The last time we talked to Charlie Todd in 2005, he wasn't sure if Ben Folds had ever heard of his prank website Improv Everywhere. A year later, he would find himself invited on stage by Folds in a setup where Charlie would pretend to be Ben in front of a sold out crowd. Improv Everywhere now boasts a YouTube channel with over 100,000 subscribers, its most popular Freeze Mission (originating in Grand Central Station) has been replicated in over 150 cities around the world and this year's No Pants Subway Ride had 1,200 participants in New York alone.
Today marks the release of the first Improv Everwhere book titled "Causing a Scene" (you can browse a free sample of it here). He'll be reading from it tomorrow night in Bryant Park, on The Today Show next week promoting it while also debuting a new mission and this weekend marks the sixth MP3 Experiment taking place this year on Roosevelt Island. Charlie talked with us about how the book came together as well as just how an April Fool's Day joke somehow became a mainstream news story and why he doesn't really consider himself an artist per se.
What time are you going to be on The Today Show? Allegedly it'll be at seven or eight.
So you might get to talk to Matt. He's a hero of mine. Is he? I don't wake up early enough to watch it. I think it would actually be interesting if Meredith is there that I get to bring up that we once pulled a prank on the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? while she was hosting it. It'd be fun to be like, "I sat in your audience once in a barber shop quartet outfit."
Have you participated in happening type events run by other people? I went to Unsilent Night one year. This guy Phil Kline does this parade of boomboxes one night every December. He hands out cassette tapes to everyone and it's very much a Flaming Lips Parking Lot-type thing. I think it's at least ten years old and he's been doing it for at least as long as Wayne Coyne has. They happen all over the world. Basically you report down to Washington Square Park at 6:00 at night in December and bring your own boombox, he hands out cassettes, there's a countdown, everyone presses Play and then you just walk. I love it. It's like Philip Glass-type music. It's a little Christmasy because there are bells, but it's this Brian Eno ambient bells. As you're walking down the street, you're hearing it from all directions and it's just a slow parade to Tompkins Square Park.
Were you able to let yourself enjoy it? Or did you feel like the dad in the passenger seat for the first time going nuts at every tight turn? Oh, it was tons of fun. Going to a similar public event where I'm not in charge was great. At some of our events, it feels like I'm the one having the least amount of fun. I'm worried about everything and it's work. It's a great job, but the real fun for me comes after the fact when I get to look at the photos and relive it.
Have there been any pranks you've pulled off that weren't for an Improv Everywhere mission? Back in 2006 when MySpace was very popular, my friend Gil Ozeri was one of my only friends not on the site. I took the liberty of making a profile for him. I went to his Friendster page (yes, Friendster) and cut and paste all of his information like birthday, high school, college, etc. I grabbed photos from Friendster as well. I then friend requested about 10 of his close friends. Within a day he had around 100 friends as people starting noticing his profile. I didn't send any personal messages or abuse the power. I just kept quiet, approved all the requests, and waited to see when he'd find out. Maybe a week later he was at the UCB office and noticed one of his friends was on MySpace looking at his profile and he freaked out. Despite having never joined MySpace, here was a completely accurate profile with all of his real friends. He had pranked me pretty good a few weeks before, so it didn't take him too long to figure out who was responsible.
Can you share with us one of your favorite "only in New York" moments? There was a moment in 2002 where I felt like I had stumbled upon an elaborate Improv Everywhere prank that turned out to just be Catholicism. I grew up in a very Protestant part of the country and moved here pretty ignorant of Catholic traditions. I was working at a temp job and noticed that one of my co-workers had a black smudge on her forehead. I wanted to say something to her, but being a temp I just kept quiet. After work I was on the escalator heading down to the subway and on the up escalator about 30 people passed by me with black forehead smudges. I completely freaked out. It was men and women, young and old, and they were all acting like nothing unusual was happening. I felt like an idiot when someone explained to me what Ash Wednesday was.
