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Funny

The Art of the Prank

This is for participants only,” announces a heavily bundled Charlie Todd through his trusty gray bullhorn. “If you didn’t come to take your pants off today, you’re in the wrong spot.” It’s a frigid January afternoon in New York City’s Foley Square, and hundreds of fearless pranksters are braving the elements to get together and shed their trousers for the eighth annual “No Pants! Subway Ride.”

Todd, a baby-faced 30-year-old from Columbia, South Carolina, is the mastermind behind this gathering, and on his command the assembled crowd scatters for the nearest subway entrances…and collectively drops trou. Even in a city like New York, riding the subway sans pants is a guaranteed eye-opener, and today is no exception: Straphangers stare, chuckle, even take photos. Around 1,200 men and women have come out clad in boxers, briefs, boxer-briefs, and bloomers, not just in New York, but in 21 cities across the globe. (“Three hundred take to the subway—shameless and pantless,” the Toronto Sun would inform its readers soberly the next day.) The mission ends with a group of agents celebrating in Union Square, making snow angels, still pantless. Improv Everywhere has struck again. Mission accomplished.

MISSION: No Pants! Subway Ride
DESCRIPTION: Countless agents ride the
New York subway system in tighty-whities
and less.
DATE: Every January

The largest network of pranksters ever assembled, Improv Everywhere is the leading light in what might be called the Golden Age of the Prank. All across America and beyond, groups are gathering to pull off practical jokes, hoaxes, and ruses of all kinds, blurring the line between prank and guerrilla theater, and using the Internet to share their work with audiences far and wide. The prank, of course, has a long and illustrious history going back to…well, Adam and the serpent: “Ha! You actually ate the apple!” Summer camps and college campuses have long been jokesters’ playgrounds, while avant-gardists like Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist movement elevated the prank to an art form. Borat and (coming soon) Bruno have taken squirm-inducing hoaxing to the big screen. But it’s the Internet—and groups like Improv Everywhere who have learned how to exploit it—that has been the primary mover in the prank renaissance. More than seven million people have watched the 2009 “No Pants!” clip on YouTube, and copycat groups have sprung up around the world.

“The use of video has spread like crazy, so pranks are getting more and more popular,” says CollegeHumor.com’s Amir Blumenfeld, whose online “Prank War” series with colleague Streeter Seidell went viral this spring. No group has demonstrated the power of YouTube and the Internet better than Saturday Night Live’s masters of the digital short, the Lonely Island. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer (whose debut album, Incredibad, was released in February) got their start by posting their sketches, songs, and goofs on their Web site. “When we started back in 2001, most people’s computers weren’t fast enough to watch video, but slowly technology caught up,” notes Schaffer. Now the group’s clips regularly draw millions of viewers online.

MISSION: Human Mirror
DESCRIPTION: Eight pairs of twins take
the subway.
DATE: 4/26/08
While they may not have the muscle of SNL behind them, Improv Everywhere has pulled more than 80 stunts, involving thousands of so-called “agents,” resulting in countless headlines and enough TV news spots to fill a season’s worth of Punk’d episodes. Their own videos have generated more than 55 million views online. But their insidious influence has no doubt infected a far larger audience: Count literally hundreds of Improv Everywhere–inspired groups across the globe, to say nothing of the masses of bewildered, babbling “victims” each prank leaves in its wake. According to legendary prankster Alan Abel—whose Citizens Against Breastfeeding nonprofit group famously condemned what they called “an incestuous relationship between mother and baby that manifests an oral addiction leading youngsters to smoke, drink, and even become a homosexual”—“Pretty soon we’ll have as many groups pulling pranks as we have church choirs.”

MISSION: Suicide Jumper
DESCRIPTION: Depressed businessman
threatens to leap to his death...from a
four foot ledge.
DATE: 12/10/05
As far as Improv Everywhere is concerned, what exactly constitutes a prank is up to the maestro. Charlie Todd moved to Manhattan in the summer of 2001 to become an actor. One night a friend mentioned that he looked like the pop singer Ben Folds. He doesn’t, but who the hell knows what Ben Folds really looks like? Todd decided to spend the evening playing the part. His pal teed him up at the next bar: “Hey, aren’t you Ben Folds?” “Why, yes, I am!” Next thing he knew, a brace of British babes had surrounded him. The following night: same shtick, different bar. Shazam! This time the whole place bought it. Photographs, autographs, free drinks. Got some digits, too. Charlie Todd and crew had “caused a scene.”

“The next day I was like, Man, I got to do more shit like that,” he recalls over dinner at an Indian restaurant. And so he did, documenting each “mission” on what began as a bare-bones Web site he dubbed improveverywhere.com. An avid disciple of ’70s performance artist/comedian Andy Kaufman, Todd likes to say the only thing that really sets him apart from other pranksters past and present is that he’s a compulsive archivist. Today improv­everywhere.com offers more than 70 professional-grade videos, a blog, a DVD, and an FAQ section (in case you become overwhelmed). The write-up of his Eureka moment donning the Ben Folds persona is on there. As is the video of him onstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in November 2006, opening a show for the man himself.

