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You may already be familiar with Improv Everywhere. It’s a loose-knit group of would-be performers, and generally unemployed people just looking for something different to do on a Wednesday afternoon, led by a guy named Charlie Todd. At the very least, you’ve probably seen their Frozen Grand Central YouTube, which has more than 15 million views. Your mom loooooves it. Your mom favorited that video on YouTube and she doesn’t even know what that means.

We could spend all day talking about what is wrong with Improv Everywhere: their pretentious use of the term “missions” (the correct term for what they do is “pranks”), their insistence that what they are doing is bringing joy to people’s lives by showing them that art can occur at any time or any place when what they are doing is bringing annoyance to people’s lives by showing them that it’s going to take longer to get to work, and, of course, their inability to face up to the reality of the hurt feelings they cause with a prank gone wrong.

But we are not going to spend all day talking about what is wrong with Improv Everywhere. IT’S INAUGURATION DAY! BARACK OBAMA! Nevertheless, I will say this with absolute certainty: even if you love Improv Everywhere, there is no denying that this video (thanks for the tip, Louis) is their legacy:

This ad (or as I like to call it: “wallet mission”) brings joy into my life by letting me know that a T-Mobile commercial can occur at any time or any place.

Improv Everywhere, BEHOLD YOUR LEGACY.

Comments (47)
  1. I can’t be cynical about the unmitigated joy Improv Everywhere brings. I find their “missions” mostly delightful.

  2. Eric  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 +4

    How could you possibly have a problem with Improv Everywhere? It’s goofy for goofiness’ sake. Are you familiar with the purpose of the internet?

  3. Chadams  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 +1

    In defense, bring joy and goofiness definitely teeters on either being annoying or remarkable. Often more annoying in practice.

  4. It’s official: there are no more viral videos. There is only viral advertising.

  5. *lol* It actually was a commercial!

    ahhhh That is great.

    I gotta admit, T-Mobile did a better job than the improv group, and it wasn’t merely a prank like all the freeze stuff.

  6. dammit Gabe, does life hold no joy???

    you seem so anti-everything, which is cool – but effin’ Improv Everywhere???

    What next? bunnies? teddy bears? Christmas? because that shit is waiting to be snarked to death.

  7. I like Improv Everywhere. I hate viral marketing. I’m torn.

  8. So what if Improv Everywhere spawned a piece of viral marketing? It’s not their fault. All viral marketing is a rip off of some viral video or other. That’s kind of the point of viral marketing. Duh.

  9. Lucas  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 0

    Your cynicism seems misplaced here, Gabe.

  10. Eli!  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 +3

    I think the issue is that Improv Everywhere comes off as smug and way too. It’s college-boy bullshit that’s the rough equivalent of smelling your own farts. Congrats – you did that; so fucking what.

    At best, it’s the once a year you work at a soup kitchen. But really you rode the subway in your underpants instead of working at a soup kitchen. Nobel Prizes for everyone!

    Also – the prank they played on that band was inexcusably callous, and their failure to acknowledge that is even worse.

  11. Eli!  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 0

    “way too precious”

  12. my name is gabe and i hate everything

  13. what is the prank gone wrong? the subway surprise birthday party?

  14. Have fun at dinner, Gabe.

  15. jaimie foxxx  |   Posted on Jan 20th, 2009 0

    Improv Everywhere is at least less pretentious than Gabe’s writing

  16. I will hate Improv Everywhere with you, Gabe.
    Just because as you mentioned, they are making it seem like this transcendent life experience or WHATEVER. When it is a prank. They dress up in best buy shirts and walk through best buy. At the time, they are the only ones in on the joke. Except the actual best buy employees who get naturally pissed off.
    Ditto pretending to be a small local band’s fan club. No matter how you paint it, total dick move. “Experiencing fame for ONE DAY” would be more like “Being mocked” to the band involved.
    If they advertised themselves as pranksters, we’d probably get along okay though.

  17. jane  |   Posted on Jan 21st, 2009 -1

    oh no, i did my job wrong :(

  18. Hey, guys, if you think about it, we’re ALL in Improv Everywhere.

    You’re welcome.

  19. meredith  |   Posted on Jan 21st, 2009 0

    I agree that they are obnoxious because the whole thing is a way for people to be in on something while the rest of the population looks on dumbfounded at the nonsensical thing that is happening. The people in on it get to feel really great and cool and above the normal people who don’t know what’s going on. Good for them, they make no sense.

