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Paul Tompkins Debates Improv Everywhere’s Founder
March 2, 2010 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins debates Improv Everywhere's founder. (via)

"I am not a fan of chaos. Personally, chaos makes me nervous, because it makes things seem downright chaotic. I don’t equate fun with uneasiness. So I’ve never been a fan of IE.

I’ve also never been a fan of criticizing other comedians publicly—ape shall never kill ape and all that—but I don’t like pranks. I think they’re mean. I feel sorry for the people who get pranked. So after being sent a link to a recent IE "mission" I made a joke about them...That same day I was contacted in my home—my HOME-- by Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd. We had a good debate about what he does and how I feel about what he does.

With Charlie’s permission, I have published our exchange below."


Previous Improv Everywhere on Metafilter
posted by anazgnos (59 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not that I'm surprised or was expecting differently, but I sure am glad both men remain so reasonable and good at what they do.
posted by Doug Stewart at 5:13 PM on March 2, 2010


Is this going to devolve into a debate over IE? Because I've seen that debate before from this crowd. You know what I haven't seen? A debate over whether Paul F. Tompkins is hilarious or super hilarious.

Personally I think he's super hilarious. When he hosted Comedy Death Ray it was way funnier than that other guy. And also, he's probably the best guest on The Best Show. Tom and Paul is a comedy duo that could be legendary and epic if only they gave it some effort.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:13 PM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


I sure am glad both men remain so reasonable and good at what they do.

This. I am quite comfortable coming down firmly on one side (IE's) but it's easy to leave this debate with the feeling that both parties are sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning. Sometimes, I like to imagine a fantasy universe where politics is conducted in the same fashion.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:16 PM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


I can see Tompkins' point about pranks making him uncomfortable, but though IE's schtick could certainly be construed as annoying, they rarely if ever seem outright malicious. The supermarket musical, for instance, seems like a pretty innocuous thing to get worked up about - the worst reaction I perceived was mild discomfort or annoyance, which is not too far off what a person might normally feel while shopping. I certainly didn't see anyone who seemed "terrified."

I have definitely seen some pranks perpetrated in the name of comedy that were quite cruel, and those people deserve censure and no laffs. But I don't recall IE doing anything truly meanspirited. (Feel free to correct me if I missed something rude.)
posted by louche mustachio at 5:16 PM on March 2, 2010


I will agree that PFT is one of the most hilarious people on earth, and try to not be offended that the wonderful Scott Aukerman was just called "that other guy."

And, something something Charlie Todd.
posted by The Deej at 5:20 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting post. I guess I fall somewhere in between. I have no particular objection to IE, and I think it's an interesting subject (I enjoy reading about them), but I just don't think they're funny. They don't work as comedy for me.
posted by brundlefly at 5:21 PM on March 2, 2010


But the bystanders in the videos are generally smiling!

Ahh, the ambiguous adverb, where the truth goes to hide.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:26 PM on March 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


I have no idea what Tompkins is talking about.
posted by ageispolis at 5:29 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know a damn thing about Paul F. Tompkins but I do know that IE is much funnier in theory than in practice.

But the bystanders in the videos are generally smiling!

1) Bystanders
2) "generally"
3) I smile when I'm pranked too, because of societal pressure, but I'm livid on the inside. GodDAMN I hate pranks.
posted by DU at 5:31 PM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Todd's response kind of reminds of that overbearing family member who gives you violent nouggies and plays horrible pranks but comes out with "OH YOU LOVE IT/IT'S ALL IN GOOD FUN" and that's deemed an acceptable reason and the family allows him to continue, even though the reactions are far from "loving" and "fun".
posted by amethysts at 5:32 PM on March 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Why would this become a debate over Internet Explorer? Oh, that IE. Right. I generally understand comedy, except when in shorthand. Stenographer jokes are just weird.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:37 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


The biggest condemnation and praise I've seen regarding Improv Everywhere was on This American Life, where they went into fairly deep detail about the Ghosts of Pasha prank. And how those guys basically retreated from the world to escape the attention the IE prank had brought on them. The piece wasn't all that one sided. They seemed to try to get as many angles on it as they could. I guess what stuck with me most, though, was one of the guys in the band saying that if he had to pick between feeling totally loved for a night - even if it's fake - and not feeling it at all, he'd take it for the one night, even fake. But that the aftermath is crushing.

