Charlie Todd is the creator of Improv Everywhere (IE), an unorthodox comedy group based in New York City that advances the slogan "We Cause Scenes." IE has been profiled by national and international media, including The New York Times, The Today Show, and ABC's Nightline. Todd was interviewed on an episode of This American Life in 2005. While touching briefly on two missions ("No Pants" and "The Moebius"), the show focused on "Best Gig Ever" and "Ted's Birthday," and highlighted their unintended reactions. Improv Everywhere was also featured in the pilot episode for This American Life's television show on Showtime.
Charlie is also the editor of Urban Prankster, a blog, which covers pranks, hacks, participatory art, flash mobs, and other creative endeavors that take place in public places in cities across the world.
Question: How did you build a fan base?
Charlie Todd: So it started with just myself and maybe five to ten other people, like basically everybody I knew in New York at that time who I could convince to show up somewhere and do something stupid. But then as I started taking classes at UCB, I was meeting-- every eight weeks I would meet 15 new people, and 10 of them would be very interested in helping out. So very quickly I had like 40 people who I was acquaintances with who wanted to come out and participate.
But what we did from the start was maintain an e-mail list. I’d run a ListServ in college for a theater group, so I started a ListServ, and we just-- everybody who said they were interested, I added their name to that list. And maybe after a year it had 50 people, and after two years it had 2- or 300 people. Right now, it has 15,000 people on it. And that’s my New York list of people who live in the New York area and want to come participate. So yeah, e-mail has been the primary way to recruit people.
Question: Can Improv Be Dangerous?
Charlie Todd: I mean, I’d say the most extreme reaction that we’ve had over the years has been dialing 9-1-1. And that’s happened a couple of times. We had-- actually very early on. I guess this was the first time that the cops were ever called on us, probably. My roommate had a Big Mac costume. I don’t remember exactly where he got it, but it was just this big cloth Big Mac costume. So I decided well, we have to do something with this.
So we went out and did a series of missions around the city where we used this Big Mac costume. And one idea I had was wouldn’t it be funny if there was like a dead Big Mac on the street? So we would have somebody wear the Big Mac costume and just lie face down on the street in the costume and have like ketchup just pouring out of their body. And in retrospect, it was a really stupid idea, because when people walked by, they did not see an actor in a Big Mac costume, or they didn’t see a dead Big Mac. They saw a dead person in a Big Mac costume and were very concerned.
Question: Building a business with social networking
Charlie Todd: I started this social network, just kind of as technology has caught up with what I want to do. There’s a website called Ming that lets you create your own social network very easily. So I started one in January, and it’s called the Urban Prankster Network. And whenever someone sends me an e-mail like that or if people go to my website, they’re directed to that site to start their own group. And there’s probably a couple of hundred cities have their own-- there’s like maybe 22,000 members of that site right now. And I think there are a couple of hundred different cities have their own local groups. Some of them are active. Some of them are just a bunch of people saying, “We should do something. We should do something,” and not actually doing something. But I have seen in a couple of dozen cities they have started to not only copy things that we’ve done but start out with their own original ideas.
So I started a new blog called Urban Prankster at Urbanprankster.com where I can just document this worldwide movement of good natured public performances.
Question: When Videos Go Viral
Charlie Todd: other cities was our grand central video, which is where we had 200 people freeze in place at Grand Central Station. And that video just went virally insane on the Internet and got-- it almost has 13 million views now on YouTube, and I think it had like 8 million views in a month or something. So people around the world saw that and just kind of spontaneously on their own went out and started staging their own. I think the first big one was in London, and 1,000 people got together in downtown London and froze in place. And I think the London one was big too, and it got a lot of hits on the Internet that it just really caused this craze.
And I think nearly 100 cities have frozen in place at this point on every continent except for Antarctica and maybe 40 different countries. So to me, like the fact that we did this thing in Grand Central over a year ago and then to see it spread and to see people in China freezing in place just like blew my mind, and it’s happened in like three different cities in China. And it’s happened in New Zealand, and it happened in South Africa and Beirut and Romania, like all these countries that like I can’t even believe these countries have ever even heard of our website. And here they are going out and themselves recreating something that we’ve done. It was really cool to see. So I think that was the biggest surprise to me is seeing cultures that are so different from the West doing it.
Question: The Importance of Being a Blogger
Charlie Todd: Well, I’m very excited to see what we’re doing spread across the country and across the world. And I’m excited for the new blog that I have and to be able to have a platform to document creative work done by other people all across the world, whether they’re influenced by us or not, just anything that’s interesting in the public space, I like documenting it there.
Recorded on: July 17, 2008