Q&A with Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere

In cacophony by summerburkes

Hey, Brooklyn: John Law is gonna speak at the Housing Works bookstore in Brooklyn as part of a panel with Charlie Todd, founder of NYC’s Improv Everywhere, about how one of them oversaw the evolution of “flash mobs” and then the other one refined ’em and started calling ’em that.

“Tales of Cacophony: How to Make Your City a Playground” happens Monday, September 9, 2013, 7pm, at Brooklyn’s Housing Works bookstore — with the official, all-are-invited after-party at the gorgeous, Cacophony-built eatery Preserve 24 at Houston and Allen in the LES, NYC. This is only part of the East Coast tour for Tales of the SF Cacophony Society, a new how-to manual for pranksters and surrealist art historians.

The Ladies’ Guide to the Apocalypse spoke to Charlie Todd recently about his role as the second-generation, accidental purveyor of Cacophony and how it relates to what he does.

Improv Everywhere’s annual Black Tie Beach, an event more than slightly reminiscent of the SF Cacophony Society’s cocktail parties on the Golden Gate Bridge, or “brunk,” brunch in the junkyard

Take it away, Charlie:

1) How do you define culture jamming?

I would definite culture jamming as taking the tools of mass media and subverting them. I love the Negativland quote that coined the term, “The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.” Rather than making a statement with a play in a black box theatre, a short film, or a rock song, a culture jammer uses existing mass media to make her statement. Altering billboards, perpetrating media hoaxes, altering consumer products and shopdropping them back on the shelves, etc.

2) Draw us a line from the Cacophony Society to Improv Everywhere, and then from Improv Everywhere to the start of the revuolution in Egypt.

I wouldn’t say there is a straight line that goes through those three points, but they are all certainly have much in common. In terms of an evolution that’s happened over the years, it is definitely crazy how much technology has enabled our ability to mobilize quickly in public spaces. Cacophony used tools like paper newsletters in the 80s and 90s. Improv Everywhere started out spreading the word via email and a Geocities site. Now via twitter a revolution can mobilize thousands of people almost spontaneously.

3) How do Improv Everywhere participants avoid arrest, or do you purposefully walk the line of the legal?

Improv Everywhere is a comedy group and we do not seek to break the law. We have broken many policies. I’m pretty sure a couple of retail stores have had to CREATE new policies in response to things we’ve done. Most of our work is unauthorized, up-permitted, and outside the bounds of the regulations posted on the fence, but it’s never our goal for the police to have to show up. That’s not to say they haven’t showed up a few times, but in each instance we’ve ended up with nothing worse than an eventually-dismissed ticket.

4) Does technology factor greatly into how you organize missions? If so, do you use any kind of encryption software?

We started in 2001 when it was very much still web 1.0. So social media has helped accelerate our reach, but we were fine without it. Email remains the primary recruitment tool. That said, technology makes much of what we do simpler. I can scout locations via Google Maps, for example. From a documentation standpoint, technology has absolutely changed the game. A Go Pro camera is the size of my old MiniDV camera’s battery and the resolution is 10x better. It makes hidden camera shoots much easier.

5) Your missions seem designed to bring the participants together in a unified act while also delighting passers-by. Do the passers-by ever jump sides to become spontaneous participants?

Oh absolutely. I’ve been on a subway car with 30 people in their underwear and seen someone not participating decide to take their pants off as well. Why not? We just staged our 10th annual Mp3 Experiment project, where participants follow secret instructions via headphones. We had a couple of thousand people suddenly drop to the ground and start crawling on the floor of a shopping mall. More than a few regular shoppers decided to get down and crawl as well.

Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere. Photo from Art In Odd Places dot com

6) Do Boomers like what you do? Or is it a generational thing at all?

Improv Everywhere started with a bunch of people like me at the time– white 20somethings. I’m really excited how diverse we’ve become over the past decade. Our large projects that are open to the public have a participant-base that really reflects the diversity of New York itself. It’s really satisfying to see people of all ages and races coming together to do something silly. Last year I staged a boardroom meeting in the office chair department of a Staples with participants in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. We all got kicked out, but it took longer than it would have had it been a bunch of high schoolers. I think you should never outgrow pranks.

7) How does the temporary re-taking of public space factor in to your sense of American patriotism (if it does at all)?

I don’t think I’ve ever considered it to be a patriotic statement, but I do think it’s very important for citizens to claim their right to freely express themselves in public spaces. While Improv Everywhere avoids attaching any underlying message to our projects, I do think the overarching message of our actions is that you shouldn’t have to ask permission to create comedy or art in public spaces, so long as your actions are harmless to others and to the space itself. Public spaces should be venues for expression, not just recreation in between the lines.

8) What do you think of Santa Claus?

I figured out Santa Claus was fake when I found my presents underneath my parents bed a few weeks before Christmas one year as a kid. I wasn’t heartbroken — more delighted to know a secret. I enjoy Christmas, particularly because I was born on Christmas Eve. My first year in New York I was directing a play a friend had wrote about Christmas. We were rehearsing in a theatre space in Tribeca and I looked out the window during one of our breaks and saw a huge mob of Santas charging up Broadway. It was my introduction to Cacophony.

9) How do you think those with authority-jobs — police, military, prison wardens, DMV deskworkers — could benefit from Cacophony and Improv Everywhere wisdom, as far as gaining people-organizing and morale-building skills?

While I’m not really seeking to “wake” anyone up with Improv Everywhere, I do think it’s healthy to shake up our daily routines from time to time. It keeps us all on our toes. Authority figures are quick to shut down anything out of the ordinary, but I think it’s the extraordinary moments that make life more exciting. There are people the criticize Improv Everywhere for staging projects that disrupt the workday of a minimum wage worker in a retail store, but as someone who grew up working retail, I remember relishing anything that broke the routine. Bringing an unexpected moment to a black and white environment is something we’ve found only results in smiles.

10) How can those reading this article take away a little Cacophony-Improv happiness and use in their own homes and lives?

I think the biggest hurdle most people can’t get over is the thought that they need a big group of people to make an impact. Improv Everywhere started with me and one friend staging a hoax at a bar on a whim. You don’t need a mob of people to inject cacophony into the world. There are subtle things individuals can do to make daily life more fun and interesting. Start small and grow.


Charlie Todd

Bonus: “Frozen Grand Central,” perhaps Improv Everywhere’s most famous stunt, seeing as how it’s got thirty-three-million-something views on the Youtubes at this point:


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