Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere and was one of the very first comedy channels on the platform in early 2006

Ep 131. Becoming The Greatest Professional Prankster – Charlie Todd [Founder, Improv Everywhere]

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Welcome to Episode 131!

STIMY Episode 131 features Charlie Todd.

For over 20 years, comedian Charlie Todd has been creating big moments of unexpected joy in everyday public spaces. In 2001 he founded the comedy collective Improv Everywhere, a New York group that pioneered large-scale surprise public performances, long before anyone had heard of the term “flash mob.” Charlie’s projects are site-specific, hugely uplifting, and uniquely hilarious.

Who doesn’t want to live in a world where high fives are offered at the top of a subway escalator, a broadway musical breaks out in the produce section of the grocery store, and random people are given the chance to conduct a world-class orchestra on the streets of New York City?

Charlie was one of the original YouTubers, and Improv Everywhere was one of the very first comedy channels on the platform in early 2006. To date the channel has over half a billion views. With viral hits like the legendary Grand Central freeze and the absurdly silly No Pants Subway Ride, Improv Everywhere has created iconic projects that have entered the zeitgeist and spread to all corners of the globe. Charlie’s success with Improv Everywhere has led to a career in television, recently serving as executive producer and director of the Disney+ series “Pixar In Real Life.”

P/S: This episode is now available on YouTube too!


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    So This Is My Why podcast

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    Who is Charlie Todd?

    Charlie Todd is a professional prankster. He is also the founder of a New York based comedy collective called Improve Everywhere. A group that pioneered the idea of “flash mobs” before well, that term even existed!

    Some ideas?

    Organised a fake U2 concert on a New York Rooftop that drew such a huge crowd, teh police arrived to break them up!

    In 2007: he arranged for 200 strangers to suddenly freeze in place for 5 minutes in NYC’s grand central terminal – an event that went viral on YouTube and has garnered 37M views!

    Other popular pranks:

    • Arranging for thousands of strangers to ride the subway without pants
    • Turning a new york subway into a spa
    • And also having thousands on people put on headphones and follow the narrator’s every word: Walk backwards, freeze, slow dance with your item, wrap yourself in toilet paper etc. 🤣 

    You’re probably thinking: why?

    Why do all this?

    Why pranks?

    How did Charlie even get started and what comes next?

    • 3:20 Family of pranksters
    • 5:26 Interest in theatre
    • 7:09 Building a new life in New York City
    • 8:59 Pretending to be a celebrity!
    • 19:20 Straddling the legal/illegal grey area for their pranks
    • 21:48 Pretending to be U2 the band & the police dropping by!
    • 29:03 Organising the MP3 Experiment for thousands of people
    • 34:03 Measuring impact
    Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere and was one of the very first comedy channels on the platform in early 2006

    Realities of being a Professional Prankster

    Charlie goes deep into the reality of being a professional prankster and where he sees Improv Everywhere going:

    • 37:54 The person behind the social media algorithms?!
    • 40:43 Identity crisis
    • 45:39 Tours + Monetising Pranks
    • 48:18 When Charlie realised he was ready to quit to go full-time in on Improv Everywhere
    • 51:11 Disney+’s Pixar in Real Life – being its executive producer & director
    • 55:50 Socially distanced office on the river
    • 57:27 The future?
    • 59:19 Going viral over a fake meme?!

    If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:

    • Eric Toda: Global Head of Social Marketing, Meta
    • Jacqueline Novogratz: Founder, Acumen
    • Karl Mak: Founder, Hepmil Media – Building a Viral Meme Business in Southeast Asia
    • Apolo Ohno: The Most Decorated US Olympian in History – on the power of psychotic obsession & how to win in 40 secs
    • Lydia Fenet: Top Christie’s Ambassador who raised over $1 billion for non-profits alongside Elton John, Matt Damon, Uma Thurma etc.

    If you enjoyed this episode, you can: 

    Leave a Review

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    If you’d like to support STIMY as a patron, you can visit STIMY’s Patreon page here

    External Links

    Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:

    STIMY Ep 131: Charlie Todd [Founder, Improv Everywhere]

    Charlie Todd: I had seven people in the middle of winter, board the same subway car at different stops wearing their underwear and a winter coat.

    Check this out. You're not going to believe this girl's reaction. I knew, even though there was no YouTube and the solutions to stream video on the internet in 2002, 2003, 2004 were pretty bad. I knew that I should document everything and then, you know, maybe one day if I wanted to sell a television show, I would have all this footage of things that I've done.

    I knew it was coming. I didn't predict YouTube itself, but I knew that the technology was getting better.

    When you're performing in an improv everywhere stunt, you're keeping a straight face.

    You're not really looking at how people are reacting to you. So being able to watch the video, it's one just plain fun, but it's also I learned a lot about, Oh, what this really worked when we did this type of thing, it really worked. Or, Oh, maybe this didn't work so well. People didn't notice this. I need to, you know, change up my strategy.

    Ling Yah: Hey STIMIES! , welcome to episode 131 of the So This is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer Ling Yah and today's guest is Charlie Todd.

    Now, Charlie is a professional prankster. He's also the founder of a New York based comedy collective called Improv Everywhere, which is a group that essentially pioneered the idea of flash mobs before that term even existed.

    Now, some of the things that he's done?

    Well, he's organized a fake U2 concert on a New York rooftop that drew such a huge crowd that the police came to break them up. In 2007, he arranged for 200 strangers to suddenly freeze in place for five minutes in New York's Grand Central Terminal.

    This event was so unprecedented that it went viral on YouTube and has garnered 37 million views. Other pranks he's done?

    He's arranged for thousands of strangers to ride the subway in New York without pants during winter for many, many years. He's also turned one New York subway into a spa and also has had thousands of people put on their headphones and follow the narrator's every word, whether it was walking backwards, freezing in place, slow dancing, or even wrapping themselves in toilet paper.

    Now as you're listening to this, you're probably thinking, why? Why is he doing all this? Why pranks? How did Charlie even get started and what comes next?

    To be honest, when I first found out about this on YouTube, I just thought it was ingenious, the kind of pranks that he's doing is so large scale, it's so fantastic, it's so viral and frankly something that most people can't do.

    So as always, it was intriguing and I had to reach out and speak to Charlie to learn more about why he's doing it, how he's doing it and where he's going.

    Before we go into all that. Please note that there is a YouTube version of this episode available, too. So if you want to watch this interview, just go on YouTube and look for So This My Why to find it.

    Now, are you ready?

    Let's go.

    I learned that you grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and your family is a family of pranksters.

    Your grandfather was born April Fool's Day. I wonder with that kind of almost family legacy of pranks, what was it like growing up in your family?

    Charlie Todd: I had a very fun family. My dad liked to play pranks on us on April Fool's Day specifically. I grew up around comedy. I started watching Saturday Night Live at a pretty young age and my parents encouraged that.

    Our family would watch the Simpsons and Seinfeld together. So, I grew up being exposed to a lot of comedy via family TV nights and had a family that was, you know, it was okay to play pranks on each other.

    I I got interested in practical jokes when I was in elementary school and there was a toy store where you could buy a fake cockroach or a fake ice cube with a fly inside of it.

    I enjoyed particularly on April Fool's Day playing pranks like that. So yeah, definitely grew up in an environment where there was a lot of laughs. My mom has a famous loud laugh and is very generous with her laughter. So I think that was encouraging.

    Ling Yah: Looking back to your childhood, what would you say is the prank that you're most proud of?

    Charlie Todd: Oh, as a child I don't think I really did anything that was that was too elaborate growing up. In terms of pranks, once I got to college I started doing a lot of pranks on friends. I had one friend, Ken Keech, we would take turns pranking each other.

    I had lived with him and then had moved out into a different apartment, but I still had a key to the old apartment.

    So one year, I think it was actually Easter, I went over and I got like 10 inflatable bunny rabbits and put them in the living room of the house. And I did this at like 6 a. m. in the morning when everyone was still asleep.

    And then Ken and his other roommates woke up and were very, very confused to find that.

    As a kid and as a college student, I did the practical joke type things that I think a lot of people do, just playing harmless pranks on friends. It was not until I moved to New York where I got excited about the idea of doing public performance and things to surprise strangers.

    Ling Yah: When you went to college, were you clear on what your future looked like?

