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Charlie Todd & Improv Everywhere Featuring in NY Magazine

Mar 11, 2015

Prank You Kindly

Improv Everywhere has dropped trou on the train and caused retail mayhem. But is it mean enough for prime time?

: Pantless Subway Ride

Last year, 900 people boarded the 2, 6, and R trains wearing no pants. They told inquiring passengers they had forgotten their trousers.

Charlie Todd takes off sprinting across the Brooklyn Bridge, past a column of 700 people standing shoulder to shoulder, shouting, "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" He does this from one bridge tower to the other, then back, and still back again. A cumulative distance of about a mile. This could charitably be described as Plan B. Realistically, it's more like Plan E. Plan A was for each of these people to have a digital camera. In sequence, with Todd in the lead, they would shout their numbers and set off the flashes of their cameras. "One." Flash. "Two!" Flash. "Three!" Flash. And so on. The desired effect would be that from a distance, which is to say from the Manhattan Bridge, where Todd's team is filming, it would look like a strobe light pulsing across the bridge. Then the participants would all flash their cameras randomly and repeatedly in a glittering riot. Each person would then take a picture of the person to either side and post it to a Flickr page, creating a flip book of faces down the line.

That was the idea, before this storm began lashing down over the East River. But the wind makes it difficult to hear, the rain makes it difficult to see, and after a few failed attempts, Todd legs it. His volunteers are cowering behind their umbrellas, unless their umbrellas have long since flipped inside out and been rendered useless, in which case they are buffeted and soaked. It is hard to imagine worse weather for such an affair-and it is hard to imagine a worse place to be in such weather. But nobody seems to mind too much. If anything, the rain seems to be making the experience more of a novelty.

A bit of good-humored adaptation is part of the point of Improv Everywhere, the public scene-making collective that Todd started in 2001. To date, they've staged more than 70 "missions," as Todd calls them, including the annual No-Pants subway ride that last year attracted 900 people, the Food Court Musical, which is just what it sounds like, and Frozen Grand Central, in which 207 people froze in place in the Main Concourse and held their poses for five minutes. That video went viral, and has so far received more than 12 million YouTube views.

Forty minutes before ascending the Brooklyn Bridge, Todd stands atop the ledge of the fountain in Foley Square, just across the street from City Hall, speaking to a sea of umbrellas. Using his trademark megaphone, he explains the mission, to intermittent cheering. This, perhaps, is his single most impressive accomplishment: that somehow, in abysmal weather on a Friday night in May, he has persuaded hundreds of New Yorkers to gather in front of him and be told what to do. Improv Everywhere has a 13,000-person mailing list, and when it comes time to stage a stunt, he sends out an e-mail outlining the general facts and asks recipients to respond to a Gmail address so he has a head count. For this mission, he simply gave the meeting location and told people to bring a camera with a flash. He got about 750 R.S.V.P.'s, and most of the respondents seem to have turned up.

Todd is mild-mannered and eminently personable. And while he doesn't come off as slavering for attention, he does like it. He enjoys being the organizer, the megaphone-in-chief. When he moved to New York, in 2001, Todd was just another participant in the familiar temp-job-slash-aspiring-actor grind. He was taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (where teaching is now his day job) and experiencing a creeping disillusionment with the theater world. Improv Everywhere was a way to set himself apart from all the other aspirers.

The project was born on a whim, when Todd and a college friend were drinking one night at Beauty Bar on 14th Street and decided it would be a lark to let the other patrons think he was Ben Folds. It wasn't hard. "Unless you were a fan," he says, "it's like, Five-ten white dude with brown hair says he's Ben Folds. Who's gonna know?" They maintained the ruse for about fifteen minutes, long enough for Todd to get his rock-star fix. But the next time it went on for hours, with free beers from the bartender and photos snapped with strangers and British tourists.

Todd doesn't look much like Ben Folds, but that didn't seem to bother anyone. "They got to feel good, say they met Ben Folds, and get their picture taken with him," he says. And Todd insists that he doesn't go for the kind of pranks that annoy passersby or make someone look foolish, even if, occasionally, someone does. (The band Ghosts of Pasha was delighted to see a mob of fanatical concertgoers at its second show ever; less so when its members realized the fans were just Todd's henchmen.) But a successful mission for Todd is one in which everybody has a good time, possibly thinks a little bit differently about everyday life, and leaves with a story to tell. He is a well-intentioned man-about-town. "Someone once told me, 'What you're doing is giving other people anecdotes,'"" he says. "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."

