Improv Everywhere, the "New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos
and joy in public places," started the No Pants Subway Ride tradition, which spread to other cities and will continue for its third year in Philadelphia this Sunday.
Improv Everywhere Producer Matt Adams, 33, recently finished shooting a
documentary on Improv Everywhere, currently being financed on
Kickstarter, that has raised $47,923 out of a $125,000 goal with 15 days
He answers your burning questions about the genesis of the No Pants Subway Ride - where, when and, most importantly, why?
When did you first get involved with Improv Everywhere?
Probably about six years ago. I was taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and Charlie [Todd, Improv Everywhere founder] happened to be my teacher. I saw the videos he was putting out and thought, 'I'd really like to give it a shot.' I contacted him and said, 'Let me know if you want to give it a go.' This was right when mini HD cameras were coming out, so we could shoot high quality video on our own. With technology like mini HD cameras and Final Cut Pro, things became much much easier. We could green light ourselves without having a network involved.
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My early involvement was just shooting, then shooting and editing, then shooting, editing and producing. About two and a half years ago, I left my day job to focus on Improv Everywhere. I became so involved with making videos, I considered going back
to school to do a Masters in film. But I said, 'You know what? I have opportunity to get
involved with this right here.' And I decided to make a documentary.
Whose idea was the No Pants Subway ride?
Charlie had moved to New York City in 2001 and he was taking classes and he was doing improv, but he thought it would be cool if, rather than waiting to go on auditions, he would just do some things in public.
He was riding the bus one day and was like, 'I wonder what would happen if someone got on this bus right now just wearing boxer shorts.' It started with one idea - take a cold day in the middle of winter, have one person on the train wearing boxer shorts and then the next person gets on, and the next person.
The way he did it back then was there would be a staging car. So there would be two cars on the train right next to each other. In one car, people were going in and taking off their pants. Then they were going to the next car, so it appeared they were coming from their apartment and getting on the train. At the sixth stop, somebody would get on with a duffle bag selling pants for $1. Last year, 3,500 people showed up in New York and 50 cities across the world participated, so we can't really do that part anymore.
How long have you been involved with the Ride?
It's in its 11th year [in New York City]. I've been doing it for five or six years.
Do you consider it to be performance art, comedy or some combination?
It’s definitely a combination. You know, Charlie mentioned about three years ago that it had become more of a parade. It's not this settled prank anymore, just a fun thing. It's fun for people to get together with their friends and do this crazy thing, rather than just going out to a movie or to a bar. It's just a nice thing to do and it’s fun for people. It’s crazy to see a guy in his 70s from New Jersey and a 14 year-old boy from Harlem or from the block doing the same prank. It’s pretty cool.
It's cool for me because of the growth. The first time I was there, I’d say there were probably 750 people. But it grew steadily – its first year was just six guys, then there was a fairly big jump until 2006.
What happened in 2006?
2006 was year of the arrests. Basically what happened was, an officer saw all these people with their pants off and kind of panicked. He freaked out and started pulling people off of the train and actually arresting them. He didn’t know what to do. He was like, 'This is a disturbance, it can't be legal,' and arrested them.
They all had to show up in court. Luckily, we do have a lawyer who is also an [Improv Everywhere] agent, so she works pro bono and all the cases were dropped because it’s not illegal to ride the train in boxer shorts or underwear. The funny thing was - and people don't believe me when I tell them and probably wouldn't believe this if you printed it - the arresting officer was Officer Panton. I am not even kidding.
What about the flash mob issue? I understand you prefer not to have it associated with your performance acts, but there has been talk in Philly about reclaiming the term from the violence with which it's been associated here.
We definitely try to distance ourselves from that because we actually started before flash mobs. Even though we do some things that could be similar to flash mobs - say the frozen Grand Central prank, where 2,000 people showed up at Grand Central Station and froze in place - we don’t just do those things. We do pranks with 3,000 people and pranks with three people.
We have a video called "High Five Escalator." There's a very high escalator on 55th Street with stairs next to it and we had people standing at different heights on the stairs with signs reading, “Rob wants," then "To give you" "A high five.” And we had our friend Rob handing out high fives at the top. He gave out 2,000 that day.
A lot of things don't happen in a split second. We hang around and do something. And it's not always a numbers thing. We don’t have to have 5,000 people and have to send an Evite to come out that says, 'Show up to this specific location and be prepared for something crazy!' We do a lot more. We're not just doing that one thing.
Do you ever worry about the darker side of things, like: More run-ins with the law?
Now the cops actually help us out. It's actually a rookie cops’ job called the No Pants detail. Last year a bunch of them showed up and were like, 'We don't really know what's going on, but we've been put on the No Pants detail.' They come and watch to make sure things run smoothly.
People being touched or feeling uncomfortable?
Making people feel uncomfortable is something we never want to do, but it's grown to something we can’t completely control. It's kind of gotten out of our control and we have to embrace the fact it’s become what it’s become. The goal is never to make someone uncomfortable, the goal is for someone to have a story about that crazy time they were on the train when, 'Yes, in January I on the subway and there were thousands of people around me in their underwear.' At first it was hundreds, now they're surrounded. The story changes as year goes on.
Perverts showing up just to see or take pictures, voyeurs, I guess you'd call them?
We always have a rule that if you’re going to document the prank, you should be taking your pants off, too. It's for participants only. Besides our core team, we don’t have people document it.
How do you enforce that, especially with the current scope of the event?
We ask politely if you're here, hopefully you're here to take your pants off. But when things get this big, you just have to kind of embrace it.
We do have a team of over 10 video camera operators and 10 to 15 still photographers, so just our documentation team is over 20 people. We have six different starting points throughout the city, so different people are pushing people in the right direction and there's either a camera operator or a still photographer in each location.
How long does the No Pants Subway Ride last?
It depends on how fast you make it. It could be a half hour to 45 minutes. But then some people like to let it linger, ride the train around a little bit, make transfers and walk through some of the subway stations. It culminates in Union Square at end of day. At about 5 or 5:30, you see thousands of people just hanging out in Union Square, running around in their underwear.
What do you think about other cities joining in?
About three years ago people started contacting us. We decided to make it a global thing two years ago. So we basically just ask that people let us know details about their city, that they mention Improv Everywhere and we list them all on our website. We can’t show up in every city, but we can make sure official details are on our site and we’re linked to other cities' Facebook pages.
How many cities are registered as participating this year?
Last year we had 50. I'm guessing this year there's close to 50, if not more.
And what about the freezing winter temperatures?
People don’t go to the train in their boxers, so they’re on the platform with their friends. I think usually the excitement of the event keeps people going. You'd be surprised - people don’t look like they’re cold. They have this energy like when they’re performing in a play or a musical. They have that rush and have fun and forget that it's freezing and that they're in their underwear. The goal is never to be like, 'Look at me! I’m crazy in my underwear!' But more like, 'Oh, I forgot them at my house. What, it's cold out?'