Charlie Todd wears a lot of hats: he’s a weekly fixture performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade, part of Big Block‘s director roster, and founder of Improv Everywhere, which creates “positive pranks,” designed to surprise and delight, but never humiliate or embarrass, those on the receiving end. The videos have proven so successful that Improv Everywhere’s YouTube page has nearly 1.9 million subscribers, with individual videos receiving tens of millions of views.
Todd has parlayed those live events and their videos into a successful career as a commercial director working with brands to create and capture unique experiences for web videos and TV ads. He and his production team just finished work on a pilot for the Pop network. He’s given TED talks. Oh, and somehow Todd and his wife find time to host a monthly event and podcast called “Two Beers In,” mixing comedians, journalists and beer in a live, lively and lubricated conversation about politics and public affairs.
TVRev sat down with Todd to talk about how he creates those positive pranks, how brands have used them and how he navigates the challenges of capturing a one-of-a-kind moment that can touch people for years. The following Q&A with Todd has been edited for length. You can hear the entire discussion on my podcast, Bloom in Tech.
TVR: Tell me about Improv Everywhere. What was the idea behind that?
CT: Improv Everywhere is a project I started 16 years ago. I was fresh out of college, studying at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City and meeting lots of other cool people in the improv scene. I got the idea of staging undercover performances in public spaces that were essentially pranks. They were altering reality in some way, surprising people in subway cars and bars and sidewalks and parks, but doing so in a way that was positive in nature and in a way that gave other people a great experience and a great story to tell.
TVR: You started in the era of naughty prank TV shows like “Crank Yankers” and all that followed with Internet prank videos. Lots has changed since then, it seems, but you still have a productive niche here.
Yeah, exactly. When I was first getting started in the early 2000s, I think “Jackass” was on TV, “Punk’d” was a big deal. I think “Boiling Point” was on MTV as well. A lot of those shows were funny, and particularly “Jackass,” a lot of the things they did were really groundbreaking and really hilarious. But a lot of it was at the expense of whoever was being pranked, right? It was generally mean spirited, or at least out to embarrass someone or emotionally manipulate someone. I got the idea to stage these in public spaces and rather than embarrass or humiliate someone, confuse them, sure, surprise them, for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s a great story and a positive experience (instead).
TVR: Give me an example of a prank that went particularly well.
We did a project about two months ago, right before the iPhone X was being released in stores. There was a woman who emailed me who happened to live close to the subway elevator at 23rd and Park Avenue (in New York) and it’s this big glass-enclosed elevator that leads down to the 6 train. It happened to look a lot like an Apple Store. She wrote me, ‘Hey, I’m a big fan of Improv Everywhere and this subway elevator happens to look like an Apple Store. I think we should turn it into an Apple Store for the iPhone X release.’ I wrote her back right away and said, ’That’s hilarious. We have to do it.’
So we made these giant Apple logos and affixed them on all four sides of the elevator enclosure and then brought in 50 actors who were “waiting in line” for the iPhone X. This was maybe two weeks before the iPhone X was coming out. Then we brought in about 10 people dressed as Apple Store employees, wearing Apple Store shirts, who were manning the line and applauding people as they were exiting the elevator. So the project was essentially to create a fake Apple Store in the middle of Manhattan. It was tons of fun. We put a video out, just a few days before the iPhone X came out, and it caused a bit of a stir online. It was really fun to watch it all unfold.
No, we were not being paid by Apple and we didn’t have the permission of (local transit agency) the MTA or anyone else for that matter. In our early days, we did a lot of unauthorized projects, doing things like getting 80 people to dress up in blue polo shirts and khaki pants and walk into a Best Buy and mill around, essentially giving the store 80 extra employees for the afternoon without their knowledge. We did lots of things on subway cars like our annual No Pants subway ride, where people board the train in the middle of winter with coats and gloves but no pants, just underwear on. That’s our history of not asking permission, but making sure the things we do are safe and positive and fun. But there is a little bit of a mischievous streak of doing these things unauthorized.
TVR: Some of this feels like what you’d see in Adbusters magazine but you also do projects with big brands all the time. Those are probably what pays the bills, I’m guessing.
