TED Radio Hour
8:55 am
Fri May 18, 2012

Why Do Crowds Do Absurd Things In Public?

Originally published on Fri May 25, 2012 9:05 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Power Of Crowds.

About Charlie Todd's TEDTalk

Seventy synchronized dancers in storefront windows. "Ghostbusters" running through the New York Public Library. The annual no-pants subway ride. All of these are the hilarious and unexpected public scenes Charlie Todd creates.

Todd is the creator of Improv Everywhere, "a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." At TEDxBloomington he shows how the group uses these scenes to bring people together.

About Charlie Todd

Bored by a temp job and tired of waiting for someone to give him a stage, comedian Charlie Todd decided to make his own. He started by walking into a bar and pretending to be musician Ben Folds. His success there led to Improv Everywhere's creation.

Todd has produced, directed, performed and documented the group's work for over 10 years. In that time they've run over 100 "missions," some involving hundreds or even thousands of "agents" to stage each experience. He is also a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York and the author of Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE AT TRAIN STATION)

ALISON STEWART, HOST:

Imagine, now, you're in Grand Central Station. It's a typical day; the main concourse is bustling with people buying tickets, rushing to their trains. And then, everything just seems to stop.

A few hundred people scattered around the hall, just going about their business, all of a sudden freeze in place. It happened in 2008.

CHARLIE TODD: A couple was in the middle of kissing. There was - three people posing for a photo. A man had just tripped, and dropped a number of documents from his briefcase. And everything just came to a stop. And then five minutes later, they walked away.

STEWART: That's Charlie Todd, the mastermind of this public display.

TODD: My name's Charlie Todd. I'm the founder of the group Improv Everywhere, which is a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. And my TED Talk was about Improv Everywhere, and the title of the talk was "The Shared Experience of Absurdity."

And I talked a lot about how, when we create these sort of bizarre, absurd moments in public spaces, it gives complete strangers an opportunity to sort of have a shared experience with each other.

STEWART: The inspirations for these come from all different places. There's one you did in - where you took over some store windows - a lot of store windows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF ABSURDITY")

TODD: Well, one day I was walking through Union Square, and I saw this building, which has just been built in 2005. And there was a girl in one of the windows, and she was dancing. And it was very peculiar because it was dark out, but she was back-lit with fluorescent lighting. And she was very much onstage, and I couldn't figure out why she was doing it.

After about 15 seconds, her friend appeared - she had been hiding behind a display - and they laughed and hugged each other, and ran away. So it seemed like maybe she had been dared to do this.

So I got inspired by that. Looking at the entire facade, there were 70 total windows - and I knew what I had to do.

STEWART: What did you have to do?

TODD: I had to get 70 actors to take over all of these windows in this retail building. And I stood in the park - Union Square, which is across the street, and gave secret signals to all the participants. And that led them to do coordinated activities together. So you had everyone dancing, and then we had a dance solo, where one person danced in one window and everyone else pointed at him.

Other activities - including falling to the ground, doing jumping jacks, holding up 4-foot-tall letters that spelled out the name of the project, which was Look Up More. And that was sort of the theme, to give New Yorkers in Union Square - maybe heading to the subway, or just heading home - the chance to stop and look up, and notice something magical that was happening.

STEWART: I wondered about the title of it because it did seem like it was making some sort of statement; that we all are walking around with our heads down, looking at our little mobile devices, or just trying to get where we want to go.

TODD: Exactly, and I'm as guilty as any New Yorker of that. I mean, I text and walk; and I'm reading on my iPhone, and listening to music, on the subway. I feel like often, you know, the only time you would really engage with a stranger is if something negative was happening. So if you were in line at the post office and it was a really long line - like, the person in front of you might like, give you a knowing glance.

But if you were at the post office and the line was moving really quickly, no one would ever turn around and go like, wow, great service today, huh? You know?

STEWART: Right.

