Improv Everywhere: Guerrillas of the Unexpected

"The Grocery Store" musical
"The Grocery Store" musical

You're on the number 5 train from Flatbush to Grand Central, a long, loud ride you take a couple of hundred times a year. At least it's Saturday, so the train isn't too crowded with your face shoved in some dude's arm pit, but it's raining and your forgot the damn umbrella again and you've got another walk in the rain when you get to the city. It's hot down here underground. Your mood is as foul as the air and the damn vents aren't fucking working again so you crane your neck towards the open window desperate for some air, some oxygen, but there is none. Just the rhythmic pounding of the train on the steel track.

Emerging from the traveling box at the terminal, you make your way to the Grand Concourse. Having stopped seeing the magnificence of the place years ago, you pay no attention to the ornate chandeliers overhead as you traverse the gentle rise of the hallways, up, up, up, until finally you are coughed out into the great space. The hall is bordered by small lunette windows ringed near the ceiling, and a sets of three very large, very long windows eye you imposingly from three walls. The sound is like muffled hubbub, and the clicking of hundreds of walking heels like popping corn. But you notice none of this. What you do notice, what you see, is a man standing perfectly still, frozen in time. Some performance artist crap, you think. Some whack-job. And then you see another one, and another, and another, and suddenly like a slap in the face, you realize that nearly half of the people on the floor are frozen. What the.....

What you are seeing is Improve Everywhere, pulling off one of their most famous guerrilla stunts. Hundreds of them showed up, synchronized their watches to an atomic clock on the groups website, and then occupied Grand Central and froze simultaneously for 5 minutes (video below). Fortunately, many of their “stunts” are elaborately video taped, then edited and made available for our viewing pleasure, some of which have gone “viral.”

The group was started by Charlie Todd in 2001, member of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, an improv theatre and school. Since that time, their concept has been borrowed (they would say stolen) by corporations who know a good idea when they see it. When you're throwing a bunch of money behind the productions, dancers get a little better and production values increase. I was contacted by a person associated with the group who called these professional productions "souless" (see comments below.) That corporations are "borrowing" from them bears witness to the importance of the concept itself. There are more than one hundred such pranks that they have pulled – some involving a cast of hundreds and some with only a few – and though I haven't seen them all, I have selected the best to showcase here, large, medium, and small, and I have retained two of the professional productions because they are still a lot of fun, with or without souls. Part of the joy one experiences watching these is the people's reaction to what is happening. Visit their site to see the full list of events and to get much more information about them, but for now, let's get on with the show.

Liverpool Street Station - T-Mobile Dance

I start with this one because it is the first one I saw a couple of years ago. The video went “viral” so you may have seen it, but it bears seeing again, or if you haven't, it's a must if you want to witness an amazing event. You won't find this one on their website because it was produced by T-Mobile, who took the concept from IE. It's a shame you can't copyright an idea.

Spontaneous Musicals

Some of their more popular events are seemingly spontaneous musicals that seem to emerge from nowhere in a public space. All songs are written by group members – they call them “agents – Anthony King and Scott Brown. They cast other members, um, agents in the singing and dancing roles. Be sure to watch for newswoman Ann (Tastes Like) Curry from The Today Show in “I Love Lunch,” as she stands up to sing her solo, “I'm eating clam chowder.”

Food Court Musical - 2007

Grocery Store Musical - 2009

I Love Lunch - 2009

Frozen Grand Central - NYC

Grand Central is the world's largest train station where over 500,000 people a day use it. On the day when over 200 IE agents invaded the Grand Concourse, the station came to a sudden halt. Over 200 agents froze at the exact same time for exactly five minutes, then preceded on their merry way as though nothing had happened.

Frozen Grand Central

Suicide Jumper in Manhattan

When I first started watching this one I thought there was no way I could post it. Too depressing, too serious. Then the “secret” was revealed and suddenly it became very funny indeed, a public exhibition of absurdity that caused me to laugh out loud.

