The ideas behind a prank: Q&A with Charlie Todd

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As may or may not have been clear from reading the internet today: it’s April Fool’s Day. At TED, it came a bit early: At TED2012 Charlie Todd staged a beautifully colorful prank. An actor (Eugene Cordero) played a speaker who had a technical difficulty with his talk, and then another, and then another, and… then it got weird. Then it got wonderfully fun. (Watch the video above.)

Todd was the perfect person to pull that off: He’s the creator of Improv Everywhere, “a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” They’re the group responsible for the annual No-Pants Subway Ride, as well as staging a scene from Ghostbusters in the New York Public Library, putting guerrilla dancers in the windows of a massive retail building, freezing time for five minutes in Grand Central Station, and many, many more. (Also watch: A musical staged at the GEL Conference.)

In the course of all of that, he’s done a lot of thinking about what a prank is, and why we do them — ideas that he explains in this wonderful overview from TEDxBloomington.

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TED’s Ben Lillie had a chance to sit down with Charlie Todd just after TED2012 to talk about that prank, and the philosophy of pranking and Improv Everywhere.

Your prank starts with a presenter having a technical failure, and then seeing the spinning wheel of death. That’s a very universal moment. So, how did you decide on that one, of all the things you could have done?

They said it would be a theme about Full Spectrum, so I was thinking about colorful pranks, rainbow-type things, and then I was also thinking about the idea of a presentation gone wrong. I was thinking about that being a good way. Then I was thinking about a series of technical mishaps, and then I started just combining those two thoughts together like, oh! One of the best technical mishaps is already a rainbow. The rest of the project just sort of stemmed from the spinning rainbow, and what else could happen. And then I knew that there was a specific type of umbrella that I’d seen before that looked exactly like the spinning wait cursor. So I went on Amazon, figured out how I could order 10 of them in bulk, and things just started coming together from there. And I also already had in my possession those 10 full body suits.

Did you really? Of course you did.

There’s a company in Ireland that makes them, and a couple years ago they emailed me and said, “We’d like to send you some of our suits.” I guess they thought I might use them in a prank. For a few years they just sat in my office, and then I was like, oh yeah! Those things! Those are like the four primary colors. Those are the basic colors of the pinwheel. Perfect.

What kind of feedback did you get?

I had a lot of fun talking with TED attendees over the next couple of days who had witnessed it, and the feedback was really great. My first question to everyone was, when did you first figure out that this was not just a technical mishap? And most people seemed to agree that it was when there were multiple error messages on the screen. There were maybe two or three error message, and all of a sudden there were like three at a time. Most TEDsters are pretty computer savvy and pretty Mac savvy, so they can know that you’re not going to get four error messages up there at a time. I think the really observant ones noticed that some of the warnings were from different OS’s. There was a System 7 warning that happened at one point. And also just, why would Microsoft Word be crashing during a keynote presentation? From what people told me, even when they did figure out, OK, this is some kind of performance, all of the elements that ended up happening were still surprising. There was a moment like, OK, I think something’s up, but I don’t know what’s next. We were able to heighten it throughout and keep the surprise.

No one guessed that people in full body suits would dance on the stage?

No, probably not.

How did the audience feel about it?

I definitely heard from people that they felt really sorry for the actor, for the presenter, at first. As TEDTalks online have become more and more popular, there’s more and more pressure on the speaker not only to perform in the room, but with the knowledge that this might be seen by a million people, this might change my life. It’s such a big stage and a big platform. So, to have your big moment on that platform disrupted by a computer glitch is heartbreaking, and I think everybody was feeling a lot of empathy towards him. Particularly since I’m sure a lot of people in the audience have dealt with issues like that. But then I think it became more of a fun, carefree, joyous moment once people were hitting beach balls, watching ridiculous dancers.

Tell me more about pranking in general. What’s your big idea? Why do you prank?

So, Improv Everywhere started in 2001. At first it just started out of necessity, because I moved to New York and I wanted to become an actor and wanted to get into comedy. And I didn’t have any opportunities to perform. So I was fresh out of college, where I was in an improv group and I was doing plays every couple months, and then I moved to New York and I was like, oh, this is the real world. I have to get a job. I have to get an apartment. No one knows who I am. No one’s going to give me any stage time immediately. So while I started taking classes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater and doing the work one needs to do to get stage time in Manhattan, I started performing in public spaces. And really approached as, “I really am missing the ability to express myself creatively, so I’m just going to do it.” And whether it’s playing a prank in a bar or subway car or public park, I just took any opportunity I could to do something out of the ordinary.

It’s kind of funny you call that necessity, because the story of the actor coming to New York has been repeated a million times, but you’re the first one who went and did this as your way of doing it. So there was another idea in there, right?

