06 December 2009

Charlie Todd Is a Thoughtless, Arrogant Pr**k

This evening driving home I was listening to This American Life on npr; the show generally is interesting even though it tends to be more than a bit too precious. This evening the show included a long segment on an outfit called Improv Everywhere which is the brain child of a fellow (pictured above) called Charlie Todd.* The feature was included under the theme "Mind Games." And I have to say that Charlie Todd is a thoughtless, arrogant prick. He recognizes that his "pranks" - which the npr segment makes clear, often are directed at individuals [1] [2] - can be construed as cruel. But since Charlie sort of feels as though people need to loosen up, he basically is willing to overlook his own manipulative mean-spirited-ness. What I mean by that is that Charlie and his chums are perfectly content to have a good time (and, of course promote themselves) at the expense of others. I am not sure which is more obnoxious, the fact that Charlie puts his mind to thinking up pranks or that he seems to have no problem recruiting minions to collaborate with. Where I come from there is a frank description for people like that; I've already used it.

There are improv outfits that do things resembling what Improv Everywhere does - think Yes Men or Reverend Billy. But they aim their mockery and irony and sarcasm not at individuals, but at corporations and religious institutions and government officials or agencies. Sure, there are real people who occupy roles in such structures. But not only are they not their jobs, they are being paid to do those jobs and so are at least partly responsible for what they do. And the Yes Men and the Reverend and his congregants are making fun of the employers not the employees. The people who Charlie selects are just trying to live their lives.

The philosopher Avishai Margalit defines a 'decent society' as one that does not go out of its way to humiliate its members. If that is close to being so (and it seems to me that it is), Charlie Todd (along with his minions) is the poster child for indecency. Someone please give him a dope slap.
* The description of this segment on the This American Life web pages reads: " A group called Improv Everywhere decides that an unknown band, Ghosts of Pasha, playing their first ever tour in New York, ought to think they're a smash hit. So they study the band's music and then crowd the performance, pretending to be hard-core fans. Improv Everywhere just wants to make the band happy—to give them the best day of their lives. But the band doesn't see it that way. Nor does another subject of one of Improv Everywhere's 'missions.'" There is just enough ironic detachment there to avoid passing judgment.



Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

um, from watching the videos of their work, it seems 99% of the observers of these "pranks" seem to be getting a huge kick out of it.

And at least 80% have no discernible target: IE, the public freeze in the metro, the public art show in a train stop, the free high fives, the many public seemingly impromptu musicals they have put on.

Honestly, it doesn't seem like you've actually done any research into what improv they've done.

Even the "best show ever" band prank they did, which had an actual target, wasn't anywhere near as bad as you make it sound - the band itself found the website soon after and left a lot of positive comments, saying they had a lot of fun and appreciate the attention.

06 December, 2009 21:19  
Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

PS. Seriously, giving someone 250$ and calling them the wrong name is mean hearted? I would happily be called the wrong name for a night in a bar for 250 bucks.

06 December, 2009 21:21  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Listen to the TAL segment (it's a half hour long and I listened to the entire thing - how much 'research' do I need to do?) and find out how the people felt about having Charlie and his buddies make fun of them. Don't rely on Charlie's self-congratulatory web page. He admits on TAL that it really didn't occur to him that people could be upset or hurt by his antics. In other words he admits to being thoughtless. And he doesn't really care. In the fake birthday party 'prank' he calls the guy a year later to rub it in.

Yes, the band managed to get something out of it. Two things are important. First - no one asked them! Would you prefer to become famous for your talent and determination or because some jerk made fun of you, publicized it for his own self-promotion, and then have the story picked up by media ready to make fun of you some more? DO you think the band members would've chosen to participate in the prank or something like it? Second, Charlie picked this band not just becuase this would be the "best gig" thus far but because (in his oh so perceptive assessment) it would be their best gig ever. What a presumptuous asshole.

People don't need Charlie to tell them that their lives are small and uninteresting and routinized. The Improv Everywhere folks are about having fun for themselves. That fun often enough comes at the expense of others. And it often comes at the expense of others who don't ask for it or "get" what is going on. Not funny. Mean. Patronizing. Manipulative.

Charlie Todd is picking on people whom he looks down upon. In his view they need his intervention to shake up their otherwise banal lives. Spare me.

06 December, 2009 21:41  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: Ian - Since you took one I will too!

Think about the (I think, telling) difference between the two pranks I note in the post (and that are featured in the TAL segment) and the old "Candid Camera" stunts.

In the latter the 'joke' was not about the person - it was some hair brained thing or other. And Alan Funk always let the person in on the joke so that they could laugh together. Charlie and his minions have made the people involved the butt of their humor. And they then skulk off without ever taking responsibility for their actions (and potentially bearing the anger of) to the person they've pranked. In short they are content to laugh at and not with those whom they mock.

06 December, 2009 22:15  
Blogger ctodd said...


You're making an assessment of me based on one interview done in December of 2004 and then presented to you by a radio program interested in tailoring my story to their theme of the week, "Mind Games." You are aware of four things I've done, and you've viewed them through the lens of This American Life's radio program. (Thanks for the hate mail earlier today, by the way.)

