Improv Everywhere Is Causing a Scene on YouTube

/ Nov 20, 2013


Improv Everywhere calls its pranks “missions,” which, if we’re splitting hairs, is a fairly accurate name for them. The word “prank” carries a negative connotation for most of us. A prank, as most of us know it, has never ended well for the recipient. In high school, a group of seniors once tossed a mattress into our school’s lap pool. The mattress absorbed water and became so heavy that machinery was needed to pull it out. Because the nature of the bedding was in question, the swim team was forced to practice at a YMCA miles away as dawn broke across the surface of the chlorine-enriched pool. No one was happy about it, not even the pranksters who were caught and promptly tossed out of school.

This is all to say that when the word “prank” is uttered, it’s usually said with a malevolent anchor attached to it, something that will drag some poor teacher, or parent, or sibling down into the trenches of adolescent mayhem. It’s why “missions” is so fitting for the events that Improv Everywhere are so well known for. They aren’t created to inflict terror or sorrow. They are built to delight on the grandest scale possible.



“From the start of Improv Everywhere, it was important for me to do things that were positive in nature and do things that were focused on giving other people a great experience,” says Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd. “It’s really easy to do a prank that embarrasses somebody, or pisses someone off, or frightens someone. It’s a lot more challenging to come up with an idea that makes people stop and notice — particularly in a city like New York — in a positive way.”

For most modern prank channels on YouTube, a premium is placed on exactly the opposite. The site’s kings and queens of public disruption have quickly realized that huge views arrive hand-in-hand with pranks that shock, scare, and shame. Vitaly and RomanAtwood, Jack Vale and Fail Army — these are agents of mayhem and YouTube’s leading prankers. Todd’s missions is different though; he’s looking to spread joy.

“Improv Everywhere is a New York City-based prank collective. We cause scene of chaos and joy,” Todd says. The collective has been around since 2001, long before the YouTube boom. However, when Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim launched the site, Todd saw an opportunity to expand Improv Everywhere further. Todd explains that pre-YouTube, Improv Everywhere had trouble sharing videos due to the massive amounts of traffic they generated. “I did raw Quicktime files up on my website, but whenever a video got popular, my whole site would crash pretty quickly,” he says. When it launched, YouTube presented Todd with an opportunity to share Improv Everywhere’s mission of joy with the world. “YouTube offered us an amazing opportunity. All of a sudden I could share videos for free with an infinite amount of people,” Todd explains.

Since joining YouTube in 2006, Improv Everywhere has grown to become one of the web’s leading prank collectives. With over 1.5 million subscribers and a library of insanely popular videos, Todd and his prank-ready warriors have ultimately proved that pranks don’t necessarily need to be laced with ill intent. Take the groups’ long-running “No Pants Subway Ride” prank, which, if the name didn’t tip you off, has the Improv Everywhere crew ride the New York subway system sans pants. The prank is much less lewd than it sounds. The result is actually incredibly charming, as the sheer number of participants alert the public that nothing unseemly is going down. One dude getting on the metro in his underwear is pervy, crank that number up to the hundreds and suddenly the public is in on the joke. And that’s the genius behind many of Improv Everywhere’s pranks. Todd and his troupe are able to take something that reads threatening and redefine it in a way that invokes happiness from even the most dour of New Yorkers. “We’re focused on giving people a really great experience and a great story to tell,” Todd says.



As commendable as Todd’s intentions may be, mass pranks in today’s high-alert world are bound to raise a few red flags. I ask Todd if a prank has ever spun out of control. As the founder and organizer of many of these pranks, surely he’s seen a scrap or two. “We’ve had the police called on us a few times,” Todd tells me. During the group’s Best Buy prank, which dressed 100 people in blue polos and khaki slacks (the uniform of the Best Buy staff) and sent them into the electronics store, Improv Everywhere experienced its most critical response. “While most of the employees thought it was really funny, the manager did not,” says Todd. “We had to deal with the police interrogating us about our blue shirts. But ultimately they had to tell Best Buy that is was not illegal to wear blue polo shirts.”

Managers of retail chains aside, Improv Everywhere has a stellar track record of bringing the public nothing but happiness. This is especially true with its newest series “Movies in Real Life,” which takes iconic scenes from movies and reenacts them on a massive scale. The first video in the series recreates the famous training sequence from “Rocky,” taking it through the streets of Philly all the way to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The beauty behind this prank is that “Rocky,” like the other films recreated in the series, is so culturally recognized that the public as a whole can experience it alongside Improv Everywhere. It’s an incredibly simple premise, but one that is entirely accessible to the public. Everyone can find joy in it, which is Todd’s self-described goal.

Improv Everywhere’s latest “Movies in Real Life” stunt sent an 11-year-old boy on a hunt for platform 9 ¾. That’s right, they did “Harry Potter.” The stunt has been a massive success since it debuted on November 19, with over 480,000 people tuning in to check it out. The prank is insanely charming and effective in re-creating Improv Everywhere’s mission of spreading joy. As the young boy dressed as Harry Potter tells a Metro employee that he’s going to Hogwarts, she begins flipping through a binder and says: “hmm Hogwarts?” It’ll crush your heart in the best kind of way.



I ask Todd what pranks or stunts the group has coming up, and for the founder of an improv troupe that relies on surprising the public, he is pretty open about his future plans. “The next big thing for our channel will be the annual ‘No Pants Subway Ride,’ which will be happening for the 13th year in a row. It’s crazy.” Todd’s forthcoming with this knowledge because the subway ride is expected at this point. It’s become Improv Everywhere’s staple prank. Of course it’ll be amazing, and of course the video will ignite across the web like a lit powder keg, but don’t think that’s all Todd has hidden away in the vaults of his prank-fed mind. The world’s a prankable place, who knows what he has planned for the future.

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