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Improv Everywhere: Guerrillas of the Unexpected

Updated on September 2, 2010
"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

Improv DVD's


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