Recently, I had the privilege of connecting with Charlie Todd, a well-known New York-based improviser and member of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater. In 2001, Charlie founded the prank collective Improv Everywhere, a group that “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” Since that time, the group has executed over 100 projects involving tens of thousands of people, including the annual “No Pants Subway Ride” that has gained popularity in New York. We discussed Charlie’s personal brand, how Improv Everywhere has grown, and his advice for young people looking to build something important.
How would you define your personal brand? How did you become involved with comedy?
I guess my personal brand is Improv Everywhere. I’ve been running it for 12 years and the large majority of my creative output has been Improv Everywhere-related. In terms of the Improv Everywhere brand, I’d say it’s positive, ridiculous, and DIY. We don’t ask for permission to create what we want to create. I’ve been interested in comedy my whole life. I was a theatre major in college, but I always had the most fun with comedies, and I did a little improv on the side. I moved to New York to do theatre, but I quickly realized that the UCB was the coolest place in town. I took a level 1 class in 2001 and never left.
What led you to create Improv Everywhere? How has it been able to grow into such a cultural phenomenon?
Improv Everywhere was created on a whim. I played a prank in a bar one night with a friend where we fooled people into thinking I was noted rock musician Ben Folds. It was just a couple of guys screwing around in a bar, but it worked incredibly well, and I was inspired to write down the story and share it online. This was 2001 so I created a Geocities website to publish the tale. I sent it to a few friends and it felt great. I realized that the Internet gave me a platform to share my comedy, and this was five years before YouTube existed. So I kept staging new pranks and documenting them with text and photos. When YouTube came around I had all of these videotapes in boxes that I was finally able to share with the world. From there things started to snowball to what Improv Everywhere is today. The new documentary about Improv Everywhere tells this whole story very well. All those old tapes made it into the film. You can download the film on iTunes or on the filmmaker’s site: http://wecausescenes.com/
What were the obstacles that you faced while building Improv Everywhere? How did you overcome them?
Well, I really wasn’t thinking it would become as big as it did. It was just a way for me to have fun with friends and feel like I was actually accomplishing something in New York. It was a way to express myself creatively. So really it took years and years before anyone outside of friends or maybe friends of friends was aware of Improv Everywhere. Our main obstacles were learning how to get away with staging unauthorized projects. We had a few hiccups over the years. I had the cops called on me at Best Buy, wound up in handcuffs while staging a fake U2 concert on my roof, and half dozen friends were detained in their underwear during the No Pants Subway Ride one year. I learned a ton along the way, and each incident only fueled interest in the group.
What impact do you hope your organization makes? What reactions do you find most enjoyable when you are “creating a scene?”
We’re not trying to change the world, but I do think we do a nice job of injecting humor and positivity into routine public spaces. My favorite moments are the reactions to a new idea. We go into these projects having no idea how people will react. Will the staff of Katz’s Deli enjoy having 20 women fake an orgasm simultaneously in their establishment? Yes, as it turns out. It was a blast watching it all unfold.
What are one or two pieces of advice you would give to someone looking to build a successful company or career?
Do what you love and give it away for free. Over and over again until people take notice. Don’t wait for someone to give you a “break.” You don’t need a record deal to write an album. You don’t need a book deal to write your novel. You don’t need the approval of a TV executive to make your show. Greenlight yourself and get to work! Do it for no money with friends who have the same goals as you. Do it because you love it and one day it might become your career.