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TEDxBloomington

Charlie Todd: The shared experience of absurdity

May 11, 2011

Charlie Todd causes bizarre, hilarious, and unexpected public scenes: Seventy synchronized dancers in storefront windows, "ghostbusters" running through the New York Public Library, and the annual no-pants subway ride. In his talk, he shows how his group, Improv Everywhere, uses these scenes to bring people together. (Filmed at TEDxBloomington.)

Charlie Todd - Comedian
Charlie Todd is the creator of Improv Everywhere, a group that creates absurd and joyful public scenes. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I started Improv Everywhere about 10 years ago
00:15
when I moved to New York City with an interest in acting and comedy.
00:18
Because I was new to the city, I didn't have access to a stage,
00:21
so I decided to create my own in public places.
00:24
So the first project we're going to take a look at
00:27
is the very first No Pants Subway Ride.
00:29
Now this took place in January of 2002.
00:31
And this woman is the star of the video.
00:33
She doesn't know she's being filmed.
00:35
She's being filmed with a hidden camera.
00:37
This is on the 6 train in New York City.
00:39
And this is the first stop along the line.
00:41
These are two Danish guys
00:43
who come out and sit down next to the hidden camera.
00:45
And that's me right there in a brown coat.
00:48
It's about 30 degrees outside.
00:50
I'm wearing a hat. I'm wearing a scarf.
00:52
And the girl's going to notice me right here.
00:54
(Laughter)
00:59
And as you'll see now, I'm not wearing pants.
01:05
(Laughter)
01:07
So at this point --
01:10
at this point she's noticed me,
01:12
but in New York there's weirdos on any given train car.
01:14
One person's not that unusual.
01:16
She goes back to reading her book, which is unfortunately titled "Rape."
01:18
(Laughter)
01:21
So she's noticed the unusual thing,
01:25
but she's gone back to her normal life.
01:27
Now in the meantime, I have six friends
01:29
who are waiting at the next six consecutive stops in their underwear as well.
01:31
They're going to be entering this car one by one.
01:35
We'll act as though we don't know each other.
01:37
And we'll act as if it's just an unfortunate mistake we've made,
01:40
forgetting our pants on this cold January day.
01:43
(Laughter)
01:46
So at this point,
02:11
she decides to put the rape book away.
02:13
(Laughter)
02:15
And she decides to be a little bit more aware of her surroundings.
02:17
Now in the meantime, the two Danish guys to the left of the camera,
02:21
they're cracking up.
02:23
They think this is the funniest thing they've ever seen before.
02:25
And watch her make eye contact with them right about now.
02:27
(Laughter)
02:35
And I love that moment in this video,
02:37
because before it became a shared experience,
02:39
it was something that was maybe a little bit scary,
02:42
or something that was at least confusing to her.
02:45
And then once it became a shared experience,
02:47
it was funny and something that she could laugh at.
02:49
So the train is now pulling into
02:51
the third stop along the 6 line.
02:53
(Laughter)
03:09
So the video won't show everything.
03:12
This goes on for another four stops.
03:14
A total of seven guys enter anonymously in their underwear.
03:16
At the eighth stop, a girl came in with a giant duffel bag
03:20
and announced she had pants for sale for a dollar --
03:22
like you might sell batteries or candy on the train.
03:25
We all very matter of factly bought a pair of pants, put them on
03:28
and said, "Thank you. That's exactly what I needed today,"
03:31
and then exited without revealing what had happened
03:34
and went in all different directions.
03:37
(Applause)
03:39
Thank you.
03:41
So that's a still from the video there.
03:45
And I love that girl's reaction so much.
03:47
And watching that videotape later that day
03:49
inspired me to keep doing what I do.
03:51
And really one of the points of Improv Everywhere
03:53
is to cause a scene in a public place
03:56
that is a positive experience for other people.
03:58
It's a prank, but it's a prank that gives somebody a great story to tell.
04:00
And her reaction inspired me
04:03
to do a second annual No Pants Subway Ride.
04:05
And we've continued to do it every year.
04:07
This January, we did the 10th annual No Pants Subway Ride
04:09
where a diverse group of 3,500 people
04:11
rode the train in their underwear in New York --
04:14
almost every single train line in the city.
04:16
And also in 50 other cities around the world,
04:18
people participated.
04:20
(Laughter)
04:22
As I started taking improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater
04:24
and meeting other creative people and other performers and comedians,