I think Ian makes a fair point that perhaps you should do some research on the other 100 things my group has done over the past 8 years before insulting my name in the title of your blog post.

You should also watch the pilot episode of This American Life's TV program which covers the same story about the band, takes the exact same interview of the band, and presents the story in a more positive light. I get hate mail every time they re-run the radio piece, yet I only get fan mail from people who have seen the TV show. It's a great example of the power of editing and manipulation in the media. The TV episode's theme was "unexpected consequences," which led them to spin things differently.

The other thing that you don't realize is that TAL interviewed me before they interviewed the band and "Ted" and did not come to me for follow up. The program cuts back to me after you hear their story, but they're cutting to my first and only interview with them before any of us (interviewers included) had any clue that the band or "Ted" was upset. The band had sent me upbeat email accounts to post on my site and the last I heard from "Ted" was when he hugged me goodbye and thanked me for his Best Buy giftcards. So yeah, I can see how it makes me look like an thoughtless asshole for not reacting to their story, but I couldn't react to what I didn't hear. I heard it for the first time in April of 2005 when it aired.

06 December, 2009 22:46  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Charlie ~ It is ironic that you are complaining about being mistreated by the folks at TAL. Don't you think it is a bit thin skinned of you to complain after you manipulated others the way you did?

You write that TAL spoke to you "before any of us (interviewers included) had any clue that the band or "Ted" was upset." What I find stunning is that it seems never to have occurred to you - in advance - during all the elaborate planning that went on for these stunts, that the people to whom you were giving your "gifts" might be upset by being treated shabbily. Look up thoughtless in the dictionary.

As for 'research' I looked at your web page and I did so before writing the post. All the wonderful things you do! Perhaps they are less directly personal in their targets. Perhaps that shows some learning on your part. But they are thoroughly self-promotional. And your reply tonight reinforces my view. Nothing close to remorse. Just some advice that I check out all the other clever things you've done.

I write here about art and music and ideas. I assess them in terms of what I take to be their merits. And I write those assessments down in a public forum. The title of my post just about captures it ...


PS: When I visited your web page before writing the post I sent an email with my return address. That is more information than you supplied to either Chris/Ted or the band. You and your cronies mocked them and went slinking off anonymously. It's called taking responsibility Charlie. It is funny that you label it 'hate mail' when someone takes offense at your behavior. That is called consequences; you are lucky if the worst outcome is that people like me say mean things about you.

06 December, 2009 23:24  
Blogger Pinkhamster said...

This strikes me as the decisive quote from Charlie Todd in the This American Life story: "When I would tell people this idea as I was

preparing for this event, one of the main responses I got was people saying 'That is so cruel. [...] That is the cruelest thing I've ever


The man had adequate warning that his stated opinion that his plan was not cruel (had he actually cared) was in the minority and not likely

to be shared, but the goal of pleasing himself overrode that warning.

He follows this admission by stating: "Is it cruel to give somebody the best day of their life, just because they'll never have another day

like that again? I don't think so. It's kind of like you have a wonderful dream and you wake up. Do you wish you just had bad dreams

every night? I think it's great to have wonderful dreams. Yeah, it kind of sucks for a second, but you'll always have that moment."

Anyone who has ever been romantically manipulated by someone who pretended to love them in order to get laid knows that "one night of

magic" is meaningless if the next day one finds one has been used by a slick manipulator out only to please himself. I'm guessing that's

why the "hate mail" comes Charlie Todd's way every time this story is aired, as he claims above. Most of us have had the experience of

being used by someone who pretended to love us in order to get a cheap thrill, and most of us realize how painful it is to be used. So sad

that Mr. Todd doesn't seem willing to learn the experience.

07 December, 2009 00:43  
Blogger comment said...


I read your blog occasionally and have respected your words and efforts on several occasions. So I am grateful that you're out there, doing what you do.

But this caught my eye almost immediately as an unfortunate misunderstanding. I haven't heard that particular radio program. But as I have followed and enjoyed Improv Everywhere's stunts over several years, I can assure you that you have missed the mark on this one.

As you or I do not know Chalie Todd personally, we can't claim to know what kind of person he truly is. (A media interview and a few clicks online never tell a full story). But I know Improv Everywhere's history, mission and impact very well. In fact, they have created numerous absolutely delightful, positive, eye-opening and fun-filled moments in NYC.

95% of their stunts seem to have been very smart and creative ideas that inject joy and surprise into what can be a dreary, cold and hard city environment. The vast majority are not targeted at an individual and do not contain ANY mean spirit whatsoever — quite the opposite indeed.

Again, as someone who values your efforts, I just hope you are able to pull back from the angry place that the radio program took you. Misunderstandings between two intelligent people (you and CT, in this case) can be sad to witness. There are many people and parties in our world that deserve (or least invite) our attack, opposition or resistance. Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere are not one of them.

Steve C

07 December, 2009 10:17  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. I'm sorry to have to disagree.

Charlie and his crew may have fun. They may entertain some large percentage of the time. But at whose expense? Typically the audience or the 'subject'.
In the instances I note they engaged in what I think was intentionally cruel behavior. The people involved were hurt. Sure, they (in the case of the band) subsequently tried to make the best of it. But so do accident victims. That doesn't mean the latter don't wish the event never happened.