    Charlie Todd: I became very interested in theater in high school. My cousin who was four years older than me, he was a high school theater performer, and he was the lead in a lot of plays at another high school in town, and I would go and watch his plays. and

    I was very inspired by that, and then I started watching an improv troupe from the University of South Carolina that would perform late night shows at a community theater in town. And that really turned me on to improv comedy, as did the television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? That really sort of introduced improv to the masses in America.

    So, when I arrived at college, I went to UNC University of North Carolina, I was immediately interested in seeking out opportunities to get involved with improv comedy and with theater.

    I decided to be a theater major pretty quickly. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I, I did some high school theater. I really enjoyed it.

    I really enjoyed doing the little bit of improv I did in high school as well. So even though that's maybe not the wisest career path to choose, that is what I was drawn to.

    Ling Yah: So it sounds as though in your mind, this is what you're drawn to. So New York is the place I have to go.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. Well, my cousin that had been involved with theater, he was living in New York and he was okay with me sleeping on his couch when I first moved there.

    That's a very helpful thing when you first moved to New York to have some place to be able to crash while you're looking for an apartment, which is a very difficult thing to do in the city.

    A lot of people who had graduated years prior to me at University of North Carolina, had gone to New York to pursue theater. So I thought, well, I'm going to give this a shot and moved to New York.

    I had visited my cousin in New York a couple of times and really enjoyed being in the big city.

    Ling Yah: We always hear, at least here, when people are pursuing this kind of dream, you go to New York, and then how do you even start to build this path for yourself when you know no one, you've never been there before?

    Charlie Todd: I remember I moved to New York with a notebook. There was like one page that had names and phone numbers of people. I didn't even have a cell phone. I went and got a cell phone my second day in New York. I realized I wasn't going to use pay phones.

    But, yeah, I was just looking to what other people were doing and a lot of my college friends were doing off Broadway theater, which I could tell was really a lot of work.

    And really the light bulb went off for me when I saw an improv show at a place called the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. That was the first time where I saw an audience full of people that Were my age.

    Wow, everyone here is in their twenties. There's an energy here. The people on stage are also young. After seeing one show there, I said, I need to do everything I can do to learn what these people are doing. So I started taking classes there.

    Once I did that, I started noticing patterns of a lot of people who had started UCB a couple of years before me and were moving up ladder of that institution. I started seeing them on TV commercials and I started seeing them on late night with Conan O'Brien doing comedy sketches.

    I realized that if I work really hard at improv and I get really good and I network and I meet other people and I find collaborators, there will probably be some opportunities for me.

    Simultaneously, while I was putting in the work, you know, I spent a year taking improv classes really before I was able to start performing at that theater.

    That's when I started improv everywhere about a month before I started taking classes at UCB. The only stage that was available to me at the time was a subway car, public park, a sidewalk.

    I'm new. No one knows me. It's going to be a long road before I'm given an opportunity to perform comedy on stage. What could I do on a subway car with my other friends who were taking level one improv class with me?

    Ling Yah: Speaking of other friends, you also had Brendan Arnall and John Karpenos visit you and that kind of kickstart that light bulb moment.

    Charlie Todd: It did. Yeah. Brandon and John were two friends from University of North Carolina and they came up to visit New York. I was going through this phase of being very excited about the anonymity that New York provided.

    Growing up in a smaller city, Columbia, South Carolina, if you go to the grocery store, you're going to run into a couple of people that know you. And also University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill feels like a small town.

    I mean, it's a big university, but still, you're constantly passing acquaintances. I moved to New York and I knew 10 people. So I felt like I could pretend to be anyone I wanted to be walking on the streets of New York. Or I could do something strange to draw attention and cause a scene and and no one would know who I was.

    So my two friends, John and Brandon and I were going to head out to a bar and Brandon just made a comment that he thought I looked like Ben Folds from the rock band Ben Folds five based on a shirt that I just purchased at H and M. I don't really look like Ben Folds. He's 10 years older than me.

    Other than being white guys from the Southern portion of the United States of America we don't really look alike. But I had this light bulb moment of that's funny that you say that, well, why don't we see if we can get other people to think I'm him.

    And we came up with this idea of this prank where I went into a bar by myself and sat at the bar and ordered drinks. And then my friends, Brandon and John would come in five minutes later, go to another side of the bar, sit down at a table, and then notice me and get up and say, Oh my goodness, you're Ben Folds. We're big fans of your music.

    Can you please give us an autograph? And this was the summer of 2001. So there were no iPhones. There was no Google image search. There was no way for anybody to fact check what was happening around them. Nor any reason for them to. Like, why would two strangers walk up to a guy and say he's a celebrity if he's not?

    And Ben Folds was that level of celebrity where you probably know his name and you probably could hum the tune to one of his songs, but you might not really know what he looks like.

    So I had this unexpected performance that happened where my friends got an autograph and walked away and then everybody else in the bar, people who were sitting next to me, the bartender, they had all overheard this and the rumor kind of started to spread around the bar and people were buying me drinks.

    People were taking photos with me old film cameras. Again, no iPhones and other people were asking me for autographs.

    And it was this crazy thing where all of a sudden I was a celebrity and I ended up having a conversation that lasted close to an hour with the people sitting next to me. I guess at the time being a theater major, I thought, well, this is an acting part, this is a really hard, high stakes acting part. I have to pretend to be this guy.

    I was a fan of Ben Folds and knew a little bit about his biography and knew all of his albums. So I could kind of fake it.

    It was exciting and it, you know, it was sort of a con. But we didn't benefit from it at all. So in that way, it wasn't a con.

    I had a decision to make. How does this end? I fooled this whole bar into thinking I'm celebrity. Do I tell them that I'm just a kid that moved here one month ago? Who's 22 years old and isn't anybody. And I thought, well, that's a big letdown. These guys have had a great night and they have this great story about how they had a drink with this musician.

    So instead I just politely left. I said, Oh, I've just gotten a text on my phone. My friends are done with their show. I'm going to go meet up with them. And I left. And that's what really started Improv everywhere.

    That concept of doing an undercover surprise performance and just leaving and not announcing it and giving strangers this unique experience and this unique story to tell.

    I figured that maybe some of those people when they got home that night or maybe when they got to their desk on Monday at their office job with a good internet connection, they would Google Ben Folds and see, oh, he's on tour in Australia. That was not Ben Folds in the bar.

    There's a picture of him. That's definitely not the guy. But I thought that's a really interesting story to give someone too. Cause then for forever, they had the story of the night that they were tricked by someone, but they don't know why the guy didn't, ask for money, . Maybe he got one free drink.

    I like doing these undercover performances that added a bit of mystery and surprise to the world.

    Ling Yah: And you also had your own story as well, because five years later, Ben Falls himself emailed you. What was that like?

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. That story has a crazy ending. So that was the beginning of Improv Everywhere.

    I wrote up that story that I just told you and I put it on a Geocities website that I built for this purpose because I thought, well, this was a crazy thing that I did. But I should write it down and send the link to people. And then I thought, well, now I have a website. I should do more crazy things and write them down.

    Maybe I could even take pictures or one day I could afford to buy a video camera. But I told that story as the Genesis of Improv Everywhere for five years. As Improv Everywhere started getting more popular.

    One day I got an email From Ben Folds expressing interest in doing something together when he was coming to tour New York City.

    It turned out that the bass player in his touring band was a fan of Improv Everywhere and knew the story and had told Ben. So at first I thought someone was maybe pranking me when I got the email from my contact form saying Ben Folds.

    But it was really him, and I pretended to be him on stage at Hammerstein Ballroom, a big concert venue in Manhattan. At the start of the show, Ben developed this idea with me.

    I walked out wearing Ben's glasses and dressed like him and went to the piano and started playing.

    I was lip syncing and playing along to a pre recorded CD and about 20 seconds the CD started skipping and everybody in the crowd thought oh my goodness Ben Folds has been caught lip syncing and faking it and using a backing track.

    People started booing. And then the real Ben Folds came out and punched me in the gut stage punch and started the show, never commented on it, just started the show. So everybody in that crowd just thought, what, why was there an imposter at the beginning of this show?

    It was never explained, which I loved. So that was a really fun, exciting experience to get to do that.

    Ling Yah: Five years later, clearly Improv Everywhere has evolved and you have a clear idea of what it's going to stand for. But at the very start, you also had Anthony and Ken become your roommates. And you said before that really helped to accelerate things.

    I wonder in what way?

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, a lot of my early collaborators with Improv Everywhere were my roommates. Anthony King was someone I'd done improv with in North Carolina. And I moved in to his apartment along with another guy, Scott Brown. The two of them have a Broadway musical that's debuting in two weeks that they wrote in that apartment while I was sitting on the couch listening.