I don't know if IE is necessarily a bad thing. But Charlie Todd comes off to me as a dude who doesn't give much thought to other people's feelings. He tends to brush off any negative consequences as not a big deal, or not important. I think he's self-centered and that his motivations are suspect. Maybe if I met him in person I'd change my mind. Not sure I'd really want to meet him in person, though.
posted by shmegegge at 5:50 PM on March 2, 2010 [9 favorites]


in fact, his kind of "no, it's a harmless gesture and there's nothing wrong with it no matter what" dismissals remind me a little too much of our most angry meta threads.
posted by shmegegge at 5:51 PM on March 2, 2010


Interesting. I have basically the opposite reaction to IE. Most of their pranks strike me as inoffensive and silly, without a real target (see for example this skit in which they try give a bunch of little leaguers the experience of playing a professional game). The handful that actually intend to mock the audience, such as the Antov Checkov book reading, are their best, IMHO.
posted by Gnarly Buttons at 6:06 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Really? The best argument he can muster against IE is 'won't someone think of the hypothetical people who are afraid of singing who go grocery shopping whilst upset over a relative's suicide?'
posted by jacquilynne at 6:09 PM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


Tom and Paul is a comedy duo that could be legendary and epic if only they gave it some effort.

Have you heard that they're developing a sitcom together?
posted by Old Man Wilson at 6:14 PM on March 2, 2010


Are you messing with me?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:16 PM on March 2, 2010


Anton
posted by Gnarly Buttons at 6:18 PM on March 2, 2010


I followed the links from the blog to that This American Life episode, which I hadn't heard before. I know if the "best gig ever" prank had been pulled at my expense, I'd be absolutely livid, and I imagine most artists of any stripe would feel the same. Some of their stuff is interesting, but the ones that are directed at people make me wonder how Mr. Todd has escaped physical violence for this long.
posted by chaff at 6:30 PM on March 2, 2010


Are you messing with me?

Check it out
posted by Old Man Wilson at 6:44 PM on March 2, 2010


I've never heard of Paul F Thompkins. Somebody link me to videos/clips of him that will make me instantly fall in love.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:53 PM on March 2, 2010


Also: I don't think Improv Everywhere is necessarily in the comedy business. They aren't doing these things just to be hilarious. Rather, they seem determined to give people meaningful or memorable experiences where they're not expecting. So, Gnarly, while I get what you mean about liking pranks with a target, I really like the little league bit, because of what an unexpected joy it must've been for the people on the team. You go out expecting not much, and you get something magical. Not a prank as much as an unexpected encounter.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:55 PM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think IE is pretty hit and miss. I thought the grocery song was pretty neat, but don't care for the fake birthday thing in the bar.

That said, I would love to experience one of their pranks in real time. It's like...free story! I'd be annoying my friends for years with tales of the Best Buy filled with employees or the five minute repetition at Starbucks or most of their tricks. Even the band thing would've been pretty sweet.

Probably better that I haven't, really.
posted by graventy at 7:05 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of Paul F Thompkins. Somebody link me to videos/clips of him that will make me instantly fall in love.

You could Google it, but you'd have to spell his name right.
posted by The Deej at 7:16 PM on March 2, 2010


I liked the part where the comedian's twitter joke hurt the prankster's feelings.
posted by orme at 7:21 PM on March 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


Thompkins comes off as a bit of a curmudgeon, in the sense that he only wants people to do what he expects, where he expects it. That's pretty boring. I definitely believe in challenging peoples perceptions and I would prefer that it be done gently and with a sense of humor. I'm all for street theatre to the extent that it's not too confrontational and remembers to observe peoples space.
I do think the "best gig" was a little cruel and they did a birthday party for a stranger at a bar that I thought was a bit out of line too. They seemed to have pulled away from that. The TBS coverage of the random little league game was awesome and I think the people standing still thing was at least is at least interesting.
I think it depends on the space too. Sending a 100 blue shirted people into Best Buy is funny because I don't like Best Buy. For the manager of the store (who may be a very nice person, for all we know) not so much. Singing in the supermarket doesn't bug me as much, they aren't actively trying throw a monkey wrench into the stores inner workings, they're just co-opting it's space and tweaking the social rules. To the degree that a given space is considered open, I think occasionally tweaking the rules is probably a net good for most people. Seeing something different that gives someone a reason to question the norm is a good thing.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:29 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I heard an interview w/ Todd somewhere in which he basically acknowledged that some of his early bits had not been that well thought out, and ended up with people feeling like the butt of a joke rather than participants in something hilarious. But I can probably count on one hand the number of missions that seemed sort of mean-spirited (birthday party, perfect gig, that Ben Folds thing). OTOH, I think that their fake subway marriage proposal, their escalator high-five, and the grocery store and lunch musicals were nothing but fun. I saw only smiles in all of those videos.
posted by Gilbert at 7:43 PM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even if a prank isn't intended to be malicious, it never feels good to be deceived. I think IE stuff can be entertaining when directed at the collective, such as the food court musical or the frozen grand central mission, but turn cruel when targeted at a specific individual or group. The This American Life episode does a pretty effective job of showing how disturbing it can be when a large number of people act as if they are in a different realty then you. It makes you question your senses and wonder if you've gone insane.

