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I like the idea of sort of crowdsourcing your creativity a little bit and setting up this template for all going to go do the same thing, we're all on the same page. We're going to do this thing for five minutes. But within that, you can make your own choice.


Welcome to the Air.


It's our show about ordinary people building extraordinary communities. I'm your host, Bailey Richardson. I'm a partner at People, a company and a co-author of Get Together How to Build a Community With Your People.


And I'm using podcast correspondent dialing in from Atlanta, Georgia. Aitel Baby. In each episode of this podcast, we interview everyday people who have built extraordinary communities about just how they did it. How did they get the first people to show up? How did they grow to hundreds more members?


Today, we're talking to Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere. It's a New York City based comedy collective that stages unexpected performances in public places. They aim to surprise and delight random strangers through positive pranks. Over the past two decades, they have staged hundreds of projects involving tens of thousands of undercover performers. Highlights include making time stop at Grand Central Terminal, a mass no pants subway ride and letting random strangers conduct a world class orchestra in the middle of Manhattan.


Maggie, I'm so glad you brought this interview to us. What's one thing that you learned from our conversations today with Charlie? Charlie shared so many fun stories from his pranks. So you'll just have to listen to hear all of his experiences. One thing that I loved was he shared a term called crowdsourcing creativity. And basically what that means is he orchestrates these massive pranks with hundreds or thousands of volunteers. And, of course, that requires major logistics in terms of getting everyone together.


For example, if you watch his videos, you'll see him standing with the giant megaphone, welcoming the crowd and sharing instructions. But the cool thing is he's not too specific about what he asks from them. So he gives them room to exercise their own creativity. One example is his Grand Central Terminal prank, where he asked two hundred strangers to freeze in place in this Grand Central Station. As part of freezing time, these strangers were allowed to freeze.


However, they wanted like a couple frozen place kissing. Another person decided to spill his briefcase of documents. Someone froze while eating an ice cream cone. And it was just the idea of the community coming together to create a prank rather than just executing someone else's vision. So I just love that concept.


Yeah, that that right blend between freedom and structure and getting it just right. All right.


Should we jump in? I wanted to start by asking you if you could take us back to August 21 when you first started improv everywhere, so you moved to New York City with an interest in acting and comedy, but you didn't have access to a stage and then you decided to create your own in public spaces. So how did you get this idea and what inspired you? Well, thanks for having me on.


I am excited to chat with you. So that's exactly right. I moved to New York in the summer of 2001 and I had been a college theater major. So I was used to constantly be directing or acting, expressing myself. I was at an improv troupe in college too. And when you get to New York and you're twenty two years old and you don't know anybody and you don't have any contacts except for your twenty three year old friends who graduated the year before you, who also don't have any contacts, there's just not a lot of immediate opportunity.


So while I was sort of putting my my my dues in at places like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and learning and networking and figuring the whole world out, I started expressing myself in public spaces by staging these undercover performances. Very first thing I did was a spur of the moment thing where I was going out to a bar one night with a college friend, and he remarked that I looked like Ben Folds, the musician, based on a new shirt that I had bought.


That was my first concert of all time. Yeah, that is my. What's up? Keep going, please.


I mean, well, I went I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is where that band got started tonight. I'd seen them live and was a fan. So just really on a whim, I was like, hey, let's if you think I look like Ben Folds, let's see if we can make other people think I'm Ben Folds tonight. So we go to a bar, we enter separately. I sit down at the bar and order a drink, and 30 minutes goes by with my friends drinking in a booth on the other side of the bar.


And then he comes up to me, ask for an autograph and kind of freaks out and loudly and says that I'm Ben Folds. And then the night just sort of snowballed from there where the people I was sitting next to suddenly wanted to talk to me. The bartender gave me free drinks and wanted to talk to me. And all of a sudden the whole bar was buzzing about the fact that felt so it was a prank.


The whole thing was a hoax.


But at the end of the night, when it ended, rather than having some sort of you got punkt moment or any reveal moment, I just left. I just I had talked to some people for about an hour or so and had a nice time and played the character of Ben Folds and, you know, which is somewhat unethical. But I did a good job and I I portrayed Ben as a nice, friendly guy. And then I left. And I liked the idea of giving these stories to other people, like creating this weird experience for someone else where they'll always tell the story of the night they met Ben Folds in a bar or more likely, they went home and Googled Ben Folds and saw he was on tour in Australia that night and didn't quite look like the guy they talked to.


But that's an even more spectacular story of somebody thought to me for an hour and then he didn't steal money for me or ask me on a date or economy in any way. He just left. So I documented that story on a website that I created and I decided to name it improv everywhere because we had done this sort of improvised prank in an unexpected place.


That's awesome. You mentioned weird experience. So what is it about weird that you think made your pink valuable and made your future missions valuable?


Well, you know, the slogan of improv everywhere is we called scenes and we're trying to do something in a public space, whether it's a subway car, whether it's a park or a sidewalk that makes people sort of break out of their everyday routine and notice something. And we're aiming to create a positive experience. We're trying to make people laugh. Primarily, we're a comedy group and we're trying to sort of break them out of the day to day routine.


