Friday, July 1, 2011

Improv Everywhere: Pranks, Punking & Put-Ons

[post 157]

In the early days of modernism, conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp and George Grosz delighted in blurring the line between art and reality. In 1917, Duchamp submitted an upside-down urinal as a work of art, though one obviously lacking in the aesthetic appeal traditionally associated with Art with a capital A. This "found object" was unaltered except for its label. He named it "Fountain." The piece was rejected by the show's curator and was soon lost, yet went on to make art history.

In the 60s came happenings, interactive public events that were part scripted, part improvisatory. Since then, post-modern art movements have continued to explore non-traditional approaches, concocting every variety of performance art that not only acknowledged but constantly referenced its own artificiality.

On television, Candid Camera (first broadcast in 1948!) stayed on the air for more than half a century in various formats and ignited a tradition of filmed practical jokes that are, if anything, even more popular today.

Guerrilla street theatre often went beyond agitprop skits to stage provocative theatrical events. Abbie Hoffman showering the NY Stock Exchange with dollar bills just so the press could witness brokers diving for a few measly bucks was a classic political publicity stunt. Hoffman's "Yippies" (Youth International Party) "became known for mocking the political establishment and the social status quo through pranks and street theater, leading some to refer to them as Groucho Marxists.” Custard pies in the faces of politicians are as popular as ever, and this year has seen a lot of anti-gay politicians getting "glittered" (e.g., Michelle Bachman just two weeks ago).


Now that we live in the post-post-modern era — or is it the post-post-post? I do get confused — pranking has almost become its own art form, with flash mobs a common enough sight in major cities across the globe. The New York City group Improv Everywhere [motto: "we cause scenes"] is perhaps the best known practitioner.

With all of life and all public space as their canvas, it's natural that IE's humor goes beyond mere jokes. Free from the constraints of stage and screen, assisted by an army of volunteers often numbering in the hundreds, they create large-scale events where weird and silly mass behavior — for example, the spontaneous eruption of a splashy Broadway-style musical number in a small fast-food restaurant — is offered up to an unsuspecting public as perfectly normal. Hidden cameras shoot spectator reactions, with YouTube viewers being the real target audience.

The most famous of these is their No Pants Subway Ride, in which groups of commuters enter New York City subways (in the winter!) wearing nothing but underpants on their legs; this has become an annual event that has spread to 48 cities in 22 countries.


The work is aways very visual, usually quite comic, and at times even physical, but is it physical comedy? And is it improv?

The typical IE event is in fact highly structured. Many involve professional actors ("agents"), a script, and rehearsals. In others, volunteers follow precise instructions and engage in synchronized actions. For example, in a series of MP3 Experiments, a group of participants wearing headphones start listening to the same series of audio instructions at the exact same time, the result being a well-coordinated ballet of eccentric actions meant to stun and delight the onlookers. Improvisation, however, is fairly limited, as is any consequential interaction with the audience.

I'm sure many of you have seen their work before, but here are some good examples.  First the latest no-pants video:




And the latest MP3 experiment:




Many of their pieces do indeed overlap with the world of physical comedy.  In The Mute Button, they transform everyday life into a silent movie:




And in this one, they turn off movement, creating a freeze-frame Grand Central Station:



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"The golden rule for a prank is that it should be as fun for the person getting pranked as it is for the prankster."  — Charlie Todd, IE founder
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A spoof on the cliché of the would-be suicide leaper getting talked down from a high ledge:




Here's a fake hypnotist act, with shades of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the young lovers being puckishly tricked into falling in love with the wrong person.



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“Someone once told me, ‘What you’re doing is giving other people anecdotes.’ You don’t regularly see things in New York that make you go, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ You don’t see humans interacting in a way that takes you off guard and makes you smile. You see a guy taking a shit on the sidewalk.”  — Charlie Todd
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Finally, their most clownesque piece, the Worst Ice Skater Ever. Watch it first, then I'll give you my two cents!



Or as Huckleberry Finn said: "And by and by a drunk man tried to get into the ring -- said he wanted to ride; said he could ride as well as anybody that ever was. They argued and tried to keep him out, but he wouldn't listen, and the whole show come to a standstill. Then the people begun to holler at him and make fun of him, and that made him mad, and he begun to rip and tear; so that stirred up the people, and a lot of men begun to pile down off of the benches and swarm towards the ring, saying, "Knock him down! Throw him out!" and one or two women begun to scream. So, then, the ringmaster he made a little speech, and said he hoped there wouldn't be no disturbance, and if the man would promise he wouldn't make no more trouble he would let him ride if he thought he could stay on the horse. So everybody laughed and said all right, and the man got on. The minute he was on, the horse begun to rip and tear and jump and cavort around, with two circus men hanging on to his bridle trying to hold him, and the drunk man hanging on to his neck, and his heels flying in the air every jump, and the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down. And at last, sure enough, all the circus men could do, the horse broke loose, and away he went like the very nation, round and round the ring, with that sot laying down on him and hanging to his neck, with first one leg hanging most to the ground on one side, and then t'other one on t'other side, and the people just crazy. It warn't funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger. But pretty soon he struggled up astraddle and grabbed the bridle, a-reeling this way and that; and the next minute he sprung up and dropped the bridle and stood! and the horse a-going like a house afire too. He just stood up there, a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn't ever drunk in his life -- and then he begun to pull off his clothes and sling them. He shed them so thick they kind of clogged up the air, and altogether he shed seventeen suits. And, then, there he was, slim and handsome, and dressed the gaudiest and prettiest you ever saw, and he lit into that horse with his whip and made him fairly hum -- and finally skipped off, and made his bow and danced off to the dressing-room, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment."

In other words, whether on horseback, a tight wire, or ice skates, this is one of the oldest acts in the book. The problem here is that it's very underdeveloped: he stumbles around a bit, eventually gets his footing, and is then revealed to be an elegant skater. Ta-da! But they missed so many movement possibilities and great opportunities to interact with rink staff and audience. It's the bare bones of the gag without the meat.

I guess I am of two minds about IE's work.  I enjoy it, I find a lot of it funny, and I'm glad they're doing it.  On the other hand, it's more cutesy than provocative, and far less improvisational and interactive than I would like to see, but that's more of a quibble than a criticism; you can't please everyone all the time. And as you know, I do like to write about new directions in physical comedy, what I call "physical comedy in the 21st century," and right now I'm thinking that this performance paradigm may have far more potential than we realize. Gotta think about that one....
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Some links:
• Web site for Improv Everywhere. For each project, you'll find not only the video, but also an article about how they did it, photos, and sometimes supplementary video footage.
Urban Prankster, another blog by Charlie Todd covering "pranks, hacks, participatory art, and other creative endeavors that take place in public places in cities across the world." It has all the IE videos, but stuff by other groups as well.
• An earlier blog post of mine about a flash mob of commuters in the Antwerp (Belgium) train station suddenly dancing their hearts out to "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music. 
• A 2002 IE article with photos (no video) of two IE "stuntmen" who dazzle the crowd with such harrowing feats as running with scissors and sitting too close to a TV.
• A New York Magazine profile
• A Rolling Stone article
A Wall Street Journal article
A New York Times article

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