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11. 13. 09
"MY NEW 'HAPPENING' TROUPE, LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE"

Not long ago, on the social networking microblogging whathaveyou known as Twitter, I poked some fun at a comedy troupe called Improv Everywhere. For those unfamiliar, here’s how the group describes itself on its website:

Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. Created in August of 2001 by Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere has executed over 100 missions involving tens of thousands of undercover agents. The group is based in New York City.

I am not a fan of chaos. Personally, chaos makes me nervous, because it makes things seem downright chaotic. I don’t equate fun with uneasiness. So I’ve never been a fan of IE.

I’ve also never been a fan of criticizing other comedians publicly—ape shall never kill ape and all that—but I don’t like pranks. I think they’re mean. I feel sorry for the people who get pranked. So after being sent a link to a recent IE "mission" I made a joke about them. Well, I made a couple jokes about them. Although for some mysterious reason, I was only able to find the very first one on my Twitter profile; have I been mission’d!?

That same day I was contacted in my home—my HOME-- by Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd. We had a good debate about what he does and how I feel about what he does.

With Charlie’s permission, I have published our exchange below. Charlie gets the last word, because that’s only fair, and because I stand by all my points. And because he ends by saying something that is complimentary to me.

We did not change each others minds, but I’m glad we had the discussion.

(Note: One thing that won't make sense is Charlie talking about us filming ourselves standing in line at the bank. This is a reference to one of the now-legendary “Lost Tweets” that I just told you about for the first time ever about four paragraphs ago.)

subject: Introducing Myself
date: Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 7:56 AM


Paul,

I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm the founder of Improv Everywhere. I've been a fan of yours since Mr. Show, Driven to Drink, etc. I was on Best Week Ever exactly twice, but wasn't that good at it. I've been teaching and performing at UCB for 8 years so we have lots of mutual friends through that.

Anyway, I just figured I'd get in touch and let you know that I'm not some crazy hippie. I'm a comedian and for me the focus of Improv Everywhere has always been about comedy. Yes, we hope to do things that are positive and make people laugh/smile, but it's mostly about coming up with an idea I find funny and making it happen.

I know you're just being sarcastic and doing a bit when you mention us on the radio or on twitter, and I'm pretty thick-skinned from the millions of internet comments directed my way, but it does bum me out when it comes from someone I admire.

I'm not asking you to stop doing bits about us, and I'm not trying to change your mind. I just wanted to say hello and at least let you know where I'm coming from. Hopefully I'll see you around the UCB next time I'm out in LA and maybe we can film ourselves standing in line at a bank together. :)

Charlie Todd
ImprovEverywhere.com


subject: Re: Introducing Myself
date Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 2:56 PM


Hey, Charlie!

First off, WHO GAVE YOU MY EMAIL.

Second, nice to hear from you. And of course I know who you are!

Third! While I understand that the purpose of Improv Everywhere is comedy, the aspect of what you guys do that prevents me from enjoying it is that I think the smiles you provoke are, 99.9% of the time, on the faces of YouTube viewers, and not the innocent bystanders who appear in those videos.

While you're not hurting anyone-- or even making physical contact, from what I've seen-- it troubles me to see people reacting with confusion and/or fear to what is happening around them. And it feels disingenuous to me when you speak of your "missions" as events that bring something fun to the unsuspecting people who are just going about their lives.

I have watched comedy on television and on stage all my life, and I consider myself a student of comedy. I enjoy and admire a great breadth of comedic styles. But I have always been of two minds with artists like, say, Andy Kaufman. When Kaufman did pieces that were challenging to the audience, bits that were designed to provoke a reaction other than or in addition to laughter, I never enjoyed it. It never felt fun to me. But, I have always felt that such artists are necessary. There are certainly people that enjoy the challenging aspects of comedy like that, and as far as I could see, it was coming from a place of mischief, not malice. And it's just good to have things shaken up from time to time.

However, I feel there's a crucial difference between Andy Kaufman appearing on Letterman and challenging women to wrestle, and performing a spontaneous musical in a supermarket. Andy Kaufman was a public figure, in a TV studio. The people entering that studio knew, more or less, what they were in for. They expected the unexpected; indeed, that's why they stood in line.