So in order to do that, we have to do something that's extraordinary. And I realized early on that it's very easy to get people's attention through doing something negative. And I think if you see a lot of prank shows that have historically been on television, that's sort of to go to is just to piss somebody off or embarrass someone in some way, anger someone, pretend that you cheated them out of money, or pretend that their dog is missing.


Or there's all sorts of things that that you've seen on television. And I wanted to challenge myself to try to make people stop and react to something that was positive, to sort of create a great experience. And that's a lot harder because two people can get into a fake fight in a subway car and everyone will stop and pay attention. And you can you can command people's attention that way. But to command people's attention with something positive is a lot harder.


One of the very, very early things I did in the first few months is I was performing with a friend and we got on to a subway car at separate stops and then pretended that we didn't know each other and then discovered over the course of our conversation. That we were long lost brothers just by revealing information and, you know, it was just, you know, improvised play that we did, but it looked real and we'd entered separately. And there are people in the subway kind of looking and everybody started to listen like, whoa, this is amazing.


These guys are separated brothers.


Yeah, that's definitely something I would text my friends and family at home about. Like I just witnessed the most epic reunion ever. Yeah.


And it's, you know, it's fake. But at the same time, there's no reason any of the people that are on that subject ever, ever learn it was fake at that time. I couldn't afford a video camera. So it wasn't it wasn't even filmed. It was just this thing that we did. And we wrote the story up and put it on our city's website.


Hmm. Yeah. I think it's cool how. Yeah, as you were saying, for pranks, usually they're seen as negative things. There's always a victim, someone that you're laughing at, not with.


And I think the really cool thing about the improv everywhere missions is that, well, first of all, I find it interesting they use the word missions instead of pranks. So I'd love to hear a bit about that decision, but also that it's not these are not pranks where someone feels excluded or someone feels victimized.


But these are shared experiences of fun where when people witness them and even if they're not part of the actual group enacting it, they actually get to share in the fun of the laughter and the cool experience.


So, yeah, that's really positive and meaningful. Yeah, exactly.


I mean, I follow the what I call the golden rule of the prank, which is that any prank that you're performing should be something you would want people to do to you. It should be as fun for the person who is so called getting pranked as the person who is performing the prank.


And I think if you follow that, you can't go wrong. Obviously, not everybody thinks exactly like you or wants to experience things in the exact same way you want to experience things. And I realized that early on, too, there was another subway prank that we did in the first year or so where I got onto the train with a friend and we were dressed in tracksuits with big gold necklaces, with dollar signs on them. And we announced that we were called the Dollar Dudes and we had a boombox like playing music and that this was the dollar car and everybody in this train gets a dollar.


And we had this big Home Depot bucket full of dollar bills that probably had fifty dollars in it. And we went around and just gave a dollar to every single person on the car while blasting music. It was sort of like the reverse thing that you normally see on the train where somebody is performing and trying to ask for money from you.


And people loved it and people were smiling. But I'll never forget handing a dollar to one gentleman on the train who ignored me. And I said, Sir, here's your dollar a second time. And he looked up and he said, Does it look like I want a dollar?


And I got the classic New Yorker, anything, anything dizzying exotically.


And I just said, OK, this person gets two dollars. I just gave every dollar to the person next to him and walked away. But I realized in that moment that no matter what you do, even if it's giving somebody free money, there's going to be somebody who's in a bad mood or who just doesn't want to engage with somebody else in public. And that's their right. And that's been something that's been important to you with everything we do is to make it opt in, where if you don't want to be part of it, that's fine.


We're going to move on to the next person. We're not going to bother you too much. And you asked about using the phrase mission to and I think that comes just from the connotations of the word prank. And then a lot of people associate that with practical jokes or fraternity hazing or doing things that are negative in nature. So we like the idea of being undercover performers on a on a secret mission was just the fun terminology we came up with when we were documenting these things and putting them on the Internet.


How do you come up with these missions? What's that process like? And has the process changed at all since those early days? I think in terms of generating ideas, it's it's just being open to seeing the city in a different way and it's being open to seeing different situations and through a unique lens. And as over the years as I've been trying to come up with with new ideas for projects, I found that the site specific projects are the ones that I'm most excited about.


To give an example, my girlfriend, who's now my wife, used to live in Third Avenue and Fifty Third Street, so I would take the E train over to her apartment and I would have to go up this giant escalator that's at the six train station there where the six and the E meet. And you know, I once was leaving her apartment. I was, I was using those that escalator in the morning and the morning commute and it was just super crowded.


It was backed up lines of people waiting to get onto the escalator. And everybody just seemed kind of bummed out. And the stairs are so there's so many stairs, no one really wants to use the stairs. So then that moment as I was writing that escalator, I thought, what could we do here? There's got to be some way to bring some joy to this sort of dull commuting moment that hundreds or maybe thousands of people have every single morning.


And I came up with this concept called High Five Escalator, where we put five performers standing on the stairs next to the escalators with a series of signs that together made a message which said, Rob wants to give you a high five. And at the very top of the escalator, I had my friend Rob Lathan's standing there who was a comedian, and somebody else had a sign above his head that just said Rob, with an arrow down to him and he had his hand out.


It's also very funny to think about this in terms of our current pandemic world.


So one person high five times, but at the time, Rob, you know, sanitize his hands before and after. And he didn't get sick and hopefully he didn't spread anything.