    Ling Yah: Wow, that's a long time ago.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, they produced it at the UCB theater for years in the early 2000s and just the stars aligned and it's now going to be on Broadway, so it's pretty exciting. So yeah, I was surrounded with a lot of great talent from my college friends and from people I met at UNC and yeah, my friend Ken Keech moved up from UNC as well.

    So I had roommates who were comedians, and later a guy named Chris Kula I lived with in Manhattan. I had these comedian roommates and whenever I had an idea, I would just knock on their door and say, well, what if we did this? What if we played bingo on a subway car?

    What if we bought inflatable rafts and gave people tours of New York City from a fountain in Union Square Park?

    Just any idea I had, I was able to immediately go and bounce it off a roommate and get feedback, brainstorm together, make the idea better.

    They were willing to come and be actors and volunteer to be a part of whatever prank I wanted to pull.

    Ling Yah: I believe a lot of the brainstorming consists of ideas that were just rubbish and won't work.

    What are some of those ideas that never made it?

    Charlie Todd: Long forgotten ideas for sure.

    But yeah, I mean, the secret to the early success of Improv Everywhere was that I was prolific and I just kept trying things. And if you go back on the website and you scroll all the way down to the bottom and look at the first 20 things I did, I'm proud of all of them in their own way, but there's some half baked ideas that are in there for sure.

    But with each new thing I went out and did, I learned something and I learned a little bit about performing in public and I learned a little more about how to photograph and film these things and how to stage them.

    So it was all just learning experiences and no one was watching. No one was going to the website So it didn't matter if something was mediocre It was just me emailing it to my friends who were the ones who were were there anyway.

    A lot of people email me and say I love this website.

    I love everything that you do. It reminds me of things that I used to do growing up. My friends and I, we did stuff like this all the time and I think the difference is that I started recording it and documenting it and figured out how to document it really well.

    I also got lucky that when I was at that stage of my life in my early twenties, when I was doing crazy things in public with friends, it happened to be the start of digital video.

    Mainly DV, camcorders and soon after the start of online video with, with YouTube.

    Ling Yah: But you started for a couple of years before YouTube, right? Like five years before, five years before YouTube. Yeah. So what was the behind that sort of idea that I need to record things? Because the only way people would see is to go to your house.

    Charlie Todd: Right. Yeah, that's true. A lot of the videos that were recorded early on, they just sat on tapes. And yeah, if somebody was visiting me, I'd be like, oh, you got to see this video. I had seven people in the middle of winter, board the same subway car at different stops wearing their underwear and a winter coat.

    Check this out. You're not going to believe this girl's reaction. I knew, even though there was no YouTube and the solutions to stream video on the internet in 2002, 2003, 2004 were pretty bad. I knew that I should document everything and then, you know, maybe one day if I wanted to sell a television show, I would have all this footage of things that I've done.

    I knew it was coming. I didn't predict YouTube itself, but I knew that the technology was getting better.

    When you're performing in an improv everywhere stunt, you're keeping a straight face.

    You're not really looking at how people are reacting to you. So being able to watch the video, it's one just plain fun, but it's also I learned a lot about, Oh, what this really worked when we did this type of thing, it really worked. Or, Oh, maybe this didn't work so well. People didn't notice this. I need to, you know, change up my strategy.

    But the projects that we do, they're ephemeral. We can do something spectacular on a subway car that 40 people see, and that's it. There's something beautiful and magical about that, and that's why we do it . But, I realized early on the potential for 4,000, 40,000, 400,000, people to see it, if we took good photos of it and I put it online.

    This is like some difficult thing in 2002. I mean, now everybody has a TikTok account and an Instagram account and they see something weird in public or they go do something weird in public they're holding their phones right in front of their faces and putting it online.

    That's just the world that we live in. But at that time, people were not doing that.

    Ling Yah: As I was looking at everything that you've done before, you straddle that line between being legal but not illegal. That gray area. And it made me think of all the street artists friends that I have, and for some of them they would say, I refuse to do any work that I have permission for.

    It needs to be something that's permissionless. That's what drives me. I wonder if that feels like an element for you. Because you could have easily just gone and say, Hey, we're gonna have a bunch of performers coming in, could you give us permission to do it?

    Charlie Todd: Well, I disagree with that. I don't think that's easy.

    I mean, if you go into a Best Buy and say, we're going to bring a bunch of performers in, they'd say, get out of here. You know and even

    Ling Yah: But you might start lucky at some point.

    Charlie Todd: Maybe, maybe. I mean, now at this point that I've been doing it for 20 plus years, I know the way to get permission to do things the right way when I want to. But I also know still the situations where it's like, it's easier to just ask for forgiveness than permission.

    And that's still the case. Cause even getting a permit to do something in a city park, it's possible. I've done it plenty of times for large scale events that I do, where I think it's the right thing to do to have a permit. But early on when I had no resources and no time, you know, Oh, I've got this idea. I want to do it this weekend.

    Okay. Apply for a permit, wait 30 days, see if it gets approved. Be told you need to have insurance. Well, I don't have event insurance. I can't afford event insurance. So out of necessity, all of our early things were unauthorized. Really out of necessity.

    That's interesting to hear that a street artist would never do, say like a sanctioned mural. They would only do unauthorized work. I think that's a cool ethos. For me, I think a lot of the projects that we've done are a lot funnier and a lot cooler because they were unauthorized.

    If I had gotten permission from home depot to have 200 people shop in slow motion in their store, at that point, it just sort of feels like, well, we made a commercial for home Depot rather than going in and surprising them and doing that and having them not know what was going on and to debate about whether they should stop it.

    It's much more experimental and exciting when you don't have permission. At the same time, you run into problems. Best by, you know, dialed 911 and called the police on us. We've had a couple of incidents like that.

    I've found that to go and do a performance in a retail store is a challenge. I mean, people do tikToks by themselves dancing in a Target or something like that, and I'm sure that's fine.

    But if you're getting an organized group of people to go into a retail store and do something weird you should be prepared for the police to be called which is why I tend to avoid it, but I'm not saying I'll never do it again if an amazing idea does come up.

    Ling Yah: You said before that you know how to get permission the right way. What is the right way?

    Charlie Todd: We do our annual MP3 experiment project where people are listening to instructions on headphones and it's sort of a silent disco meets flash mob meets party.

    It's the event that's really special to me. Around 2000 people come out to that event and New York. The early days of that event, we would say, okay, we're going to do it on this big field in central park and. 300 people might come and it's fine.

    By the time it's almost over, maybe somebody that works for the park will see it and start to ask questions, but then it's over and it's fine.

    But when you're bringing 2000 people somewhere, it's not fine. You have to let people know. So it's work.

    Every year I have to find a new location for this event and I have to convince someone who works for a park or business improvement district that this is a good idea.

    Fortunately, now that I've done it for so many years, I can show videos of past years and show all the other places that have agreed to do it and have been happy with it.

    So things get easier. But when you're starting out, it's pretty hard. Not that people are not inclined to say yes to a random person who wants to do something crazy.

    Ling Yah: You said before, ask forgiveness rather than permission. I wonder, how do you ask for forgiveness for instance, that YouTube performance on the rooftop. You never break character. You never actually explain. He pretended he was still Bono the whole way. So how do you ask for forgiveness?

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. Well, the guy playing Bono didn't break character I guess. But yeah, I mean, when I say ask for forgiveness and not permission, it's really important to me that there's the golden rule of the prank, which is I'm not going to stage a prank or a surprise that I wouldn't want someone to do to me.

    I'm not going to stage something that I wouldn't want to happen on my sidewalk. I don't have a store, but, or in my dad's store, my dad, my dad has a retail store. And I think if a bunch of people came in and froze in place in the retail store, that'd be fine.

    Everybody would probably buy something on the way out and it'd be fine. But I can understand how those types of actions are, are stressful for someone who doesn't know if, if, It's something more sinister.

    But I think if you're doing something that's positive, that's harmless, that's safe, that's well thought out, then I think you can ask for forgiveness.

    My strategy often with things, if someone seems to be concerned with something I'm doing, is just to let them know it's almost over.

    We did a thing on a subway platform once called the subway spa. We took the hottest subway platform in the city, 34th street and six Avenue and we basically turned it into a steam room. A spa experience with people walking around with bath robes and there was massages and misting stations. Iced fruit water and things like that.