You left a comment here on Gothamist years ago that you would never want to do a prank on April Fool's Day basically because it's Amateur Day. So what made you go ahead and finally pull one this year? Well we've done a prank every April Fool's Day. I grew up celebrating April Fool's Day. It's my grandfather's birthday and my current girlfriend's birthday coincidentally. That's a little difficult because my busiest work day of the year is her birthday. So every year we've done something where generally something bad has happened to us. Last year we had a redesign where it looked like the site got hacked, the year before that we had gotten sued by an old jazz band named Improv Everywhere who forced us to change our name to Happening in Public Places or "HIPP" for short. The idea has been people come to the site every day looking for pranks, but April 1st the joke's on you.
So for years, I had wanted to do a fake mission. My friend Ken Keech always wanted me to fake ruining a wedding. He even offered that we do it at his. But I had always been too busy and never got my act together to go do something. And I still stand by that comment that April 1st is not the day to go out and do a prank. Everyone has their guard up.
So did you intend it to fool everyone on such a grand scale? I never expected the funeral would spiral out of control the way it did. I never thought that it would fool the local news and thousands of people. I just wanted it to be funny—even if you knew it was April Fool's Day, you would think it was funny. It was also a nice opportunity for us to parody ourselves and in a way to playfully respond to any criticism we've had, like "Oh, you guys are so self-absorbed." It was exciting for us to show ourselves doing that so we could say, "Hey, we're comedians." Cause people forget that about us. People often associate us with performance art or have put us up at galleries and I've even given talks at art departments of schools. People in the art world are interested in what we're doing, but people forget that we're not in the art world. I'm not interested in being in the art world. And if I'm at a cocktail party, I don't introduce myself as an artist—I'm a comedian. I wanna do things that are funny ideas.
Were you worried that you would run into an actual funeral? Because the last thing you wanna have to do is make it a real mission. Right! We didn't wanna run into a funeral and have to do the thing that we were actually faking because we would never do it. But no, that place is so big we were pretty sure we could avoid people.
But I figured that we would put it up at midnight on April 1st and some people would get fooled at first, but by ten a.m., everyone would realize it was fake. I didn't anticipate it to have any staying power as a hoax. I didn't anticipate that people would think, "Oh, it's April Fool's Day. These people went and pulled a practical joke on a family." Which is how WPIX spun it.
At one point did you find out that it was going to be on the evening news? Well I was out to dinner with my girlfriend and I got a text from a friend who said that he was watching Family Guy and there was a commercial that they were gonna show the funeral video. That was at 7:30, so they were teasing it like every half hour.
I just find it fascinating that the standards in local news these days are that you can find a video on YouTube and report on it as a story. They found a video by a prank group on April Fool's Day and just reported it as fact. Call the cemetery. Try to find the name of the family. Look closely. There's no hole in the ground. None of the chairs are matching. It was mind blowing.
What's been your general experience with the media? Having had lots of articles written on Improv Everywhere, almost every single one of them has had lots of information wrong. It just makes you think, "Oh, every article I read must be like that."
At what point does are you sacrificing so much in what they might get wrong that it's not worth being featured in these places to begin with? What I've noticed is that it has a bigger impact on my traffic if my site gets to the top of Reddit or Digg or on BoingBoing or Gothamist even. I'm gonna get more attention off that than if I'm covered by the mainstream media. They often don't link to your site or even mention your url. A newspaper in Florida had a story about the freeze in Grand Central and on the web version of it, there was no link to it. But what was hyperlinked was "Grand Central" where you could see all of the other stories they had done on Grand Central Station. Who would want to see all of a local Florida paper's coverage of Grand Central? It was a story on the top ten YouTube videos of the year and there wasn't a link to one of them. What's the point? That's like standing outside a movie theater and describing the movies that are being shown inside.
