At some point in our lives, we’re told that we can’t play pretend in public. There’s a space for entertainment, and out in the real world, you have to abide by societal norms. Keep your head down, go about your business, etc. Charlie Todd decided to break those rules when he created Improv Everywhere. In Matt Adams‘ documentary We Cause Scenes, the director looks at the history of the web sensation, and goes behind the scenes of some of the group’s most famous and hilarious “missions”. While the film is incredibly funny, Adams’ primary focus on the mission back-stories leaves the more interesting issues in the background.
In 2001, Todd and a group of friends began doing public pranks as a way to amuse themselves, and Todd took advantage of the Internet to write about these missions. “Improv Everywhere”, as Todd called it, began to grow in popularity with more people joining in the missions. The rise of the group’s popularity almost perfectly coincided with the expansion of blogs, video sharing, and social media. Adams then has Todd and his co-collaborators talk us through their thinking for some of their most popular mission like their annual “No Pants Subway Ride”, the dance at the Virgin Megastore, pretending to be U2 performing on a rooftop, and more. Todd also talks about the obstacles the group faced and how their popularity spread through news coverage.
As an overview of Improv Everywhere’s history, We Cause Scenes is a success. Anyone remotely familiar with the group’s antics will enjoy hearing the anecdotes behind their favorite missions. At times, the documentary almost plays like Adams gathering the audience around a computer and showing them YouTube videos. If Improv Everywhere was ever collected on DVD (I don’t know why it would be since it’s available for free online), We Cause Scenes would be the special feature.
And like most DVD extras, it’s designed to celebrate the main feature. Adams comes at his documentary like a fan, and fans don’t always make the best documentarians. The documentary director has the opportunity to take apart something that’s appreciated and help the audience understand what makes it tick. Adams does this on a surface level by explaining the individual missions, but he’s missing the larger issues his subject presents. Learning about how a mission came together is neat, but the artistic and social aspects of Improv Everywhere are far more fascinating.
The nature of Improv Everywhere raises a host of interesting questions. The group is designed around breaking boundaries: the boundary of the theater, the audience, the performer, and society. Improve Everywhere only works if not everyone is in the joke, so it creates an intriguing dynamic of being inside of a group but outside of a crowd. Occasionally, Adams will briefly note how this insider-outsider dynamic causes backlash among those who aren’t in on the mission. At the very first No-Pants Subway Ride, an old man rails against the mission, and a conversation begins on the subway about the place of art in society. Todd also mentions how one prank about a street hypnotist taught him that he didn’t want to be mean-spirited. However, when Adams brings in the This American Life episode “Mind Games”, which showed how an Improv Everywhere event hurt the feelings of the band Ghosts of Pasha, Todd simply says he wasn’t given equal time to present his side, but this misses the larger issue: what are the unintended consequences when not everyone is in on the joke?
Furthermore, what sorts of people are drawn to Improv Everywhere? One of the most surprising aspects of We Cause Scenes is that Adams interviews all the main players, but never talks to a single casual participant. At no point is someone asked, “Why did you decide to join this mission?” In We Cause Scenes, Improv Everywhere becomes about Charlie Todd, his circle of friends, and everyone else is a background player, which is strange because the group could never have become well known without the average person deciding to join in. And if the group hadn’t grown, then there wouldn’t be a documentary in the first place. Adams is a fan who possibly never thought to interview other fans.
Personally, I fully support Improv Everywhere and don’t see any malice in their pranks (the Ghosts of Pasha mission feels like a misunderstanding, but one that still deserves attention). They want to bring joy and color into a drab world, and they’re also the right kind of artists at the right time due to our society’s increasing desire to document and share everything we see. Improv Everywhere has inspired millions, created a new form of performance art, and reminded people what it’s like to play, but We Cause Scenes is more interested in the creative process rather than the larger impact of the creation.
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