    And we had no permission. We just did this on a live subway platform. You would never, ever, ever, ever, ever be given permission to do that. No matter how much money you were willing to pay, there is no permit that will let you turn a subway platform into a spa. Doesn't exist. No one will let you do it.

    So it has to be unauthorized. And then you have to be smart about it and make sure that people aren't close to the tracks and that you're not creating a situation where you're disrupting pedestrian flow. But when we were doing that, some police officers walked by maybe 30 minutes into and they're like, what's going on?

    And I said, Oh, we're doing something fun. We're almost done. And they're like, Oh, okay. So when we come back 30 minutes from now, you'll all be gone. I said, yes, we will. And they left and I did it for 25 more minutes and then we were gone.

    So speaking and being nice and being friendly, apologizing and letting people know it's almost over has been my trick because I don't need to be there all day, you know, we're doing something fun and that's okay if we do it for an hour and not two hours.

    The YouTube prank that you mentioned was a different situation. So that was back in 2005 and YouTube was playing some shows at Madison Square Garden. I lived in an apartment across the street from Madison Square Garden.

    It was a four story apartment building with a roof and I had access to the roof and my roommate, Chris Kula, was a drummer in a cover band.

    We decided to dress his cover band up like U2 and have them perform U2 songs right before the real U2 show. So when there were lots of U2 fans in the area on their way to the venue it would look like U2 was doing an extra surprise performance two hours before the actual show. And the police came. Neighbors complained.

    It was loud. I It was five o'clock in the afternoon, but people complained. At that point, I think the guy playing Bono, my friend, Ptolemy Slocum, made a little bit of a mistake but he stayed in character and sort of insisted that he was Bono and didn't need to give his driver's license over to the cops.

    Ling Yah: Because everyone knows me.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, because everyone knows who I am. I'm famous. I'm Bono, even though it's just a 27 year old comedian wearing a wig. It was funny and it made for a funny story but we got tickets and had to go to court. Fortunately, charges were dismissed but that's sort of the closest I've ever come to getting in trouble although it probably would have just been a fine or something.

    Ling Yah: I love that you have drawn before a distinction between like a good chaos because you do want that versus bad chaos. How do you plan for something like that? Because chaos, you can't control, you can't really plan to such an extent.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, I think chaos is a little bit of a provocative term that I've always used partly because the Upright Citizens Brigade, the founders of that theater, they had a TV show and chaos was a big, one of their slogans.

    I like that dichotomy of chaos and joy. And that was how I described improv everywhere was chaos and joy. Chaos maybe a strong word. Lately I tend to use surprise and delight.

    Just because I think chaos is a word that scares people a little bit. And you think about a mob getting out of control and there being violence.

    I guess in the 22 years since I've started there may be been more instances of rowdy mobs and people robbing retail stores and mobs and things like that.

    I don't use that word as much, but it is chaotic. You're introducing something into the world and you don't know how it's going to play out. You're dealing with real people and you're dealing with real subway cars. You're walking into a store that has employees and you don't know how they are going to like what you are doing.

    So to me, it's just really thinking through everything and thinking, okay, is this positive? Is this something that's funny and harmless? Are we doing any damage?

    I learned early on that anything you do is going to there will be someone who criticizes it or doesn't like it but I think that shouldn't prevent you from trying anything at all.

    But just thinking like, would a reasonable person be upset by this? Is it actually completely harmless to shop in a store in slow motion. Does it cause any damage to the store? Is it over in five minutes? Will it cause a little bit of chaos and you know, briefly freak people out a little bit or make people laugh?

    Yes. So just running through and thinking of what the consequences might be.

    Ling Yah: Hey everyone, I hope you've been enjoying this episode so far. In case you didn't know, I'm currently preparing a personal branding course teaching people how to ask themselves the right questions to build their own personal brand. And tell that to the world. Much like what I'm doing with all the guests on So There's My Why right now.

    The basis is this. We all have unique stories that can be shared, but a number of things hold us back. Whether it's fear or just a mental block in seeing what stories we've gone through that are interesting enough for us to share and how exactly we can share in a way that fits our professional goals.

    This can be pretty difficult for a lot of people and I'd love to help you figure it out. And that is why this course is being created. Now, it's still a work in progress, but if you'd like to learn more, and also learn more about what it's like really running STIMY behind the scenes, and And meanwhile, do subscribe to the STIMY newsletter. The link to subscribe can be found in this episode description. Let's get back to this episode.

    What are some of the things that people probably aren't aware of unless they're like you and they've done it several times when you plan something that's so large scale, you need to think through things because it's one thing to plan for something small, another thing to have 4, 000 people coming, 99 percent of them strangers, but you also want them to have fun as well.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, I think with crowds, you have to think of choke points a lot. Just practically with our MP3 experiment project in particular, some years where there've been 4, 000 people who show up and if they're all starting at point A and they have to get to point B and the only way to get to the big grassy field is to go through a gate that is 10 feet wide that's going to take a long time.

    Everybody doesn't just walk right through it. Everybody backs up and it's like cars merging on a highway. So I've learned things like that to try to avoid directing people towards choke points like that.

    And also just realizing that the crowd can sometimes take over and sort of do what they want to do. So just be careful to enable that.

    To give an example, we had one year for our MP3 experiment where everyone was asked to bring a roll of toilet paper, and they took turns rolling each other in toilet paper making toilet paper mummies, like the Halloween monster, the mummy.

    It was fun. I mean, In retrospect, that got a little bit of criticism for wasting paper, which irked me at the time because I feel like how much paper is wasted at every single Broadway show with a playbill that's handed out every night versus what we did.

    But, perhaps a fair criticism. I mean, I'm more aware of our climate crisis now than I was 12 years ago , when we did that.

    I'm telling the story because this is our MP3 experiment where people are getting instructions in their headphones and the narrator said, do not throw toilet paper. You know, put the toilet paper back in your bag. Well, one person decided to ignore that, and they threw toilet paper up in the air.

    And a second person saw the first person do it and said, I'm gonna do it too. And that's a really bad person because that's opening the floodgates. And then all of a sudden... 200 people are doing it like, Oh, maybe I misheard the instruction. This is okay. Everyone else is doing it. I'm going to do it.

    And all of a sudden we had thousands of rolls of toilet paper being thrown up in the air in Bryant park. It was beautiful. It was really cool looking, but it created an enormous mess. And the park was not super happy about it. Although they forgave me. I had permission to be there.

    So that kind of crowd mentality. You can't give 4, 000 people a water gun and say, we're not shooting water guns today. You know, it's going to happen. So be aware of the potential energy that you're creating and understand what consequences could occur.

    Ling Yah: I thought it's brilliant that this is something that you've done on an annual basis.

    I wonder if the energy is different before and after COVID because you had two summers where large public gatherings were banned and then you threw this party again for 2000 people. What was that like?

    Charlie Todd: It was great. It was great. Yeah. So the MP3 experiment, we started it in 2004 after the iPod was created.

    I was riding the train one day and I realized that almost every single person in the subway car had white Apple headphones, and that the iPod had just really taken over. And then I thought, well, they're all wearing the same headphones. That's interesting. What if they were all listening to the same song?

    And now that we have mp3 players, we could easily do that. Everybody could listen to the same song. It's not having to get everybody to have the same CD or whatever. So that's how that started and it grew over the years. When I developed the idea, it wasn't just music, but it was also instructions from a voice.

    I had a neighbor who was a composer, Tyler Walker, and he became my collaborator on this now for 18 years.

    But yeah, it was this great party that I threw every single summer, and then COVID happened. And obviously in 2020, you know, 2020 was not great for improv everywhere. I realized that pretty quickly.

    It's like, okay, I organize large groups of strangers to come together in public places, often on mass transportation, give each other high fives and touch each other. And just everything that, you know, was a COVID no no.

    So I did not create very much in 2020, but In retrospect, I think we know more about COVID now and it doesn't really spread outdoors and probably some of these events would have been okay.

    But 2021, still you couldn't get a permit for doing a large scale gathering that summer.

    So 2022, we brought this event back and yeah, to answer your question, it felt great. It was so great to be in a big crowd again.

    When I started in prep everywhere, as I said, it was more a means for me to express myself and to perform and to create things. I learned along the way how much I love crowds.

    There weren't crowds the first four years I did this because it was just me and a dozen friends doing things. But as it grew in popularity and all of a sudden thousands of people were showing up to things. I realized how much fun it is to be in a crowd, working together all towards the same goal.