Have any traditional media outlets been an exception to that? The one exception is when we got featured in Sunday Styles. The Monday after that article ran, I had messages from three literary agents saying, "Have you ever thought about doing a book? You should do a book." And I had never thought about doing a book. But I signed with one of these guys that I liked and then spent two years not writing a book. And I'm glad that I didn't because it would have felt incomplete with everything that's happened since.
Then a friend of mine, Alex Scordelis, who I had known through UCB and had participated in Improv Everywhere missions interviewed me for a grad school paper he was doing on pranks. Afterwards, he told me he was thinking about writing a book on pranks. So I was like, "Actually, I could use some help if you wanna do a book on pranks together." A lot of it was already written with stories from the website. But the site is completely overwhelming for someone new: eight years, eighty pranks, some of which are described in absurd detail. One prank's description copied into Word comes out to eighty pages.
So we picked thirteen of our favorite missions, picked out the best anecdotes and then added to it perspective. The Best Buy employee prank happened in 2006, but late in 2007 Best Buy sent me a cease and desist because I was selling these blue polo shirts in conjunction with Neighborhoodies that were mock Best Buy shirts with an Improv Everywhere logo—making no money of course. And then there's some "How To" tips that are a little tongue-in-cheek, but are genuinely helpful for people who want to put together their own pranks.
Is there any memoir aspect to it? A little bit. It explains how the project came full circle. The foreword is me telling about how this started with me playing Ben Folds in a bar and the afterword tells the story of it coming full circle to getting to play Ben Folds in front of 3,000 people.
When the Ben Folds concert happened, had you considered that this might be your blackout? It did feel that way. When I met Ben at that concert, I didn't wanna bring up the bar prank because I didn't wanna jinx it. We're here, he clearly likes me, but maybe he's not fully aware of the whole story. I didn't want him to get weirded out and cancel it. I just went out and interviewed him for the documentary we're doing and he said when he did hear about it, his reaction was that there was a guy pretending to him at a bar, picking up chicks and he was amazed that anyone would be able to do that.
But yeah, having that experience of stepping on stage and playing Ben Folds's piano in front of 3,300 people at Hammerstein Ballroom and having that be the story of how it started definitely did feel like it came full circle. I didn't know how we could top this. I never considered stopping doing the website, but we had just had our fifth anniversary and a month later signed a pilot deal with NBC. So it felt like, "We did it. Now we're gonna get to do it on television."
Act II. Right. And then it didn't get picked up, but Act II became something else.
Do you ever feel like the site has taken off so much now at this point that you've had to let go of things that you wanted to do as a comedian, goals you may have had when you moved to New York at 22? My senior year of college, I had written an honors thesis on understanding and directing the work of Harold Pinter. That was a big part of why I came here. When I moved here, I was following in the footsteps of other graduates of the UNC drama department. I had heard of Upright Citizens Brigade, but my primary goal was to be a director and an actor. It wasn't until the fall after I arrived that I had a revelation.
I had seen some Off-Off-Broadway plays, which were not good and were expensive. I had seen some Broadway plays, in fact the Harold Pinter Festival was happening at Lincoln Center that summer. There were seven plays and they were a hundred dollars each. I bought one ticket and used that ticket stub to go see the other six. And I was always the youngest person there by thirty years. Everyone had gray hair. So I was like, "Oh, I get it. Broadway theater is for old, retired people. It's not what people in my generation are doing." And Off-Off Broadway shows are expensive and not very good and it looks like a rough life and the only people that come are your friends and your co-workers.
Then I went to see a show at UCB. I went to Harold Night and saw Respecto Montalban and was blown away. It was five dollars and it was sold out and it was the funniest thing I had seen in my life live. So instantly I was like, "I get it." And I signed up for Level One classes at the theater. Concurrently I had done my Ben Folds prank at a bar and had that revelation. So I literally had a night where I was sitting in a bar in Greenpoint in 2001 and said out loud, "I think I'm gonna put all my attention on comedy."