Charlie Todd comes across as a bully. He may in fact believe that he is bringing unexpected joy to the world or at least making some people snap out of their routines, and in some cases he even succeeds. However, I don't think he really does it for those things. He's doing it because screwing with people's heads (even in a good way) provides him with a sense of power and achievement
posted by arcolz at 7:53 PM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


A lot of IEs stuff sounds pretty neat, but I have to agree with what shmegegge and chaff said.

When talking about it Todd often comes across as someone who just frankly doesn't give a fuck about how his actions may affect other people negatively. Eventually that attitude coupled with a high public presence will get you either sued or kicked in the nuts.
posted by edgeways at 7:59 PM on March 2, 2010


I think the best way to reconcile both sides, is that Charlie Todd gets to be a "secret special guest" of Kicked in the Nuts for seven episodes, each a day or so apart. When does it happen during the day? Who knows? When will Charlie finally crack and fear to go outside? Day five, Day Six? When it's finally over, since the seven episode limit is known only to the Kicked in the Nuts people, when will he go outside again? He'll never know when the show ends, and we can call it even, and everyone goes home happy.

Too severe? Well, we won't know if Charlie enjoyed it until it happens. Who knows, maybe he'll be a good sport about it.
posted by chambers at 8:05 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, in the last episode, as many people as possible follow him or show up wherever he goes that day wearing big orange wigs. Hundreds of possible nut-kickers, everywhere!
posted by chambers at 8:08 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


To me, IE is pretty obnoxious and it's just this whole asshole-ish attitude of "Hey everybody, look at me, look at how wonderful I am and what I am doing for YOU! Your life sucks and you are so boring and HEY, here we are, doing random bullshit and drawing all the attention to ourselves just for you, to make your life more interesting, Hooray! Look at me! Look at me! Yay!!!!!"

Then again, I did just literally eat a plate of beans...
posted by jefbla at 8:13 PM on March 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Charlie Todd is a genuinely nice and funny person (difficulty: went to school with him).
posted by infinitewindow at 8:49 PM on March 2, 2010


I followed the links from the blog to that This American Life episode, which I hadn't heard before. I know if the "best gig ever" prank had been pulled at my expense, I'd be absolutely livid, and I imagine most artists of any stripe would feel the same. Some of their stuff is interesting, but the ones that are directed at people make me wonder how Mr. Todd has escaped physical violence for this long.

The way in which the IE people completely fail to understand how somebody might not enjoy being patronized in that way has permanently stamped them as douchebags in my eyes. They came across as being completely wrapped up in themselves, pretending to like the band to make themselves feel good, and once the ruse was over, they could all stop pretending. God forbid any of them actually listen to the band, or buy a CD, or tell them 'good show' afterwards, or show up to the next gig.

There's a Dan Clowes strip in his 20th Century Eightball collection called "Man-Child" that completely nails what I think the IE mindset is, all the more remarkable in that it was done a few years before IE and even youtube were up and running. I wish to god I could link to it. but a crude approximation:

Man Child: "I'm a free spirit! I'll go into that office building and sing for the workers, because normal people deserve art too!"

[Man Child enters office building and begins singing loudly and tunelessly while gyrating about. He then begins to urinate on the office workers.]

[Man Child is ejected from the building]

Man Child: Gotta get home and see what they're saying about this on the internet!
posted by anazgnos at 8:58 PM on March 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


A friend was describing how his vocal group was grabbing some pizza after a show and they decided to just do a couple of numbers there in the restaurant. He thought it was the best thing ever.