    You get it in the audience of a sporting event. If you're in an arena or a stadium, for the most part, except for the opposing fans, everybody cheering for the same thing and maybe chanting together or, or doing a, wave around the stadium together.

    So it's similar to that, but I think the experience that our MP3 experiment gives is very unique of I'm in this big crowd and we're all following these instructions and trying to do the best we can to make this whole thing awesome for everybody else.

    In June did our one again this year, and that video is coming out very soon. It's been fun.

    Ling Yah: Amazing.

    I announced you were coming on, and I had this one question from a person, Christiana Uday, and she was wondering, how do you measure the impact of your pranks on the public and participants involved?

    I imagine for something like the Frozen Grand Central one, you can kind measure it by saying, oh, 37 million people saw this. But I imagine not everything is so measurable. So how do you think about impact?

    Charlie Todd: Well, I guess I think about impact in a number of ways. There's the immediate impact of just seeing people smile and our videos tend to capture that. They don't capture all of it.

    It drives me crazy when I'm at one of our events in person and I'm not typically holding a camera. But I'll see someone, amazing reaction. Like, Oh, there's no one nearby with a camera. We'll never have this in our video. But a camera operator is off getting another amazing reaction.

    That is my favorite part of my job is when the project's over and it's gone well, and two days later the photographer sends me his gallery of photos and I'm looking at smile after smile after smile. That is the biggest impact of just brightening someone's day.

    I was walking through grand central and I saw this incredible thing where 200 people were frozen in place and I couldn't figure it out. And they unfrozen, they walked away and it was magical. And I'm going to. Tell that story for the rest of my life that That's the goal.

    I think one major way to measure impact is just the reactions of people in person. Obviously, the comments on YouTube, it's nice to see things like that.

    And then another real bit of evidence of our impact is inspiring people to go do similar things. With our Grand Central project, where we had people freeze in place in Grand Central Terminal as you said, that has 37 million views. It got like 20 million views in the first month, I think.

    And this was 2008 when 20 million views were actual real views.

    Ling Yah: So you felt like the world had seen you.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, unlike uh,

    you know, Facebook view now that's like two seconds or something scrolling by on mute on your phone. So it had a huge impact, but the more exciting impact was people went out and frozen place and train stations and on college campuses and parks all over the world.

    The first few months after that video went viral, people went out 300 cities and went and frozen place.

    There was this amazing prank in New York last week where there are these guys, they all live together in the upper East side.

    working in tech. Like coder guys. One of them cooks steak every Friday night. And as a joke, one of them turned their apartment into a steakhouse on Google maps as an inside joke.

    They put it like a email address or a phone number.

    All of a sudden all these people in the neighborhood started asking about it. And all of the roommates and their friends and friends of friends left five star reviews on it. And people were writing and saying, we want to come to the steakhouse.

    And they would say, well, it's very exclusive. There's a waiting list. And they got this waiting list together. And they had like a hundred names in the waiting list. Then they decided to actually do a steakhouse at a different venue nearby and invited these a hundred people to come to this fake steakhouse that was made real for one night only.

    I think this is. Hilarious prank and they did their best to do. I mean, it wasn't an amazing night cause it's just some dude cooking steak.

    But one of the guys behind that just emailed me yesterday and said I want to let you know that I grew up watching your frozen grand sensual prank and your best buy prank and all the things that you did were an inspiration towards us actually doing this thing.

    That made me so happy to receive that email .You know, something I had nothing to do with, but to know that our history of doing things is inspiring other people to go out and do silly, ridiculous, fun stunts is very heartening.

    Ling Yah: It's amazing. I think that's the beauty of creating online. Decades later, you would still see the impact from many, many different people, especially those who are seeing it for the first time 20 years later.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. And I have so many people and this makes me feel old and I'm 44 now, but I have a lot of people who tell me, I grew up watching these videos like, Oh my God. I was in middle school when Frozen Grand Central came out and I'll never forget it.

    Or I still know the lyrics to your surprise musicals. I used to sing them with my high school friends. You know, it makes me feel old, but it's pretty cool.

    Ling Yah: That's incredible. I wonder what about for you when that video went viral on Grand Central and when it went viral, it really went viral.

    I had friends who went viral then and that launched their career in something completely different. I wonder for you, it must have had a huge impact personally as well as the person behind this.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, it completely changed my life. And the full story behind that video is that that project was actually made for a pilot for NBC.

    So I had an opportunity to make a TV pilot and it didn't get picked up. It was going to sit on a shelf and never be seen ever. And that broke my heart because 200 friends of mine and some strangers that I didn't know, friends of friends, people on my mailing list had come out and done this amazing thing.

    I didn't know how good the video was. I thought it was good. Although maybe it's not that good because NBC decided not to turn it into a TV show. So it was at that point a failed video, but I really was upset that I couldn't do anything with it and that it was not going to be aired on television.

    So I emailed one of the executives at NBC and sort of had an unwritten agreement. They're like, why don't you just put this online? Nobody's going to notice it. No one's going to care. And we never, and then the world noticed , and then the world did notice.

    This is covered in the documentary about improv everywhere. The today show, which is NBC's big morning news program emailed me and said, we'd love this video. Can we please show this on NBC? Will you come on and do an interview about it, I was like, yeah, I'll sign a form saying you have the right to show this. No problem.

    In probably 2008, YouTube was curated by a person and I met her.

    Ling Yah: Wow. What did she say about the algorithm back then?

    That must have been crazy.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, she was the algorithm. Her name was Felicia, I think. I'm forgetting her last name. I was at a conference. VidCon, one of the early VidCon conferences, which is a, like a YouTube online creator conference and sat down with a friend to have lunch. And she sat down and we got to talking and she realized who I was and she said, Oh, I'm the one that put a lot of your videos on the front page.

    It wasn't just frozen grand central.

    That was probably the second or third video she had put on that front page. And we probably had two or three after that that got put on the front page.

    Now if you go to youtube. com, it's tailored to you based on your watch history, who you subscribe to.

    But that front page, it was like five videos a day chosen by this woman. And if you were yesterday's, you would just be moved down and you would be on that front page for a few days.

    If your video was good, if it had a good thumbnail or a good title, you know, it would go crazy.

    And there's a lot of YouTubers whose career are made by one person's decision to do that.

    I think it's a lot better than an algorithm deciding. But yeah, that video got so many views at that time I was just inundated with emails and requests.

    I ended up just saying yes to a lot of opportunities. There were a lot of people that said, we want you to freeze in place. Can you come to England? Can you come to France? Can you come to Germany? And I just said, yep, I can.

    Can you buy two plane tickets because I want my girlfriend to come too.

    I ended up kind of getting to travel the world for free for a few years there. And I can largely put it back to that one video going viral.

    Ling Yah: Do you start thinking or having some kind of an identity crisis of, am I going to be the frozen guy?

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. That trick of having people freeze in place in public is a trick that I have used in other videos.

    It's so easy. And if you get, yeah, yeah, we do it in our MP3 experiment a lot and it's, it's going to be in the new video we put out next week.

    If you have, you know, just one person freezing in place is weird.

    And if you have 200 or 2, 000 people do it, it's really cool. I made a decision though as that video went viral, like, okay, I'm not filming a sequel. We're not going back to Grand Central and trying to do this again. I'm not going to do, you know, Frozen somewhere else. I have used that tool in greater projects, but I realized I need to keep making new things.

    That was a big challenge because that video and a few other videos I had were made for that NBC pilot and they had money behind them and they looked really good for the time.

    Now I'm back to just my own wallet being my budget and my friends volunteering. So that was intimidating to follow those videos up, but I think we did a good job.

    Ling Yah: How did you decide that for the freezing video, I'm not going to do a sequel, but then for mp3, you would do it every single year?

    Charlie Todd: Well, the mp3 experiment is the only thing that I'm still doing on an annual basis. I've had a few things over the years that I've tried to turn into annual traditions.

    The no pants subway ride famously was I think I did that for 19 years and then COVID gave it a bit of an end point. By the 19th year of that, I wasn't enjoying it so much because it's the exact same thing every year.

    It was fun. It was a tradition. That's another thing that really put us on the map.

    At the peak of the popularity of no pants subway ride, which was maybe 2009 10 11, there were people doing it in 100 cities around the world in the same day.