But, you know, but it was that simple idea of like you're riding the escalator, the same escalator you write every single morning. But what happens if you have an opportunity to give a stranger high five of those at the top of it? And this is done as most of our early breaks and some of our current pranks. It was done without any permission at all. We didn't ask. We would not have been given permission to do that. So we asked for forgiveness rather than permission of those situations.


But it was remarkable how five poster boards and five performers could completely transform that location for an hour. And, you know, at the end of the day, you hope that the smile that you brought to somebody's face giving a high five to a stranger is something that maybe they carry with them for the rest of the day.


I love that I saw the video for that and I thought it was very, very funny. So that was your friend Rob who participated in this mission. So in the beginning, was it mostly your friends or people you met, Upright Citizens Brigade that were involved in acting on these missions, or how did you find the first members?


Yeah, it was something that grew very organically and it started just with myself and whoever I was hanging out with at the time, typically like a college theater friend or college comedy friend. So I would do things often with just one other person. And then I started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Improv Theater in New York City, and I would meet 15 other like minded people at my level, one class and then 15 new like minded people at my level to class.


So it was a great way just to find my own community. And I recommend that to anybody who's in any form of creative field of just find a place like that where you can train or learn with other like minded people and find your own community that way. But through doing this, you know, I would tell people after class, like, hey, I do these weird things on the subway or in parks on the weekends, would you ever want to come to one?


And I would get their email address and then all of a sudden they had 10 people who wanted to go do something. And then it turned out to be 40 people. So it was just sort of a slow growth of over many years. The No Pants Subway Ride project that that we've done for 19 years in a row is sort of a good measure of that. The very first year I did it, it was myself and six other guys. So seven people who rode the train in the middle of winter with the winter coat, hat, scarf, gloves, but no pants, you know, just just underwear and similar set up, getting on set at separate stops and acting like we didn't know each other just as we're undercover prank the very first year.


And then I made them. But I think it's a mistake. I made a mistake of doing it a second time and about 20 people came the second time. And then I had an annual event and 40 people came. And then the next year, one hundred people came. And eventually we were doing it with as many as three or four thousand people in New York City. And it also started happening in about 60 cities around the world. So it's interesting with with the pandemic, I'm very skeptical that it's going to happen.


It could happen again. I was thinking of stopping it after 20 years, but we might end up having to stop it at night and we'll say, oh, my, no need to keep this street going.


But anyway, it's been this sort of organic growth where it definitely started just with, like personal friends who I went to college with. And then it was comedy friends I knew. New York and then sort of friends, still friends, and we were publishing these projects on the Internet so people would find the website and we just had an open door policy from the beginning where it was very clear on the website, join our mailing list, be a part of the next one.


And just always inviting having that open door, anybody can be a part of it. You don't have to be a comedian. You don't have to have any talent. You come out and I would design things that would work for someone who was a lawyer or a schoolteacher who was not necessarily a performer. Anybody can go to Grand Central Terminal and freeze in place for five minutes. It doesn't actually require any talent or creativity. But if two hundred people do that at the same time, then you've had a huge impact.


I feel like some community leaders that we speak to are producers like event organizers, and one of their biggest challenges is giving up control. So if they host one event trying to allow someone else to host another one or shape that event can be really challenging. And I'm hearing you put on events that may have a few thousand people there and you're able to make it open and inclusive and malleable. And I know you have a background in improv and theater, but can you tell me a little bit about what it takes to be successful at bringing so many people together for essentially an event and to do it well with that many folks or to be able to put something on that you you don't feel like you need to control?


Yeah, I mean, it really is event planning in many ways. And I've always kind of regretted the name I chose for the group of improv everywhere, because people sort of assume that everything is 100 percent improvised and completely spontaneous. And maybe the first few things I did 20 years ago were. But obviously, if you're going to do something that involves thousands of people, there's quite a bit of logistical planning that goes into it ahead of time. And even if there are no pants subway ride, which is unauthorized, I don't get any permission from the city or the subway system to do it.


But you can't have two thousand people crammed onto one subway car or even one train. So as the crowds have gotten bigger, it's been all this logistical work of we're going to now have 10 meeting points around the city and we're going to use 10 different trains and divide people up into 10 cars and each train and make sure it's sort of manageable and a fun experience for everyone involved. And I think it is important to give your participants the freedom to make their own choices and express themselves, I mean, sort of within the boundaries of safety and boundaries of everyone sort of working together for a common goal.


And I think the frozen Grand Central Project is a good example. It wasn't something that I micromanaged. I got two hundred people together. You know, of those 200 people, I probably knew 20 of them personally and everyone else or just people from our mailing list who came out and told everyone the plan. And the idea was, you're going to go and you're going to pick the way that you would like to freeze in place for five minutes rather than saying, you know, giving 50 examples or trying to assign two hundred people two hundred different things to do, I just let people make their own choices.


And I think it really made the project a lot better than if I tried to come up with one couple, decided to freeze in place kissing. One guy happened to have a briefcase. He spilled his his documents onto the floor with his briefcase open right when it was time to freeze, one person bought an ice cream cone and froze, licking an ice cream cone, which is funny as the ice cream cone started dripping down during the freeze moment.


