In 20 years, Columbia native Charlie Todd has gone from riding New York City’s subway in his boxer shorts to producing and directing the original Disney+ show Pixar in Real Life and juggling 50 commercial clients, including Target, ESPN, and Hallmark.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in dramatic art and moving to the Big Apple in 2001, Charlie started taking classes with a well-respected comedy group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and quickly became a bona fide New Yorker. While honing his craft and working temporary office jobs to pay the rent, Charlie founded his own comedy group, Improv Everywhere.
Improv Everywhere stages large-scale pranks, called missions, which are carried out by members of the troupe, referred to as agents, all in public places. Initially the group’s missions were designed to “create chaos and joy,” but as members have matured, their focus has shifted to “surprise and delight.”
This is where the boxer shorts come in. One early mission, the No Pants Subway Ride, had agents hop on the subway at various stops in the middle of winter, wearing everything except pants. Improv Everywhere staged the prank 19 years in a row, and it became an international sensation.
“It’s really crazy that this event that started with just me and six college friends in January of 2002 turned into an event that in some years tens of thousands of people participated in,” Charlie says, “in more than 60 cities around the world on the same day. I accidentally created an international holiday.”
When YouTube emerged in 2006, Charlie uploaded a box of miniDV tapes of Improv Everywhere’s missions to form one of the platform’s first comedy channels. By 2008, the group’s Frozen Grand Central project went viral (before going viral was even a thing), garnering 20 million views in one month. Now it has nearly double that. All total, the lifetime views of Charlie’s videos are more than half a billion.
“That video single-handedly changed my life, partly because of just the sheer amount of views that it got and the attention it drew to Improv Everywhere, but also because it inspired people in cities around the world to go out and replicate it,” Charlie says.
“Another project that I’m particularly fond of is called Conduct Us,” he says. “We put a Juilliard-trained orchestra in the middle of Manhattan by Sixth Avenue and let random people conduct that orchestra. That was a thrill just to be working with world-class musicians because I have no musical talent. I was in awe of watching them work, especially seeing their flexibility with having random people trying to conduct them. No one knows how to conduct.”
Charlie says, “I often use the word ‘prank’ to describe a lot of the projects that we do, but the intent is always for it to be a positive prank. There’s a little bit of a Golden Rule, which is don’t stage something that you wouldn’t want someone else to do to you. So, I try to create surprise moments that I would love to be surprised with myself.”
Though he has office space in the production company Deverge, Charlie often takes phone calls and meetings in Central Park, where he walks or rides his bicycle regularly. Mostly, he tends to work from home when he is not traveling. After his 2011 TED talk, “The Shared Experience of Absurdity,” garnered millions of views, it kick-started a speaking career that takes Charlie all around the world.
Charlie and his wife, Cody Lindquist, have two sons, Charles, who is in second grade, and Cecil, age 3. The couple hosts a live podcast “Two Beers In: A Tipsy Political Roundtable.” An actress, Cody is the voice of Melania Trump on Showtime’s animated show My Cartoon President — she recorded some episodes from their closet during quarantine.
The son of Jennifer and Chuck Todd of Todd & Moore Sporting Goods, Charlie graduated from Hammond School in 1997, two years before his sister, Pierrine, who now lives in Tennessee with her family.
An exceptional student at Hammond, Charlie was on the cross-country and golf teams and, most importantly, involved with theater, even though the school had no theater instructor for his first two years of high school. To fill in the gap, he frequently went to see shows at Trustus Theatre, including a regular late-night offering from the University of South Carolina’s troupe, We’re Not Your Mother’s Players. Charlie lobbied Hammond’s administration to bring theater back, and in the past 15 years, he says, the school hired Linda Khoury and built a new auditorium.
Part of Charlie’s predilection for pranks is inherited. “My dad’s dad, whom I’m named after, was born on April 1, and in our family, April Fool’s Day was always a big deal. My dad would wake us up and tell us that it was snowing outside, and we’d run out, disappointed that it was April 1 in Columbia and there was no snow. I remember going to Be Beep Toy Shop on Forest Drive. It had a practical joke section where you could buy a fake cockroach or a fly inside a fake ice cube or a stick of gum that tasted terrible, and that was my favorite section of the store.”
By the time he was 30, Charlie made his first appearance on the “Today” show to promote his book, Improv Everywhere, Causing a Scene, a hilarious account of the comedy group’s many stunts, co-written with Alex Scordelis and published by Harper Collins in 2009. Having grown up working in the shoe department at Todd & Moore, he asked his parents to send him an appropriate shirt to wear for the interview, with the biggest Todd & Moore logo that would fit on a dress polo.
