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NEW YORK—Charlie Todd is the man who plotted an event where 4,000 people rode the subway without pants on a January day. It was absurd. It was audacious. It was humorous. But on an average day, this master mind of pranks is a thoughtful, staid man who spends 10 hours a day behind his computer screen.
Todd is the founder of Improv Everywhere, a nonprofit prank collective that creates scenes of “chaos and joy” in public places.
Seemingly ordinary shoppers at a mall suddenly begin to go about their lives as if they were in a musical; a swarm of travelers in Grand Central terminal becomes suspended in time. After the allotted time passes, the participants of Improv Everywhere disperse and fade into the crowd as if nothing unusual had just happened.
The group leaves the bystanders aghast, amused, or sometimes just infinitely perplexed. But for many passerby’s, they are left with a memory that brightened an otherwise standard day.
And this is why Todd orchestrates such moments.
Todd is not a mischievous man who has yet to grow up. Although he comes up with these batty scenarios, his day-to-day demeanor is one of dignity and composure. Todd has always been sensible about his passion for comedy.
He began watching “Saturday Night Live” in 1988 when he was in the fifth grade. He watched it responsibly, setting the VCR to begin recording NBC just before his bedtime at 10 o’clock.
When he got older he considered taking over his father’s sporting goods store, Todd and Moore Sports, in his hometown, Columbia, S.C.
He thought it might be best not to waste his theater degree from the University of North Carolina. So he moved to New York in 2002 and founded Improv Everywhere.
“I realized that the city was such a playground. All these people who are riding the train with me and walking through the streets of New York with me are potential audience members for creativity,” he said. “I didn’t need to wait for an opportunity, I can just create my own performances.”
Since then, the group has attracted millions of fans from around the world.
Todd became an acting teacher for many years at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), where he now performs improvisation every Saturday night.
He has coached Ally Kemper from “The Office,” and has performed with “Saturday Night Live’s” Bobby Moynihan during his time with UCB.
“You can’t watch television without seeing your friends from your UCB classes from 12 years ago,” he said.
Presently, Todd spends most of his hours planning each Improv Everywhere scene and its potential consequences. He does it all for a little or no money.
He personally looks after the organization’s social media and official website, while working with a small team to create intricate designs for upcoming pranks that he calls “missions.” And in a way, they are on a very important mission.
Todd coordinates these elaborate schemes as a gesture of defiance against the mundane. He hopes to break the banality of the daily New York grind, even if it is just for a few minutes.
The New York routine consists of “waking up in the morning, taking the subway during rush hour, sitting at a desk, going out and getting lunch and eating it at your desk, taking the subway home,” Todd said. “Being a part of that routine really inspired me to come up with ways to change the routine and break people out of it.”
Todd believes that happiness can sometimes be something as simple as an aggregation of little moments of joy. So why not add an extra joyful moment during the most unsuspecting times and places?
And that was the premise of their mission on that dreadfully long escalator inside the 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue subway station.
In 2009, Todd contrived a scene where five people stood on the stairs next to the escalator and held up signs that read: “Rob Wants,” “To Give You,” “A Hive Five,” “Get Ready!” and, the last sign with an arrow pointing at a man, “Rob.”
Comedian Rob Lathan waited at the end of the escalator line and gave people high fives. He gave 2,000 high fives that morning.
Lathan left the subway with a numbing sensation in his hand, but for 2,000 subway riders, they left going into a different day.
Simple scenes like that don’t require a lot of money. But, Todd said if he had an unlimited budget, there would be more helicopters involved in his projects. And what wonders he could cause if he would have access to a mass of Star Wars’ Snow Trooper costumes.
“My idea is that there would be a huge blizzard in New York and have a hundred Snow Troopers walking around Central Park,” he said. “That’s a dream of mine.”
A Pioneer of Viral Content
Todd knows what it feels like to be part of a routine.
His first job in the city was at a record store in St. Marks that lasted a week; then he signed up with a temp agency, working at a different reception desk everyday. He would work on Improv Everywhere whenever he had a moment to spare.
“Working 40 plus hours a week behind a desk definitely gave me more of a desire to break out of the mold on the weekend,” he said.
Little did he know, he was becoming one of the pioneers of viral content on the Internet.
The group began as seven of Todd’s personal friends. They documented their pranks through photo and words and posted them on the Internet, before the advent of blogs and YouTube.
“We had a couple of things that caught on and were passed around,” he recalled. “Some of our earlier projects got traffic because of email forwards, through old annoying chain emails.”
The arrival of YouTube in 2005 was a major game changer.
Today, a “Gangnam Style” video on YouTube has almost 2 billion views. But in 2006 it was almost unheard of to get a million views. Improv Everywhere projects were some of the first videos on YouTube to get 20 million views.
Recently a documentary about Improv Everywhere, called “We Cause Scenes,” was released.
“What the documentary film shows is how YouTube democratized entertainment,” Todd said.
“We’re very lucky that we live in this time where, thanks to the Internet creative people can create exactly what they want to create and publish it online for potentially millions of people to see it,” he said.
“I always encourage others, do what you love, do it for free,” he said. “ Keep doing it over and over again. Eventually you’ll get good at it and you’ll get some recognition and you can turn it into your life.”
An Unintended Human Unity
When Todd woke up on the morning of Jan. 12, he awoke to pictures of people riding the subway in their underwear from across the globe.
Subway riders from Beijing to Bangalore pretended that it was a coincidence that they all forgot to wear their pants on Jan. 12.
“Due to time zones, it has already happened in Australia and China,” Todd said. “It’s funny to wake up and see photos of this thing that I created that I haven’t even done yet today, is already spreading around the world from time zone to time zone.”
The annual “no pants subway ride” event began in New York City in 2002. By 2014, the phenomenon has spread to 60 cities in over 25 countries.
One man even rode the subway in his underwear in Cairo. “He just did it by himself,” Todd said. “He sent me a video to prove it. That blew me away.”
“It seems that our cultures are so different,” Todd said. “But, as silly as it is to ride a subway in your underwear, it is sort of inspiring to see that tens of thousands of people around the world are responding to it.”
Humor is a connector of humanity, a universal language. In some ways, Improv Everywhere has unintentionally inspired a unity between humans across the world.
There are a few times out of the year when Todd puts on public projects that require a crowd of 4,000 people.
“No one knows each other,” he said. “Maybe you came with one friend, maybe I know 30 people. But for the most part, it’s 4,000 strangers having fun together and playing on the same team.”
“You just so rarely have that opportunity,” he said.
Todd said the most rewarding part of his job is seeing people’s reactions.
“When I’m doing the project I’m so stressed out and worrying about everything going perfectly that I don’t have the time to soak all that in,” he said.
After all, he usually manages a cast of a thousand people and makes sure they’re all on the same page.
But at the end of the day, he goes back to his apartment and looks through the 200 or so photos of the event, and looks at each smile and laugh.
“That’s the most satisfying part for me,” he said.
This Is New York is a weekly column that features profiles of inspiring individuals in New York City, from all walks of life. Read a new profile every Saturday afternoon online, and every Thursday in print.
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