I like the idea of sort of crowdsourcing your creativity a little bit and setting up this template. We're all going to go do the same thing. We're all on the same page. We're going to do this thing for five minutes. But within that you can make your own choice. We do a participatory event every summer called the three experiment, where people are using a smartphone app. We developed that synchronized playback of audio and it involves people listening to music and following these instructions that are piped into their headphones.


But with that, there are some instructions of what to bring and what to wear. But we always leave it a little bit open ended. A couple of years ago, we asked people to bring something made of cardboard, something made of plastic, something made of metal and to bring spoons. And then what we ended up having having them do is part of this event was to create their own drum kit out of their recyclables and bang on the plastic and the cardboard and the metal object with with their spoons.


But it was so interesting and it created such a diversity of noise, having people make their own decision of exactly what they were going to bring, rather than saying everybody's got to bring a Cheerios box and two little bottle of coke or whatever. So I think having that flexibility and letting people sort of crowdsource what they're bringing to it, both literally with props that they might bring and creatively as well as important.


Wow, I love that crowdsourcing creativity to comments one. Wow. I had no idea that the freezing Grand Central Park was also all volunteers. I thought that was originally just all of your improv friends because I felt like the acting was so good and the fact that people could stay still for so long with I thought had to be professionally trained to be able to do that so anybody can freeze in place.


I mean, that video went particularly viral on YouTube, and I did that to date. Maybe I was around 40 million views. But what was interesting.


Oh, my God, that is so many views. Wow. So it was really a lot of years in 2000, 2008 when it happened. And it probably got 30 million of those views in 2008. That was a lot of back then. That was a lot of years. I mean, I think now Lady Gaga video probably has billions of views, but but at the time when YouTube was first taking off, that was a big hit and it was on the front page.


But what was interesting is that it started happening in cities around the world. So, you know, some people would email me and say, I'm going to do this on my campus in Chicago or I'm going do this on a train station in Belgium. And I would say, great, go for it. Let me know, Creditors', if you can, but go have fun. And then on top of that, I traveled the world for for about a year going to festivals and getting people to freeze in place, which was which is ludicrous.


But it was so much fun all year. But I probably went to 10 different cities in Europe because an art festival wanted me to get people to freeze in place, which I which was a great gig. It required no shipping, no props. Just show up and explain how to freeze in place, which is pretty easy. But what I found in doing that is that, you know, anybody can do this. If you design something that anyone can do, then it has the potential to sort of become a meme and for for it to spread like that.


Yeah. How do you feel when people replicate these machines? You know, if it's for non-commercial use and it's for people just going out and having fun, that it's something that we've always been supportive of, the best things to me is when someone takes an idea that we've created and is inspired to go do something that's remixes it a little bit or maybe entirely new, but has its roots in what we did. But, you know, people going out and doing the exact same thing we did is also awesome.


Like, why not have somebody giving high fives on every escalator in the world? It's great. And, you know, it's great when when people say, hey, we got this idea from this group and like back to us is always appreciated.


But there have been a few times over the years where I've seen someone use it for commercial purposes. So we had a musical that we did. We also do the series called Spontaneous Musicals or Musicals in Real Life, where people just break into song in an unexpected place, like in a grocery store. And for the people who were just buying their produce, all of a sudden they find themselves in the middle of the Broadway musical where the guy with the grocery store apron who's working there breaks into song and then the customer starts singing and, you know, kind of making that Broadway moment happen in the real world.


The first one we did was called the Food Court Musical that we did in a food court out in Los Angeles. And about a year after that went viral on the Internet, there was a company in Portugal with a napkin company, which is important because the song is all about someone in the food court napkin. But a napkin company had just straight up translated it into Portuguese and made it into a television commercial and, you know, that kind of thing.


It's like, all right. Well, some creative director got paid to come up with this idea. And, you know, everyone got paid on a day to come up with the idea to was a good idea.


Exactly. So, you know, that kind of thing. Then you have to send the angry email and be like, hey, what's going on here? But in general, I think it's just flattering to come up with things that, you know, that spread around. It's it's it's exciting. Hey, yo, hey, Kevin Quinn here, the Get Together podcast is a project by people in company.


That's a small strategy company that I started with, your main podcast host Bayly and our friend Kai. Although communities feel magical, they don't come together by magic.


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So a comment you made earlier that I thought was interesting was you don't wait for permission, you apologize afterwards, but usually just do your mission. So have there been situations where, for example, for the no pants subway ride, the city actually said something? Or in Grand Central, did someone actually intervene? Has there ever been moments like that?


Yeah, we've gotten in trouble several times over the years. The Grand Central Project, actually, we did have permission to be there and worked with the terminal on that particular day. And a lot of the things that we do that are large scale or have any sort of budget behind them because they're being supported, whether by a sponsor or by a festival, we know how to do things the right way and get our insurance and permits and all of that.


In fact, we just spent the last year making a television show for Disney plus called Pixar in real life that was fully committed to all of Disney's many, many requirements all over the city. But it was a ton of fun. But yeah, in our in our early days, because I was twenty two and most people are performing with were young people working on a nonexistent budget and doing things just for the fun of it. It was, it was all completely unauthorized.


And you have to be careful when you're doing something without permission. You have to be respectful. If know someone who has the authority to tell you to stop, tells you to stop, and you have to be smart about it. And also, I think it's also very important for me to say that I'm a white man and being a white man performing something unauthorized in New York City, there's a definite amount of privilege in that that I've been able to get away with some things that maybe not everyone could get away with.