It's not hard to imagine why someone like Todd would enjoy standing at the head of a line of people three blocks long, megaphone in hand, directing hundreds to do some goofy task he's devised. Less immediately obvious is why anyone would join the line. The Internet seems to have both engendered and enabled this sort of happening. Mass e-mail lists have been used before to congregate people for no apparent reason-most memorably in 2003, when Harper's editor Bill Wasik organized flash mobs in places like the 42nd Street Hyatt hotel. He would tell them to show up, and everybody would show up; then everybody would split and get to say they'd been there. Improv Everywhere builds on this experience, offering each volunteer a chance to play a role in Todd's quirky stunts. The tasks may be silly-storming the Fifth Avenue Abercrombie & Fitch store, shirtless-but they will be remembered. As Todd seems to have discovered, people not only like collecting anecdotes. They like being other people's anecdotes, too.

As Improv Everywhere's pranks have gotten steadily more elaborate, with larger numbers of people involved, Todd has become more practiced and sophisticated. It's not yet paying work, but he would clearly like it to be. Last spring, Improv Everywhere filmed an NBC pilot, descending on a Little League game in Hermosa Beach, California, along with screaming fans, NBC sportscasters, and the Goodyear blimp. It didn't get picked up; Todd thinks in part that Improv Everywhere's brand of stunts isn't mean enough, its Schadenfreude quotient not high enough. Recently, Todd sold a book to Harper Entertainment, half an account of his past missions, half a how-to guide. But so far the project's only revenue comes from Google ads on the group's Website. Last week, they launched a spinoff Website called Urban Prankster, which Todd hopes will showcase-but differentiate-the work of copycats. Of course, Improv Everywhere's Web presence has always been crucial. Many of the stunts seem to be designed as much for the Internet audience as for the unsuspecting passersby. And unfortunately, the recently posted video of Todd's camera-flash mission comes up short-kind of neat, but less than stellar.

But back on the bridge, although the weather is still miserable, people are being sporting. They meet each new squall with a chorus of laughter. As Todd completes three of his planned four lengths, a flash mutiny takes hold, with people beginning the random-flashing stage early. Cameras pop willy-nilly for about 45 seconds, then people begin to break ranks and wander off. They're not annoyed-in fact, they seem pleased with the outing-but they've had about enough of standing in the rain.

The volunteers walk huddled in little groups toward the borough of their destination. Now they have a story to tell. Several people, ranging from the middle-aged to high-school students, ask to have a picture snapped with Todd-some even request an autograph. Naturally, he obliges. He is glad they had a good time.

Visit the Improv Everywhere Website

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UCBT alum Aziz Ansari hired for Office spinoff

Mar 11, 2015

Aziz Ansari hired for 'Office' spinoff
Details beginning to leak about new series

Details are finally starting to emerge on NBC's highly anticipated The Office spinoff -- including the show's first cast hire, Aziz Ansari of MTV's sketch comedy Human Giant. Producers are mum on Ansari's role, but he'll be part of a larger ensemble that executive producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur are putting together.

Ansari has sealed a one-year talent hold with Universal Media Studios as part of his deal to join the cast, the studio confirmed.

"We met him pretty early on and thought he was very funny," Daniels said. "We loved his work in Human Giant, which I'm a huge fan of, as is Mike, and we have a good character for him."

Beyond that, the network, studio and producers continue to keep the new show under wraps and won't yet comment on show specifics. Still, it's looking more likely that the show may not be a spinoff in the traditional sense.

Despite early speculation that at least one Office character will segue to the new show, that's unlikely at this point.

Instead, the show could potentially be a "planted spinoff," in which characters are first introduced on The Office before moving on to the new series (think Mork & Mindy, which morphed from one episode of Happy Days). It's just as possible that the show won't be a spinoff at all (which could impact who's involved with the show), but a wholly separate series in the same comedic vein as The Office. In recent weeks Daniels and Schur have been busy mapping out the show, which is set to bow this winter in the plum Thursday night 9:30 p.m. timeslot behind The Office. The two have narrowed the show's premise down to a handful of ideas but haven't yet zoomed in on a specific concept.

"We're focusing on making the best show we can make as a companion to The Office," Schur said. "We're trying to come up with the best concept and hire the funniest writers. In the next couple of weeks, we'll be making the final move to one specific idea."

The new show has already started putting together a writing team, including Everybody Loves Raymond alum Tucker Cawley, Late Night With Conan O'Brien vet Dan Goor and South Park scribe Alan Yang.

The producers said they're excited about the message they hope Ansari's casting -- the first bit of news to trickle out about the new series -- sends to the comedy community and Office fans.

"We're meeting with a lot of cool people," Daniels said. "We're trying to see how the pieces all fit together."

