Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Press Play

About Charlie Todd's TED Talk

Charlie Todd choreographs bizarre, hilarious and unexpected public scenes. He explains how his group, Improv Everywhere, creates these moments of urban whimsy to bring people together.

About Charlie Todd

Comedian Charlie Todd is the founder of Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. Todd has produced, directed, performed and documented the group's work for more than 10 years. In that time they've run over a hundred prank missions, some involving thousands of people. He's a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City and is the author of the book Causing A Scene.

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But now, a story about a different kind of play uniting total strangers.

CHARLIE TODD: I moved to New York right after college. I was 22 years old.

RAZ: Charlie Todd moved to New York from a small town in South Carolina. He had dreams of being a comedian. This was about 15 years ago. But soon, he was stuck in a desk job - a worker bee under fluorescent lights. And it was boring, so Charlie decided to make his own fun.

What would you do?

TODD: So I would just do weird things. Like, I remember I had a temp job, and the boss asked me to throw away a bunch of phones. And they're the big, black business phones that have, like, 10 lines on them. And I saved one and took it out in the street, and as I was walking from work to the subway, I pretended as though it was a cell phone.

RAZ: (Laughter).

TODD: I attached it to my belt - like, put it through my belt loop and then just was, like, having a conversation with a corded, black business telephone.

RAZ: Just walking down the street, just talking on the phone.

TODD: Just walking down the street, just to see, am I - are people going to look at me? What kind of reaction might I get? I would like to see somebody doing that, so I should go do it.

RAZ: This, Charlie realized, was play.

TODD: Play is doing an activity that has no end goal other than the fact that it's fun. It's taking an ordinary place or an ordinary time and finding something extraordinary about it.

RAZ: So Charlie founded an improv group devoted to that idea. And for one of their first really big stunts, Charlie thought, I need to do something totally absurd.

TODD: So I started thinking about what the funniest possible thing could be, and riding the subway in your underwear is what I came up with - in the middle of winter.


TODD: The first stop of the prank, doors open, I got on wearing a winter coat, a hat, scarf, gloves, got headphones on, acting very nonchalant.

RAZ: Except that Charlie wasn't wearing any pants.

TODD: Some people in the subway cart noticed. A girl sort of looks me up and down and tries to figure out what's going on. But it's New York. There's a weirdo without pants on on the train. I'm going to ignore that.


TODD: The next stop, the doors open, and a different guy gets on in his boxer shorts as well. And that was the point where people started laughing. And that continued for seven stops in a row with people getting on in their underwear.

RAZ: Here's the rest of the story as told by Charlie on the TED stage.


TODD: At the eighth stop, a girl came in with a giant duffel bag and announced she had pants for sale for a dollar, like you might sell batteries or candy on the train. We all very matter-of-factly bought a pair of pants, put them on and said thank you. That's exactly what I needed today.


TODD: And then exited without revealing what had happened and went in all different directions.


RAZ: And for Charlie's improv group, which today is called Improv Everywhere, the subway prank was just the beginning.

TODD: I got an email from a high school kid in Texas who said, you should put as many people as possible wearing blue polo shirts and khaki pants inside a Best Buy and have them stand around. So as you know, that is the employee uniform of a Best Buy employee - a blue polo shirt and khaki pants - so essentially give the store a mob of extra employees.


TODD: So I wrote this high school kid back immediately, and I said yes, you are correct. I think I'll try to do that this weekend. Thank you.


TODD: And I told people don't work. Don't actually do work, but also don't shop. Just stand around and don't face products.


TODD: The lower-level employees thought it was very funny. And in fact, several of them went to go get their camera from the break room and took photos with us. A lot of them made jokes about trying to get us to go to the back to get heavy television sets for customers.


TODD: The managers and the security guards, on the other hand, did not find it particularly funny. You can see them in this footage; they're wearing either a yellow shirt or a black shirt. And we were there for probably about 10 minutes before the manager decided to dial 911.


TODD: So they started running around telling everybody that the cops were coming - watch out, the cops are coming. Ultimately, the police had to inform Best Buy management that it was not, in fact, illegal to wear a blue polo shirt and khaki pants.


RAZ: So I'm guessing that some, like, people come up to you and they're like - like, what's the point of all this? So what do you - what do you say?

TODD: The goal of Improv Everywhere is to stage something that is so funny that it breaks other people out of their day-to-day routines and gives them a positive experience and a funny story to tell. I mean, I grew up working retail at my father's retail store growing up in South Carolina. And there are those days where you've, you know, worked an eight-hour shift and you've been on your feet all day and, you know, you're just dying for something interesting to happen, something out of the ordinary to happen. So that was the goal of that project is that for the people who work in that Best Buy - maybe not the managers and the security guards, but the people that were working on the floor - to have some bizarre unusual thing happen that they'll be talking about for the rest of their lives.


TODD: So I'd say over the years, one of the most common criticisms I see of Improv Everywhere left anonymously in YouTube comments is these people have too much time on their hands.


TODD: And, you know, that one's always bothered me because we don't have too much time on her hands. The participants at Improv Everywhere events have just as much leisure time as any other New Yorkers. They just occasionally choose to spend it in an unusual way. You know, every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people each fall gather in football stadiums to watch games. And I've never seen anybody comment looking at a football game and saying all those people in the stands, they have too much time on their hands.


TODD: And of course they don't. It's a perfectly wonderful way to spend a weekend afternoon, watching a football game in a stadium. But I think it's also a perfectly valid way to spend an afternoon freezing in place with 200 people in the Grand Central terminal or dressing up like a ghostbuster and running through the New York Public Library.


TODD: You know, as kids we're taught to play, and we're never given a reason why we should play. It's just acceptable that play is a good thing. And I think that's sort of the point Improv Everywhere - it's that there is no point and that there doesn't have to be a point. We don't need a reason. As long as it's fun and it seems like it's going to be a funny idea and it seems like the people who witness it will also have a fun time, then that's enough for us. And I think as adults we need to learn that there's no right or wrong way to play. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Charlie Todd, his improv group is called Improv Everywhere. You can see his entire talk at I'm Guy Raz, more ideas about the power of play in a moment. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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