So I do want to recognize that. But most of the problems we've we run into have been in products that we've done in retail stores, which are not public spaces. They're sort of these quasi public spaces where they're open to the public. But at the end of the day, if anybody wants to ask you to leave, you got to leave. And we famously did a project at Best Buy where we had about 80 people wear blue polo shirts and khaki pants, also not a uniform.


And we had people enter the Best Buy one by one over the course of about 15 minutes and just sort of walk around the store.


And they they called nine one one, which was no, I really do not think that would happen. Wow.


They're like, this isn't our first rodeo. This happens all the time. We know what to do.


I think I think the managers or the security guards, they thought it was some sort of mass heist, which was like one of the security guards was literally screaming Thomas Crown Affair and to her walkie talkie.


And that's a bunch of people dressed alike to steal a painting.


So, I mean, I guess so.


But if you if you took a second and slowed down and you saw that there was like a nine year old girl participating in a 60 year old man and, you know, like these people are probably not all part of a heist. Could be the greatest of all time, I guess. But, you know, that kind of thing, you just when they ask you to leave, you leave. And that's what we did. But they had called the cops.


So the police showed up before we had we had all left. But, you know, obviously, the police took a look at the situation and said, we're not going to arrest anybody today for wearing a blue collar. There's nothing for us to do here if that is such a good story.


So I want to talk more about the people who are part of this improv everywhere community. So I have two questions about that. The first is for the people you met through Upright Citizens Brigade, the people who already are doing improv. What do you think it was about these missions in public spaces? Why was the stage not enough? Why do you think people wanted to also go beyond the stage and try this out in like, oh, a central square sidewalk just out there?


And then my second question is for the people who were not involved in improv, for example, like the thousands of people who will show up for the subway rides, what do you think is in it for them? Why are they so excited to join? I've seen those videos where you're like having that megaphone speaking to crowds of people listening to your instructions. So, yeah, I just love to understand what you think the motivations are.


Well, I think early on, the motivations of other people who were comedians and improvisers like myself, who I knew through the New York improv community, we're just people who are performers and they like to perform and they like to do unusual things. And, you know, I've always just equated it with a fun weekend activity. I mean, the events were almost always like Saturdays at three p.m. and for somebody that's twenty five years old and their friends are going to go get together and go do something weird, you could throw the Frisbee in the park or go on a bike ride, or you could go, you know, take over some rowboats in Central Park and claim that offshore gambling is legal and play blackjack on the boats.


So those are just the kinds of things that we did. And I always just made made it very easy for participants because I did value the fact that people were volunteering their time. And in these early days, I was not making a penny off of any of these projects. So everybody was just doing it for the fun of it. But I would make sure that I did all the heavy lifting of buying the props and buying the poker chip. So we're going to use and the boats and making the sign and really just left the participation up to people to to contribute as much as they wanted to, if they just wanted to come up, come out and participate.


That's all they do. Great. I would love to have you. Oh, you're really good at drawing. And you want to draw some signs and make some signs, which is great. I would love for you to do that, you know, and just empowering people and delegating things to people and letting them take on responsibility if they expressed interest was was something that I always did.


But ultimately at the day, these are people who were performers and they they wanted to go perform and they wanted to meet other people and just socially have a have a fun weekend activity as things started growing and all of a sudden people I didn't know personally and people who were not in the entertainment field at all were showing up. I definitely surprised me at first for me getting on it to New York City subway car and winter with my pants off in my boxer shorts is is not that much of a thrill.


I have maybe the very first time I did it, it was a it was a little bit of a thrill because I was just like, oh, I don't know what's going to happen. We're going to get in trouble. How are people going to react? But now I've done it 19 years in a row, but I just have to keep reminding myself that for some people, this one is the first time they're doing it. And two, they never thought they would do something like this.


Know, this is a grandmother who's showing up with her granddaughter because her granddaughter loves YouTube and has watched all my videos and the granddaughter is going to do it. Grandma, the grandmother is going to participate, too. And she's never would. Never in a million years have considered riding a train with her pants off.


So and people have told me it's like a confidence boost.


It's something that sort of gets them gets the adrenaline rushing a little bit. It takes them out of their comfort zone. And that's a specific example because it involves taking your pants off the public, but are other things that are even easier to participate in? I think it is still just giving people an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone, try something new to be a part of something that's bigger than yourself, feel like you're part of a team.


I mean, I'm not a really big sports fan, but I do like going to just see a basketball game or a baseball game. And I love being a part of a crowd. I mean, I like that even more than like watching the game. I'm more interested in just being a part of the crowd and being part of that energy. When the home teams winning and everyone starts going crazy or even more exciting for me is during halftime when like the six year olds are trying to make a three pointer to win a car or something and the crowd is getting behind them.


So I think it's being a part of a happy crowd. There's a whole sub Reddit called Happy Mobs, which I've discovered because they link to me every now and then people who just specifically love, not even participating necessarily, but just seeing videos of happy mobs of people. And, you know, you see you see a lot of angry mobs and angry mobs are good, too. And we've had a lot of angry mobs this summer for great cause and great reason, but in a very different way.


It's special to see a happy mob of people, really.


