What do flash mobs, pants-free train rides and freezing in public have in common? These acts were the brain children of improvisation performer Charlie Todd, who spoke about his work on Tuesday, Nov. 1 in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall.
The comedian was introduced as the creator of the long-form improvisation troupe Improv Everywhere, which carries out pranks, or “missions,” throughout the country. Todd began by asking the audience if anyone had previously participated in one of his skits.
Incidentally, Improv Everywhere had undergone a mission at the College that very day, conducting one of its “MP3 Experiments,” in which a group listens to and follows a set of pre-recorded instructions on individual MP3 players or iPods. After the Alumni Grove experience, some of the students were able to say that they did have experience working with the group.
Since the start of Improv Everywhere, Todd’s videos have gone viral, attracting over 200 million views on YouTube.
Despite the success of Todd’s enterprise, he entered the industry almost accidently. It was in 2001, during his time as a college student, that he took an interest in comedy.
Todd explained that one night, he was at a bar when a friend turned to him and said, “Hey, what’s up Ben Folds?”, referring to the ’90s alternative-rock musician. Since Todd was wearing a shirt similar to Folds’ signature collared look, his friend suggested that Todd impersonate Folds for the rest of the night.
“A random person came up to me and said ‘Oh my God, Ben Folds, I’m a huge fan’ … it lasted, like, three hours,” he said.
From then on, Todd began building off of comedic acts such as that one, explaining his intent as “changing reality for the better.”
One of Improv Everywhere’s most popular projects is its annual “No Pants” subway train ride in New York City. Todd showed a clip of the group’s second train ride, where seven participants were filmed with a hidden camera nonchalantly riding the 6 train in their underwear. Some people on the train had very confused expressions on their faces, while others received the unusual behavior with laughter, he said. The next “No Pants” ride will take place in New York on Jan. 8.
Another video from 2007, titled “Frozen Grand Central,” attracted over 30 million views on YouTube. The mission was simple: Organize over 207 Improv Everywhere agents to freeze in place in Grand Central Station at the exact same time.
Once the participants froze, people began staring and taking pictures, he said. The freezing didn’t end in New York, however, as people everywhere took notice.
“People all over the world went out and froze in places like China, South America, college campuses,” he said.
Todd said that one of the reasons for his success was that he began his improv career during a time when VHS videos cameras started being replaced with portable handheld filming devices.
“You don’t need a TV exec today to be able to produce your work. That’s what’s exciting about YouTube,” he said. “If it’s good, hopefully millions of people will see it.”
Currently, the comedian is constantly looking for ways to enhance his acts as the popularity of Improv Everywhere grows. Throughout all of this, Todd explained that he has kept “a clear goal in mind: Put a smile on people’s faces.”