04:27
I started amassing a mailing list
04:30
of people who wanted to do these types of projects.
04:32
So I could do more large-scale projects.
04:34
Well one day I was walking through Union Square,
04:36
and I saw this building,
04:38
which had just been built in 2005.
04:40
And there was a girl in one of the windows and she was dancing.
04:42
And it was very peculiar,
04:45
because it was dark out, but she was back-lit with florescent lighting,
04:47
and she was very much onstage,
04:49
and I couldn't figure out why she was doing it.
04:51
After about 15 seconds, her friend appeared --
04:53
she had been hiding behind a display --
04:55
and they laughed and hugged each other and ran away.
04:57
So it seemed like maybe she had been dared to do this.
04:59
So I got inspired by that.
05:01
Looking at the entire facade -- there were 70 total windows --
05:03
and I knew what I had to do.
05:05
(Laughter)
05:07
So this project is called Look Up More. We had 70 actors dress in black.
05:09
This was completely unauthorized.
05:12
We didn't let the stores know we were coming.
05:14
And I stood in the park giving signals.
05:16
The first signal was for everybody to hold up these four-foot tall letters
05:18
that spelled out "Look Up More,"
05:21
the name of the project.
05:23
The second signal was for everybody to do Jumping jacks together.
05:26
You'll see that start right here.
05:29
(Laughter)
05:32
And then we had dancing. We had everyone dance.
05:34
And then we had dance solos where only one person would dance
05:36
and everybody would point to them.
05:38
(Laughter)
05:40
So then I gave a new hand signal,
05:47
which signaled the next soloist down below in Forever 21,
05:49
and he danced.
05:52
There were several other activities.
05:54
We had people jumping up and down,
05:56
people dropping to the ground.
05:58
And I was standing just anonymously in a sweatshirt,
06:00
putting my hand on and off of a trashcan
06:02
to signal the advancement.
06:04
And because it was in Union Square Park, right by a subway station,
06:06
there were hundreds of people by the end
06:08
who stopped and looked up
06:10
and watched what we were doing.
06:12
There's a better photo of it.
06:16
So that particular event
06:18
was inspired by a moment
06:20
that I happened to stumble upon.
06:22
The next project I want to show
06:24
was given to me in an email from a stranger.
06:26
A high school kid in Texas wrote me in 2006
06:28
and said, "You should get as many people as possible
06:31
to put on blue polo shirts and khaki pants
06:33
and go into a Best Buy and stand around."
06:36
(Laughter)
06:38
(Applause)
06:42
So I wrote this high school kid back immediately,
06:44
and I said, "Yes, you are correct.
06:46
I think I'll try to do that this weekend. Thank you."
06:48
So here's the video.
06:50
So again, this is 2005.
06:52
This is the Best Buy in New York City.
06:54
We had about 80 people show up to participate,
06:57
entering one-by-one.
06:59
There was an eight year-old girl, a 10 year-old girl.
07:01
There was also a 65 year-old man
07:03
who participated.
07:05
So a very diverse group of people.
07:07
And I told people, "Don't work. Don't actually do work.
07:09
But also, don't shop.
07:12
Just stand around and don't face products."
07:14
Now you can see the regular employees
07:16
by the ones that have the yellow tags on their shirt.
07:18
Everybody else is one of our actors.
07:20
(Laughter)
07:22
The lower level employees thought it was very funny.
07:24
And in fact, several of them went to go get their camera from the break room
07:26
and took photos with us.
07:28
A lot of them made jokes about trying to get us to go to the back
07:30
to get heavy television sets for customers.
07:33
The managers and the security guards, on the other hand,
07:36
did not find it particularly funny.
07:39
You can see them in this footage.
07:41
They're wearing either a yellow shirt or a black shirt.
07:43
And we were there probably 10 minutes
07:46
before the managers decided to dial 911.
07:48
(Laughter)
07:50
So they started running around
07:53
telling everybody the cops were coming, watch out, the cops were coming.
07:55
And you can see the cops in this footage right here.
07:58
That's a cop wearing black right there, being filmed with a hidden camera.
08:01
Ultimately, the police had to inform Best Buy management
08:04
that it was not, in fact, illegal
08:06
to wear a blue polo shirt and khaki pants.
08:08
(Laughter)
08:10
(Applause)
08:12
Thank you.
08:16
(Applause)
08:18
So we had been there for 20 minutes; we were happy to exit the store.
08:21
One thing the managers were trying to do
08:24
was to track down our cameras.
08:26
And they caught a couple of my guys who had hidden cameras in duffel bags.
08:28