Exactly, yeah, we take on sponsorships for projects we do on our YouTube channel. I also work as a director for hire for brands. Anything from 30-second spots to web videos they want to distribute on their own brand channels. And yea, there is that dichotomy of ‘Yeah, we have this history of having Best Buy call 9-1-1 on us,’ but at the same time, we work with commercial projects all the time.
We like to stay true to our root and every now and then make sure we’re getting out there and doing the unauthorized projects we’re known for. But after doing those kinds of projects over 15 years, we’ve just learned so much about human nature. We’ve learned so much about how to create these surprises, how to choreograph them., how to capture the moment on film. We’ve really developed this niche expertise in the surprise and delight genre. A lot of brands are hungry for these types of surprise and delight projects, so we end up getting a lot of incoming calls.
TVR: I love the idea of surprise and delight being your niche. Everybody should be so fortunate. So tell me a couple of the lessons learned about how you do the surprise and delight, how you capture it without it being obvious that there’s a camera crew there.
In terms of the hidden-camera work, technology has helped us so much over the years. When I did that project inside the Best Buy, we had people with cameras stashed in duffel bags with holes cut out of them, because consumer cameras back then, even pro cameras, were just so big. (That said,) one anecdote about that story is that the one camera guy who was not caught by Best Buy security was the guy who just went in with a mini-DV tape, went to the Best Buy camera department and started shooting, which I was especially proud of, using their own equipment to document the event.
But these days, everybody’s got an HD(-quality camera) phone in their pocket, and DSLRs have made our lives so much easier Cameras themselves have gotten smaller and also, they’re just so omnipresent that people are less thrown (by seeing) people with cameras recording something off in the distance. You just see them everywhere.
TVR: Have you learned some things about human behavior, sort of hacking the brain and its delight centers?
Yeah, we have. I mean, the other downside of technology is that it’s become such a challenge to get people to react to anything. You step into a subway car in New York City and everyone has their headphones on and they’re listening to a podcast or they’re reading an article. Being able to command people’s attention you have to do something that really is truly unusual.
One tactic that we’ve used in the past is to put one or two ringers who are in on it who might be sitting in a subway car. When a performance breaks out, (we) have them take their headphones off and start taking a picture. Once you see someone’s taking a picture or taking a video, people say, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s happening. I should pay attention as well.”
Other things that we’ve learned is, we have to be so prepared to capture these moments as soon as they unfold, because unlike a normal film shoot, or a normal commercial shoot, you don’t have a lot of different takes. You’re staging this big surprise and you kind of have one shot at it. So we overshoot for a one-minute video that we’re taking, For a recent project for Hallmark that we did, we had 12 cameras shooting from every different angle. We wound up with hours of footage for a three-minute YouTube video.
TVR: Since we’re here in the middle of the holidays, talk about that Hallmark project, called “Light Up Someone’s Holiday.” I’m interested in how you work in all this stuff that’s rather subversive while working with brands that care about lots of things that are very not subversive. How does that work out?
We were approached by the PR firm Fleishman-Hilliard, which worked with Hallmark. They let us know that Hallmark was a fan of the stuff we were doing and they let us know they wanted to do a big holiday surprise moment.
We did a little bit of brainstorming with them, and pitched them on this idea of a sort of instant greeting-card delivery. We created this custom (set) where one side was the writing-a-card station and the other side was the receiving-the-card station, and regular people who are not in on it would get up on the set and write a card, slip the card through the mail slot and on the other side was their friend, their husband, their wife. As soon as (the recipient) opened the card, we had the message of the card, which we had captured using some hidden technology, appear on the Jumbotron in this public plaza in Manhattan.
So the video ends up being this really uplifting surprise where people wrote these really heartfelt things to each other. And there was a little sign saying, “Write for all to see,” so maybe they wouldn’t write something that’s too personal or too embarrassing. But it was the nice, inspiring holiday moment.
The greeting cards were what powered the project, so there was some integration there, but the video’s not about Hallmark. It doesn’t feel like a commercial. It’s the kind of project that Improv Everywhere is known for and that we would have done on our own, though working with Hallmark, we had a way bigger budget to work with than what we might fund for ourself.
TVR: Where did this project come from? Was it something you were thinking about already or was it just something that bubbled up?