So I am curious about the scale and numbers. Do you think that that large scale, huge crowds really helps out a lot more to the missions, or do you feel like sometimes intimacy helps? How do you think about that?


Balance is very idea specific, and it became a problem for me because we did the Grand Central thing, which had a big crowd of two hundred people, and that video went viral. And we sort of that was our calling card and we were known for that. And I had this open door policy and this open mailing list. And I started feeling like, well, I need to do more things that are open to everybody. But two hundred people pretty quickly turned into two thousand people.


And it's not always the best for the project creatively to have thousands of people participating in something. There was an opportunity I had a couple of years after the Grand Central video where this art studio had opened up, and this is an old factory in Brooklyn called The Invisible Dog. And it was this belt factory where they invented the Invisible Dog toy that you would see it like Disney World in the starting in like the 60s or 70s, but just the classic kids toy of the rigid leash that looks like there's an invisible dog on it.


And I got an email from this guy who had taken over this building to build this art collective. And he said, we have two thousand invisible dog leashes. Would you want to do something with it? And it was like, that's perfect because I have two thousand people that really want to do something. So the idea was we would just flood the neighborhood of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens with people walking around with invisible dogs and just make it completely bizarre for people approaching on the street.


And we have this giant warehouse and we had the meeting point. Everybody showed up and I'm handing out these invisible dogs and it was packed and I was very happy about it. And then somebody told me that there were another thousand people waiting in line outside on the street who couldn't get in, a lot of whom went home or we ran out of the dog toys. And I just realized that, you know, it's going to be have to be really careful when you're planning an open to the public event.


It can get bigger than you anticipate it. And you have to think about space and you probably can't ever meet indoors. And you definitely have a megaphone. You might have to have multiple megaphones. And there are a lot of considerations. And ultimately, I mean, we still occasionally like to do these big everybody's involved things, and we do our annual MP three experiment is one example that's designed to scale to however many times and show up. It'll be fine.


And we find spaces like Giant Meadow in Prospect Park to do those things. But a lot of times an idea just needs one person or it needs five people. And I think it's really specific on what number of people is going to be the most effective to make something as funny as possible and interesting as possible for those that witness it. It's interesting because I feel like a lot of community organizers, when they plan events, they can have R.S.V.P., they can know who is going to show up, how many are going to show up.


But I imagine from what it sounds like, you just send out an email and then people could forward that email to as many people as they want. They can even post it on Reddit anyway. So I feel like in a way, you don't really have control over how many people show up, right?


Yeah, no, I mean, at the end of the day, no. If you're opening something to the public, it can be hard. I have used a lot of different tactics over the years because I had this problem where if I want to get 10 people to do something, well, that's easy. I'll ask 10 friends to do it. Or are ten people who performed with improv everywhere for 15 years who I know and trust. And that's that's no problem.


And if I want to get two thousand people, that's no problem. I'll just put it up, put it over a mailing list and about that number of people might come out. But if I wanted to get one hundred people or two hundred people for something, then it got really tricky because I don't have two hundred friends who are going to do me a favor and come show up and do something. But if I were going to, the public would be too many.


So I would try different methods of just having people RSVP. So I would send an email and it would be a link to a Google doc and the first hundred people would get the next email with the information. But then that's tricky because just because a hundred people say they're going to come doesn't mean they're actually going to come. So typically, if I wanted one hundred people to be there, I would put two hundred people and and then half of the people would be no shows or get sick on the day or for any number of reasons, you know, be late and miss it or whatever.


So, yeah, it is a little bit of a tricky science of trying to get the right number of people to to be there. And, you know, there's other metrics you can use. I mean, for open to the public events, we have a Facebook event typically, and that changes wildly from year to year like it used to be. You could click maybe on Facebook and now you just click interested. And what does that mean for the no pants subway ride?


It's like, well, there's ten hours BP's it's 5000 people are definitely coming and, you know, 5000 people are interested. And then two thousand show up. And, you know, it's it's very hard to turn up.


So it probably where it has roots in New York City. And a lot of the first versions of the missions have happened in New York City, although I know they have scaled around the world and people have tried everywhere.


But do you think there is something about New York City that adds to this willingness to share absurdity together and this willingness to do something new? Or do you feel any connection to the fact that a lot of missions are held in New York City?


Yeah, I mean, almost everything we've done I mean, I've talked to festivals or colleges in other cities. And I have I mean, I've I've staged these types of things around the world, but almost everything has been in New York, at least it started in New York and maybe we've taught it somewhere else. But I will say that having gone and done something like our MP three experiment project and cities around the world, that generally there received the same.


And it's very funny to me, because I'll I'll be in a new city. I remember being in like Bilbao, Spain, and the organizers of those two places were like, it's not going to be the same here. People are very shy. People in this part of Spain are shy or just people in Norway or shire. So don't expect it to be the same. And then it's exactly the same. It's like always exactly the same. Like humans laugh at the same things.


And, you know, I mean, there are obviously their cultural differences in different parts of the world. But generally, whether we're in South Africa or Australia or Canada, like the comedy kind of works in the same way. But I think the your question that New York is is definitely the best place in the world to do what we do. And it's mostly just because it's a city. It's a dense urban city with tons of foot traffic, with good public transportation and with lots and lots of public spaces.


