During magic shows, NBA drafts, and corporate retreats, people are often told to expect the unexpected. Most of the time, however, people typically approach their routines with tunnel vision and pretty much expect exactly the expected. Perhaps it’s for this reason that people tend to appreciate a disruption of their routines, as we’ve seen with the success of the startling live stunt. There’s one organization that’s dedicated itself entirely to subverting how your day is supposed to go, and now there’s a documentary about it.
Improv Everywhere, the subject of new film We Cause Scenes, began one night in the summer of 2001 when enterprising comic performer Charlie Todd spontaneously decided to pose as musician Ben Folds at a bar. Since then, Todd’s ever-expanding group of merry pranksters has become an international force in guerilla-style theatrical experiments, and brought thousands of strangers together. Last year, producers Matt Adams and Andrew Soltys’ Kickstarted documentary about the group’s journey screened at SXSW, and it recently became available online. The movie isn’t only a narrative about the formation of a unique group, though, but also an in-depth lesson on creating experiences and getting people’s attention.
"An experience is something you find yourself in the middle of," says Todd. "You aren't simply witnessing something—you're part of it."
Although Improv Everywhere has some rather enviable Youtube views—several million on average—the group has always focused on the live experience. Someone clicking on "Back to the Future Twins Prank," for instance, knows what he or she is getting into. The people who get the full Improv Everywhere effect, though, are the ones walking through a public plaza in Manhattan who suddenly see someone dressed like Doc Brown exit a Delorean and ask about Marty McFly. Getting through to people on that level takes a lot of work.
"Today almost every single person has a 1080p HD camera in their pocket," says Todd. "This has been a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it enables our cameramen to blend in. People are so used to seeing cameras that they don't even notice someone filming. 12 years ago a visible camera would have ruined the moment. The flip side is that now we have people reacting to our comedy by taking an Instagram shot rather than experiencing it with their own eyes." He adds, "We have to try even harder to create things that are so surprising that the moment transcends the need for an Instagram shot."
We Cause Scenes shows how the evolution of Improv Everywhere coincided with a sea change in how people interact with technology. The rise of digital media and web video is the film's backdrop. The more the act of watching videos online became a part of daily life around the middle of last decade, the more wary people became of the intent of those chasing virality.
"We work hard to make the in-person experience as awesome as it can possibly be for those that witness it, rather than treating our events like short film shoots solely for a viral video," Todd says. "People can tell the difference between an authentic real-life event and something that is manufactured."
Like stand-up comics, Todd and the rest of the Improv Everywhere crew can often tell whether they’ve succeeded in creating a memorable experience—and a probable online hit—from the immediate feedback they get. There seems to be a pretty direct correlation between the enthusiasm-level of those involved at the scene and the popularity of the eventual videos. Of course, one more thing they take great care to do is not piss people off. Interrupting someone's day without annoying him is an art form all its own.
"We focus on doing things that are explicitly positive and explicitly funny," Todd says. "So rather than get upset, most people laugh, smile, and maybe ask a few questions to figure out what the hell is happening."