Charlie Todd says most New Yorkers walk around in a bubble.
His job is to pop it.
Not to be mean, of course. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When we spoke recently, he explained that he wants to create happiness among strangers by making people laugh, smile, and talk to each other.
That’s why he started Improv Everywhere – a self-described prank collective that “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” What kind of chaos? Try spontaneous public musicals, “no pants” subway rides, and a 3,500 person light show.
These pranks, which Todd calls “missions,” are an internet phenomenon, with viral videos reaching millions of people. The light show – one of his annual “MP3 Experiments,” has over a million views on YouTube. Todd is now a full-time prankster thanks to Improv Everywhere’s unexpected success.
Todd grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, then studied theatre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He moved to New York in 2001 with dreams of acting and directing plays.
That all changed when he joined the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy group run by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. Todd said he liked their brand of improv comedy so much that he “lost interest” in plays.
That’s when he started Improv Everywhere. The project was tiny, and Todd said he had to rely on college friends he could “talk into doing something” to help perform his pranks. But he accomplished his goal – self expression. “I wasn’t doing it to make money,” he said. “I never imagined that what I was doing would someday be my job.”
In fact, Improv Everywhere took years to become popular. In the meantime, Todd was a temp worker who took odd jobs in offices. But he never gave up on comedy, and taught improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Then YouTube changed everything. The site, which launched in 2005, allowed Todd to reach a worldwide audience. “We were really able to show off our projects,” he said.
Back in New York, he spends a lot of time meeting with journalists, who are usually disappointed. Todd said they hope to see exciting Improv Everywhere team meetings, but usually just find him sitting at his computer. That’s because a lot of his job involves managing his inbox and monitoring social media. He tracks the response to each new Improv Everywhere video for about two days.
Todd also spends a lot of time planning upcoming missions. But no matter how much he prepares, the pranks themselves can be nerve-wracking. “The process is fun,” he said, “but the moment of it actually happening, I have a lot on my mind.”
He gave an example of a recent mission, where he brought beds onto a regular subway car and turned it into a “sleeper car.” During the mission he worried that his group of pranksters would be separated, that he wouldn’t be able to get the beds off, and that the camera people would not capture it the way he hoped.
Worse yet, he had to worry about people calling the cops. That’s exactly what happened in 2006, when Todd arranged for about 80 people to enter a Best Buy wearing the store’s traditional “uniform” – a blue polo shirt and khaki pants. The store managers weren’t happy, and some employees thought they were about to be robbed.
However, most people enjoy the pranks, and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Todd said his favorite part happens when the missions are over and he can see the photos. To him, just spotting someone in the crowd with a “nice, simple smile” is satisfying. He doesn’t want to break the law – only social norms.
Public Space as a Stage
But Todd makes it clear that Improv Everywhere isn’t about social change. He said it has “always been a comedy project,” and he won’t do an idea that doesn’t make him laugh. Still, the underlying message is that citizens should have the right to use public space for creativity. “Public squares are not just for advertising, or a statue of George Washington,” he said.
“The best Improv Everywhere projects are the ones that are site specific,” he said. He added that he looks at the city with a “creative eye,” seeing parks, buildings, and structures as a stage.
An Improv Wedding
And Todd is always performing – even at his own wedding. He got married last October, but the ceremony was interrupted by a man claiming to be his fiance’s ex-boyfriend, a professional wrestler. The man “punched” Todd in the face, then fought with the groomsmen until Todd beat him into submission with a folding chair.
But this prank wasn’t one of Todd’s. The idea came from his new wife, Cody Lindquist. He met Lindquist, an actress and comedienne, through the Upright Citizens Brigade. It seems he found a true partner – literally. The couple works together on many Improv Everywhere missions.
Even with his recent success, Todd keeps looking toward the future. He works hard to release a new video each month, and is already planning this July’s MP3 Experiment. He also continues to perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where you can catch him at 7:30 on Saturday nights.
That is, if you want your bubble popped.