Charlie Todd

The shared experience of absurdity

2,758,960 views • 12:04
Subtitles in 39 languages
Up next
Details About the talk
Transcript 39 languages

I started Improv Everywhere about 10 years ago when I moved to New York City with an interest in acting and comedy. Because I was new to the city, I didn't have access to a stage, so I decided to create my own in public places.


So the first project we're going to take a look at is the very first No Pants Subway Ride. Now, this took place in January of 2002. And this woman is the star of the video. She doesn't know she's being filmed. She's being filmed with a hidden camera. This is on the 6 train in New York City. And this is the first stop along the line. These are two Danish guys who come in and sit down next to the hidden camera. And that's me right there in a brown coat. It's about 30 degrees outside. I'm wearing a hat. I'm wearing a scarf. And the girl's going to notice me right here.




And as you'll see now, I'm not wearing pants.




At this point — at this point she's noticed me, but in New York there's weirdos on any given train car. One person's not that unusual. She goes back to reading her book, which is unfortunately titled "Rape."




So she's noticed the unusual thing, but she's gone back to her normal life.


Now, in the meantime, I have six friends who are waiting at the next six consecutive stops in their underwear as well. They're going to be entering this car one by one. We'll act as though we don't know each other. And we'll act as if it's just an unfortunate mistake we've made, forgetting our pants on this cold January day.




(Laughter continues)


So at this point, she decides to put the rape book away.




And she decides to be a little bit more aware of her surroundings. In the meantime, the two Danish guys to the left of the camera, they're cracking up. They think this is the funniest thing they've ever seen before. And watch her make eye contact with them right about now.




And I love that moment in this video, because before it became a shared experience, it was something that was maybe a little bit scary, or something that was at least confusing to her. And then, once it became a shared experience, it was funny and something that she could laugh at.


So the train is now pulling into the third stop along the 6 line.




So the video won't show everything. This goes on for another four stops. A total of seven guys enter anonymously in their underwear. At the eighth stop, a girl came in with a giant duffel bag and announced she had pants for sale for a dollar — like you might sell batteries or candy on the train. We all very matter-of-factly bought a pair of pants, put them on and said, "Thank you. That's exactly what I needed today," and then exited without revealing what had happened and went in all different directions.




Thank you.


So that's a still from the video there. And I love that girl's reaction so much. And watching that videotape later that day inspired me to keep doing what I do. And really one of the points of Improv Everywhere is to cause a scene in a public place that is a positive experience for other people. It's a prank, but it's a prank that gives somebody a great story to tell. And her reaction inspired me to do a second annual No Pants Subway Ride. And we've continued to do it every year. This January, we did the 10th annual No Pants Subway Ride where a diverse group of 3,500 people rode the train in their underwear in New York — almost every single train line in the city. And also in 50 other cities around the world, people participated.




As I started taking improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and meeting other creative people and other performers and comedians, I started amassing a mailing list of people who wanted to do these types of projects. So I could do more large-scale projects. Well, one day I was walking through Union Square, and I saw this building, which had just been built in 2005. There was a girl in one of the windows and she was dancing. It was very peculiar, because it was dark out, but she was backlit with florescent lighting. She was very much onstage and I couldn't figure out why she was doing it. After about 15 seconds, her friend appeared — she had been hiding behind a display. They laughed, hugged each other and ran away. Maybe she had been dared to do this. So I got inspired by that. Looking at the entire facade — there were 70 total windows — and I knew what I had to do.




So this project is called Look Up More. We had 70 actors dress in black. This was completely unauthorized. We didn't let the stores know we were coming. And I stood in the park giving signals. The first signal was for everybody to hold up these four-foot tall letters that spelled out "Look Up More," the name of the project. The second signal was for everybody to do jumping jacks together. You'll see that start right here.




And then we had dancing. We had everyone dance. And then we had dance solos where only one person would dance and everybody would point to them.




So then I gave a new hand signal, which signaled the next soloist down below in Forever 21, and he danced. There were several other activities. We had people jumping up and down, people dropping to the ground. And I was standing just anonymously in a sweatshirt, putting my hand on and off of a trashcan to signal the advancement. And because it was in Union Square Park, right by a subway station, there were hundreds of people by the end who stopped and looked up and watched what we were doing. There's a better photo of it.


