Improv Everywhere Makes a Scene by Bringing Movies to Real Life
A pint-sized boy, no more than 10-years-old, seen wandering alone through a bustling crowd of New Yorkers for hours at end is bound to spark some puzzlement on the faces of onlookers. Now, imagine that same preteen wandering through NYC’s Penn Station dressed as Harry Potter, complete with a white owl in an outsized silver cage (after all, who would Harry be without his pet friend Hedwig) and an old-fashioned school trunk to match. It’s enough to make you stop dead in your tracks or look twice, wondering if you’ve just entered into the mystical land of Hogwarts.
The group behind this specific spectacle was Improv Everywhere. As part of their “Movies in Real Life” series, consisting of 10 diverse episodes, the hilarious pranksters made the iconic scene come to life. Fellow commuters watched as the teen desperately searched for the magical platform nine and three-quarters. Some even played along, navigating him toward platform nine, as others watched in jaw-dropping fascination as well as confusion and concern.
You may have heard of Improv Everywhere’s founder, Charlie Todd, or perhaps you’ve witnessed one of his large-scale pranks. Not only is the brainchild behind these famous spectacles a comic, but also the mastermind behind a rotating cast of comedians and actors that travel throughout the Big Apple to perform spontaneous missions. These unannounced and amusing occurrences include: a quirky black tie beach affair, a bizarre synchronized swimming routine, and thousands of people boarding the subway in their underwear (the latest episode took place on January 12, with 60 cities worldwide participating, inclusive of the Big Apple, which alone had 4,000 partakers in the event).
Since 2001, the group has utilized the landscape of NYC for public performances. However, Todd’s humble beginning began long before. After a move to the big city to officiate his acting career, Improv Everywhere was born as a result of a spontaneous prank at a West Village bar. During a memorable night of drinking, Todd convinced patrons he was American singer-songwriter Ben Folds. After 15 minutes of stardom, the foundation of the project was laid out. Today, Todd doesn’t organize the outrageous pranks to annoy, or even deceive the public, but simply to leave witnesses with a good time and a hilarious story to tell.
Although busy crafting a new, clever stunt, Todd talked to GALO about Improv Everywhere’s movie series and his passion for orchestrating the public scenes.
GALO: You mentioned in 2001 that you were a new actor in the big city and decided to prank people at a West Village bar. This stunt triggered the idea for Improv Everywhere. Were you always interested in acting? What inspired you to originally become an actor?
Charlie Todd: I started acting in high school — normal school play stuff. I was also interested in improv comedy after seeing a show put on by some University of South Carolina students in my hometown of Columbia. I majored in theatre in college at the University of North Carolina, and also pursued improv on the side. I moved to New York specifically to be involved with acting and directing theatre, but my interest in comedy got bigger and bigger, especially after seeing a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
GALO: You’ve said before that Improv Everywhere doesn’t identify with “flash mobs.” How does your temporary takeover set you apart from other stunts similar to flash mobs? How have your missions evolved with a larger following?
CT: Well, I started Improv Everywhere two years before the term “flash mob” was coined to describe someone else’s project. I don’t really dislike the term itself, but it comes with so much baggage. It’s a term invented by the media that seems to change meanings every few years. Lately, flash mobs are just people dancing in public, not necessarily even in a surprising way.
Improv Everywhere is driven by what I find funny and what excites me. We are a comedy group at heart, and much of what is called a “flash mob” is not trying to be funny. The only real reason we started doing things with mobs of people is that we got popular and more people started showing up. I enjoy orchestrating things with hundreds or even thousands of people, but it’s not always the best way to serve an idea.
GALO: What unique opportunity does Improv Everywhere afford you as a comedian and actor? It seems like there are so many people involved during the creation of a skit. What are some of the most interesting people you have met through Improv Everywhere?
CT: Well, Improv Everywhere was about creating my own opportunity. Rather than simply waiting to be given an opportunity to be in someone else’s show or improv group, which doesn’t come quickly when you’re an unknown 22-year-old, I started creating my own stuff. The majority of the people involved with Improv Everywhere are people I met at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. When I’m casting these projects, I always use friends and colleagues there. It’s an amazing comedy community.
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