Perhaps the most famous prank the group has pulled off is one they call Frozen Grand Central. Hundreds of Todd’s agents entered the famous terminal and simultaneously froze in place, creating the illusion that time was standing still. After five minutes, the agents unfroze and simply walked away.
“If you walk into Grand Central Terminal and you see hundreds of people frozen in place, you have that magical moment of ‘What is going on?’ ” Todd explains. “And then everyone unfreezes and just walks away, no explanation. That, to me, is such a great story to tell: ‘I think I saw time stop today.’ ”
Now You Know: Since its 2001 creation, Improv Everywhere has used tens of thousands of participants for more than 100 missions.
Instead of waiting for a juicy acting role, Todd created one for himself, using the whole city as his stage. Now, 10 years and more than 100 missions later, he still gets a buzz from surprising New Yorkers with these magical moments. A huge component of the group’s success, though, is the fact that it posts videos of its pranks online, opening the experience up to a virtual audience, some of whom are content to watch and laugh, while others want to get in on the action.
“People will do their own versions of our projects in other countries,” says Todd. “The Frozen Grand Central video spread so quickly. It was cool to see people in China and Lebanon and Israel and countries that don’t get along with each other, but [they] have the same sense of humor, the same desire to participate in something like this.”
A native of Columbia, S.C., Todd comes from a family of pranksters and spent a good deal of his high school and college years playing tricks on his classmates. He admits that his family was initially confused by the unusual career he’d created for himself with Improv Everywhere. “They were sort of surprised at first to get phone calls from me explaining some crazy thing I did at a bar, but from the beginning they’ve always been my biggest fans and are proud to forward on my videos to their friends as soon as they come out.”
The media soon took notice of the group’s shenanigans. There was a TV pilot shot for NBC in 2007 (it never aired), and then a book, Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere, published by William Morrow in 2009. Now, even the Guggenheim Museum has gotten onboard, sponsoring the group to participate in Stillspotting NYC (stillspotting.guggenheim.org), a two-year project that reflects on the noise and stillness of the city. For this, Todd and his collaborators conceived the Mute Button skit. A group of actors gathered in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and at premeditated intervals behaved as if a mute button had been pressed. Their loud conversations, saxophone playing and break dancing continued, but without vocalization or music, making bystanders suddenly and acutely aware of the stark contrast between urban noise and utter silence. Regardless of each mission’s goal, though, Todd and his agents have managed to achieve something else: the incredible feat of getting the urban dwellers they come into contact with to temporarily lower the shields that they walk around with; to look up from their cellphones; even to crack a smile.