Suicide Jumper

The Sound of Music in Belgium

This is along the lines of the huge musical extravaganzas performed in large railway stations, but this one somehow rose to the top of my favorites list, in spite of the fact that it's another one that IE is not associated with. Maybe it was the tightness of the choreography, or all the kids involved. I'm not sure, but I think you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

The Sound of Music

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Comments 35 comments

Candie V profile image

Candie V 6 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Ah! I've thought about bursting into song in the grocery store! But.. alas.. all alone isn't the way to go. The frozen one would be a blast to take part in!!

Fun hub Chris!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Yeah, it would. I couldn't do any of the giant dance ones anymore, but I could do one of the little ones. Looks like fun for both the performers and the witnesses.


Tom Peters 6 years ago

Improv Everywhere did not do the T-Mobile video or the Belgium video. Both of those were corporate videos that ripped off Improv Everywhere's style. (The Belgium one was promoting a reality show about a local production of The Sound of Music.) They are both fun videos, but ultimately soulless corporate copies with permits, paid actors, etc.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Tom Peters: Thanks for clarifying that. It explains why they aren't on IE's website. Like so many others, I just assumed they were yours. I have already cleared that up in the article. Thanks for contacting me. - CR


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

This was great! Though I actually saw the Grand Central one in person ( in New York to conduct a tax seminar), and I didn't know what was happening at all, this was so cool to revisit. I've also seen the Belgium one on the internet, quite some time ago, and also...I happen to know one of the LA dancers.

So I really had a good connection with this hub. I didn't know where you were going, just at first. It was such a pleasant suprise!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Paradise7: That's incredible! I'm stunned, I mean, what are the odds? Of course, it was cold that day and not hot as I suggest. Creative license and all that. Had you not seen the Frozen Grand Central on video before? Quite an amazing thing to have witnessed it! I wish I had. Did you see yourself?

I'm not sure which you are referring to when you say you know an LA dancer. I know the food court musical is in LA, not sure about the grocery store musical, but all others I know where they were done.

Yeah, I tend to do that in my hubs, start in one direction and have it turn into something else. I don't know if that's good or bad.


Morgan F profile image

Morgan F 6 years ago from USA

Great intro lol and the videos were awesome! I have seen the Grand Central Station one but not the other ones. I couldn't stay perfectly still like that for 5 minutes I would bust out laughing something lol.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Morgan: Some of these were new to me too. Like you, I had seen the Grand Central, and also the T-Mobile but not the others till the other day. I know what you mean about being still, and some of them didn't look like they positions they were in were all that comfortable. Thanks for visiting!


Candie V profile image

Candie V 6 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Oh.. care to mash your fruit with mine???


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Fruit is happier that way!


Candie V profile image

Candie V 6 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

I love happy fruit!


Beth100 profile image

Beth100 6 years ago from Canada

Improv -- love watching it and performing it! I haven't seen the NYC performance before but that was awesome. I can't believe someone would poke at the girl! (Was that you?!?) Thanks for more laughs tonight!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Candie: Who doesn't?


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Hi Beth, Sweetie! Are you a performer? Well, I am known for constantly poking at girls! Glad you had a laugh. I owe you one (you know what). Hope all is well! And Thanks!


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 6 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Gosh darn you, Cowboy! I had work to do this morning, and now I'm totally behind, frozen in my desk chair, not even having squished my morning fruits yet, and contemplating ending it all by jumping out my first floor window because it's getting close to lunch and I have nothing done!

Super entertainment. Thank you SOOOO much.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Glad you enjoyed and I thank you for commenting. Not my usual fare, but I came across one quite by accident a few days ago, which reminded me of the couple I had seen, which caused me to look into them. Glad I did. Thanks!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

You have put a smile on my face. What else could one want? :-))


Jack Crockett profile image

Jack Crockett 6 years ago from Columbia, Missouri

I had seen the T-Mobile one, but not the others. Really enjoyed them. The suicide jumper was a riot!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

De Greek: And that's the most I could wish for. Thank you for visiting, kind Sir!

