My first introduction to Improv Everywhere was the Best Buy stunt when 80 people dressed in blue polos and khakis entered the store and helped customers who asked them. The employees of the store attempted to have them arrested, but the police refused because wearing similar clothes is not a violation of the law.
Matt Adams’s We Cause Scenes: The Rise of Improv Everywhere (2013) tells the story of Charlie Todd and the rise of Improv Everywhere. The story starts with Todd impersonating Ben Folds and convincing some women he was the actual singer, and it continues with what has now become a global phenomenon.
Adams’s documentary uses extensive interviews and archival footage. The primary interview is with Todd himself, who later became part of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Todd recounts select scenes, including the no pants subway rides, MP3 Experiment, and the fake U2 show. Other interviews round out the background on many scenes.
Following each scene, Todd would document it online, first with text, then adding pictures, and later video. The evolutions of the scenes and their documentation occur alongside the changes in the internet since 2002 — remember Geocities and manually coding blog posts? If so, the screen shots will remind some of you of that dark time online.
The success of these scenes resulted in development money for an NBC pilot, which allowed the pranks to get bigger and better production quality. The 200 people freezing in Grand Central Station came from this deal, though NBC failed to pick up the pilot.
Other Internet changes boosted Improv Everywhere’s presence. The development of YouTube allowed for the easy uploading of the scenes, and social media augmented their viral potential. The scenes gained imitators from around the world and invitations to use venues such as the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.
Two small observations: Web site screen shots still seem odd as archival materials. And even the best-composed music when run throughout can be distracting at times.
Even though some people criticize Improv Everywhere, this entertaining documentary reminds us how important it is to get together and have fun once in a while.