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Improv Everywhere

March 1, 2010

On a recent podcast on This American Life, I heard a couple stories about the Improv Everywhere troupe.  Some of you might have heard of their work — they are behind the “No Pant Subway Ride.”  For this ride, they gather as many people as possible and have them take off their pants and ride the subway as if nothing was out of the ordinary (keep in mind this started long before Lady Gaga made it cool to go pantsless).

The objection is to show the world that anything can happen at anytime, and Improv Everywhere accomplishes this.  For more, listen to the This American Life “Mind Games” podcast or check out the website.

When Improv Everywhere started in 2001, it was just a group of people trying to make an impact on the world: how idealistic.   The creator, Charlie Todd, usually has some ‘greater good’ goal in mind for his missions (even if it’s just to make people smile).

See Slo-Mo Home Depot or Spontaneous Musicals as evidence of its ability to induce a smile.

The approach to keeping people on their toes has been pretty successful:  IE collects ‘agents’ through word of mouth and rehearses each stunt fully — which is easier with the smaller stunts.  Then, Improv Everywhere relies on crowd sourcing and the internet to share the experience with the world.  With 147,650 unique visitors per month (according to visiting the website, IE is doing something right.

Given the troupe rarely takes credit for their ‘missions,’ leaving as quickly as they arrived, the only way to garner fame and followers has been through the internet.  Similarly, those who have been ‘punked’ (Ashton Kutcher’s word, not Todd’s) find an explaination for the event online.  Todd posts a recap on IE’s website shortly after the mission is complete.

In recent years, the troupe has become increasingly popular and is now working on a prime-time television pilot.  This means they have more money and more equipment and can share more of these missions with us.  The most recent mission has full footage, so you can watch the chaos ensue.

Todd notes, however, that the people ‘being punked’ now have to sign a waver — which sort of takes away from the effect.  In one of IE’s missions, the agents memorized all the lyrics to a fledgling band’s song and acted like this band was the Rolling Stones — presumably, giving this band the best night ever.  The effect would have been less pronounced if that band had had to sign a waver immediately after the show, but that might be for the best.  It would have put an end to the weirdness and chaos immediately instead of leaving them confused and questioning their mental stability.

Regardless of the moral implications, IE is correct to jumble up our worlds.  There is no need to stay in a routine and decend into monotony.  Let’s just say, I hope to get a high-five on the subway….

Even if you can’t participate, tune in on IE’s website to put a smile on your face.

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