A lot of my friends from the comedy world have moved to Los Angeles over the years to be comedy writers. And I've been tempted to move to Los Angeles. But there's like three public spaces in the whole area. It's like you can go to the Santa Monica Pier or the Third Street Promenade or you can go to some outdoor malls or maybe Hollywood Boulevard.


And so hard to get around, so hard to form critical mass. There are two thousand people going to park their cars. Yeah, first of all, if I if you know, if I was doing a giant event, I'd have to have parking rather than people arriving on bikes and foot and public transportation. So definitely the density and being in a real city like New York I think is important and having lots of public space. And I think there is something unique about New York.


I mean, there's the only in New York cliche, I think the fact that New Yorkers are allegedly jaded or are, you know, have have seen it all. And you have I mean, I've lived in New York for twenty years now, and there is something unusual that you're going to see every time you walk in New York, whether it's someone screaming on the street because they're mentally unstable or because they're performance artist and you don't know the difference between the two, sometimes you're going to run into things like that.


But I think it challenged me early on to come up with things that were really spectacular that maybe in my. My hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, this would get attention, but in New York, you kind of have to go to the next level because they've already had three people try to get their attention on the subway car in the last 30 minutes. So you better do something special.


Lots of competition for attention. So for people who can't join your missions in real life, they're touchpoint. When they pop everywhere is through your YouTube channel. So you have over one point nine million subscribers. People around the world are discovering these really fun missions and laughing at their computers at home. So how do you use the power of the Internet to bring your work to a wider community? And what were your goals with a YouTube channel or nine goals that unintentionally happened?


Yeah, a lot of it was unintentional. I mean, when YouTube was created, it really just solved a problem for me, which is I started the group in 2001 and I joined YouTube in April of 2006, which was the first maybe six months or so that YouTube existed. But at that time, I just had a shoebox full of many DV tapes from our camcorders of these videos of the products that we'd done and no way to really share them to anybody unless they came over to my apartment.


I connected my camera to my TV and made you watch something. So there was no streaming video. There was like real video or Windows Media streaming. It was just not reliable, not good and costly for the bandwidth. And when YouTube existed, it was like, oh, this is incredible. I can take everything I've ever done and I can upload it and host it on this website for free and share it with everyone. So it really changed everything for us.


And eventually YouTube had the partner program where they shared advertising revenue with the creators and then all of a sudden they had a budget where a video might make a few thousand dollars so I could invest and spend a few thousand dollars and props or talent or whatever it was. It was very exciting. And I think the fact YouTube is what led to me being able to go around the world and introduce this project to art festivals and college campuses everywhere. And it's led to all of the professional success that I've had.


And the longtime producers I work with have had through improv everywhere where we you know, as I said, we spent last year making a show for Disney. And that's definitely a direct result of the development. People at Disney having seen improv everywhere videos. So documenting and sharing the work has been really important.


But it is also a tradeoff where you have to get really smart about how you're documenting things, because it's becomes increasingly important that the video is great. But you have to make sure you're not making decisions for the video that are sacrificing the in-person experience. And that's something that was really top of mind for our our picks, our show where we had a budget and we were able to do things with a huge set pieces. We had a remote control, full scale Wally Robot running around New York City, surprising people.


So it was sort of next level stuff that we were dealing with. But we had to make sure that our cameras were sufficiently hidden and that everything felt authentic and that we were genuinely surprising people because those surprised reactions are what makes the video great. So if you're too focused on making a good video, then you are going to feel like they're walking through the set of a movie and not in your regular New York City street. So over the years, we've learned a lot of techniques of hiding our cameras, of hiding our production footprint, of making it really seem like life is normal until something spectacular happens.


It's such a crazy journey. You've been on from dressing up as Ben Folds and being a young New Yorker looking for a stage and deciding to use the street and the subway. I have never done anything consistently for 19 years. The way that you have stuck with this for 19 years, how is your relationship like personally to improv everywhere or your motivations or driving force behind why you do this work shifted or changed since you first started to today? I think it's changed a lot over the years.


I mean, when I first started, I was primarily interested in being in front of the camera and being an actor and being a comedian. And while I continued to perform at the Opposition's Brigade Theatre up until it closing due to the pandemic, acting and sort of performing in front of a crowd or performing on camera mostly just became a fun activity for me. And I got more passionate and interested in writing and directing and producing and really being the person who's coming up with these ideas and producing these events and then directing the video.


And maybe there was an opportunity for me to be on camera because I was the right person for the job. But more and more over the last many years, I'm entirely behind the scenes. So that focus of of how I'm getting creatively fulfilled through the project definitely changed over the years. Just overall, things have changed. Just being someone who's now forty one years old and has two children. And it's been fun to watch some of the old videos again with my six year old and sort of seeing it through his eyes.


Ideas have changed and my sort of tolerance for being in handcuffs as it's changed, which happened a couple of times over the years for.


This unauthorized project, if I remember, I was in handcuffs after a project once when my wife was pregnant with my oldest child, and I'm sure she was stoked on that by my producer, Andrew had to call her and say, everything's OK, he's going to be fine, but he is currently in handcuffs.


Things have changed. But at the same time, you know, we still go out and do these things without permission when we have a great idea and when we know that we can pull it off.


