Howdy Inter-Webbers. I’m Matt Cohen and I dig Improv Everywhere.
And I am far from the only one. In the past seven years, Improv Everywhere has quickly established itself as the preeminent group for pranking on a mass scale - and brilliant pranking, at that. When you hear the word “prank”, your mind may go straight to the much bemoaned Kutcher vehicle Punked. Your mind is lying to you. As Improv Everywhere - and in a larger part its founder and number one “agent” (The Improv Everywhere term for a team member), Charlie Todd - has proven, pranks can be so much more then juvenile stunts or embarrassing folks in public. They can be a sophisticated artform that not only is hilarious, but sometimes is damn right sublime.
Charlie not only runs Improv Everywhere (which has now spawned chapters in countries as varied as some European nations and even the strange mystical land known as Canada!) but also teaches Improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center in New York City and performs in weekly improv shows at the UCB NY.
Before we get into the good stuff, here is a selection of some of my favorite Improv Everywhere pranks. If you haven’t caught these before, sit back and enjoy. If you are already familiar with the stellar work of Improv Everywhere, you know what’s up. (Added note: some videos feature an interviewer/straight man. That is Mr. Charlie Todd)
My all-time fave is the U2 prank, “Better then the Real Thing”, which is mentioned in the interview. Definitely give it a click.
In Charlie’s own words, here is how Improv Everywhere got its start.
“In August of 2001, I went out to a West Village bar with my college buddies Brandon Arnold and Jon Karpinos. On a whim we decided to pull a prank where I would pose as musician Ben Folds. Three hours later, ‘Ben Folds’ was drinking on the house surrounded by women and his ‘two big fans’ were thrown out of the bar for ’stealing Ben Folds’ wallet’. I had always been a prankster, but this experience enlightened me as to how far a prank could be taken. As an actor new to the city, I discovered I could create my own theatre rather than waiting around for someone to give me stage time. I got tired of telling the story to friends, so I typed it up and put it on the web. Improv Everywhere was born.”
I recently caught up with Charlie while he was doing some top secret work over in Russia (I told you this thing is global). After a few minutes of pleasantries and catch ups, we got down to the nitty. And here is said nitty. Enjoy.
MATT COHEN: What were your comedy influences growing up?
CHARLIE TODD: Saturday Night Live was a big deal for me growing up. Starting at the age of about 10, I used to tape it every Saturday night (it was on past my bedtime) and watch it as soon as I woke up on Sunday morning. I discovered the show during the awesome late 80’s cast and fell in love. I was a big Seinfeld and Simpsons fan in high school, like pretty much every dude in America was.
MC: When was the first time you realized you were “funny”?
TODD:I was never a class clown but more of a straight-A student who did so well he could fly under the radar and get away with mischief every now and then. So I wasn’t the guy cracking jokes in class in 2nd grade, but I was subtly subverting authority behind the teacher’s back every chance I could. I guess that’s when I realized I was funny.
MC: Do you remember the first time you heard of/saw improv?
TODD: I went to see the University of South Carolina’s short form troupe, the We’re Not Your Mother Players. They used to play on Friday nights in my hometown. My older cousin took me and I was floored.
MC: How did you get started performing?
TODD: I had a “speech” class in middle school that was really just a drama class with a funny name. Maybe because it sounded more substantial to parents? The teacher exposed us to improv games and exercises, and I just loved it. I had performed in school plays in elementary school, but everyone had to. It was in this class that I realized how much I enjoyed it.
MC: When did you first get involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and what was your initial experience?
TODD: I had heard great things about the UCB from friends who had visited NYC before, so I checked out a show as soon as I moved here in 2001. I saw a Harold Night show with Respecto Montalbon and couldn’t believe how funny it was. As I walked home to the train that night I literally made a decision right then and there that comedy, specifically UCB-style comedy, was what I wanted to focus my entire life around.
MC: What, if any, are your views on longform vs. shortform?
TODD: I did short form in high school and college and had tons of fun. But once you get exposed to long form, you don’t want to go back. The freedom that long form gives you is just too much fun. Also, I’m not great at puns, rhymes, and one-liners, which many short form games are based on.
MC: You have taught improv to countless students at the Upright Citizens Brigade training center in New York City. In your experience, can “funny” be learned, and does one need to be funny to succeed at improv?