I nodded and didn't voice my opinion, which was "if I'm eating pizza in a restaurant and a neighboring group breaks out in song, I'm going to be annoyed. One, because I'm there to eat pizza with my own friends, not to pay attention to you guys, and two, it's pretty likely I'm not going to enjoy your performance in any case, it's just not my gig."

It would be the same in a supermarket with a musical erupting around me. I completely understand that other innocents would be delighted, but I'd just be like "oh, c'mon, I just want to grab a jar of peanut butter and get out of here."
posted by maxwelton at 9:24 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


IE strikes me as a bunch of self absorbed art school bullshit. I knew a bunch of people in my early twenties who would stage things "to freak out the norms!", and it just made me want to punch them in the face.
posted by broken wheelchair at 9:42 PM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am personally trying to come up with why I have a problem with IE that doesn't make me sound like an insane, delicate flower of a man. It's just- when I'm going to work, or at the grocery, and these things occur? It's not a brilliant ray of sunshine into my day. My day was doing alright, actually! It's just another thing I have to, on some level, deal with. And obviously it wouldn't ruin my day- I'm not so far gone that someone demanding high fives would send me up the wall- but you could not stand in a subway exit and demand high fives. That is a thing you could do, and it would mean one less person bothering me on my way to my actual life.
Once, a bunch of my friends decided to do a "party car" on the Montreal subway. Because I guess I am designated wet blanket, I gave some suggestions to minimize the hassle that other riders would feel: we all got on at the first stop on the line, so that we weren't barging into already-occupied cars. We did it late enough on a Friday that we weren't bothering any normal-hour commuters. We did it in the furthest car from the entrances, so that we would displace as few people as possible. The idea was, of course, that other people- many probably on their way to revelries themselves- would join in our fun.
What actually happened, was, of course, we pissed a ton of people off. A lot of people DID come into our car, and either immediately kenned to what was going on and moved to the next car or got off, glaring, at the next stop. I actually got off early because people were so visibly pissed. In fact, we did foster one type of community- the next car was filled with people talking with each other about what assholes we all were.
Obviously, having a party on public transit is more invasive than what IE does. But... people have their daily lives. Those lives are probably not all really that great. Random musicals are, in my mind, probably not the best answer; maybe (probably) (almost certainly) I'm too sensitive, but I find the Improv Everywhere missions to be just more shit people have to deal with every day.
posted by 235w103 at 9:52 PM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think it's much more likely that a person dealing with a suicide and/or having a horrible day would have their mood improved by an unexpected song.

what
posted by 235w103 at 9:55 PM on March 2, 2010


I think a large part of what makes me a little uncomfortable about IE is that the intereaction is so... one sided.

Yeah, sometimes the Jackass guys would play pranks on strangers, but they played pranks on each other, too - they eventually got comeuppance. Doesn't make it right, per se, but to me that makes it go down a bit easier. (The fact that they seem to get hurt physically so much also suggests that karma is indeed a bitch.) Tom Green did a lot of stuff to random passerbys that I think is downright rude, to say the least, like covering a microphone in dog shit and then waving it in people's faces. But a lot of his comedy came from riffing on people who he personally knew, who had either volunteered for it or who could have some voice in what aired, or who could sit him down and set him straight when he crossed a line. I seem to remember that a lot of the Tom Green Cancer Special was his mom telling him to put down the goddamn camera and be serious for a minute.

But this isn't really the same thing at all. It turned out that later This American Life came along and gave Ghosts of Pasha a forum to voice their uspet, but at the time that prank was planned, it was designed to be one sided. We show up to your show, we do what we want, we go home and crow about it. Ghosts of Pasha isn't going to bumrush an IE meeting and do something potentially embarrassing. The whole point was to find someone without a fanbase, so they didn't have an equal army of people to retalliate with. I believe them when they say that their intentions were good, but let's face it - riffing on strangers is an iffy ethical prospect because you might never know if you ruined someone's day or offended them. You'll never get a chance to make it up to them, either, not that anyone at IE seems willing to do that anyway.

Regardless of how much joy they bring to people - and I have no doubt that they do, for the most part, brighten people's day - I agree with Paul Tompkins. These guys are purposefully challenging the social contract: if you go to a comedy club, you volunteered to hear something - thats what we designated that space for - and you can leave if you don't like it without having been truly inconvenienced... but if you just want to use the subway to get to where you want to go, you should be able to do that unobstructed, because when you get on the subway, you don't vote for that. That space is for everyone, and to try to dominate it is just selfish.

