mission for Todd is one in which everybody has a good time, possibly thinks a little bit differently about everyday life, and leaves with a story to tell. He is a well-intentioned man-about-town. “Someone once told me, ‘What you’re doing is giving other people anecdotes,’ ” he says. “You don’t regularly see things in New York that make you go, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ You don’t see humans interacting in a way that takes you off guard and makes you smile. You see a guy taking a shit on the sidewalk.”

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