TODD: I think at UCB we give people the tools to do their best possible work. Certain people have a natural ability, where every thing out of their mouth is funny. I don’t. UCB taught me how to get laughs by being myself, playing real, and reacting to my scene partner. So yeah, I think we do teach people how to do successful and funny improv scenes. Often it’s the people who think they are funny that have the hardest time in class.
MC: Do you think there is such a thing as “going too far” in comedy? Any boundaries you won’t cross?
TODD: I don’t really think anything is off limits as long as it’s done in a smart way. I’m personally not offended by anything. Should someone make a joke about Bernie Mac the day after he died? Probably not, but if it was done in a smart, intelligent way and not just for shock value, then I see no problem with it.
MC: When did you realize that you wanted to perform/be involved with comedy for a career? What made you take the risk? And if you had not done so, what would you be doing today?
TODD: I moved to NYC to be an actor after college, so that was the first risk I took, and I guess it’s a pretty big one coming from the south. It was after seeing that first show at the UCB Theatre that I realized I specifically wanted to try to make a career for myself in comedy. I worked my ass off at shitty temp jobs and took classes at UCB as much as I possibly could. I made a decision to quit temping and really work on comedy full time in 2005, and that was probably the best decision I made. If I hadn’t done that, I guess I’d still be an unhappy temp.
MC: What is your proudest accomplishment with Improv Everywhere?
TODD: That’s tough to say. There are certain pranks I’m very proud of pulling off successfully. I’d say our U2 prank was a real high point, as was the Look Up More prank in the department store windows. Both of those were incredibly satisfying to pull off. I guess I’m most proud of the fact that it’s still around. That after 7 years we’re still doing what we love to do and providing an outlet for people to have fun.
MC: Improv Everywhere, with its growth in both size and notoriety, has run into some issues with legal matters and arrests regarding some of the pieces (most famously the No-Pants Subway Ride). Has this changed the way you approach performances, or put any creative restrictions on you at all?
TODD: We’ve been pretty lucky with the police. We did have a couple of run-ins, but it’s been two and half years since we’ve had any trouble. I always take the law into consideration when planning a mission, but I usually don’t worry too much about store policies or park regulations. Those rules are meant to be broken (so long as it’s in good fun and in a way that’s not disruptive or law-breaking).
MC: With an already tremendous presence and success on the internet, are there any plans to take Improv Everywhere to a different medium, possibly making it more accessible to “mainstream” viewers?
TODD: Yes. I’m writing a book right now with fellow agent Alex Scordelis. It’s being published by Harper Entertainment and should be released next spring. We’re super excited about it. The book is a behind-the-scenes account of our most popular pranks along with tips for how the reader can try their own.
MC: What is your ultimate goal, comedy wise?
TODD: My goal with comedy is to keep creating new things that make people laugh, and find a way to support myself while doing it. I’ve been pretty lucky so far, but there are so many unknowns in the entertainment industry - you always have to keep plugging away.
MC: Do you have any advice to someone trying to break into the comedy scene, whether it be as a performer or a writer?
TODD: Yup. Either move to New York or LA, and take a class at UCB. It’s the best decision I ever made.
MC: Anything you are currently working on we should know about?
TODD: Our big annual Mp3 Experiment project is happening in a few weeks. Details are on our site - this year we’ve found a sponsor that will let us tour it to 3 new cities - Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto. It’s always a blast, and I’m really looking forward to taking it to new cities.
MC: And just so I don’t insult half my reading demographic, who is your favorite superhero… and why?
TODD: My favorite superhero is Banana Man, from the old Nickelodeon cartoons. I remember thinking he was not only badass, but also hilarious. Otherwise I’m not much of a superhero fan - I tend to nerd out with Picard and Sisko.
“Various Shirtless dudes agree, Improv Everywhere rocks.”
If you haven’t already, check out Improv Everywhere to see what all the fuss is about. I think you will like what you find. And remember, the site is updated often so keep stopping back in for the newest Charlie Todd brand mayhem.
Sadly, tis all for this week but you know the deal… I’ll be back (in my best Arnie voice at that). Until that happy day friends, as always…
“Keep em’ bagged and boarded”
Matt Cohen is currently having a no-pants dinner… 2k8?
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