And to be clear, by selfish I don't mean unforgiveable; because again, I don't think they mean to be rude, and I don't think it ends up being rude most of the time. But it does end up being rude often enough that the fact that they don't seem to be able to admit that it can offend people, or to honestly apologize when it clearly has annoyed people is downright disengenious.
posted by Kiablokirk at 10:20 PM on March 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


honestly apologize when it clearly has annoyed people is downright disengenious.
IE's done so so in the rare circumstance when it had.
posted by ShawnStruck at 10:29 PM on March 2, 2010


The This American Life episode does a pretty effective job of showing how disturbing it can be when a large number of people act as if they are in a different realty then you. It makes you question your senses and wonder if you've gone insane.

So why are we all on IE's case when there are no fewer than 30 management structures of DJ30 companies and 500 of Fortune 500 companies that have spent years making Dilbert seem less like the far side and more like another damn e-training I have to take.

The other day, for example, I spent an hour learning how a computer file structure works on our new data archival system. Hint: the same way every other computer file structure on every computer system that I've used in the past 30 years that didn't save things on a cassette tape, only they're super clever and given every layer of directories a unique identifier in a sort of file cabinet analogy. An hour of this stuff. Your 401K is probably partially invested with us. You could move that money to another companies stock, but there's a reason why Scott Adams can sell Dilbert to roughly a billion newspapers a day. Just saying.

If bumping into 50 people at Best Buy all wearing a blue polo shirt and tan pants is going to be the thing that makes you question your sanity, maybe you NEED to be questioning your sanity.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:35 PM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, sometimes the Jackass guys would play pranks on strangers, but they played pranks on each other, too - they eventually got comeuppance.

This post got me thinking on those same lines. Has IE ever done any pranks on themselves? Not only would it preempt some criticisms, it would also take their pranks to a much higher (and potentially funnier) level of unpredictability.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:49 PM on March 2, 2010


It really is a self-gratification thing. The little lie is that it "brightens peoples' day," but really, it's about seeking attention. I don't think Paul Tompkins' point is curmudgeonly; he's basically saying, "Hey, don't be a dick. Surprising people with stuff that they didn't want or ask for can easily verge on a dick move."

Sure, you can point to IE events that were just mild fun, didn't inconvenience people, etc., but when the main ethos behind it seems to be "We're awesome and you're not. We're fun and you're not. We will forcibly inject our awesome fun into your eyes and ears," well, it's just uncomfortable.

Pranks tend to be unfunny unless they're on friends or on people who've earned them. It's not the end of the world that people play pranks, and pranks of course have a range between actively dangerous and cheerily whimsical, but pretending that you're an angel of light because you prank people doesn't really fly either.
posted by Scattercat at 1:51 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


I feel for you people. You're comfortable in your own homes - nothing unexpected, choose your own site/cable channel/party. Well, the public space doesn't work that way. The street is the unexpected. You should embrace surprises, turn bad situations around - sometimes a late train is an occasion. Of course you can bitch about it and feel righteous, but you'll be 1) feeling worse 2) eventually, dead inside. I feel this reaction is really sad and I'm sorry to see that you're bothered by life. You plate-of-beaners could use a reading of Bourdieu's Distinction - snark is social distinction, too.
posted by Baldons at 3:11 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Old Man Wilson:

Thanks for the link! I know the likelihood of that thing 1) getting produced and 2) making it to air are slim to none, but I hold out hope.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:58 AM on March 3, 2010


I feel for you people.

Mmmm...pompous pity. Goes so well with a cup of coffee and an English Muffin - my breakfast is complete!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:00 AM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pranks tend to be unfunny unless they're on friends or on people who've earned them.

Are you saying Abercrombie and Fitch hasn't earned a bunch of guys showing up without their shirts about a billion times over?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:34 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I work at the foot of Beacon Hill here in Boston and my office overlooks a major throughway for both locals and tourists: Tremont Street. Every so often a parade comes marching down the street. Sometimes, it's a well-publicized parade, like when one of our sports teams wins a championship, but other times, it's a really small parade made up of a few VFW units, some cops, some historical re-creationists, and a few classes from military schools.

I tend to stop and watch the smaller parades from my window because of the one time it was so windy that a gust managed to whip the hats off everyone's heads and send them, along with a particularly small cadet with a particularly large flag, blowing down the street. Hilarious.

