Prank You Kindly

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.
Photo: Chad Nicholson

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.”

Charlie ToddPhoto: Olaf Blecker

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.

Mission: Flash Wave
On May 16, 700 people stood side by side on the Brooklyn Bridge, cameras in hand, braving a downpour. At Todd’s cue, they set their flashes one by one, so drivers on the Manhattan Bridge could watch the wave of light (in blue) glide across the river.
Photo: Kate Sokoler
All photos by Chad Nicholson

Mission: Six-Story Dance Party
Seventy-five people performed jumping jacks and a choreographed dance in the DSW building on Union Square.

Mission: Befuddle Best Buyers
Donning blue golf shirts and khaki pants, 80 people invaded Best Buy on 23rd Street. When asked if they worked there, they simply said “no.”

Mission: Freeze in Grand Central
This winter, 207 people froze for five minutes during the station’s midday rush. One bewildered bystander tried to tip an agent over.

Mission: Invade A&F, Shirtless
Taking a cue from the Fifth Avenue Abercrombie & Fitch’s semi-nude greeters, 111 men de-shirted and went shopping topless.

Mission: Cell-Phone Symphony
Sixty people entered the Strand and checked their bags with cell phones. Then another 60 placed calls.

Prank You Kindly