Though he stays busy with commercial work, Charlie continues to make videos for Improv Everywhere. This past year, he staged an office scene on a raft floating down the East River, complete with a live Zoom call, and all of the accoutrements of a real office, including a water cooler, tissues, and a houseplant. Years of improvisation and sketch comedy have taught Charlie that even the smallest details matter.
“Creating New York’s most socially distanced office was a really fun project to be able to do during the pandemic,” Charlie says. “Our whole team was frustrated that we’d really been sidelined by the pandemic, and we wanted to do something that would respond to the situation but also do so in a lighthearted way that might give people a chance to laugh. I have a good friend who runs an organization called the Tideland Institute that is all about creating culture on our waterways here in New York, and we started talking and brainstorming about things that we could do. He told me he had a raft and that I could put anything I wanted to on it, and we came up with the idea of creating a socially distanced office in the middle of the river.”
Charlie’s database for Improv Everywhere and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is vast, enabling him to choose among hundreds of actors, dancers, or musicians, depending on a production’s needs. Some roles are more challenging to cast than others. Even with more than 20 sets of twins in his database, Charlie and his colleagues labored to find twin boys to play Dash in “The Incredibles: New York City Dash.” Making the Pixar in Real Life series is a career highlight.
“I think Charles realizes that it’s cool that his dad has a Disney+ show,” Charlie says about his older son. “Every now and then he’ll be on his tablet looking at Disney+, and my show will come up as a recommended show. I’ll look over his shoulder and go, ‘Hey, you ought to watch that.’ He kind of rolls his eyes because he’s watched it several times. It will be there forever because it’s one of their originals.”
Q&A with Charlie in Central Park:
Q. Did you have a memorable teacher or mentor?
A. Lynn Barron, who was the librarian at Hammond School. She sadly passed away very recently. She was an incredible person who really inspired me to follow my passions. She was always finding theater books for me and recommending plays to me. We did not have a school newspaper my senior year of high school. The school newspaper had folded for whatever reason, so my classmate John McCormack and I decided that we would just put out a magazine that we would make ourselves on a weekly basis. Mrs. Barron was in support of that and told us we could use her copy machines to make the magazine and we could distribute the magazine in her library. She gave us shelf space right on the circulation desk. She was someone who really supported my creative endeavors, and she touched a lot of people over many years in the community. It was really a tremendous loss when she passed away this year.
Q.What is your favorite restaurant in Columbia?
A. My favorite restaurant in Columbia growing up was San Jose on Forest Drive near Trenholm. When San Jose first opened, we lived in Forest Acres not too far from it, and my family would go there on a weekly basis. I have a special place in my heart for going there with my mom and dad and my sister.
Q.What was your first car?
A. I had a gold Saturn SL1 that I got in high school. Saturns were the practical, sensible car, and I liked them because they had these rubber bumpers. As a teenager, I got into a couple of fender benders, which made a little dent in my bumper, and then five minutes later they would just pop out. I don’t think cars work that way anymore. I haven’t owned a car in more than 20 years. Our family bikes everywhere in New York. We have a cargo bike that fits both of our kids. It’s the urban minivan.
Q. What is your favorite comfort food?
A. Whenever I’m in South Carolina, I do like to get boiled peanuts. We typically head down to the Litchfield Beach area every summer to see my family. We always stop on the side of the road and grab some boiled peanuts. My wife grew up in Ohio, and we’ve had a lot of her high school friends come down to the beach with us and a lot of our friends from New York City. I would say about 80 percent of people who are not from the South are completely repulsed by a boiled peanut.
Q. Does your desk tend to be neat or messy?
A. I am a very neat person. My wife likes to say that I am more neat than I am clean, meaning I’m not necessarily going to be the one doing the dusting, but I am going to make sure that my desk is perfectly neat and everything is exactly in its place.
Q. How has your family reacted to watching your career develop?
A. My family has been incredibly supportive of my career. My sister has two kids who are Improv Everywhere fans. She watches the YouTube videos with them when they come out, and that’s always so nice. And my mother always shows my new videos to my grandmother, who is in her 90s.
Q. What advice would you give to young actors or comedians?
A. My biggest advice to young actors and comedians is to make sure you’re creating your own work. I moved to New York thinking, well, I’ll be an actor, and someone will cast me in a play, or I’ll be a director, and someone will give me opportunities to direct a play for a theater company. I realized very quickly that that was going to be a very long road. And it’s certainly a road that you can go down.
But rather than waiting for someone to cast you in a play, see if you can write your own play. Rather than waiting for an audition for TV and movies, start making videos on TikTok or whatever platform speaks to you. Start expressing yourself without a business plan and do it because you love it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. I was going out and making 25 things a year for the first few years. They weren’t all great, but I certainly learned something from every single one. And each one made the next one better.