Anyways, while waiting for unintentional comedy, I can watch the reactions of the people around the parade. The tourists always seem to be excited; "Hey, a parade! Let's take pictures!" The locals are always pissed off; "Why can't I cross the street?" Following the parade is always a tide of pissed off, honking cabs.

IE is that little parade. To those not on their way to something or otherwise occupied, it's a fun surprise. "Ooh, let's go see them fire that cannon!" To those whose routines are interrupted, it's reviled, even if those same people tend to enjoy parades at other times. I like them because I can view from the safety of my office window - when I'm done viewing, I can move on with my life.

Like the little parade, IE missions are about IE, not the people viewing it. "Look at us!" both groups say, "View our love of country/whimsy!" That's fine for the people who want to view (either at the event-level itself, or like me and those who watch missions on the internet, from afar, with the ability to disengage whenever we want), but it's pretty demanding on those who do not. IE does not seem to understand that, that with many of their missions they're pretty much demanding that people around them conform to IE's ideas as to how the next fifteen minutes are going to go, like it or not.

I suspect that, should a group of people show up at an IE mission wrap party and insist that everyone present fill out boring paperwork for fifteen minutes before they can get to the booze and upload videos, that their reactions would be similar to the cabbies, commuters, and disinterested bystanders at the parade.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


If bumping into 50 people at Best Buy all wearing a blue polo shirt and tan pants is going to be the thing that makes you question your sanity, maybe you NEED to be questioning your sanity.
Actually the This American Life episode chronicled a prank which was much less innocuous than 50 people in Best Buy all wearing a blue polo shirt and tan pants. This random guy was suddenly ambushed in a bar by a bunch of IE agents who all seemed to think it was his birthday and that they were at his birthday party. They called him by a different name from his real one and had constructed an elaborate background story about his life upto that point. That IS exactly the sort of thing that might lead one to question one's sanity and wonder if everyone else is right and you are wrong. They went so far as to have Chuck Todd call him a year later and wish him fake happy birthday, again calling him by the name they'd randomly assigned him. For me, that definitely crosses the line into something that could be an unpleasant and unsettling prank.
posted by peacheater at 6:34 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Occasionally I compare current tv shows with the ones onthat dystopian funride, The Running Man. We get closer every year. This post has me thinking about a show that would be a midway point between IE and that movie:

Everyday Job, a US citizen, picked at random, given a chance to be in an everyman documentary, then has everything taken from him, his house, wife, children, reputation, doc gives him given six months to live, etc. Then, at the season finale, he gets it all back, if the audience gives votes him enough votes by text message.
posted by chambers at 7:48 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually the This American Life episode chronicled a prank which was much less innocuous than 50 people in Best Buy all wearing a blue polo shirt and tan pants. This random guy was suddenly ambushed in a bar by a bunch of IE agents who all seemed to think it was his birthday and that they were at his birthday party. They called him by a different name from his real one and had constructed an elaborate background story about his life upto that point. That IS exactly the sort of thing that might lead one to question one's sanity and wonder if everyone else is right and you are wrong. They went so far as to have Chuck Todd call him a year later and wish him fake happy birthday, again calling him by the name they'd randomly assigned him. For me, that definitely crosses the line into something that could be an unpleasant and unsettling prank.

Todd had this to say about that:
"the [mission] was covered by This American Life in a very negative way. While that mission itself was a total blast, and it seemed like the “Ted” that we picked had a great time (hugging us goodbye and thanking us at the end of the party), he told This American Life a year later that the experience had upset him greatly. In the end, I think we just got unlucky and picked the wrong person. This American Life did not give me an opportunity to respond to the news that “Ted” did not enjoy the experience and instead edited in an earlier interview with me that made it seem like I was heartless and unapologetic. For the record, of course I was upset to learn that he had a negative reaction to the mission. You can read a little more about my thoughts on the TAL coverage on a Reddit Q&A I did here and here."
posted by ShawnStruck at 9:11 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


When among the general public, whether situated on indisputably public space or not, you have every right to expect invasions of your person not to occur. Nobody has the right to give you a “choice” between a panhandling donation and a “hug,” as a notorious six-foot-tall beggar does on Church St. in Toronto. Nobody has the right to rob, mug, assault, or murder you, or utter a death threat. There are a range of actions you have a right to be sheltered from.

