Monday, December 14, 2009

Improv, improv Everywhere

There is a group in New York called Improv Everywhere. You may have heard of them, whether or not you are a part of the improv/theatre community. They are most famous for two stunts:

On one level I admire their guts. I've done my share of oddball, out-in-public displays and it takes a tremendous amount of commitment. The only way to succeed is to play it straight, with no hint that you will reveal your actual personality. As the saying I just made up goes: "If you bail, you will fail."

On another level, the group angers me. On December 6th, This American Life re-ran an episode from 2005 titled Mind Games. Improv Everywhere figures in the second act and the focus is on two "missions". The first was called "Best Gig Ever" in which a number of IE "Agents" showed up to a struggling indie band's gig and behaved as if they were huge fans of their music. The second mission was called "Ted's Birthday" and involved the random selection of a kid in bar. IE Agents arrived and insisted over and over that this kid's name was Ted and it was his birthday.

In both instances, the band and the Kid were hit with waves of confusion, betrayal, and abandonment. The band, after realizing that these people weren't their fans, managed to turn a creepy situation into sort of a windfall. But the Kid developed a sense of paranoia and guilt.

When interviewed, Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, seemed baffled by the negative responses to these two missions. What he wanted was to give them the best nights of their lives. Why weren't they happy about it?

A lot can be done with editing and tone, but upon hearing this episode of TAL, Charlie Todd sounds to me like a charismatic sociopath, and both of these missions were unnecessarily cruel.

Imagine that, one day, someone told you that they loved you. And you believed them. What if you loved them too? What if, for that one day, they spent the entire time talking about how wonderful you are, how funny, how exciting. You spend an unforgettable day. The next morning, it is revealed as untrue. It never was true. It was just orchestrated to make you feel good.

That's what this is.

We spend so much of our lives on the defensive, just waiting to be hoodwinked. None of us wants to be an easy mark. Why create more scenarios that validate that mistrust?

But, hey, it's art!

Who is it art for? The only people who benefit with a laugh and a wink at how edgy the stunt was are the perpetrators. Targeting vulnerable people who are just trying to get by in this world is a cynical way to get noticed, and worse still is blaming the target when they don't respond with the pleasure you think they should. It's the targets themselves who have to go through the spiral of conflicting emotions and justifications.

I laughed at Borat, and Tom Green - to a point. In Borat, there is a sequence featuring a visit to a Southern eating club. What caught me off guard was that these people were really trying to help Borat - in their way - and they also displayed real interest in his culture. If people are making a concerted effort, why punish them? Why do we have to point and chortle under our breathes and say "You're not doing it right"? Why be cruel?

Missions like Frozen in Grand Central Station and Best Buy are examples of a audacious statement gone very right. The "Best Gig Ever" and "Ted's Birthday" turn my stomach. It's a mean joke masquerading as a satirical challenge to reality and the sense of self. We can justify a lot of crappy behavior in this way. It's for the art!

Sometimes the thing that separates an artist from sociopathy is a mission statement.


NotNits said...

This post made me think of this article.

S. E. Johnson said...

"Targeting vulnerable people who are just trying to get by in this world is a cynical way to get noticed"

Wonderfully, even elegantly, stated.

As regards SBCohen: watching _Bruno_, I had two thoughts:

1. During the "kid auditions" scene, I wondered if he weren't attempting obviously and self-consciously "atone" for exactly what you describe here--in the case of the second film, by picking a target that deserved the stinging whip of satire.

2. "You know, this is an awful lot of cock for a third date."

-j-j- said...

Wow. Borat made George Saunders really mad.

@ SEJ: I haven't seen Bruno, but I do think Baron Cohen capable of pretty cunning satire.

I also think he is more than happy to go for an easy laugh.

joe g said...

excellent post, jj. I agree with you but have nothing much to add right now. Art/humor at the expense of others is not something I find enjoyable.

rebar said...

100% agree. The stuff IE does for a public audience is really delightful. Part of it being the unexpected nature of discovering art in play/in the world/ and skewing routine perspectives.

Mostly because the audience (at some point) becomes aware of the intent.

I've always thought these...more surgical strikes were not well thought out. Especially in the case of the birthday party.

While I read all the band's comments (years ago) and knew about their various positive/negative reactions, I never caught the original TAL show, so this is the first I'm hearing about "Ted."

We all fuck up. We all make well intended mistakes at some point (or at least, I do...and more than I'd care to admit, I'm sure.)

For example, once, for Christmas, I tracked down a gift for my father that I really thought he wanted...something he had mentioned he was looking for, but couldn't find. Turned out it was something he was searching for as a gift to a woman - that, by then, he was no longer seeing. Merry Xmas, Pop!

The fact that Todd (at least in 2005) couldn't see that it was a well intended mistake...or at least decide not to do those we'll screw with your brain kind of "missions." That makes me sad.

I recently saw that they did something similar - threw an on-the-street wedding reception for a couple who got married at city hall.

THAT worked. Because the couple didn't have to be "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" - they were in on the game from the beginning. Creating memories through that kind of improv works.

I'm just hoping that 2009 Charlie Todd maybe has aged enough to look back and think...okay, lesson learned.

I know when I look back at 2005 rebar, I sure would like to clue her into a couple things she taught me.

andai |’an•day|
proper n. projected top ten baby name for 2022

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