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Agent Provocateur

Charlie Todd is making it up as he goes along-one quirky stunt at a time.

Charlie Todd is making it up as he goes along - one quirky stunt at a time.

When Charlie Todd first arrived in New York, he was your typical struggling actor: crappy day job, frustrating auditions. One night a few years ago, inspired by impish curiosity, he and two friends decided to see what would happen if they improvised a bit of undercover theater in a downtown bar. Todd would play musician Ben Folds; his buddies would play awestruck fans. Everyone else, they hoped, would get pulled into the act.Incredibly, it worked. Todd was soon signing autographs and posing for photos. He never broke character. "That night, I realized I had tackled a pretty difficult acting job and it was really fun to do," says Todd, 27. "Not only did my friends and I have a great time,everyone at that bar had a great time, and they got a great story to take home."This benevolent impulse is still at the heart of Improv Everywhere, the group Todd founded in 2001. IE "missions," carried out by "agents," often have a spooky, dreamlike quality, but they never intend harm. That's what separates them from standard prank fare like Jackass and Punk'd. "The goal of those shows is to humiliate, embarrass, or frustrate someone," says Todd. "Our goal is to make people laugh, smile, or at least have an interesting or unusual experience."\n\n\n
Our goal is to make people laugh, smile, or at least have an interesting or unusual experience.
There's no denouement in an IE mission, either: it would spoil the intrigue. Though the cast sometimes swells to the hundreds, agents always play it straight, agreeing never to pull the plug on a prank. On a recent fall afternoon, for example, about 225 IE agents quietly took up scattered positions in a Manhattan Home Depot. At exactly 4:15, they all started shopping in slow motion. At 4:20, they returned to normal. At 4:25, they froze in position-examining a label, lifting a plant-for another five minutes. And then they left.Given the settings-Home Depot, McDonald's, Best Buy, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble-it's tempting to read missions like these as the subversive performance art of a culture-jamming theater troupe. While there is no doubt that the pranks draw some of their impact from these drab corporate backdrops, Todd maintains that he simply likes to "focus on things that are inherently funny." He prefers to leave any interpretations of the group's underlying message open-ended.The true magic of IE's missions is in watching people form their own conclusions about what's going on. A few years ago, riders on a New York City subway car witnessed a "marriage proposal" staged by a few undercover agents. After the gushing acceptance, women on the train were crying real tears of joy. Says Todd, "I think that's a wonderful way for a prank to be."CULTURE JAMMING Charlie Todd says he is not a culture jammer. To see some people who are, check out the GOOD Guide to Culture Jamming.LEARN MORE

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