    Ling Yah: Did you not think it would be fun as you said, it's a tradition. So rather than thinking of it as a prank, because it's evolved beyond that into a tradition, the way that people run a marathon every single year.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, no, it is. And I acknowledge that. It was more of a celebration of silliness and its later years. But it was just a lot of work for me to organize the New York event because a couple thousand people would come to it. I had a great group of friends who did it for many, many, many years and would volunteer.

    But I could tell towards the end, like They don't want to be doing this for the rest of their lives. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life.

    I may bring it back at some point. There are people that email me, you know, and say, why isn't this back? COVID's over, why didn't you bring it back?

    But it's a whole lot of work because it involves a subway. It gets back to your question about good chaos and bad chaos. I think bad chaos is just telling 2000 people like, all right, head to the subway and go do this. Cause that's too many people , to flood a train with.

    So instead we had 10 meeting points all over the city and within those 10 meeting points, there were multiple trains. And within those trains, there were 10 cars each and we split everybody into groups where you're actually just doing this with like 20 people to make it safe and to not overcrowd the trains.

    But all of that work and looking at the subway changes and figuring out the route every year.

    It's funny and people react to it because there were people didn't know about it and reacted and hopefully had a laugh out of it. But, it just wasn't creatively exciting to me to keep doing that same thing over and over again.

    The MP3 experiment is very different because the script is different every year. it's a site specific project and the location is different every year. This year we're in Brooklyn Bridge Park and this year we're doing it in Bryant Park. And this year we're doing it in an open street in the Meatpacking District.

    So I'm able to make creative choices with the script each time. There are certain activities that I like to repeat just because they're really fun and I love doing them and, and people seem to enjoy it as well.

    Ling Yah: Were you never tempted to turn this into paying events and could be something as simple as $10, $20 when you have 2, 000 people coming, 3, 000, that's a lot and you do need to sustain yourself.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, no, it's something that I've struggled with, particularly with the mp3 experiment because I love making a video for that, but making a video is expensive.

    It wasn't expensive, maybe 20 years ago when it was me and other people who were. 25 years old who were happy to help out and work on something for free.

    But at this point we're established and successful. And everybody we know who works in video production is established and successful and needs to be paid. So a video is expensive. I don't like losing money on projects. There have been some years where I've definitely lost money on it.

    So I've thought about for that project, you know, well, maybe it costs a dollar to download the MP3. It's funny. A lot of years we ask people to bring a dollar bill and then there's a moment in the instructions where you're instructed to give a dollar bill to a stranger. Random people end up getting like 30 each because everybody runs up to them and gives them a dollar and that's good chaos right there.

    But I have had that thought, like, maybe they should just all give the dollar to me. And then I will be able to pay for the video production and break even but I haven't done that. The way that that project sustains itself is that we tour it. So I would love to go into Malaysia.

    Singapore's done it. We've done it in Hong Kong. We've done it in Taipei. I think it's maybe close to a hundred cities around the world where we have toured it. And unlike the notepad subreddit, where independent people are just copying it and doing it on the same day we actually tour it and set it up and produce it and, and charge for it.

    The project, I think, has probably overall been breakeven because if I tour one or two a year, then that's enough money to pay for the New York event. free.

    Ling Yah: Would you say that the tour is the only part that brings the money in? Because that is the reality. It is a career you have to go in.

    I mean, at the time you were at a desk and they were actually telling you, if you went in full time, you have to quit your job. I want to actually go back to that first. How did you decide on that? When you're given the ultimatum?

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. So, yeah, the first five years I was in New York, I was a temp worker, which meant I was just working in a different office every day.

    Or sometimes I'd get a gig that lasted a month or six months. And then I ended up working, turning into a permanent employee at a company.

    It was just coincidence. I was randomly assigned to this company as a temp worker just to be a secretary. But the company wasn't a event marketing company.

    Ling Yah: It's such a long name as well. It's like Vetteri, Berger, mcNally.

    Charlie Todd: Oh that. That's a different company. That maybe the first temp job I ever had was for an ad agency called Messner, Vetteri, Berger, McNally, Schmetterer. And It's a mouthful that you have to say every time.

    Right. And I was the receptionist. So every time the phone rang, I had to say, Meservatory Burger, McNamee Schmetterberger and I worked there for maybe a month. I will never forget the names of the people that owned that advertising firm and the order of their names, because I had said it a thousand times a day for one month.

    So yeah, I just worked random jobs like that. And then I ended up working for this company called Jack Morton, which was an event marketing company. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was staging events. It was just coincidental that I was given this temp job and then it turned into a permanent job.

    But it was funny because the people there started realizing as I was getting more popular words spread around the office, like, Oh, he's organizing really successful events on his website and they wanted to promote me to being in the creative department and not just being someone's secretary. But I realized that I would have to really dedicate myself full time to the work and that would take away from improv everywhere.

    It was at a moment where I was just becoming successful enough I was also starting to become an improv teacher at upright citizens brigade. So I was making a little bit of money Teaching improv. And I thought, I should take a leap right now and just focus on this.

    And I'm glad I did.

    Ling Yah: You should give yourself a timeline at that time, because you were essentially giving up your health insurance, which is quite a big deal.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah, in America, health insurance is tied to employment, which is really stupid and really unfortunate. But yeah, I guess, 26 at the time and was able to get like New York state health insurance.

    But yeah, it's scary to leave a steady job when you're in New York and you have rent. But I saw that things were starting to happen to me and I realized I could just teach more and more improv and, at least be able to survive on that.

    I was very lucky to have UCB theater and to be able to have that skill to be able to teach improv at night.

    Ling Yah: What was the path that you saw the potential and what has actually happened? Because I mean, a lot of people come to me because they've seen I quit my job after ten years in law and they'll go, Oh, but how did you decide to make that leap? That's the very scary thing of figuring out what the future is. I wonder what it was like for you and how it's turned out to be.

    Charlie Todd: Well, I mean, I made, I was becoming pretty successful when I made that leap. My last six months at that job, I was like, Leaving my desk to go to a conference room to do an interview with the New York Times or, having phone calls with this American life podcast from my desk.

    The things that I were doing were starting to get so much attention and we're going so viral online.

    I quit that job in 2005 and the job title influencer didn't exist. There are content creator or whatever people are saying these days.

    Ling Yah: So what did they call you back then?

    Charlie Todd: I don't know. I mean I don't think YouTube was around. I quit. I quit the job before YouTube. So I guess, I guess I, I mean, people did call me a YouTuber once YouTube started taking off.

    I don't know. I remember in I went to the Aspen Comedy Festival, and this is a big comedy festival that they had every year that really made a lot of people's careers. I was part of a showcase called Off the Web, and the idea was like, people who were doing funny things on the internet.

    That was a new thing. It was the first year they'd ever done it, and it was me and it was one of the guys from CollegeHumor. com. And a standup Chelsea Peretti. It was like three of us. We came up with a showcase of people who do funny things and they actually put it on the internet.

    Isn't that interesting. Let's come learn about this. It was not something that very many people were doing. So I don't know what people knew to call me, but at that time I was also still pursuing being an actor. I didn't know exactly what my path to making a living was going to be.

    Ling Yah: So it was very much, I'm getting lots of good publicity. This sounds very promising. I'm just going to go for it and see where it takes me.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. I mean,

    Ling Yah: I,

    Charlie Todd: when I was in the New York, when the New York times article came out, I had three people write me on the same day. Three literary agents write me and say, this should be a book.

    Cause apparently literary agents read the Sunday style section of the New York times. I had TV producers who were emailing me and saying, I want to make this a TV show. Even though none of those things were real yet, I knew this is the moment to try to turn this into something bigger.

    Ling Yah: Do you not consider, I want to try to get into late night because that's really established and prestigious?

    Charlie Todd: I was never a comedy writer. So many of my friends have written for late night and for television in general. That's not a path that I ever really took. I mean, I wrote a sketch or two, but I wasn't really focused on sketch comedy.

    I ended up doing a lot of writing. I write a script for the MB3 experiment every year. I write a lot pitches for things that I'm trying to sell. And I made a show for Disney plus where I had to write script outline.

    I am a writer, but that was not my career path. At one point I had a friend who was a producer on the daily show and there was a job opening at the daily show and he was like, should I recommend you for this?

    That was a tough decision because I loved that show. And who knows if I would have gotten the job.

    Ling Yah: You mentioned this in class that's Pixar in real life, which I really wish I got to see. What was it like just being behind the scenes and building this?