And I think the pandemic itself is a huge gut check. I mean, obviously, there's not a big market right now for big crowds of people in public spaces. I'm hoping that there's going to be a vaccine real soon. And, you know, maybe, maybe next summer we can blow off some steam and have a huge giant three experiment party in a public space in New York would be great. But there's there's a lot of uncertainty with that. But I'm hoping that, you know, New York is going to change big time.


So in some good ways and some really bad ways, I think, due to what's happening to the city right now with a lot of local businesses closing and people not being able to afford rent. So at theaters closing and a lot of our entertainment industry is having a real hard time. And when we're very much on pause. So I think it's sad, but hopefully there's there's a lot of opportunity when things start to get back to normal. And I think there will be a lot of opportunities for for creativity.


And I think there's going to be a lot of people who are twenty two years old next year who are going to create the next great thing. And I hope I hope to keep creating and keep finding a way to entertain myself and come up with fun ideas that and hopefully make others laugh. It's a great perspective, you know, you mentioned about everywheres on pause, but do you think there's ever a potential for that to be a virtual event or do you think the in-person element is really what's crucial to hold on to?


Yeah, that's been interesting. I've definitely had a lot of people email me and sort of suggest, like, oh, are you going to do a big flash mob on Zoome? Or what is sort of the the Digital Improv Everywhere project or more recently, what's the Social Distance and Peramivir project?


And I'm less interested in doing something that's virtual and is online only because really one of the greatest things about improv everywhere is it gets people to leave the Internet and goes out and to go out the public and be near each other. And I've always been proud of the fact that we use the tools of the Internet, of email lists and social media and our YouTube channel to sort of inspire people to get offline, go out in the real world, express themselves in public space and sort of bring life and excitement to our city.


So I'm less excited about people listening to the same instructions while they're in a zoo meeting together. I love that people are doing things like that. And I think there are people who are just starting out who are probably going to create incredible things, virtual and already are in terms of doing something that's like socially dist.. I am interested in what is the thing that we could be doing this fall or next spring that involves a crowd of people or a group of people that are six feet apart and wearing a mask, or what are the sort of like smaller, more street art style things that we can do that maybe just involve one performer or just creating some sort of art in the city?


I'm not going to be able to to to just sit on my hands and not go out and create. So I know that there will be stuff that will do, whether it's making another TV series or getting back out there and doing something low budget with no permission. We're ready to do it all when it's safe to do so.


So just to wrap up, I wanted to ask you about playfulness, because we talked about weirdness earlier about how that helps with the storytelling element and catching people's attention. But playfulness is such a central theme in your work and in your TED talk, you mentioned how as kids, you don't need permission to do anything. You don't need to think about what the purpose is. You just do it. You just play. And adults tend to be lacking in that spirit.


So I'd love to just hear your thoughts about why playfulness is so important to you and your work.


I personally just I love games. I love an opportunity to be silly. I love what I refer to as organized fun of just getting a big group of people together and all working on the same thing, no matter how silly it might be. I think the idea of going out and bringing fun and joy to public spaces is particularly important. I think public space is not activated enough. Personally, I'm a I'm a safe streets advocate and really believe that New York City has given way too much of its real estate to cars, whether it's private vehicles being parked for free on our sidewalks, taking up like 70 percent of the real estate between the four with everything that cars have.


And I think that we need to the public space that we have been given that has not been stolen by cars and traffic, I think we need to celebrate it and we need to go out and enjoy our parks and enjoy our plazas and make fun things happen in our public transit as well, and express ourselves. Because if we allow public space to just be for sanction, permitted official events and for advertising kiosks all over the city, then we're not really hearing the voice of the people.


So the protest movement has has been inspiring to me, and I hope to be able to join some protest when I return to New York in a few weeks. In general, I think whether it's whether it's for play or having your voice heard on an issue or a protest, I think the streets are for everybody. I think that's really important. So I think life long play is very important. I think if we sort of only allow ourselves to be passively entertained with movies and television, we're selling yourself short.


I think there's a way for for us to get out there and be a part of our own entertainment. And I think the boom in immersive theater over the last five, ten years has really shown there's an appetite for that between things like escape rooms or sleep. No more New York people want something a little bit more than just sitting down in a theater and watching something.


Yes, I love that. That was so inspiring. Thank you so much for making time for us. This was so much fun. I felt like I was just hearing you tell cool stories at a bar or something, so I really, really enjoyed this time together.


I thank you, Charlie. Well, thank you. It's my pleasure. If you want to learn more about improv everywhere, visit improv everywhere, dot com, you should also look up their previous pranks on YouTube because voice does not do it justice. Visit YouTube, slash improv everywhere. And a big thank you to our team that made this podcast possible. Thank you to Rossana Cabonne for engineering this episode, Greg David for his design work and Kate O'Connell for marketing it.


To find out more about the work Kevin Chi and I do as people and company helping organizations get clear on who their most important communities are and how to build with those people, head to our website, People and Company.


Also, if you want to start your own community or supercharge one, you're already a part of our handbook is here for you. Visit, Get Together Book Dotcom to grab your coffee. It's full of stories and learnings from conversations with community leaders like this one with Charlie. Oh, and last thing, you know what it is you don't mind. Review us and your Apple store and your Google Play store wherever you're listening to your podcasts and click subscribe. It helps more people hear stories like this.


Thank you. Bye bye.