A rising star on the standup circuit, Ansari has earned raves, including best standup at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, for his irony-laced takes on life. Ansari's targets include everything from the singing ice cream scoopers at Coldstone Creamery to racism and homophobia.

In addition to serving as a writer, exec producer and performer on Human Giant, Ansari also guested as a racist fruit vendor on HBO's Flight of the Conchords -- and recently opened for the Conchords on a series of concert dates.

Comedian, who's repped by 3 Arts and UTA, is currently in Albuquerque filming scenes for the upcoming Seth Rogen feature Observe and Report. He'll also be seen alongside Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man. Separately, Universal Media Studios has sealed a talent deal with thesp Rashida Jones, who appeared as John Krasinski's love interest on The Office before moving on to star in Fox's short-lived Unhitched. Insiders said it's unclear yet what Jones may do at the studio, although a return to The Office is not out of the question.

In other Office news, the critically acclaimed laffer has just added three new names to its scribe staff: Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, Everybody Loves Raymond and New Adventures of Old Christine vet Aaron Shure and Saturday Night Live writer Charlie Grandy. In addition, Paul Lieberstein, who doubles as Toby on the show, has been elevated to executive producer. 

LA General

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Joe Mande and Workdays With Maury on

Mar 11, 2015

Workdays With Maury: Stand-up Joe Mande dishes on his intern days with "The Maury Show"

The Maury Show, like all television taped before a live, studio audience, would not exist without the thankless wheel greasing provided by its bright-eyed and delusional unpaid interns. Internships in television rarely lead to staff positions or a meaningful future, but you generally don't come to that realization until you've been floundering out of college for a few years in an unrelated field. Therefore, it's especially satisfying when former interns make proper use of their experiences by taking their stories public.

Pithy stand-up Joe Mande, co-host of the popular Rififi show "Totally JK" and the winner of the Emerging Comic Award at this year's ECNYs, bites the hand that didn't feed (or pay) him with a new outing at the UCB Theater called Workdays With Maury, a meditation on the time and energy he gave to help make The Maury Show the gassy shit-parade it is today. I talked to Joe about working for MoPo and learned that when life hands you unexpected results, you've gotta learn to make due. Sorry Maury, you are the father of this baby. And he seems a little colicky.

As a former intern at Late Night myself, we were forbidden to talk to guests. Conan was somewhat off-limits too, or at least he seemed that way to me. Were any similar rules and advisories in place at Maury?

Yes. Interns at The Maury Show were told to never speak to Maury Povich (or even look in his general direction), which really wasn't that hard considering he was hardly ever there due to his busy schedule of golfing all day and buying turtleneck sweaters.

What were your duties there?

My main duty at The Maury Show was to read and organize all the viewer mail. But I did a lot of other stuff too. Like: I answered The Maury Show hotline (1-888-85-MAURY), I checked Maury's voicemail, I got high in a stairwell by myself a lot and sometimes I did sit-ups in the green room when it was empty.

Connie Chung is a beard, right?

I believe she's an Asian.

How long have you been doing stand up?

I started doing stand-up with a bunch of my friends, including my "Totally JK" co-host, Noah Garfinkel, at Emerson College about four or five years ago. We started performing at this great place in Harvard Square called the Comedy Studio. Then I moved to NYC in late 2005, blew everyone I could, and now here I am. Living the dream. Making that ECNY money, son!

Then is Workdays With Maury your first one-person show?

It would be a lie to say Workdays With Maury is my first one-man show, because it actually stars two other people playing all the supporting characters. So far, Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman and Chris Gethard have all done the show with me. They've been great. Some other very exciting comedians have told me they'll do the show if it continues on into the summer and fall. But yes, this is the first thing I've ever done with light cues and blocking and stuff like that.

One of my favorite things on The Maury Show is watching a crowd of riled heavyset ladies scream "It's a man!" at someone of ambiguous gender as the person pulls a sign out of their pantsuit that says, "I'm a woman!" Everyone is just floored by the results -- it's so jarring. Were the results just as shocking from the control room or the monitors?

Sadly, my entire time at The Maury Show was during the summer when they weren't taping any shows. My job was pretty much all pre-production bullshit. It sucked. When I applied for the position, I thought it would be all feeding fat babies and administering paternity tests. But, no. It was actually super lame. However, I did walk in on Maury Povich taking a leak once and definitely caught a glimpse of his old, Jewy penis. So, that was a thrill!

Workdays with Maury at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 307 W. 26th St. (near 8th Ave.), 212-366-9176; July 2 & 9 at 8, $5.
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