TODD: So I like to create things that are so unusual - and hopefully, spectacular - that it gives strangers a reason to communicate and share a smile, and share something that is positive.

STEWART: You also explained to the TED audience another, very site-specific prank on a escalator at rush hour in Manhattan - which is a grim time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF ABSURDITY")

TODD: And one morning, I was riding the subway. I had to make a transfer at the 53rd Street stop, where there's these two, giant escalators. And it's a very depressing place to be in the morning; it's very crowded. So I decided to try to stage something that could make it as happy as possible for one morning.

So this was in the winter of 2009, 8:30 in the morning. It's morning rush hour. It's very cold outside. People are coming in from Queens, transferring from the E train to the 6 train. And they're going up these giant escalators on their way to their jobs.

TODD: So I had five performers hold up signs along the stairwell. And it was sort of like the old Burma-Shave signs where, on the highway, a message would play out over the course of several signs. So the first sign said, "Rob wants." The next one said, "to give you." Then, "a high-five." Then there was a sign that said, "Get ready." And at the very top of the escalator, there was the final sign, which just said, "Rob" and had an arrow pointing down to my friend Rob Lathan, who had his hand out, ready to give a high-five.

So in total, as people were going up the escalator, they read "Rob wants to give you a high-five. Get ready. Here's Rob." And I spent a lot of time towards the top of the escalator, watching. Almost everyone who left the escalator, left with a smile on their face. Whether they were in the right spot to give the high-five, or whether they just watched from the other escalator, everybody was smiling.

STEWART: The people who end up interacting with your pranks, it's - victim isn't quite the right word. And they were not unwilling participant, 'cause you have to decide that you're going to laugh at whatever's happening, or you're going to give the high-five...

TODD: Right.

STEWART: ...so it's this interesting way of getting people to engage. It's like a surprise engagement. I don't know...

TODD: Yeah.

STEWART: ...what to call it.

TODD: Yeah, I mean, I think most of our projects, you know, they're sort of an invitation to be a part of them. And not everybody wants to be a part of them. We've had a subway car that's filled with 40 people in their underwear, and someone who's reading the newspaper.

But, you know, there'll be 10 other people who are laughing and taking pictures, or even taking their own pants off. That happens occasionally, too, where someone will look around and realize oh, I'm the only person with their pants on in this subway car. I don't know what this is, but I'm taking mine off, too - we've definitely seen that.

STEWART: I'm joining the crowd.

TODD: Yeah.

STEWART: I want to be part of it.

TODD: Exactly, yeah. And I think ideally, we're trying to invite people in to enjoy an unusual moment together.

STEWART: What practical things have you learned about crowds, and what philosophical things have you learned about crowds, from your pranks?

TODD: One thing I've learned is that it's really fun to be in a large crowd. I mean, I've always loved crowds. I remember as a kid, going to football games at the University of South Carolina, where I grew up, and being in a massive stadium with 80,000 people; and just simple things, like doing the wave, being so much fun. And I was always just like, fascinated with it and I felt like - most of the game, I was just hoping the wave would come back.

But I think participating with a crowd and feeling like, oh - you know - this isn't just us cheering for something else or watching or spectating. We're doing this together. There's no right or wrong way to play and you really - you don't need a reason to come together and have fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF ABSURDITY")

TODD: You know, as kids, we're taught to play. And we're never given a reason why we should play. It's just acceptable that play is a good thing. And I think that's sort of the point of Improv Everywhere, is - it's that there is no point, and that there doesn't have to be a point. We don't need a reason.

As long as it's fun, and it seems like it's going to be a funny idea, and it seems like the people who witness it will also have a fun time, then that's enough for us. And I think, as adults, we need to learn that there's no right or wrong way to play. Thank you very much. Thank you.

STEWART: Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere, thanks for joining us.

TODD: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: You can watch videos of Improv Everywhere's pranks, and find links to Charlie Todd's latest exploits. They're at our website: ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.