Adding Surprise — and Joy — to Events

Actor Charlie Todd, founder of the New York City-based improvisational collective Improv Everywhere, finds zany ways to break through barriers and create shared experiences for strangers.

As a newcomer to New York, actor Charlie Todd, a native of the Midwest, was struck by the anonymity of the city and the lack of communication between strangers in public places. The only time that people seemed to talk to one another, he said, was when something negative happened, such as a problem with a train or getting stuck in a long, slow line.

So Todd decided to create engagement and shared experience by staging scenes in public places, creating moments that were so exciting, unexpected, or funny that they could crash through New Yorkers’ entrenched habit of ignoring one another. The improvisational collective Todd founded in New York, Improv Everywhere, offers what Todd describes as “joyful moments in public spaces that unite strangers and give random people a reason to take their headphones off and put down their books.”

One of the first and best-known of Improv Everywhere’s “pranks” was “No Pants Subway Ride,” which started with seven people and is now a global phenomenon. It’s exactly what it sounds like — people riding the subway without pants on. As you might imagine, most Improv Everywhere projects — such as one in 2008 where 200 people froze in place at the Grand Central Station Main Concourse for five minutes — are carefully planned and orchestrated.

From Pranks to the Podium 

Todd has produced dozens of pranks over the years, and is now a keynote speaker who gives presentations at corporate meetings and conferences on topics such as creativity and the importance of play. And a few times a year, he’s hired to design Improv Everywhere pranks to surprise conference attendees.

One notable example: a 2012 TED conference session that began with a speaker’s presentation appearing to fail spectacularly. After an uncomfortable few moments where speaker and audience watched the familiar multicolored “spinning ball of death” bounce on a screen that was supposed to be displaying PowerPoint slides, followed by error messages, Improv Everywhere actors, who were strategically seeded throughout the audience, jumped up to spin colorful beach umbrellas and toss inflated multicolored beach balls. As the speaker — also an actor — continued to try forlornly to advance his presentation, leotard-clad performers danced around him in a circle on the stage. The audience erupted in laughter and shared relief.

“Those kind of moments are great icebreakers,” said Todd, whose prank presentations often are slotted early in an agenda. “It can really set the tone for the day. People are perhaps more alert, and aware that anything can happen.”

Todd customizes his conference presentations for each audience — Improv Everywhere has worked for everything from software companies to a mattress manufacturer. And in Todd’s experience, they’re most successful when organizers have a sense of humor about themselves and their industry.

“You know, as kids, we’re taught to play. And we’re never given a reason why we should play. It’s just acceptable that play is a good thing,” Todd said in a 2011 talk on “The Shared Experience of Absurdity,” which he presented at TEDxBloomington. “And I think that’s sort of the point of Improv Everywhere. It’s that there is no point and that there doesn’t have to be a point. We don’t need a reason. As long as it’s fun and it seems like it’s going to be a funny idea and it seems like the people who witness it will also have a fun time, then that’s enough for us.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.