On July 16, more than 3,500 New Yorkers converged on Battery Park City, iPods in hand, to take part in the 8th annual MP3 Experiment hosted by Improv Everywhere. Yesterday, we spoke with Improv Everywhere founder, Charlie Todd, about his group of pranksters and this latest experiment, which divided participants into two groups, assigned them white or black T-shirt colors, and had them meet at different locations and download different MP3 files. When the clock hit 8:30 p.m., everyone started their MP3s. The track lead the participants through a few warmups including a simultaneous jump, and then brought the two groups together at Nelson A. Rockefeller Park where they embraced and celebrated with flashlights, cameras, and techno music.
On its website, Improv Everywhere explains,
The premise this year was that the groups were two separate tribes who lived near each other but had never met. Tonight’s experiment would be “first contact.” Participants were taught the customs of the other group, including a bow, handshake, and dance. They would need to respect these customs when the groups came together. In reality, both groups learned the same customs, thinking they were the *other* group’s traditions.
We spoke with Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, by phone last night to find out more about the MP3 Experiment and his group.
What was the inspiration for this project?
I came up with the MP3 Experiment in 2004. I was brainstorming with my former roommate and comedian friend, Chris Kula, who now writes for Community. This was around the time when iPods were just becoming hugely popular, and we were talking about how when you were in a subway car and you looked around, 70% of people would have in those white earbuds. I had this idea that it would be really interesting if everyone on the subway car was listening to the same song simultaneously in their headphones. From there, we thought, “what if instead of just music, it was also instructions?” Later that year, we tried out the idea at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
How much has the MP3 Experiment grown since its inception?
In 2004, there were probably about 70 people, and we had a countdown clock on stage so that everyone would know when to press play. Most of that first MP3 Experiment took place inside of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, but at the very end, the crowd was instructed to leave the theater and do a couple of things on 8th Avenue. That ending was so exciting that it inspired me to do it again the next year. From there, it grew to this insane outdoor event, and it’s still growing. Last year, there were around 3,000 people, and this year we had more than 3,500, but it was hard to get an exact count. We’ve started touring the MP3 Experiment. We’ve taken it to college campuses, music festivals, Australia, and Europe. The touring version is kind of a greatest hits, but we try to make sure that every year in New York City, we do something new and different.
How do you organize it?
Most of the logistical work is in writing the script and composing the music. My musician friend, Tyler Walker, writes all of the music, and we work on the script together. We’re always trying to keep it fresh by developing new and different activities and concepts, and by designing the instructions so they will work and make sense to a huge mob that is probably distracted by being part of a huge mob of people.
What activities haven’t worked?
It’s funny that we still call it an experiment, but we try to push ourselves and do things that we’ve never done before, and sometimes the new stuff doesn’t work as well as we hope. In 2008, we hosted the MP3 Experiment on Governor’s Island, and we wanted to have people lock together and play a giant game of human Tetris. People were in four different colors, and they were supposed to form a Tetris piece with three other people of the same color, because all Tetris pieces are made up of four smaller blocks. It was just too complicated, and people couldn’t figure out how it was supposed to work. Even though it didn’t work, it was still fun to watch everyone running around in total confusion for a few minutes.
How did Improv Everywhere start?
In August of 2001, I had just moved to the city, and I was out with a college friend who thought I looked like Ben Folds because of the shirt I was wearing (I don’t really look like Ben Folds). We came up with this plan that we would try to convince other people at the bar that I was Ben Folds, so we entered the place separately. I sat down at the bar, and my friend got a booth. He finished his drink, and when he was leaving, he stopped and asked me for an autograph. He said it just loudly enough that other people at the bar heard, and slowly everyone in the bar was coming over to me and talking about “my music.” I played the role of Ben Folds for three hours. The bartender gave me free drinks, people took pictures, and I signed autographs.
Ben Folds was that perfect level of celebrity at the time where everyone knew his name, but they didn’t know what he looked like except that he had dark hair and dark eyes. That night opened my eyes to the possibility of performing anywhere. I was in the city putting in my time to become a real actor, but I decided I should put in my own time in public while I waited to be discovered. The Ben Folds thing was a really positive experience. It was fake, but no one was the butt of the joke. Everyone came out of it happier. That was when I realized the potential of under-cover comedy in public places to create a unique experience.
What’s your favorite Improv Everywhere prank or event?
We’ve done a more than a hundred things over the last 10 years, so it’s really hard to pick, but one of my favorites was called “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” On the night of a U2 concert in May 2005, I had friends who were in a U2 cover band dress up as the band and perform on the roof of my apartment building which was right across the street from Madison Square Garden, where U2 was going to perform that night. It was a ton of fun. There were hundreds of people going crazy thinking this was a real U2 show. The band played five songs, and the whole thing ended when the cops showed up and handcuffed me and handcuffed fake Bono. All the charges were eventually dropped, but they were pretty mad at the time. That said, I think we’re most well known for our No Pants Subway Rides or “Frozen Grand Central“
What are your future plans?
We have a few more things on the way this summer and fall, but there’s nothing I can announce yet. We’ll announce the No Pants Subway Ride in December, and it will happen in early January. I love doing these events, and I can’t believe that something that started as an off-the-cuff prank has grown to include events where thousands of people show up. It’s nothing like I expected it to be, but as long as we can keep coming up with fresh ideas that people like and respond to, we’ll keep doing it.