To put it another way, if I am on stage and I make a joke about suicide, and someone in the audience just lost a family member to suicide, I'd certainly feel awful for causing someone a moment of pain. But that person came to a comedy club, where any topic is fair game. And if they really don't like what happened, they can leave. They can ask for their money back. They can even wait in the parking lot to yell at me, if they wish. But however angry they might be with me, the fact remains that they willingly entered that club with the understanding that they might not like what they hear.

The people in the supermarket entered into no such compact. Let's say someone in that supermarket just lost a family member to suicide. This tragedy is at the forefront of this person's thoughts constantly, but here they are, just trying to buy groceries. Suddenly there is a jarring, confusing outburst from several people, and now that person can't get to the produce because people are doing a scene. And that person is already having a horrible day.

Yes, the non-"agents" in the supermarket video all seem to be tickled by this particular mission, but of course, the enchanted faces we see could just be the faces the editor is allowing us to see. Certainly in other Improv Everywhere videos the faces aren't all quite so delighted.

For me, what it comes down to is this: I feel the "missions" are pranks. And they are for the home viewer's enjoyment-- the bystander's enjoyment or displeasure are of equal value. Just as long as there's a reaction. Anything but indifference.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I am not in the habit of criticizing other comedic performers anywhere other than over a cup of coffee, but when I feel that everyday people who didn't sign up to be part of something are pressed into service under the guise of it being for their benefit, I'm gonna goof on ya.

I hope you're all right with my saying this. I know you've heard it before from other people. And Ira Glass. Please feel free to respond. I welcome the discussion as much as I imagine you do; I could talk about comedy forever.

Thank you for writing and please feel free to do so again, any time.

But seriously. Who gave you my e-mail address.

Best regards,

Paul

subject: Re: Introducing myself
date: Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 10:10 PM


Paul,

Thanks for this response. I definitely welcome the discussion as well, and it's nice to hear your full point of view rather than piecing together random comments and bits. After I have time to digest all this I'll give you a proper response as I too could talk about comedy forever.

In the short term, I figured I better let you know where I got your email from. As a teacher at UCB I have access to our contact database. I figured your email would probably be in there since you've done shows at the theatre, and it was.

________________________

Charlie Todd
ImprovEverywhere.com


subject: Re: Introducing myself
date: Sun, Nov 8, 2009 at 10:40 PM


Paul,

Here's my long-winded response to your detailed case against IE. I suspect we just have some fundamental disagreements that probably won't be reconciled, but hearing your point of view and crafting a response has been thought-provoking. So, thanks.

>>Third! While I understand that the purpose of Improv Everywhere is comedy, the aspect of what you guys do that prevents me from enjoying it is that I think the smiles you provoke are, 99.9% of the time, on the faces of YouTube viewers, and not the innocent bystanders who appear in those videos.

But the bystanders in the videos are generally smiling! Certainly this isn't the case for everything we've done, as literal smiles aren't always what we're going for, but I'd say that in the majority of our videos the majority of the people in them are reacting positively.


>>While you're not hurting anyone-- or even making physical contact, from what I've seen-- it troubles me to see people reacting with confusion and/or fear to what is happening around them. And it feels disingenuous to me when you speak of your "missions" as events that bring something fun to the unsuspecting people who are just going about their lives.

Confusion is certainly something we cause regularly, I won't dispute that. But I'd argue that the initial confusion ultimately leads to a positive experience as one figures out what is going on. It's confusing when you notice someone frozen in place, a bit eerie when you see the second, but surely funny or at least safely interesting when you realize their are 200. I don't think anyone that day was fearful that time had stopped. I can't think of anything we've done that has instilled fear, at least not for more than a few moments.


>>However, I feel there's a crucial difference between Andy Kaufman appearing on Letterman and challenging women to wrestle, and performing a spontaneous musical in a supermarket. Andy Kaufman was a public figure, in a TV studio. The people entering that studio knew, more or less, what they were in for. They expected the unexpected; indeed, that's why they stood in line.

It's funny that you bring up Kaufman, as he was actually the biggest influence on Improv Everywhere. I read Bob Zmuda's book about him in college and was absolutely fascinated by the pranks the pulled together. They actually did all kinds of insane things in public places. They'd pull into a roadside diner, enter separately, and cause a huge scene. Most of the stuff they did was conflict-based and on the mean side. Generally Andy would come in and insult Zmuda or pick a fight. I was most excited by the aftermath, the fact that they just left the scene of the crime separately and no one knew that they had witnessed a performance. Our "Amazing Hypnotist" prank was actually directly copied from one of their ideas. It's also probably the meanest thing Improv Everywhere has ever done.