  20. Ok, first off the link you provide for the prank gone wrong doesn’t really explain what happened. So, because of you, i went to iTunes and downloaded my first TV episode ever from them just to figure out what you and Eli! were talking about. After watching it i have to say i don’t see how it was mean. The band really enjoyed the show and the guitarist later said he had more fun with the fake audience than with the real audience at a later show. That was the whole point of that mission, as well as all the others I have seen by Improv Everywhere. IE brightens the day for the people involved and those who witness the event, either in person or on the interwebs. Sure, the guitarist from Ghosts of Pasha, and i guess the rest of the band members were understandably upset by the comments left of IE’s and other sites, but thats not IE’s fault. Like the leader of IE said, they had good intentions and i don’t see why you fault them for that. This whole post just seems like you were trying to pick an fight of some sort, because, as other commenters have said, IE is just fun goofiness that is impossible to hate.

    • oh, i beg to differ on the impossibility of hating it.
      i don’t hate it, but i find forced whimsy annoying.
      it’s like burning man: i am glad there are people doing it and enjoying themselves, and i also do not want to be included, AT ALL. if i was walking down the street and suddenly burning man was all around me, i would not be filled with wonder.
      i would be filled with ew, stop it and leave me alone.

  21. Jankrank  |   Posted on Jan 21st, 2009 0

    I can see how you hate these Second City dropouts. They’re too happy. Honestly. Who wants to bring joy to peoples lives? Fuck that. Seriously. Swear I’m not being sarcastic either. I leave that to the professional screenwriter/ex strippers with their fingers on the pulse of teenage sarcasm. So keep fighting the good fight Gabe. But I must say, you were totally wrong on your premature baggage (real word used as fake word) of 500 Days of Summer.

  22. How is “missions” a pretentious term? It’s always just sounded fun to me. Should Jack Handy have called his pieces “Deep Jokes” in order to be totally honest and straight-up with his audience? Do you just feel that IE’s enormous popularity is undeserved and so you will take it down a peg with a post? What the fuck is wrong with the entire Internet?

  23. I know Charlie personally, and you couldn’t find a less pretentious guy on earth. The man loves professional wrestling. He just wants to do cool stuff, and all the people who’ve joined Improv Everywhere want to do the same. I did several missions with them out here in LA, and it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.

    I’m sincerely distressed by the tone of this post. These are folks who are working really hard (and Charlie works *really* hard) to do something cool. Give people a crazy thing that happened that they can tell their friends about. Do something fun. If you see a video of a mission (and they were doing these missions before they were documenting them with video for the internet, don’t get it twisted) you see people laughing and being amazed, every time. As far as that THis American Life goes… well… without conflict there’s no drama and without drama there’s no This American Life episode. That’s the format of the show, and that’s how it goes.

    Also: the last thing I’d begrudge Charlie is the chance to make money on his work. The guy isn’t rich, he does commercials once in a while as an actor, he teaches at the UCB in New York… if an ad agency hires him to teach them how to do somethign awesome, then fuck it, that’s fine with me.

    I’m just shocked at how mean this post is and how mean some of these comments are. Nobody in IE is smug in the slightest. It is seriously the least smug thing I’ve ever done. It’s a goof. It’s fun. And it’s cool as shit.

    • There you are! I’ve been waiting for you! (Creepy!)

      Well, first of all, I would absolutely never begrudge anyone for making money. There is nothing in this post suggesting that Charlie Todd or Improv Everywhere or really anyone ever is to be faulted for wanting to get paid. I have absolutely no problem with that. I am teasing them for the fact that their “art” has been co-opted (and very quickly) into advertising, which is the exact opposite of showing people that art is all around you. And the fact that a T-Mobile advertising campaign is nearly indistinguishable from the original “mission” is funny to me.

      As far as the This American Life piece goes, I think that was a pretty thoroughly told account of what happened. They interviewed both sides. Now, you can take issue (as you did on your show) with whether or not the story is representative of everything that IE does. That is a separate debate. But you cannot argue that a failed prank that hurt people’s feelings is not a failed prank and that it didn’t hurt people’s feelings just because of what the intent behind it was. And I would argue that the people in Best Buy or the people in Abercrombie and Fitch, who are making minimum wage and just trying to get through the day aren’t particularly filled with “wonder” and “joy” to be turned into part of an over-educated, performance art stunt. On this particular note, IE is hardly alone in my criticism. It’s the same problem I have with man-on-the-street prank shows (although those at least have the decency to call themselves prank shows). If you want to go dance around Grand Central Station, be my guest, but when you forcibly include people in something without giving them the choice to opt out (for example, people AT WORK), it’s just rude. Maybe some people don’t want to be part of this wonderful world you’re creating.