Todd turned to the Internet because he wanted to share a funny story, but he quickly realized its potential to mobilize dormant pranksters. He currently presides over an e-mail list of 22,000 would-be agents, hungry for action, awaiting orders. Such power comes in handy when you want to storm Abercrombie & Fitch with bare-chested men—111 people showed up for that one—or wreak havoc at Best Buy by flooding the place with blue polo shirts and khaki pants. “Thomas Crown Affair! Thomas Crown Affair!” a bewildered manager blurted into her walkie-talkie. The group has fooled a crowd of New Yorkers into believing that U2 was playing a free surprise gig from a midtown roof and convinced shoppers at a local Barnes & Noble that Russian writer Anton Chekhov was giving a reading. Chekhov, of course, died in 1904.

“I’ve always thought of Improv Everywhere pranks like getting stabbed with an icicle,” said Todd Simmons, an aspiring actor and accomplished agent who played the role of a tuxedo-clad bathroom attendant in the men’s room of a McDonald’s in Times Square. “Once people notice a crime has been committed, all the evidence has evaporated.”

MISSION: Even Better Than the Real Thing
DESCRIPTION: Fake U2 performs a rooftop
concert.
DATE: 5/21/05

It was the simple genius of “Frozen Grand Central” that pushed IE into the international spotlight. More than 200 agents with synchronized watches gathered at the station, and froze, all at the exact same time. They stayed stuck for five minutes. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever seen, and I’m a cop,” a police officer on duty remarked. The video was posted in January 2008 and almost immediately went viral. More than 16 million people have clicked play. According to Todd, other groups have reprised the gag in 100 cities.

One of Improv Everywhere’s guiding principles is that theirs are victimless crimes; the goal is to give witnesses a laugh and a story to tell, not to humiliate anyone. Humiliation, however, remains one of the vital components of many a good prank, hoax, or practical joke. Think of Justin Timber­lake crying over his foreclosed home on Punk’d, or Sarah Palin fooled into answering inane questions from the faux-president of France last fall. No one has done a better job of tapping humiliation’s potential than Sacha Baron Cohen, whose willingness to embarrass not only himself, but his victims (and they are victims) has helped make him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Like Andy Kaufman before him, Baron Cohen goes all-out when he commits to a role. TheSmokingGun.com recently revealed more than two dozen fake production companies he created in order to fool unsuspecting dupes for this summer’s Bruno. As Ali G on HBO, he pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone from Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich to Noam Chomsky and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

MISSION: Anton Chekhov
DESCRIPTION: Russian writer signs books
at Barnes & Noble, despite dying in 1904.
DATE: 2/28/04
Mortification was also the key element in College Humor’s Prank War, which started innocently enough, but has since escalated into a nuclear arms race of mutual humil­iation. The war reached its apparent culmination in September 2007, when Amir Blumenfeld tricked Streeter Seidell’s girlfriend into thinking she had been proposed to via the JumboTron at Yankee Stadium. In front of 50,000 fans, she said yes. The relationship did not survive, but the clip drew more than 800,000 hits on YouTube. (“That was just mean,” says Seidell.) To all appearances, that was that, until Seidell got his revenge this spring when Amir was convinced he had won $500,000 for sinking a halftime half-court shot at a University of Maryland basketball game (he didn’t). That video was viewed more than a million times.

“Nothing is off-limits,” argues Blumenfeld. “I mean, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life, but still.” (The dark side of pranking emerged in April when two Domino’s employees posted a video of them blowing their noses into sandiches being prepared for delivery. They were fired and now are facing criminal charges for health code violations.)

This is territory Todd does his best to avoid. He is still not entirely comfortable with how far Improv Everywhere pushed the boundaries of human kindness when, in 2004, he came up with the “Best Gig Ever” caper, wherein he called on his growing militia of agents to memorize the lyrics to a randomly selected band’s songs, make T-shirts with their name on it, and descend upon their Sunday-night gig. Thirty-five die-hard Ghost of Pasha “fans” turned out to give the no-name band the gig of their dreams. When the band was tipped off to the prank, they were a little bummed out.

That prank came close to breaking with the spirit of IE’s missions: causing an authentic scene that gives people an excuse to break out of their ordinary daily routines. This philosophy was put to the test this spring, when IE staged a mission titled “Best Funeral Ever.” A variation on “Best Gig Ever,” the prank saw Todd and 30 other agents crash the burial of a recently deceased New Yorker. The goal, Todd stated, was to give the dearly departed and his loved ones the awesomest funeral imaginable, but the response was unlike anything Improv Everywhere had seen before. As soon as the video was posted, it was clear from the comments that Todd and company had finally gone too far: “You guys have done some great pranks, but this is just plain fucked-up.” “I am ashamed to think that I was actually a fan of yours.” “This prank is sick.” That night the local WPIX newscast ran a segment on the mission, asking, “Did one local improv group go too far?”

MISSION: Best Buy
DESCRIPTION: Dozens of agents wearing
khakis and blue polos storm a Best Buy
DATE: 4/08/06

What all of these offended observers failed to notice was the date: April 1. There was no funeral, no mourning family. They were all agents, and the joke was on all of us. Given the date, the whole ruse should have been obvious, but in a follow-up posted April 2, Todd apologized to anyone “fooled into thinking we had lost our minds and done something this horrendous.”

For Todd, whose extravagantly titled book, Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places With Improv Everywhere, hits shelves this month, the art of the prank, and the motivation behind it, is pretty simple. When he gives lectures at college campuses around the country these days—last September he taught a seminar in Russia—students always hunger for the counterculture message behind his work. “They’re like, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ And they have a hard time accepting the answer: ‘It’s really fuckin’ fun.’”