    Charlie Todd: That was a really, really fun opportunity. It's one of the things I'm most proud of. That opportunity came to be because we had had a series on YouTube called Movies in Real Life where we brought characters from iconic films into the real world.

    So we had nine year old boy dressed up like Harry Potter, wandering around Penn station, looking for track nine and three quarters with a stuffed owl surprising, you know, people in the commuter train station in New York.

    We had an actor dressed up like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, standing on the iconic Bow Bridge in Central Park, screaming, you shall not pass as he does on the bridge in the movie.

    We took these big moments from movies and we brought them into the real world and that was one of the most successful things we've ever done on YouTube.

    It's the only time we've really ever done a series and we released them once a week, which is more frequent. The algorithm was very pleased at that. A lot more pleased than it is with my normal pace of releasing videos.

    Then when Disney plus was starting, there was some development executives there who were interested in doing something similar.

    They reached out to us and said, you've done this. We want to do something like it. Can we do like a Disney in real life? We pitched them some ideas and then Pixar all of a sudden was interested in it being the theme of the show. So we got to bring Pixar characters and Pixar moments into the real world.

    We had a 10 year old Korean boy from up dressed up like Russell. You're asking real people if they could help him get merit badges on the streets of New York. We had a replica of Wally.

    This robotics guy who actually makes a lot of the droids and Star Wars area of Disney theme parks. He had a real remote control Wally that was to scale and three feet tall. We had Wally pop out of New York's trash mountains and surprise people on the street. It was a lot of like hidden camera surprises with Pixar characters.

    The series is it's still on Disney plus streaming.

    We're looking for the next one of those. Pixar was very specific about these characters and the way that they needed to look and the way that they needed to act but they were great, great collaborative partners.

    Ling Yah: Would you say a lot of the success that Improv Everywhere has experienced is successful because it's from New York?

    I cannot imagine, for instance, if you come and people go onto the MRT, we call it here in Malaysia, not the subway. You will have the religious police clamp down on you fast and toss you to jail.

    Charlie Todd: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the no pants subway ride doesn't work everywhere, but the no pants subway ride happened in subway systems in 20 countries at one point.

    But every year there would be like, Oh, Tokyo police arrested people for being in their underwear. And I think in India once there was an issue. In Russia once there was an issue.

    So there, there's definitely different social norms that can be broken in some places that can't be broken in other places. I think New York is really special for these types of events.

    What's great about New York is that we just have so much public space with foot traffic that is enjoyed by people.

    Most of North America people get around by car and all of our infrastructure is highways and, roads. 45 mile an hour speed limit roads with shopping centers next to them. So if you see people who are doing similar things to me or people that are doing public stunts or pranks on Tik TOK a lot of times they go to Walmart or they go to Target.

    That's in a lot of parts of this country, that's where you see other human beings when you're shopping.

    Here in New York, you see humans everywhere. You leave your apartment and immediately you're on a sidewalk filled with strangers and we have great public parks and people commute by cycling where you're more aware of your surroundings.

    I have toured and I've done things all over. Obviously in Europe, there's great public plazas and great public spaces for things like MP3 experiments. College campuses are tremendous spots. Every college campus has a big open grassy quad in the middle that has foot traffic.

    But I think New York just has the most public spaces. And also the thing that was really excellent about me starting this project in New York is that the bar is pretty high to get a reaction from someone . You walk into any subway car. There might be someone who's having mental issues.

    There might be someone who's performing and doing a tumbling routine, a showtime routine where they're pole dancing and doing flips there might be a mariachi band performing. You're constantly exposed to the unexpected in New York. Both the good unexpected and the bad unexpected.

    I realized very early on in my career that you have to do something that's truly remarkable to get a New Yorker to react and really notice. So I think that raised the bar.

    It's easy for somebody in the middle of the country to go into a Walmart and make a fool of themselves and get someone to react to it.

    Ling Yah: Was the socially distance office on the river, something that was remarkable for people?

    Charlie Todd: That's a very special project to me. So that was done in, I believe, October of 2020. You know, we had not been able to do anything.

    Yeah, we did the no pants subway ride in January of that year, and then we had all these things that we were going to do that one by one started to get canceled as COVID arrived.

    I have a friend, Nathan Austin, who has a group called the Thailand Institute that focuses on Staging creative projects on our waterways.

    New York is a series of islands. I live on the island of Manhattan, and we have all this water around us that we don't use. We have a growing ferry system, but for the most part, you ignore the water.

    And he has been focused on bringing creative projects to our waterways and showing people that you can use the water. It's public space.

    I connected with him over 2020 and went out for a socially distant boat ride with him on one of his rafts. And we started thinking well, what could we do and this idea of a socially distanced office came about. He had access to this big wooden raft that he had built and thought well, that's funny.

    People are working from home everybody's trying to say six feet apart still so what if we built this office in the middle of the east river, just just south of the brooklyn bridge.

    It was really fun to do. The one thing that's sort of Unfortunate about the resulting video is that everyone was still wearing a mask because it was 2020.

    You can tell that people are smiling and enjoying it when they're looking at it from the shore. You can read it in their eyes. You can't see their faces. That was another problem with COVID and improv everywhere. Our special sauce is filming people smiling in public spaces and you couldn't see faces there for a year or so.

    Ling Yah: Thankfully that's over now. I wonder what we can expect from improv everywhere in the future.

    Charlie Todd: Well, we have our new MP3 experiment video, which is coming out soon. And that's a project we're going to continue to do.

    Right now we're working to develop some new television concepts. We hope we can get lucky again and have a series like we did with the Pixar in real life.

    There's a number of ideas that are in my head right now that I'm brainstorming and hoping to make happen in the near future. But it's always uncertain what's next. A lot of times opportunities arrive. People will email with an idea or people will email and say, Hey, I've got a location for you. Would love to do something.

    We've ended up doing a lot of stuff for marketing purposes which was not the focus of improv everywhere when it started and still isn't.

    I've really been able to turn it into my career is a number of ways, one by touring and bringing these projects to art festivals and countries around the world or universities or conferences.

    I also do a lot of public speaking. That's been a big part of how I support myself and also doing things for brands. A lot of brands are realizing that the potential of doing something that is positive of surprising and delighting people and not just making a normal commercial.

    So I've had a lot of luck with different clients over the years. And target is one client that I've worked with a number of times. They come to me and say, we want to do something that's Christmasy. Do you have any ideas?

    And I say, well, what if we go Christmas caroling with an orchestra? And they say, that's great. We'll put a thanks to target for making this possible at the end of the video.

    And then I end up as a, as a director directing commercial projects and occasionally producing television series outside of improv everywhere.

    That's a very unpredictable career and we're always pitching different things and developing ideas and figuring out what's next.

    I feel very lucky that since quitting my job in 2005, I still call Improv Everywhere my job and it still brings opportunities and helps me create opportunities.

    Ling Yah: Just before we end, I want to share this photo I found, and I wonder what the story is behind this, because I believe this particular photo went viral.

    Charlie Todd: Well yeah, it's a viral photo of a viral photo, so to explain to the listener there's the distracted... Boyfriend meme. I think it was a photograph that was taken by a stock photography company in Italy, and it's three Italian models, stock photography models. And it's a guy holding hands with his girlfriend, but he's looking at a girl who just passed, and it's the distracted boyfriend meme.

    So, you're probably familiar with that. That's been a very popular meme over a long time period of time. There's a website called knowyourmeme. com. And there's sort of like Wikipedia of memes. Great website. And I've known several people who worked there over the years, including Nick Douglas, who runs it now.

    He invited my wife and I had to come to a party they were having at a museum, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I think they were celebrating their 10 year anniversary or something special like that, and they had a bunch of memes on the wall as if it was a museum exhibit, but it was really just one night only for this party.

    My wife happened to be wearing a red dress. And that's what the woman who's being looked at in the photo is wearing. And I said, Oh, Cody, why don't you stand in front of the picture in the red dress? I'll take your picture.

    Someone walked up to me and said, Oh, do you want to be in it? Okay, sure. I gave them my camera and I'll be the boyfriend.

    I wasn't dressed like the boyfriend, but, whatever kind of look like him and then the woman who happened to be volunteering to take the picture she was wearing blue like the other woman in the picture someone came up to her and said you should be in it too. So she got in it too.

    This picture got taken. I, maybe put it on Instagram. The woman in the blue dress who I didn't know, but we exchanged contact information. She reached out and said, Oh, can I have the photo? I sent it to her. she put it on her Facebook or something.