>>To put it another way, if I am on stage and I make a joke about suicide, and someone in the audience just lost a family member to suicide, I'd certainly feel awful for causing someone a moment of pain. But that person came to a comedy club, where any topic is fair game. And if they really don't like what happened, they can leave. They can ask for their money back. They can even wait in the parking lot to yell at me, if they wish. But however angry they might be with me, the fact remains that they willingly entered that club with the understanding that they might not like what they hear.
>>The people in the supermarket entered into no such compact. Let's say someone in that supermarket just lost a family member to suicide. This tragedy is at the forefront of this person's thoughts constantly, but here they are, just trying to buy groceries. Suddenly there is a jarring, confusing outburst from several people, and now that person can't get to the produce because people are doing a scene. And that person is already having a horrible day


I personally think that if you choose to leave your home, you are risking something unusual, jarring, confusing, exciting, etc. happening to you. Your argument seems to say that we should never do anything out of the ordinary in places accessible by the public because we don't know the emotional state of those who might enter it. Every place must always be used for it's intended function, because there is a chance someone going through a rough patch might encounter it and become unstable. I think it's much more likely that a person dealing with a suicide and/or having a horrible day would have their mood improved by an unexpected song. I say that because we've done three musicals and 90% of the people who encounter them laugh and smile. The other 10% ignores.


>>Yes, the non-"agents" in the supermarket video all seem to be tickled by this particular mission, but of course, the enchanted faces we see could just be the faces the editor is allowing us to see. Certainly in other Improv Everywhere videos the faces aren't all quite so delighted.

Obviously we edit our videos to make them as good as possible, but you'll just have to take my word for it that I've never seen someone react negatively to 3 minutes of singing in a public place. But yes, we do not have a 100% success rate with making someone smile with all of our projects. You can't please everyone. I did a project years ago called the "Dollar Dudes" where we got on the subway with a bucket of dollar bills and announced that we were in the lucky "Dollar Train" and that everyone gets a dollar. Most everyone was delighted (at both the dollar and the ridiculousness of it all) but one guy refused to take the money and snapped at me. I was bummed out to get that reaction, but at the end of the day I didn't feel that one guy getting irritated made the whole project a failure. The other 40 people had fun. I imagine the type of person who gets mad when offered a dollar by a stranger probably gets mad quite a bit throughout his day. I'm not trying or pretending to please every single person we encounter.

Obviously there are more well known cases of people not being delighted. I could spend an entire evening discussing This American Life with you.

>>For me, what it comes down to is this: I feel the "missions" are pranks. And they are for the home viewer's enjoyment-- the bystander's enjoyment or displeasure are of equal value. Just as long as there's a reaction. Anything but indifference.

I actually use the word "prank" quite a bit on the website, and even more frequently in interviews and conversation. I believe what we are doing are pranks. I make that clear in our FAQ. "Mission" is just the terminology of the documentation on the site. At any rate, the projects are absolutely not focused primarily on the home viewer's enjoyment. The first four years of Improv Everywhere, YouTube didn't even exist. There was no home viewer. I mean, there was a small group of people who came to the website and looked at the photos and read the account, but those were mostly our family and friends. Now that I have 225k YouTube subscribers, I would be crazy if I didn't keep those viewers in mind when devising and documenting our projects. But, those viewers aren't interested in watching our work unless it still feels authentic and geared towards giving those who encounter us in public a great experience.

I'm having a hard time thinking of a moment from an Improv Everywhere video where someone's displeasure is displayed for the viewer's enjoyment, unless you count authority figures who throw us out of their retail stores. I admit that managers and security guards do not enjoy a scene being caused in their store. The other employees, however, find a break in the norm to be quite entertaining.

I'm curious-- do you despise all hidden camera shows? Do you dislike the mean and manipulative shows like Punk'd and Boiling Points even more than IE, or do you not mind them because they're upfront about their intentions to irritate and annoy?

OK, I think that's all I've got. By the way, the image of you as a ship captain (which I a friend blogged about as "unconfirmed" cover art for your new album) is hilarious.

Charlie Todd
ImprovEverywhere.com

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