Yeah, they gave us a brief and said, ‘Here’s what we’re interested in doing,’ One thing that was interesting about this project is they really wanted it to be an emotional connection between two people, and that’s a different project from what we typically do, because our projects are typically one to many in structure, where there’s performers doing something unusual in a public place and causing a scene that affects lots of people who happen to be on the subway car or happen to be walking through Grand Central when those 200 people freeze in place. But they challenged us to come up with a surprise that was really from one person to one other person, which made us think (to) take a different approach and come at these things a little bit differently. That’s always fun when someone gives you guidelines rather than have it be a blank canvas.
TVR: Is the work that you do, even for brands, the positive prank stuff that you’ve become known for, or do you do somewhat more traditional stuff as well?
Typically, when people want to work with me, it’s because they like what we’ve done with Improv Everywhere and they want something in that genre, although for me, anything that’s comedy is a fit. I’ve worked with Upright Citizens Brigade for 16 years now and still perform there on a weekly basis.
Comedy is what I do. It’s in my blood. My team just finished producing a pilot for the Pop cable network that uses a lot of what we’ve learned from years of doing Improv Everywhere. There’s a little bit of reality aspect to it where our characters are surprising people who don’t really realize they’re dealing with actors, but it’s a hybrid that pairs with a single-camera scripted (show), so that was really fun to work on that and we’re still in the editing process on that.
TVR: And you did a pilot a decade ago for NBC. What’s the process like of working on a show for a network such as NBC or Pop versus the other work you’re doing now?
It’s obviously very different putting together a half-hour pilot versus putting together a 2- to 3-minute online video. But I had a great time working on the pilot for NBC, which was called ‘Improv Everywhere,’ and I served as the showrunner on a show called ‘The Middle of the Night Show,’ on MTV, a couple of years back that was a late-night talk show that took place out on the streets of New York, so there again, we were interacting with real people, surprising real people. But there’s really nothing better than doing something that’s a completely independent project. The stuff we do with brands helps fund that. It helps us be able to do these fun independent projects like the Apple Store hoax that we recently did. It’s always nice to have an idea, go out and bring it to life completely on your own terms.
TVR: If a brand wanted to work with you, to have the next cool, heartwarming holiday event, how would they connect with you?
We’re easy to find. We’re at ImprovEverywhere.com. I also work with Big Block (Media). They represent me as a director. We did a really fun project that Big Block brought to us earlier this year with Crown Royal, where we went out to Houston for the Houston Rodeo, and surprised random people who were at the Houston Rodeo. We had an actress who was on crutches. She has a bunch of food, and she’s trying to get up on the curb and she can’t quite make it. As soon as a random person came out and decided to help her out, this giant celebration broke out. We had 100 actors who blended in with the environment. They gave the person a standing ovation, and the person was rewarded with tickets to the rodeo that night, and other prizes from Crown Royal. That was a real fun project. Not out of Improv Everywhere, just something that Big Block arranged and that we made for Crown Royal that they distributed on all their channels.
TVR: You have a lot of projects going on but you’ve continued to appear with UCB on a weekly basis. That must be very satisfying for you.
Absolutely. I’ve been with them since the very early days of the theater here in New York. And it’s a really exciting time for UCB because we’re actually moving. We just left the Chelsea theater we’ve been in for 14 years, and had our final shows there last week, and the theater’s moving to Hell’s Kitchen on 42nd Street.
I improvise there every week and then my wife and I host a political show, it’s actually a podcast We do a live podcast taping at UCB called “Two Beers In.” It’s a political roundtable where we have journalists and comedians drink a couple of beers and talk about politics. When you’re just a little bit tipsy, it’s a lot of fun.
We’ve had some really great people be panelists. Once you’ve had one or two big people on your podcast, all of a sudden you start getting better and better guests. We had Katy Tur on recently from MSNBC, who covered Trump (during the presidential elections) for a year, alongside Anthony Atamanuik, who plays Trump on “The President Show” on Comedy Central. It was really fun having Katy Tur, who spent so much time with the real president on the panel with the fake president played by Anthony Atamanuik. The format is really fun because with two beers you’re not really drunk but you’re just a little bit looser and more willing to say how you really feel.
You can follow Todd on Twitter @CharlieTodd, or at Improv Everywhere. You can also join the Improv Everywhere mailing list on the group’s site. Todd’s commercial representative is Caroline Gomez at Big Block Media.