edUcon 2024 Preview: ‘People Really Crave Connection’

Charlie Todd, founder of the comedy collective Improv Everywhere, will talk about creating joyful shared experiences for conference attendees on the edUcon 2024 Main Stage in Detroit.

Author: Curt Wagner       

people in bodysuits dancing around speaker

At a 2012 Ted Talk, Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere planted a fake speaker whose PowerPoint presentation seemingly failed, with the multicolored “spinning ball of death” on screen instead of slides. IE actors among the audience stood and spun colorful umbrellas and tossed beach balls while dancers jumped on stage around the speaker, who still struggled with his tech while trying to present.

Charlie Todd, a New York City–based comedian, director, and author who pioneered unexpected public performances — ever heard of the now-global, more-than-two-decades-old phenomenon called the No Pants Subway Ride where seemingly random male riders got on the train wearing boxer shorts? Todd will share his stories of bringing surprise and delight to unsuspecting strangers and offer his ideas on how event organizers can do the same for their attendees during his Tuesday Main Stage presentation at PCMA edUcon, June 23-26, at Huntington Place in Detroit, Michigan.

caucasian man graying beard and hair blue eyes

Charlie Todd

Who doesn’t want to attend a conference where someone in the audience breaks out in song, leotard-clad dancers gyrate around a speaker, and attendees are encouraged to get up and join the fun? Todd and the comedy collective he founded, Improv Everywhere (IE), have orchestrated all of those “pranks” at past events, he said, because “those shared moments can really bring a community together.

“I think adding an element of the unexpected to your event is really powerful,” he said. “It’ll get people talking at the cocktail hour, and they’ll be talking about it when they get back to their offices the next week.”

When Convene spoke with Todd over video to preview his talk, “Creating Community and Connection Through Unexpected Joy,” he shared stories of past stunts, offered some ideas for organizers, and dropped a hint about a surprise awaiting the edUcon audience during his presentation.

What was your inspiration for Improv Everywhere?

When I moved to New York to break into comedy, I developed this formula of doing these surprise secret performances whose mission was to make people laugh and smile and give people a unique experience and a great story to tell. At the time — in the early 2000s — there were lots of prank shows on TV, including “Boiling Points,” and, of course, “Punk’d,” where the real goal was just to anger and frustrate people. I saw an opportunity to use the prank formula in a way that was positive, that was really focused on comedy and just delighting people. It would break people out of their routines.

Why do you think these experiences work?

There’s a lot of power in creating shared experiences for people — these shared moments of joy. And it’s so rare that we have these types of connections with strangers in our public spaces. The recent eclipse [in April] I thought was such a magical experience and such a great example of a unifying shared experience. … It was a good show, but really for me the most exciting part of the day was just seeing everybody out together. In New York, our sidewalks, our public plazas, our parks were just packed with people. That was a unifying moment.

The events industry talks a lot about community building and the feeling of belonging — how can your experiences contribute to those outcomes?

The conference environment is great [for these performances] because it is very unexpected for something to happen among the audience in the middle of a general session. When I work with meetings and events, I like to design things that are participatory as well. I think people don’t see that coming. You’re used to entertainment, but you’re not expecting to become part of the entertainment, and you’re not expecting to be fully immersed in the entertainment. And I think it’s a powerful experience to be a part of something larger than yourself.

At edUcon this year, we’re going to do a custom experience that I’m in the process of writing. We do something called the Mp3 Experiment series that’s an annual event. [Editor’s note: To participate, attendees must download The Mp3 Experiment app to their phones and wear their earbuds to follow the directions given.] That is a way I can choreograph people to do things simultaneously. The whole group together is freezing in place or walking backwards or whatever particular, funny instruction they are given at any moment.

woman with laptop singing from audience

A popular conference prank facilitated by Improv Everywhere is the surprise musical. It begins when someone in the audience interrupts the speaker by standing up and starting to sing. Then another audience member joins in, then another. “And then a guy who looks like he was on the tech crew breaks into song, and eventually the fake speaker himself starts singing,” Charlie Todd said. IE can customize the song for the organization or the event, Todd said, with inside jokes or by poking fun at its executives or board members.

What if conference attendees don’t want to participate?

When I work with conferences, sometimes there’ll be a concern of, “Well, our audience is shy” — but there’s this strength in numbers where you’re not put on the spot, you’re not doing something by yourself. And it creates this atmosphere of support.

I don’t have a huge interest in sports, but I love going to events just for the crowd moments that happen. For the joyful group celebration, the happy mob working together to do the wave around the football stadium. I get so excited about those moments of big groups of people working together. And I think there’s a real sense of community that comes from that.

What have you learned over the years of doing this work about human behavior?

I’ve learned that people really crave connection. They crave these shared experiences. I’ve learned how important public space is. I’m lucky to live in New York where we have so many wonderful public spaces, but I think having spaces where you can have serendipitous connections with people — not just a Target or the grocery store — is really important. I love living in a walkable city that has spaces like this.

And I’ve also learned how people really are the same all over the world. When we’ve been in other countries, the concerns from conference organizers are similar — “Here in Sweden, we’re very shy.” And then it goes exactly the same — people laugh at the same moments, they bring their own unique personalities and culture to the event, but ultimately it always goes the same. And I think that rush and that excitement you get from being a part of a secret mission and expressing yourself with a big group of people is just a human trait and not something that’s just unique to a New Yorker or an American.

Do you have any advice for planners looking to inject this kind of surprise into their events?

I would challenge event planners to have faith in their attendees and trust that they’re down for something unexpected and down for something fun — trust that taking a risk and experimenting with something a little bit different could have a really big payoff, while keeping in mind designing an experience that doesn’t feel like forced fun, right? And leave a little bit of mystery around it, too. Say there will be a pop-up event today, but don’t get specific.

Also, find the people from within the community who are extroverts and want to be the stars of a secret performance. No matter the industry, there are those within who raise their hands first. Find them to be part of what you do.

Curt Wagner is digital editor of Convene. This interview has been edited for brevity.

More Improv Everywhere Pranks

High Five Escalator

people holding signs on escalator

Watch the HighFive Escalator video, which has been viewed more than 4 million times, on YouTube at

One of Charlie Todd’s favorite IE pranks took place 15 years ago on a crowded, “dreary” escalator within the New York City subway system when, during a morning commute, five actors positioned themselves a few steps from each other on a staircase next to the “up” escalator, each holding a sign that ended up spelling out “Rob wants to give you a high five. Get ready.” The final sign, held above a man’s head, read “Rob” — who had his hand up ready for high-fives. “We just really transformed that space,” Todd told Convene. “That concept of brightening someone’s day — even just for a couple minutes in the subway station, but they leave with an extra spring in their step — was something that I was really proud of doing.”

Princess Leia and the Stormtroopers

people dressed as star wars characters on subway

Watch the Princess Leia video, which was posted 13 years ago and has more than 11 million views, on YouTube at

“Typically, if you are riding a subway train, you’re not going to have a group interaction unless something bad is happening. It’s been my goal to try to create moments of connection like that — but because something great is happening. I’m interacting with the person across from me because Princess Leia is sitting next to me and the Storm Troopers just got onto the train and then the doors open and Darth Vader is standing there, and we’re having this fun, hilarious moment together where we’re all wondering, ‘What is happening? This is hilarious.’”
— Charlie Todd


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