    Someone took that photo I think from her Facebook and put it on Reddit with the title, they got old.

    So the implication being, this is a reunion of the three people in this photo a number of years later. Look how much older they are, which was like pretty rude, I think, to all three of us, particularly my wife. The other woman in the photo is much younger than us.

    I think maybe five years had passed since this original meme and we're like, maybe close to 20 years older than the models in that photo. So everyone looking, it was like, Oh, wow, these people, how did they get so old in five years?

    So anyway, it's been a meme. That photo of a meme has turned into a meme. It's a funny story, but it's pretty annoying because it will never die. Like every few months it comes back again. It just sort of shows you how much misinformation there is on the internet and how you just can't trust anything.

    I think it partly goes viral because if you look at it for more than three seconds, it's obviously not the same people. So there's all these people in the comments, it's not the same people. Why are you posting this? And that just leads to fights in the comments, leads to more engagement, makes the algorithm happy and the picture goes viral again and again and again.

    I guess the benefit of it is that every two months I have a friend from high school or college who I haven't talked to in 10 years sent me an Instagram message saying like, is this you? I saw this. And then I have to explain it, but it's nice to hear from people.

    The lesson that I learned is unless you want to become a meme yourself, do not take a picture in front of a meme.

    Ling Yah: Does it make you rethink about putting yourself out publicly because you do that a lot. You're in a lot of videos.

    Charlie Todd: Yep. Well, I think ultimately end of the day, I cannot complain about this happening to my wife and I because for 20 years, I've gone and done stunts in public and often filmed people without their permission and put them on YouTube and things go viral.

    Now, if you're someone who was in Grand Central terminal smiling at people frozen in place, it's probably not going to have that much of an effect on you.

    By the way, when we do projects where we're surprising one person at a time, at least in maybe last 15 years, we do ask for someone's permission after the fact said, Hey, is it okay if we put this on YouTube?

    Because I. It's that That's that was kind of a tough thing to struggle with because as I said earlier, like really the magic of these things is that Ben Folds walks out of the restaurant and you never hear from him again, the guys who were in their underwear in the subway, they just left.

    But once I had a YouTube channel that had over a million subscribers, and I knew that this person was going to maybe be the main character of this video or they're going to be a big part of this video, then I feel the need to say like, Hey, could you sign a release form and be in this video?

    So that's kind of on a case by case basis.

    We did a project called the torch run for the winter Olympics, we had someone dressed up like a Olympic runner, actually lit torch in Manhattan and asking if somebody would take it around the corner because they were injured and they turned the corner and there's 200 people cheering for them and a news camera.

    And those people are very much like the stars of that video. So, I think it's polite to say, is it okay if we use you?

    But all in all, I can't complain about people putting my image on the internet because I've certainly put a lot of other people's image on the internet, including my own many times.

    Ling Yah: I'm glad you brought up the release form because that was the thing that I thought because I have a legal background.

    First thing that came to mind, and I had interviewed James Corden's boss, so obviously late night they have an entire team that is just built in to make sure everyone gets a release form.

    They just chase after the person and make sure they have the rights. And I thought, wait, but for you, you don't have the kind of support that these people have

    Charlie Todd: when, when we do have the support, we do it. So when we were making the show for Disney plus, we had that, we had a team of people getting a release form because Disney wanted every single person who appeared, you know, for more than a split second in those videos to be released because they're a giant corporation who has to worry about those things.

    For me personally in the 16, 17 years that I've had a YouTube channel, which is crazy to say I've had one person contact me and say, I'm not happy that I'm in this video.

    And YouTube has a blur tool and I said, no problem. I'll blur your face. And I blurred his face and he was satisfied with that.

    That was just someone who was on a subway car who was glancing at, we did a twins prank where we had a time travel prank of twins showing up on a subway car. I was surprised cause he was just looking and smiling, but not everybody wants their face on the internet. I get it.

    And fortunately YouTube had a tool for me to be able to fix that pretty quickly.

    Ling Yah: I wonder for anyone who's listening and feels very inspired and they might want to do something similar, what's your one piece of advice for them?

    Charlie Todd: My one piece of advice is just to go try something. You know, I have a lot of people who email me and say, I love improv everywhere.

    I'm trying to get something like this going at my college or in my hometown. But, I just don't have as many people as you do.

    Or it's just me and my five friends. And I write back and say, well, when I started, it was me and two friends. So five is enough.

    Two is enough. Maybe one.

    So if you're interested in this kind of thing, or really whatever your creative field is, is just try. I mean, so much has changed since the YouTube era.

    I think YouTube was the first thing that inspired people to be creators without having to ask someone's permission.

    When I was starting out, when I quit my job in 2005, it was like, well, I hope someone green lights me.

    I hope I can sell a TV show to MTV or comedy central. I hope that a publisher will buy a book from me.

    There were all these gatekeepers and then YouTube, particularly with the YouTube partner program changed that. And now with Tik Tok and all of the modern day social media, you don't have to ask anybody to go out and make a creative project.

    Just go do it. And it's okay if it's not great at first, you'll learn and you'll get better.

    Ling Yah: Charlie, it's been such a pleasure to have had you on.

    I love to end all my interviews with the same question. So the first is this. Do you feel like you found your why?

    Charlie Todd: Do I feel like I found my why? I think so. I mean, I think, the why that I do this is because I believe in public space. I believe in creativity in public space.

    I believe strongly in public space and I believe in the power of performance to make people laugh and smile and brighten their day.

    I think anything that I can do that gives people that experience of being in a crowd and in a public space, working together with the crowd, that uplifting feeling is something that fulfills me.

    So I think my why is to advocate for creativity in public spaces and to try to come up with unique ways to bring joy and laughter to people in public spaces.

    Ling Yah: What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

    Charlie Todd: I hope that my work with Improv Everywhere has showed that you can surprise people in a positive way.

    When I started doing this the whole genre of prank in the late 90s and early 2000s was very much embarrassing people, angering people.

    There was a show called boiling points on MTV. That was all about making someone reach their boiling point. And how quickly can our comedians piss people off? And I actually have multiple friends who got cast to be actors in that show.

    And I know it was not a super fun show to make for that reason. I hope that our work has shown you can go do something spectacular that is a surprise that has the sort of architecture of a prank but end of the day is a positive thing.

    And then I hope there's also a legacy of performances in public spaces being something that's encouraged and something that spreads around the world.

    Ling Yah: What do you think are the most important qualities of a successful person?

    Charlie Todd: I would say responding to email. I just have no time for people that don't email me back. Maybe email is not the medium of today.

    Maybe it's DMS on Instagram or whatever.

    I've had a number of times over the years where I've had an opportunity for someone and I wanted to cast them in something really exciting and you write and it's like, they don't write back.

    Or they write back too late and it's like, no, I gave that opportunity to somebody else. You didn't write back.

    So if an opportunity comes your way, you got to respond.

    Two other things. One being on time. There's no excuse to be late. Be five minutes early.

    I think that's a trait that people really respect. You're showing your disrespect for others. And then the third thing is remember people's names.

    It's something that successful people do. I have a notes document where I write down names that I'm trying to remember.

    My child just started kindergarten and there's a bunch of new parents that I've met. You know, it's hard to remember a bunch of new names at the same time.

    But I try to write down, okay, Jacob's dad is this name. People light up when you remember the name and give them that respect.

    Ling Yah: Makes a big difference. Where can people go to find out more about what you are doing, support everything that you are going to be doing?

    Charlie Todd: So improv everywhere. com is where you can see the archive of everything we've done over the last 20 years. And we have a YouTube channel, which is improv everywhere. And we're improv every on Instagram as well. But really I think the website itself. I know a lot of people don't go to. coms anymore.

    But take a break from your social media feeds and go to a website and poke around and you'll see a lot of stuff from a long, long archive.

    Ling Yah: And this evolved a lot from your Geocities days, for sure.

    Charlie Todd: Yes. Yes, that's right. Our web design is pretty good now.

    Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 131.

    The show notes and transcript can be found at If you have enjoyed this episode, please do leave a rating and review for this episode. Just head over to Apple Podcasts and scroll to the very bottom. Your review is the only way this podcast can ever reach more people and every review truly, truly helps.

    And please do stick around for next Sunday because we'll be meeting the editor in chief of one of Asia's most prominent startup focused media companies to talk about, you guessed it, all things Media and startups.

    So don't miss out, do subscribe and see you next Sunday.

    Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere and was one of the very first comedy channels on the platform in early 2006

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