You do not have a right not to be exposed to the generally joyous and always amusingly intended episodes of Improv Everywhere. I’ve read about dozens of their exploits and watched their coverage. There’s always a way out if you want it. Many people do in fact just walk away, or did you not notice that in the videos?

Ghosts of Pasha had no right to assume a specific purpose for attendance at their gig. Sometimes people just happen to be at a bar when a band starts playing; that doesn’t make them fans. You don’t have to be a fan to attend a concert. You and your cohorts can pretend to be fans.

I side with Improv Everywhere on the now-notorious fake-birthday operation. The subject is free to have changed his mind, but I buy the troupe’s firsthand account that he was enjoying it at the time. The recent re-enactment (one of three on the same night; they’re trying for a TV show!) went swimmingly.

Nobody is gonna get hurt and you remain free to object. But you are not free never to encounter Improve Everywhere in your day-to-day life in New York City.

Improv Everywhere brings winsome, life-affirming creativity to public space. I’m just amazed at what they come up with. What they are not doing is pouring gallons of pig’s blood over your head on prom night.

Also: Why has nobody talked about their absolute best operation ever, Where’s Rob?
posted by joeclark at 10:07 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


joeclark:

I don't think Tompkins was talking about a civil rights struggle. I think his point was detailing why he thinks IE is not funny.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:44 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


From 'Where's Rob?' :

We spent the last 3/8ths of the game distracting everyone within ear- and eye-shot by trying to get the attention of our aimlessly wandering friend. From both a cost and a value standpoint, the price of Knicks tickets is unconscionable. But no one got mad.

And if someone did get mad? Public spaces like streets and the like are one thing, but if I shelled out money to watch a game and kept being distracted by folks shouting at their wayward friend, I'd get pretty irked. I might not say anything, but if Rob came close I would be really tempted to end it by physically escorting Rob back to his seat. As a bystander who is not in on the joke, I would think I'm doing two good turns - reuniting friends and removing a distraction for those around us. Would I then be cast as a villain for ending a joyous and amusingly intended episode?

I'm not saying that IE shouldn't do what they do. Some of their stuff, particularly the Little Major League game, is great. I'm just saying that they need to seem more aware of all the impact their missions can have, not just the joyous stuff. The fact that they went into 'Where's Rob' planning to distract people who had paid to see a basketball game just rubs me the wrong way.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:41 AM on March 3, 2010


> Pranks tend to be unfunny unless they're on friends or on people who've earned them.

Are you saying Abercrombie and Fitch hasn't earned a bunch of guys showing up without their shirts about a billion times over?


The company as a corporate entity? Quite possibly. Those specific employees who just want their minimum wage check? Not so much.

Again, it's the assumption that people aren't able to have any fun or enjoy their lives without the Wacky Antics of the pranksters that is annoying. I think robocop is bleeding's parade analogy is very apt; even people who might otherwise quite like a parade may not enjoy it when it's in their way, and IE doesn't seem to give a fig if they annoy people (and sometimes go out of their way to do so.) It's just not very funny.
posted by Scattercat at 2:19 PM on March 3, 2010


I hate Stiffly Stiffersons. I wanna prank them for hours... in my basement.
posted by Mick at 7:28 PM on March 3, 2010


I feel for you people. You're comfortable in your own homes - nothing unexpected, choose your own site/cable channel/party.

People aren't complaining about the unexpected -- they're complaining about smug, self-congratulatory wankers who are determined to impose *their* vision of fun on us all.

Personally, my own vision of fun would be delivering a swift kick in the nuts to all such people. Should you ever be on the receiving end of my vision of unexpected fun, I hope you'll run to form and let me know how much you enjoyed it and invite a repeat performance.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:13 AM on March 4, 2010


Sure... of course, weird sights on the streets and random violence are one and the same!
posted by Baldons at 6:07 AM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the immortal words of J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, "FUCK 'EM IF THEY CAN'T TAKE A JOKE!"

not helping here, slappy

ok then, how about this:

the possibility of delight in a weary world is worth the risk of annoyance. in the utilitarian moral calculus i weight the strange and charming -- or even the hope of such -- over the minor inconvenience of being jarred from the grinding monotony and inward-facing near-trance of a typical workday.

how dare you attempt to ensnare me in your whimsy?! I'VE GOT MY PROBLEMS TO THINK ABOUT!!!
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 10:58 PM on March 9, 2010


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