Feature Friday Interviews spotlight rare and wonderful individuals who embody characteristics of The Liberation Artist: living outside the status quo while writing their own rules and carving a unique path to self-defined success. This week it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the acclaimed founder of the very clever Improv Everywhere, Charlie Todd. Through Improv Everywhere, Charlie has delivered increasingly popular hijinks such as “No Pants Subway Rides” where folks ride the subway sans pants, as well as “Best Buy” where he had a large number of folks show up at an area Best Buy wearing khakis and blue shirts, standing around, causing confusion and a lot of fun, and flash mobs such as “Frozen Grand Central” where folks showed up and all stood frozen in Grand Central. His “Experiments” – a now annual event where literally 1000s of people download an MP3, gather a few items, and then show up at the pre-set location, hitting play at the same time and following the directions – hilarious and a LOT of fun, as your host here at The Liberation Artist can tell you from first-hand experience. Again, check out Charlie’s work, and make your way through the videos at Improv Everywhere – you won’t regret it. Better still, sign up and participate in a few – I highly recommend the Experiment series and Black Tie Beach!
You will quickly see that Charlie’s path has been very much outside the box, as he’s created a life for himself that fits his personality – and in a career very much off-the-beaten-path of status quo. Charlie’s story is intriguing in pure Liberation Artist style, his having shaped it as he went, seemingly one great caper at a time. I highly encourage you to check out his work – it is brilliant, both hilarious and outright thought provoking. I’m absolutely thrilled at this opportunity to introduce you to Charlie, and to his work. Without further ado, allow me to first share with you Charlie’s bio, followed by his interview. Enjoy – it will be worth the read!
Charlie Todd is the founder of Improv Everywhere, producing, directing, performing, and documenting the group’s work since 2001. Charlie is the author of Causing a Scene, published by Harper Collins. Based in New York, Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places and has executed over 100 missions involving thousands of undercover agents including the legendary Grand Central Freeze and the infamous No Pants Subway Ride. The group’s videos have received over 350 million views online.
First, let’s check out one of Charlie’s videos:
MP3 Experiment Number Ten
You definitely have an unconventional career. Did this kind of unconventionality exist when you were a child? Were you funny? A prankster? Outside the box? Or did it spring up later? How does one land in this kind of life?
I was interested in comedy at an early age and my family was the type that always had fun on April Fools Day. I went to a very small high school that was very conservative. I hung out with a group of friends who didn’t quite fit the mold and pranks and experiments became tools to overcome the boredom of school. In college I was a theatre major and studied improv comedy on the side. When I moved to New York everything just sort of clicked together. I was excited about the anonymity of the big city and the potential for being anyone and doing anything
What was your earliest memorable experience with improv, and how did it come about?
I saw a short-form improv show in Columbia, SC put on by local university students. I loved it. I also watched Whose Line on Comedy Central. I was very interested in it immediately.
Did you study improv in school, or learn by the seat of your pants?
I had some short-form improv training in high school and college, and then studied long form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. I should say right now that Improv Everywhere is NOT improv.
At any point did you consider looking for a ‘day job’ or wonder if you were absolutely crazy pursuing this path?
Oh of course. I needed a day job to survive in New York. I spent years working as a temp, taking various office assignments. But I put every free moment towards studying improv comedy and cooking up Improv Everywhere pranks.
Speaking of pants – where do ideas for events such as “No Pants Day” come from?
I love the NY subway system and it occurred to me that it would be hilarious if a bunch of people got on at different stops, seemingly like they weren’t together, all wearing the same thing. As I tried to figure out what that might be, the funniest option that came to me was not wearing pants in the middle of winter. The best Improv Everywhere projects are site specific, where the location inspires the idea.
No Pants Subway Ride 2014
Awesome as your work is, I’m sure you meet your fair share of critics along the way. People often don’t realize how much strength and courage it takes to put oneself out there – you must develop a thick skin. How did you manage the early critics (and trolls) I’m sure you must have encountered? What got you through the tough times, and kept you on path? And…does it get any easier?
You absolutely have to have a thick skin if you’re going to put your work out there on the Internet. Just today I ran across a Facebook comment, made by a friend of a friend, ripping Improv Everywhere apart and wishing that we had been shot during our latest project. I didn’t know him, but he’s a Facebook friend of a friend of mine who linked to our video. You just have to brush it off. Haters gonna hate. We actually didn’t have to much negative criticism in the early years, primarily because we were so obscure. No one knew who we were apart from friends and family. Around 3 years in we started getting some press and blog attention, and at that point I was secure enough what I was doing to be able to ignore a negative comment. You also have to ignore the positive ones too. Every comment on the Internet is either “this is genius” or “this was a waste of my time.” Neither is particularly useful.
What do you feel the biggest risk you’ve taken has been, and how did find the strength to take it?
I think the biggest risk I’ve taken lately was attempting to do a series. I didn’t know how our audience would respond to it. Last fall we did a weekly series called Movies In Real Life for 10 weeks. It was a change in pace for us, and it ended up paying off in terms of views and subscribers on our channel. I think part of the reason Improv Everywhere has lasted for so long is that we’re constantly looking for something new to try.
Frozen Grand Central
While your work is obviously about good-natured fun, there seems to be more to it than that – a sense of social experimentation. What do you focus on more, implementing an idea for the fun or shock value, or exploring the psycho-social impact of such actions – or are the two utterly and completely intertwined from where you stand?
I’m a comedian, and I come from a comedy background. For me, the only thing that really matters is that the idea is funny. If it comes with a dose of social experimentation, great! But my main objective is to try out ideas that I find funny.
What is your favorite aspect of this work, what matters most to you about it?
My favorite aspect is the unpredictable nature of staging something unauthorized in a public space. Our events are not “improv” but they are improvisational in nature as we have no idea how people are going to react to us. Some people might laugh and some people might dial 911. We never know. I think it’s important to bring creativity and comedy to public spaces.
What advice would you give to others who want to experiment with improv, how can they get started?
My advice to any creative person is to publish their work early and often. Stop sitting on your ideas and finding reasons not to do something. Greenlight yourself and get to work.
Do you have advice for those who perhaps aren’t looking to experiment with improv, but want to take risks, push the envelope, break out of the box?
Start small, learn from your mistakes, and keep making stuff.
Is there a dream project, something you long to do yet haven’t yet worked out the logistics?
I’d like to turn Central Park into the Planet Hoth the day after a blizzard. One day.
What’s next for you? If you could work on anything, what would it be, and why?
My wife and I are about to have a baby. So that’s what’s next. I’m sure he’ll be a great prop in an upcoming project!
I want to thank Charlie for this interview, and to congratulate him on the soon-to-be new arrival in his family! Don’t miss Charlie’s work, the few videos included in this interview are just a small sampling of his super-fun work, which you can find at Improv Everywhere. You’ll also want to check out his book, “Causing a Scene,” which can be found on amazon.