Charlie comes here with not the slightest built of self-reflection and simply tries to rationalize his behavior. That one does unobjectionable things a lot of the time doesn't excuse being an ass - even just, on your estimate, 5% of the time. Why is it that - as Charlie himself acknowledges in the TAL segment - people regularly respond to his descriptions of his pranks by pointing out how cruel they are? Why is it that that seems to have zero impact on good ole Charlie?

As for the other 95% of his missions (to take your estimate again) I frankly, I think Charlie's attitude that he is the arbiter of who should receive the "gift" of one of his missions, who is in need of his insights is simply patronizing.

07 December, 2009 10:31  
Blogger a.f.c.tank said...

After catching up on the commentary here, maybe you should take advantage of the fact that you have the ear of the person who offeded you so deeply.

I'd heard of Improv Everywhere and I intially thought what Todd and his crew were doing was pretty inventive, if irreverent and sometimes potentially hurtful. That said, you really could use this chance to tell the founder how to make his endeavors more respectful without compromising the mission of the..."missions"...as Todd refers to them.

The fact is that the pranks and staged events are supposed to fun and thought-provoking or just plain silly. I agree: If people are being hurt, even emotionally, Todd and his group should be held accountable in some way.

1. If, after the prank, the 'mark' or somebody involved says, "Hey, this clip is going to damage my reputation," then the post should come down.

2. If a bystander is injured (because some of the missions are somewhat physical and occur in public spaces), then, of course, Todd and Improv Everywhere should be held responsible.

I'm sure you and others could come up with plenty of other suggestions to improve this viable form of public expression.

In the meantime, you can check out some of the less "cruel" missions via:


Thanks for the chance to comment and please keep voicing your respectable opinions and concerns!

07 December, 2009 14:46  
Blogger Ian Aleksander Adams said...

Jim, just a quick note, the "Best *** Ever" phrase is a pop culture reference and not a judgement of any band's gig. See numerous internet "best **** ever" jokes or the show Best Week Ever. Etc.

As for Improv Everywhere's "Cronies", I was under the impression that the people involved in these events were volunteers, mostly just drop ins from the public who decided to get involved (mainly because they thought it would be fun for everyone involved) and not paid or professional actors. I'm sure some of them are involved in such things, because there tends to be cross pollination for these kinds of projects, but I am 100% sure that there are other performance artists who have been intentionally a LOT LOT LOT LOT LOT LOT more offensive to their viewers/targets as part of their pieces. I know there have.

Performance Art has a long history of making people uncomfortable. Often it is the stated goal. With Improv's work, their stated goal is to bring cheer, amusement, help people smile. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes they are not. But you can offend people just as badly with a bad play as with guerrilla improv.

So sure, they may have had some not so good ideas and some bad performances, but I don't think any of it is because of malice. There are plenty of other groups out there without such good intentions (and I hate shows like Jackass or any prank show).

I've seen first hand proof of huge groups of people enjoying these performances. On the whole, I can't help feeling that the world is better with Improv Everywhere in it.

So it's my opinion that it's probably productive to talk about how one can perform spontaneous events with the maximum possible enjoyment of all involved, but it's not productive to call people names based on what I felt was a very one sided program.

NYC is a big place. It's a big grumpy place. No matter what you do, someone will feel offended or personally attacked. I've seen people swear at subway musicians, I've seen people spit at drum circles at union square.

Improv Everywhere warmed my heart with such missions as the free high five escalator, the station freeze, and the cell phone symphony. I'm sure there are some people out there who didn't enjoy them. But you can't please everyone.

07 December, 2009 21:19  
Blogger LisaMarie said...

I'm a bit late in joining the conversation here, but I also heard this TAL radio segment a few weeks ago, and I was so captivated by it that I sat in my car to finish listening to it and was 15 minutes late for the church service I'd been on my way to.
It wasn't until today that I realized (through following some links from facebook) that this is the same group responsible for No Pants Day, MP3 experiments, Frozen Grand Central Station and other such events. These, in my opinion, are quite funny (if occasionally inappropriate,) and do add a lightness to life that many of us New Yorkers admittedly need.
However, that does not negate or excuse the inherent inconsideration and thoughtlessness shown by other events like the Best Gig Ever and Ted's Birthday Party.

I have to disagree with the most recent comment made my
Ian Aleksander Adams in which he says, "...you can offend people just as badly with a bad play as with guerrilla improv."
Watching a play is a manufactured experience- the actors as well as everyone in the seats are aware that it is not real life. There isn't any deception occurring in that sort of situation. That is quite different from some of the events that Improv Everywhere puts on. It is real life for the unassuming people selected by the group to be part of their prank.

On a more positive note, though, I have to wonder if Charlie and his team have actually thought twice about some of these things, because the events referred to in this TAL program took place in 2004, and according to the IE blog, it appears they have not done anything much like them since. That's encouraging to me.


02 January, 2010 18:01  

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