But the one camera guy they never caught
08:31
was the guy that went in just with a blank tape
08:33
and went over to the Best Buy camera department
08:35
and just put his tape in one of their cameras
08:37
and pretended to shop.
08:39
So I like that concept of using their own technology against them.
08:42
(Laughter)
08:45
I think our best projects are ones that are site specific
08:47
and happen at a particular place for a reason.
08:49
And one morning, I was riding the subway.
08:51
I had to make a transfer at the 53rd St. stop
08:53
where there are these two giant escalators.
08:55
And it's a very depressing place to be in the morning, it's very crowded.
08:57
So I decided to try and stage something
09:00
that could make it as happy as possible for one morning.
09:02
So this was in the winter of 2009 --
09:06
8:30 in the morning.
09:08
It's morning rush hour.
09:10
It's very cold outside.
09:12
People are coming in from Queens,
09:14
transferring from the E train to the 6 train.
09:16
And they're going up these giant escalators
09:19
on their way to their jobs.
09:21
(Laughter)
09:34
(Laughter)
09:46
(Applause)
09:48
Thank you.
09:54
So there's a photograph that illustrates it a little bit better.
09:56
He gave 2,000 high fives that day,
09:59
and he washed his hands before and afterward
10:01
and did not get sick.
10:03
And that was done also without permission,
10:05
although no one seemed to care.
10:07
So I'd say over the years,
10:09
one of the most common criticisms I see of Improv Everywhere
10:11
left anonymously on YouTube comments
10:14
is: "These people have too much time on their hands."
10:16
And you know, not everybody's going to like everything you do,
10:19
and I've certainly developed a thick skin thanks to Internet comments,
10:22
but that one's always bothered me,
10:24
because we don't have too much time on our hands.
10:26
The participants at Improv Everywhere events
10:28
have just as much leisure time as any other New Yorkers,
10:31
they just occasionally choose
10:33
to spend it in an unusual way.
10:35
You know, every Saturday and Sunday,
10:37
hundreds of thousands of people each fall
10:39
gather in football stadiums to watch games.
10:41
And I've never seen anybody comment, looking at a football game,
10:43
saying, "All those people in the stands, they have too much time on their hands."
10:46
And of course they don't.
10:49
It's a perfectly wonderful way to spent a weekend afternoon,
10:51
watching a football game in a stadium.
10:53
But I think it's also a perfectly valid way
10:56
to spend an afternoon freezing in place with 200 people
10:58
in the Grand Central terminal
11:01
or dressing up like a ghostbuster
11:03
and running through the New York Public Library.
11:06
(Laughter)
11:08
Or listening to the same MP3 as 3,000 other people
11:10
and dancing silently in a park,
11:13
or bursting into song in a grocery store
11:16
as part of a spontaneous musical,
11:18
or diving into the ocean in Coney Island wearing formal attire.
11:20
You know, as kids, we're taught to play.
11:23
And we're never given a reason why we should play.
11:26
It's just acceptable that play is a good thing.
11:28
And I think that's sort of the point of Improv Everywhere.
11:31
It's that there is no point and that there doesn't have to be a point.
11:34
We don't need a reason.
11:36
As long as it's fun
11:38
and it seems like it's going to be a funny idea
11:40
and it seems like the people who witness it will also have a fun time,
11:42
then that's enough for us.
11:45
And I think, as adults, we need to learn
11:47
that there's no right or wrong way to play.
11:49
Thank you very much.
11:51
(Applause)
11:53

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Charlie Todd - Comedian
Charlie Todd is the creator of Improv Everywhere, a group that creates absurd and joyful public scenes.

Why you should listen

Bored by a temp job, and tired of waiting for someone to give him a stage, comedian Charlie Todd decided to make his own. So he walked into a bar and pretended to be musician Ben Folds. It went so well that it inspired him to create Improv Everywhere, "a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." 

Todd has produced, directed, performed, and documented the group’s work for over ten years. In that time they've run over 100 prank missions, some involving hundreds or thousands of agents, and each one creating a wonderful and irreproducible experience.

He's a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City, and is the author of Causing a Scene.

Watch our photographer's view of the TED2012 prank ... and see how Improv Everywhere pulled it off with the help of a few willing TEDsters ...

The original video is available on TED.com
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