So that particular event was inspired by a moment that I happened to stumble upon. The next project I want to show was given to me in an email from a stranger. A high school kid in Texas wrote me in 2006 and said, "You should get as many people as possible to put on blue polo shirts and khaki pants and go into a Best Buy and stand around."






So I wrote this high school kid back immediately and I said, "Yes, you are correct. I think I'll try to do that this weekend. Thank you." So here's the video.


So again, this is 2005. This is the Best Buy in New York City. We had about 80 people show up to participate, entering one by one. There was an eight-year-old girl, a 10-year-old girl. There was also a 65-year-old man who participated. So a very diverse group of people.




And I told people, "Don't work. Don't actually do work. But also, don't shop. Just stand around and don't face products." Now you can see the regular employees by the ones that have the yellow tags on their shirt. Everybody else is one of our actors.




The lower-level employees thought it was very funny. Several of them went to go get their camera from the break room and took photos with us. A lot of them made jokes about trying to get us to go to the back to get heavy television sets for customers. The managers and the security guards, on the other hand, did not find it particularly funny. You can see them in this footage. They're wearing either a yellow shirt or a black shirt. And we were there probably 10 minutes before the managers decided to dial 911.




So they started running around telling everybody the cops were coming, "Watch out, the cops are coming." And you can see the cops in this footage right here. That's a cop wearing black right there, being filmed with a hidden camera. Ultimately, the police had to inform Best Buy management that it was not, in fact, illegal to wear a blue polo shirt and khaki pants.






Thank you.




So we had been there for 20 minutes; we were happy to exit the store. One thing the managers were trying to do was to track down our cameras. And they caught a couple of my guys who had hidden cameras in duffel bags. But the one camera guy they never caught was the guy that went in just with a blank tape and went over to the Best Buy camera department and just put his tape in one of their cameras and pretended to shop. So I like that concept of using their own technology against them.




I think our best projects are ones that are site-specific and happen at a particular place for a reason. And one morning, I was riding the subway. I had to make a transfer at the 53rd St. stop where there are these two giant escalators. And it's a very depressing place to be in the morning, it's very crowded. So I decided to try and stage something that could make it as happy as possible for one morning. So this was in the winter of 2009 — 8:30 in the morning. It's morning rush hour. It's very cold outside. People are coming in from Queens, transferring from the E train to the 6 train. And they're going up these giant escalators on their way to their jobs.


[Rob wants] [to give you]




[a high five!]




[Get ready!]






Thank you. So there's a photograph that illustrates it a little bit better. He gave 2,000 high fives that day, and he washed his hands before and afterward and did not get sick. And that was done also without permission, although no one seemed to care.


So I'd say over the years, one of the most common criticisms I see of Improv Everywhere left anonymously on YouTube comments is: "These people have too much time on their hands." And you know, not everybody's going to like everything you do, and I've certainly developed a thick skin thanks to Internet comments, but that one's always bothered me, because we don't have too much time on our hands. The participants in Improv Everywhere events have just as much leisure time as any other New Yorkers, they just occasionally choose to spend it in an unusual way.


You know, every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people each fall gather in football stadiums to watch games. And I've never seen anybody comment, looking at a football game, "All those people in the stands, they have too much time on their hands." And of course they don't. It's a perfectly wonderful way to spent a weekend afternoon, watching a football game in a stadium. But I think it's also a perfectly valid way to spend an afternoon freezing in place with 200 people in the Grand Central terminal or dressing up like a ghostbuster and running through the New York Public Library.




Or listening to the same MP3 as 3,000 other people and dancing silently in a park, or bursting into song in a grocery store as part of a spontaneous musical, or diving into the ocean in Coney Island wearing formal attire.




You know, as kids, we're taught to play. And we're never given a reason why we should play. It's just acceptable that play is a good thing. And I think that's sort of the point of Improv Everywhere. It's that there is no point and that there doesn't have to be a point. We don't need a reason. As long as it's fun and it seems like it's going to be a funny idea and it seems like the people who witness it will also have a fun time, then that's enough for us. And I think, as adults, we need to learn that there's no right or wrong way to play.


Thank you very much.



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. His group, Improv Everywhere, uses these scenes to bring people together.

About the speaker
Charlie Todd · Comedian

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

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