Jack: You old hound dog! Thanks for dropping by and having a read!


Beth100 profile image

Beth100 6 years ago from Canada

Well, well, well, if it isn't my two of my most favorite men on here! I didn't realize what I wrote there. Yes, I use to perform (don't ask me what -- might get you and I banned) but that was a lifetime ago. Been a long time since I've been up on stage. I loved it. Who knows, I may audition for the next spring play. But then again, having a body covered in tattoos and piercings might not land me the part.... Pick your jaw up off the floor 'cause you're drooling! XD


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Yeah, I don't know why that other guy showed up (heh, heh). Okay, wait a cotton pickin minute! You did not! Did you? You do not? Do you? We gotta talk! Oh, lordy! We might have more in common than you - or I - expected!


ACSutliff profile image

ACSutliff 6 years ago

Christoph,

I love your intro! You really pulled me in, and I'm glad to see you wrote about this topic here. I can't wait to watch all those videos, but sadly I have to.... My computer is just not working well enough right now for some reason.

I love the grocery store song! After that, my fruit will never be lonely again!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

AC: Glad you like the intro. I'm thinking of reworking it and using it as the start of a short story. That's too bad your computer is acting up. These are definitely worth watching. Hey, would I steer you wrong?


ACSutliff profile image

ACSutliff 6 years ago

Of course you wouldn't! I might just restart my computer and go to youtube to see these. That's a great idea, with the short story. I'd love to read about a fictional account of a character who does this for a living. It would be a huge hit! I wouldn't steer you wrong either!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Nah, about the guy on the train, not the freezing people. Ha!


ACSutliff profile image

ACSutliff 6 years ago

LOL oh.... I mean, I knew that!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

I knew that you knew that!


izettl profile image

izettl 6 years ago from The Great Northwest

This is great! Too funny. Oh how I would love to be part of a prank this size- must add to my bucket list. I never heard of this stuff before- geesh am I out of the loop.

One thing I can cross off my bucket list is being a Christoph "groupie". I happened upon a hub called "Christoph Reilly and his Cult Following". Ha! Really! Did I miss something? I'd join your cult if you promised free cocktails (not the poisonous kind), and babysitting services (not the creepy old men kind).


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 6 years ago from St. Louis Author

Izetti: Yeah, these are fun, aren't they? Some of them are just awe inspiring.

Isn't that hub a hoot? Story was, Anna was commenting on one of my hubs saying I had groupies, like they were a cult. I was telling her to stop saying that, and then a lot of people were commenting on it with me hemming and hawing the whole time. Then Anna disappeared and 30 minutes later, published that hub. An all time record for speed I think.

So, sure, cocktails are no problem - hold the poison, and I'll check on the babysitting services with my cult..um...with my friends. I'll refrain from babysitting myself cause of the "creepy old men" thing.


rmr profile image

rmr 5 years ago from Livonia, MI

I can't believe I missed this! I've never seen the T Mobile one, but I've seen the Sound of Music one dozens of times. That first guy to start dancing cracks me up every time! Too bad that one is a rip off. I'd love to see one of these in person.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 5 years ago from St. Louis Author

Yeah, that would be pretty cool. There are videos on you tube that show how they set these up and synchronize everything. Everyone has a cell phone on vibrate and they all go off at the same time to signal the actors. it's pretty interesting.


KristenGrace profile image

KristenGrace 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

Looooove this hub!!! I had never seen that grocery store one before - but now I'm going to show everyone I know LOL - Thanks for posting this!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 5 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thank you, Kristen! And thanks so much for the comment. It IS fun, isn't it?


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Wow! You journalist, you. Your intro was so elegant. I love your use of words; your analogies. But tell me why I seem to be the only one who found all of these so emotional. There was a lovely feeling of oneness and the dignity of man. Am I just too subject to having my emotions tweaked? Regardless, I loved all of them... the "genuine" and the "manufactured".


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 5 years ago from St. Louis Author

TL: I think you just see things on a deeper level than most, with the eyes and soul of a poet.

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