Yeah, there was. I think I was just excited, too, about the anonymity that New York afforded me. I’m from Columbia, South Carolina. I went to high school with a class of 60, and then I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which was a big school, but it had a small-town feel. So in New York, I felt like there were maybe eight people in the city who knew me personally, and eight million who did not. And I got excited about the idea of, oh, this means I can be anybody I want to be or I can do anything I want to do, without someone saying, oh, that’s Charlie. So I can go into a bar and pretend to be Ben Folds, the musician, and portray him for four hours, and have a great time with everybody, and walk away and no one’s the wiser.

I’ve always been a prankster, I’ve always enjoyed April Fool’s pranks, I’ve enjoyed playing pranks with my roommates in college, and pranking their bedrooms when they go out of town, and getting my bedroom pranked when I go out of town, that kind of stuff. But in New York I got excited about doing things on a larger scale, and doing things in public.

I don’t like when people are mad at me. It’s just not in my nature to do a prank that pisses someone off or embarrasses someone. So I started off developing ideas that were positive. At TED I actually had a conversation with someone who took offense that I was using the word “prank,” because it’s not the right word for what I do. But I think Improv Everywhere sought to prove that a prank can be something that’s fun and positive and where no one get hurt. And I strongly believe in something called the golden rule of the prank, which is that anything should be as much fun for the person being pranked as it is for the prankster. Occasionally we’ve done something where a Best Buy manager dials 911 and maybe didn’t have fun, but if they had just appreciated the absurdity of having 100 extra employees, it would have been fun for them. We certainly don’t always make everyone happy, but we do the best we can.

And I think in terms of the experience of those who witness an Improv Everywhere event … Our goal is very simple, we want to make everyone smile, make someone laugh. We want to take someone out of their routine, even just for a few minutes. I think everybody, particularly in a big city like New York, is guilty of putting their head to the ground and putting their blinders on. I certainly do it, pretty much every time I have to get from point A to point B in the city. I do that. And I think Improv Everywhere can serve as a reminder for people to stop and take a look around, and enjoy the wonderful things that could happen at any moment in the city. We tend to specialize in places that are on the boring side: escalators, subway system, a boring block. I think our projects work best in dull, black and white places where we’re able to bring some color.

Do you ever get emails from people telling you something, like that you changed their life? 

I get a lot of emails from people who are just fans of the videos, and people who haven’t even witnessed anything we’ve done personally, but they’re having a bad day and they might purposefully go re-watch some of our old videos, which is really cool. And that’s the power of YouTube, is that if we do a project in New York in a really crowded place maybe a few hundred people will see it. But the potential of millions of people to see it on YouTube and to be entertained by it is exciting.

Do you end up writing your pranks with that in mind?

Well, I have to sort of keep three audiences in mind with Improv Everywhere, I think. The one audience is the participants. That used to not be the case, because the participants were all just close friends of mine, and we were all kind of in on it together. I wasn’t concerned with them having fun because we were all working. But now that I do projects in New York that sometimes 4,000 people will attend and 99 percent of them I don’t know personally, I have to design experiences that are going to be fun and exciting for the participants. And the second audience is the people who might witness it live, and they’re the most important audience. That’s sort of the whole point, is to do something for those that witness it live. So I have to design it will be fun, surprising, exciting for them. And then the third audience, which is the greatest audience, is the YouTube audience. But I find that if I worry too much about the video and not enough about the live experience, the live audience suffers, and then the video suffers because they’re not great reactions from the live audience. So it’s a challenge of, this would look better on video if I had a bigger camera and a tripod, and it would sound better if I had a boom mic, but I also know that I need to use a tiny, small, discrete, hidden camera so that I can get candid reactions from people. So I have to constantly balance that.

Technology is working for you in that regard.

That’s been the amazing thing. Actually there was a moment on this year’s No Pants Subway Ride. I participate in that every year — I feel that if I’m getting thousands of people to take their pants off, I need to do it too. So, I was riding on one train – in that project we use 100 different train cars, and we might have five people on the film crew. So obviously our documentation crew can’t be everywhere all the time. And I found myself on a subway car with a man with a prosthetic leg who was participating in his underwear. And it was like, wow, that is awesome. I’d never seen someone with a prosthetic limb participating in this event. Like, man, I wish there was a cameraman here, because this would be so great in the video because it’s just so different. And we’ve done this video every year, and I’m always looking for, well, what’s different? And I was like, man I wish someone was here. And then I was like, wait a minute. I have an HD video camera in my pocket 24 hours a day! So I grabbed out my iPhone, and took 20 seconds of discreet video of the guy and sent it to my editor. It’s absolutely changing the game, the fact that when I started this in 2001, even a small, mini DVD camera still looked like a camera. Really, now DSLR cameras are our best friends, because they look incredible and they look like still cameras, so they can hide in plain sight.