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Prank You Kindly

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Charlie Todd  

It’s not hard to imagine why someone like Todd would enjoy standing at the head of a line of people three blocks long, megaphone in hand, directing hundreds to do some goofy task he’s devised. Less immediately obvious is why anyone would join the line. The Internet seems to have both engendered and enabled this sort of happening. Mass e-mail lists have been used before to congregate people for no apparent reason—most memorably in 2003, when Harper’s editor Bill Wasik organized flash mobs in places like the 42nd Street Hyatt hotel. He would tell them to show up, and everybody would show up; then everybody would split and get to say they’d been there. Improv Everywhere builds on this experience, offering each volunteer a chance to play a role in Todd’s quirky stunts. The tasks may be silly—storming the Fifth Avenue Abercrombie & Fitch store, shirtless—but they will be remembered. As Todd seems to have discovered, people not only like collecting anecdotes. They like being other people’s anecdotes, too.

As Improv Everywhere’s pranks have gotten steadily more elaborate, with larger numbers of people involved, Todd has become more practiced and sophisticated. It’s not yet paying work, but he would clearly like it to be. Last spring, Improv Everywhere filmed an NBC pilot, descending on a Little League game in Hermosa Beach, California, along with screaming fans, NBC sportscasters, and the Goodyear blimp. It didn’t get picked up; Todd thinks in part that Improv Everywhere’s brand of stunts isn’t mean enough, its Schadenfreude quotient not high enough. Recently, Todd sold a book to Harper Entertainment, half an account of his past missions, half a how-to guide. But so far the project’s only revenue comes from Google ads on the group’s Website. Last week, they launched a spinoff Website called Urban Prankster, which Todd hopes will showcase—but differentiate—the work of copycats. Of course, Improv Everywhere’s Web presence has always been crucial. Many of the stunts seem to be designed as much for the Internet audience as for the unsuspecting passersby. And unfortunately, the recently posted video of Todd’s camera-flash mission comes up short—kind of neat, but less than stellar.

But back on the bridge, although the weather is still miserable, people are being sporting. They meet each new squall with a chorus of laughter. As Todd completes three of his planned four lengths, a flash mutiny takes hold, with people beginning the random-flashing stage early. Cameras pop willy-nilly for about 45 seconds, then people begin to break ranks and wander off. They’re not annoyed—in fact, they seem pleased with the outing—but they’ve had about enough of standing in the rain.

The volunteers walk huddled in little groups toward the borough of their destination. Now they have a story to tell. Several people, ranging from the middle-aged to high-school students, ask to have a picture snapped with Todd—some even request an autograph. Naturally, he obliges. He is glad they had a good time.


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