      And also let us all be real here and not get it twisted. This is hardly that mean of a post. I listed some things that I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH, which is my right as a person WHO GETS TO HAVE OPINIONS. Perhaps the most obnoxious thing about Improv Everywhere is the fact that it takes itself so seriously (all goofiness aside) as this precious little diamond that must be protected from the heartless people who would dare to criticize it. The last I checked, Improv Everywhere’s YouTubes had millions of views. By your own admission here Charlie Todd is now getting paid by advertising agencies because AMERICA APPROVES OF HIS IDEAS. If Improv Everywhere is so great, what are you all so scared of?

      And I NEVER used the word smug. You take it back, Jesse Thorn.

    • “I’m sincerely distressed by the tone of this post.”

      Then you need to realize there are bigger problems in this world.

  24. Drew  |   Posted on Jan 21st, 2009 +1

    In other news, the Do you love me segment was sorely missing a dance up and down the steps routine and someone flipping in the air somewhere in the background.

  25. DOOTHY  |   Posted on Jan 22nd, 2009 +3

    gabe i am late to the game but “sincerely distressed” at the tone of your response. or rather, the fact that you left out a couple of things in it …

    # 1: jesse thorn pointed out that charlie loves professional wrestling and implied that this means he is the most unpretentious person on earth. ?

    #2: jesse has pulled back the curtain on this american life, and “fuck it,” really the whole news industry. “without drama, there’d be no american life.” this is damning stuff … ?

    these points aside, your response made way too much sense and also got me thinking that you should go to night school to become a judge of the internet.

    laughing and amazed, every time …

    DOOTHY

  26. Sally  |   Posted on Jan 23rd, 2009 +7

    I agree with Gabe. While I’m not wildly enraged at IE and I find some of it sort of cute and heartwarming, I really really resist the idea of these thirty-somethings with a lot of free time deciding what constitutes “joy” and then forcefully spreading it. There’s just something so condescending about the whole thing … Like I’ve been walking around with my eyes closed to the glory of the world until I see a hipster riding a Metro without pants and PRETENDING THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH IT OMG WTF MOMMY IT’S A WHOLE NEW WORLD.

    Of course, I am totally bitter.

  27. joe  |   Posted on Jan 25th, 2009 -5

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  28. Improve Everywhere is the Andy Goldsworthy of pestering people.

  29. Toby M  |   Posted on Jan 28th, 2009 -1

    I wish Improv Everywhere would stage a pretentiously titled “mission” at Videogum HQ. Clearly Gabe could use a break from his blogging – or its correct term, his “wasting of legitimate talent on this collection of low-level web snark.”

  30. Man, there are some cranky-ass people on this blog. I usually find the crankiness entertaining, but I can’t help but thinking of the IE-haters on this page as the sort of people who yell out their window at passers-by and then cry themselves to sleep, wondering why no one has the patience to love them.

    I mean, sure… not entertained by IE? Fine. But I can tell you by personal experience that pretty much everyone that’s doing it does it because it’s fun, and nearly all bystander reactions range from mildly confused to genuinely entertained. There is always thought given to whether or not it is a positive experience for those involved. Not every “mission” (or whatever you prefer) is equally successful, to be sure, but think about it: this is free, homemade entertainment in a world where millions are spent creating crappy, mean-spirited reality shows.

    We can’t have nice things.

  31. Improv Nowhere  |   Posted on Jun 3rd, 2009 -1

    Aww, it’s ok Gabe. Here, I’ll have a conversation to make you happy.

    A: It’s your boyfriend!
    B: No! It’s totally your boyfriend!
    A: What?! THE WORST!
    B: Nuh uh
    A: Uh huh
    B: He should SUICIDEZ!
    A: LOL!!!!!!!!

  32. Jesse Thorn claiming Improv America isn’t smug is like Paul Rubens defending someone against charges of public masturbation.

  33. don'tyoudaresmile  |   Posted on Jul 10th, 2009 0

    http://improveverywhere.com/2009/06/10/today-show-appearance/

    Watch the video and read the comments. It’s harmless.

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