Improv Everywhere is a New-York based performance art group that has come to fame for videos of publicly-staged performances that range from riding around a New York subway ride without pants to going into Best Buy in the same clothes employees wear to, most famously, having folks freeze in Grand Central Station for five minutes. The group has been going for over a decade now. We Cause Scenes (the group’s slogan) documents the group’s beginnings and adventures.
Back in 2001, Charlie Todd was living in New York City, trying to make a go of it as an actor. Friends had previously noted a similarity in looks between Todd and Ben Folds, so one night, when a friend greeted him with a “what’s up, Ben Folds,” Todd had an idea — he would go to a bar and use his friends to help him pick up chicks by making them think he was Ben Folds. The group performance aspect of this, particularly the public involvement, stuck with Todd and from this inauspicious start (which Ben Folds himself later sanctioned) came Improv Everywhere.
It began with Todd and his friends, staging public scenes and trying to interact with and engage the public, making it a hybrid between performance art, improv, street performance and pranks. Those early bits, such as a fake hypnotism routine performed in Central Park, are conflict-based to the point of angering some of the unsuspecting audience members. Todd quickly decided that the conflict-based pranks are too easy, so he decided instead to go with something more fun — rather than getting folks riled up, he thought, why not try to break up their routine with “organized fun”?
Which is where the idea of the No Pants Subway Ride came from:
This first video was shot with one camera hidden under a magazine, and they were lucky to get that woman’s reaction throughout. They are creating improvised scenes with strangers playing a part in the performance; when executed well, the result can be wildly entertaining.
The documentary takes us through these early days and then continues us along through the years, as Todd and others explain how Improv Everywhere worked on refining its voice while watching the group of “performers” (which they call “Agents”) grow, focusing pranks that create good chaos rather than bad chaos. It’s an entertaining journey, but where the documentary unfortunately falls short is that it fails to get into the truly meaty substantive pieces that hang on the periphery of this journey.
For example, there is plenty of talking head time from Todd and the other key players in the group on what Improv Everywhere means to them, but the far more interesting conversation is what these pranks mean to the public participants. Through random happenstance, Todd was able to track down the woman from that first No Pants Subway Ride video, so learn about her experience. Unfortunately, this two minute clip is the only real focus given to this effect of Improv Everywhere (aside from “live” reactions at the time the pranks are recorded, which don’t have the value of retrospect — for example, where folks have gotten angry at events, do they remain angry after the fact and, if so, why?). Similarly, Todd mentions a piece done on the group by Showtime’s television version of “This American Life,” and he expresses disappointment at the largely negative view of it. However, we don’t get much into that criticism or where the negative angle was coming from, something that is far more interesting than an hour and a half of Todd and the agents telling us simply why love doing what they do.
There are other side-stories like this that are given similar short shrift, from the global growth of copycat groups to the interplay between Improv Everywhere and the shortly-lived flashmob phenomenon, something which Todd thought could lead to the end of Improv Everywhere. In the end, this result in an entertaining film — because there’s no question that the best Improv Everywhere pranks are incredibly entertaining, and the story behind them and the group is a good one — but a doc that is disappointing in its lack of overall substance.
We Cause Scenes world premiered at South By Southwest 2013.