Improv Everywhere

How to get 4,000 people to take off their pants

April 20, 2012: 10:55 AM ET

Improv Everywhere's Charlie Todd describes what it takes to get strangers to act in unison, even if it's just for fun.

Charlie Todd

Charlie Todd

FORTUNE -- Charlie Todd did the starving actor thing when he first moved to New York at 22 in 2001. On the side, he and his buddies staged pranks in public spaces, trying to make people laugh.

Over a decade later, those public performances -- and the organization that he built to pull them off -- have become Todd's main source of income. His group, Improv Everywhere, is a long-form improvisation troupe that organizes events like the annual "No Pants Subway Ride" in New York, and other great feats of public absurdity. In 2008, for example, Improv Everywhere coordinated 200 people to freeze in place, at the same time, for five minutes in Grand Central Station.

Todd has written a book called Causing a Scene, published in 2009. Now he speaks at colleges and universities and even consults other organizations about what makes a successful viral phenomenon. He took some time to explain to Fortune how an unknown aspiring actor gained the power to get 4,000 people to simultaneously take off their pants.

How do you get so many people to agree to do one thing at the same time? 

I've developed those skills over the last 11 years. The projects I do are open to everyone, so I have to design them in a way that anyone can participate. In the No Pants Subway Ride, for example, the two requirements to participate are the willingness to take off your pants in public and the ability to keep a straight face about it.   More

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