Friday, November 27, 2009
New York Times article about "Improv Everywhere" pranks-"McDonalds Restroom Attendant"
Photo: Joe Tabbacca
WHEN CHEKHOV MEETS WHOPEE CUSHION
By DAVID HOCHMAN
Published: February 27, 2005
HE funniest show on Broadway this month might have been the one inside the third floor men's room of a McDonald's in Times Square. Around 1:45 p.m. on Feb. 13, Todd Simmons, a semi-employed actor, slipped off his long winter coat, which concealed a black tuxedo. He set out two silver trays with mints, gum, shaving supplies, cologne, condoms and other toiletries and stood alongside the diaper-changing station dispensing fancy soap and hand towels to dumbstruck customers.
"Have a pleasant day in our country," Mr. Simmons told a pair of excited British schoolboys, adding: "We're lovin' it. Hope you are, too."
Upon hearing that this was McDonald's "latest corporate promotion," a Japanese businessman asked if he could brush his teeth and told Mr. Simmons about "Mamma Mia!" ("I like the Abba songs," he said, "but the plot is very simple.")
Mike Kruger, a retired luncheonette owner from Flushing, Queens, was delighted but not shocked by the ritzy treatment. "We used to go to a Roy Rogers on Northern Boulevard that had a fantastic pianist," he said in the hallway after washing up. "But only McDonald's would do this."
The tale of a restroom attendant under golden arches sounds suspiciously like one of those alligator-in-the-sewers myths, which probably explains why reports of the incident have been spreading on the Internet. It happens to be one of more than 40 such stunts orchestrated around Manhattan by Charlie Todd, 26, an urban prankster dedicated to creating public scenes much like the hastily mobilized assemblies known as "flash mobs" of two summers ago, without so much as a simple "gotcha!"
These aren't the obnoxious humiliations known to fans of MTV shows like "Punk'd" and "Boiling Points" or "Da Ali G Show" on HBO. Like a number of like-minded but unaffiliated tricksters striking elsewhere around the country, Mr. Todd and his cohorts at Improv Everywhere, a performance art troupe he started, merely want to give people something to talk about.
"My primary motive is to create moments that are so astonishing, people will have a story to tell for the rest of their lives," Mr. Todd said over French fries after the McDonald's mission. Nothing would please him more than having those lads from England return home to tell everyone about "the butler who was passing out sweets in the loo."
Well, that and having his own reality series, of course. Mr. Todd came to New York from Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2001 to become an actor and he makes no secret about the fact that he would like to be his generation's Allen Funt. "I'm excited about the kinds of missions I could do with a larger budget," he said. Until then, his day job at an event marketing company allows him to cover the nominal costs of his zanier pursuits.
Mr. Todd awoke to the thrills of public put-ons a month after moving to the city when he bought a hip-looking plaid shirt at H&M and was told by friends that he resembled the singer Ben Folds, who is also from Chapel Hill. Mr. Todd decided to test the theory that night at Beauty Bar in the East Village by playing along when friends asked him for Mr. Folds's autograph. Within minutes, Mr. Todd was signing cocktail napkins and posing for photos with a gaggle of good-looking strangers at the bar.
"My other friends were doing Off Off Broadway shows nobody ever saw," Mr. Todd said. "But at the end of that night, I realized, 'Wow, I just performed for four hours, got free drinks, could have gone home with two girls, and had the time of my life.' "
Since then, the antics have gotten increasingly ambitious. Last year, Mr. Todd organized a "Meet the Writers" reading at Barnes & Noble in Union Square with Anton Chekhov. It didn't matter that the Russian dramatist died 100 years earlier. Mr. Todd found an old bearded guy with a K.G.B. accent, made up some realistic-looking posters and had the imposter read Chekhov's short story "In the Graveyard," with a few modifications to the text. The believing audience of around 25, half of whom were Mr. Todd's accomplices, sat spellbound.
