Interview: Prankster Charlie Todd On YouTube & The Success Of Improv Everywhere

Improv Everywhere has become one of the most successful networks of pranksters, causing scenes in public places all over New York City. Started by Charlie Todd in 2001, the group has carried out more than 100 missions, from staging a mass human freeze in Grand Central station to reenacting Star Wars on the Subway, to cause a stir and spread joy, laughter and confusion on the streets of NYC. Curious about the hand YouTube played in the success and growth of Improv Everywhere, I asked Todd a few questions.

If you are a YouTube fanatic like me then you have seen Improv Everywhere’s videos, without a doubt. The group’s YouTube channel has over 122 million upload views and over 469,000 subscribers. It is the 46th most subscribed YouTube channel of all time. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that Todd started Improv Everywhere in 2001, years before YouTube launched. So how has YouTube affected the scene-causing prankster network? Check out my interview with Todd below to find out.

ST: You started Improv Everywhere a few years before YouTube launched. Did you keep video records of your pranks before YouTube?

CT: We did. With a few exceptions, we video-taped everything we did. YouTube was still five years away in 2001, but miniDV had just arrived and it was suddenly really cheap and easy to make great videos. Digital still cameras were relatively new, too, and we took tons photos of everything as well. Before YouTube, our site was just text and photos.

ST: When did you join YouTube and what was the first video you uploaded? How long did it take to catch on?

CT: When YouTube launched, I had this great back catalog of projects ready to upload. So it wasn’t just one video, it was several. We joined in April of 2006, pretty early on. I remember being so excited to have a way to show off all these videos that were sitting on tapes in my bedroom. The first video that really took off was The Amazing Hypnotist. It was a project we staged in October of 2003, and YouTube featured it on the front page in the summer of 2006. It was our first taste of something going viral on YouTube. A few of our projects had gone viral in the past, but this was the first video to truly take off.

ST: How did things change for Improv Everywhere once your videos began to spread on the Web?

CT: YouTube has been incredible for us– it’s enabled us to reach an international audience of millions. I’m sure it’s increased our ranks of participants as well, though the number of participants has never been important to us. It’s great that 3,000 people might come participate in our No Pants Subway Ride [watch below], but really it’s just as funny with seven people. We do take satisfaction in making people happy though, our participants included. YouTube has enabled us to communicate directly with our audience without the need of a television network. If we had been doing these projects in the 1990s our only option for exposure would have been the greenlight from an executive at somewhere like MTV or Comedy Central. That barrier has been removed.

ST: When you think of new pranks now, do you find yourself thinking in terms of what will go viral on YouTube?

CT: We try not to do that. I mean, we’re smart enough to know that if we do a great Star Wars prank it’s going to have a pretty good shot at going viral. The Internet loves Star Wars, plain and simple. But we really just try to do things that we find funny. If it makes me laugh and gets me excited, then we’ll go do it. I think it’s a mistake to try to cater to your fanbase too much or try to replicate past successes. People respond best to original ideas.

ST: I think that one of the best things about your videos is seeing the reactions of passersby. How are you able to record these reactions, as well as the events, so thoroughly? How many cameras are used to shoot a typical event?

CT: We had three cameras at the Star Wars mission and I think around seven at Grand Central. Sometimes we work with a hidden camera production company and completely hide our cameras. There were no visible cameras in Frozen Grand Central. More and more these days we use DSLR cameras to hide in plain sight. DSLR’s now have HD video modes that look gorgeous, and the cameras themselves just look like a normal tourist cam. Our operators have gotten good at playing the role of “surprised onlooker” who looks like they are not a part of it.

ST: You have been an inspiration to many copy cats, looking to create their own Improv Everywhere style pranks. Do you pay attention to these and, if so, do you have a favorite?

CT: My favorite projects are the ones that are in the style of Improv Everywhere, but wouldn’t be described as “copy cat” because they’ve come up with a truly original idea rather than replicating something we’ve done. I love Rob Cockerham’s NASCAR Drive-Thru prank, for example. Though Rob’s an old prankster who was doing pranks before us, I believe.

ST: How do you promote yourself?

CT: We have a popular Facebook fan page, a Twitter account, and a newsletter email list. I definitely push out the news of a new video to all these outlets and hope that our supporters will help spread the word.

I will leave you with clips of a couple of my favorite Improv Everywhere pranks. Are you a fan of Improv Everywhere? What’s your favorite prank?