It wasn't until Mr. Todd, who was moderating, opened the floor for questions that two security guards and the manager stepped in and politely asked the crowd to leave. "The manager told us to come back next time Chekhov writes a new play," Mr. Todd said. Undeterred, the group set up a book-signing in Union Square Park, where the so-called author sold 26 autographed copies of Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard."
"When you die, this is going to be worth lots of money," one proud young buyer told the playwright. Another apologized for missing Chekhov's play in Central Park the previous summer.
Perhaps the most ingenious scam is the one Mr. Todd calls the "Best Gig Ever." Last fall he found a struggling rock band with the worst performance slot imaginable and organized about 35 cohorts to greet them as though they were the Beatles.
When Ghosts of Pasha, a four-man band from Burlington, Vt., started playing at Mercury Lounge on Oct. 24, Mr. Todd's crew was ready with the lyrics memorized and the band's name scrawled all over their T-shirts, foreheads and arms. Electrified by the frenzied cheers and body slamming, they played as if it were their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I just remember the whole ride home we barely said anything, it was so eerie," said Milo Finch, the band's lead singer, who said it was only the band's third public performance. "We didn't know what happened. Two days later, someone sent us an e-mail."
Mr. Todd's pranks don't end with a big reveal. Instead, he and his agents quietly disperse the incidents with photos and commentary on www.improveverywhere.com.
Mr. Finch said that reading about the con was a relief. "Prior to that it was just creepy," he said. "Now it made sense and I could finally appreciate what a memorable gig it actually was."
That sense of gratitude is the intended result, Mr. Todd said. "It's so much easier to go for the cheap shot and embarrass somebody," he said. "That night at Mercury Lounge, those guys believed they were rock gods."
Chuck Palahniuk, the author of "Fight Club" and a longtime member of the Cacophony Society of Portland, Ore., an underground group that organizes similarly random public stunts, said that what is unique about public acts like Mr. Todd's is "that people are providing spectacle with no expectation of getting anything in return."
Or, in sociological terms, when Mr. Todd brought together 40 people to dance on his cue at the listening stations at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square or when seven of his agents rode the No. 6 subway last month without pants while giving no indication that they knew each other, it was a benign form of norm violation. Mr. Todd is "breaking the unwritten laws of everyday life in the city to get people to appreciate the moment," said Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., who teaches urban psychology at Fordham University. "As long as he doesn't go dark - and these things can degenerate pretty quickly - this is urban humor at its best."
Although some New Yorkers have been chagrined to learn they'd been had, no one has tried to retaliate. "Sure, I blushed a little when I heard it was a prank, but how was I supposed to know what Anton Chekhov looked like?" said Robert Hain, who asked the faux-playwright to endorse a line of novelty magnets that he sells, only to learn months later that he had been had. Mr. Hain tells his side of the story at normalbobsmith.com. "I think it's more difficult to hoodwink New Yorkers than anybody, so I have to hand it to them," he said.
For his part, Mr. Todd said he merely hopes "to get people to turn off their iPods for a few minutes, which, believe me, is a challenge in a place like Manhattan."
The manager at McDonald's certainly took notice. After learning from his cleaning crew that a man in a tux was manning the lavatory, he decided to investigate.
"You're sure you got the right place?" he asked Mr. Simmons.
"Are there other McDonald's in the city?" Mr. Simmons replied.
"Yeah. Maybe you meant to go to 34th Street?"
"Could be," Mr. Simmons said. "That definitely sounds familiar."
They went back and forth with Mr. Simmons explaining that the promotion had kicked off in Akron, Ohio, and that perhaps the fax just hadn't arrived yet. The manager said he left a message with the corporate office but hadn't heard back. Then came an awkward pause.
"Well, you don't have authorization to be here," the manager said finally. "Do you need corporate's number?"
"No," Mr. Simmons said, as he prepared to collect his things. "I have corporate's number."