Beware, fellow citizens, for there is a sinister force that lurks just underneath the surface of our quotidian lives. It seeks to upend your expectations of normalcy and turn our society into a world gone mad!
I'm talking, of course, about Improv Everywhere, those flash-mobberoos who've given us such self-congratulatory efforts to inject magic into our humdrum lives as Food Court Musical and Grocery Store Musical and who now bring us the Mall Santa Musical above. They call themselves "a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." Salon once referred to them as "the Patch Adams of the Internet." Only one of those is right.
First of all, let's be clear right from the start that Mall Santa Musical, like its predecessors, isn't improv. I'm not going to attempt to define what improv is; you could hop onto an email list that consists of more than a hundred people who are not only improvisers but who all perform at the same improv theatre and never reach a workable consensus. And yes, I speak from experience.
But while I'm not especially interested in parsing exactly to what degree a performance can be prepared before it stops being "improv," I feel quite confident in saying that anything that consists entirely of songs, dialogue, choreography and staging that are completely prewritten and rehearsed is not improv. It's scripted theatre. It's the very definition of scripted theatre. It makes no difference if it takes place in a public space where performances normally do not go. It's no more improv than Avenue Q or The Colbert Report or the Beatles performing unexpectedly on a London rooftop are improv.
Okay, fine. So, unequivocally not improv. That said, what's wrong with the occasional Candid-Camera-with-a-dash-of-Dada stunt, a little brain tweak on an otherwise ordinary day? For that, we have to look back at IE's oft-ignominious track record in order to get a fuller picture of their failure to think through the implications of many of their self-congratulatory stunts.
The classic example was covered way back in 2005 on This American Life. Hoping to make a struggling band feel like huge rock stars, the IE crew studied up on them and showed up at one of their shows, packing the house, singing lyrics back at the musicians and generally going nuts. But you know what struggling bands don't like? Learning that what the roomful of fans that gave them encouragement that they were finally making some inroads at a breakthrough gig was actually entirely false. They don't like that at all. And when enough distance has finally passed for them to become philosophical about it, they might talk about it in terms of staring down their worst fears and surviving.
Then there was the prank they tried to pull this past April Fools' Day. In Jar Jar Subway Car, an IE agent dressed as the living symbol of all that was wrong with the last three Star Wars movies makes a darn fool of himself on a train and eventually crosses the wrong person. Physical violence ensues, the whole thing is caught on video and IE puts out a call to the Internet to identify the attacker.
There were two possibilities that ran through my head as I watched this video on April 1:
1) It was real, in which case the Jar Jar guy was being obnoxiously annoying to people who very vocally didn't want anything to do with him but he didn't listen, in which case I hated Improv Everywhere, OR
2) The whole thing was staged, and the "attacker" was just another person who was in on it and nobody was actually pressing any kind of charges, in which case I hated Improv Everywhere.
As many of us suspected right away, option #2 was the correct one. But it wasn't simply a harmless joke on folks in Internetland. Not only did IE stage their funny little assault in front of kids, they essentially put out a public call for vigilante justice against their own actor. (The alternative, of course, was that they had just bypassed the police entirely and put out a public call for vigilante justice against someone prone to violence, which isn't much better.) Their funny little gotcha carried the real possibility of putting people in danger.
(And that's disregarding the fact that never once did Jar Jar ever encounter Darth Maul, so the mock battle that was to have followed the other mock battle made no sense. Come on, people, do your research.)
Not all of IE's stunts are as short-sighted and ill-considered, of course. Some, like the various no-pants escapades, are harmless and nonintrusive, exactly as these things should go. Frozen Grand Central was a genuinely intriguing idea, bordering on performance art. The Ben Folds prank was choice, although it must be noted that the idea for that one came from Folds himself. Say Something Nice was even better, since it was not only fundamentally good-natured but relied on something that often eludes IE stunts: the participants' willingness to involve themselves.
That's what delights me about Dare To Fight?! Behold, a lone ninja standing alone, minding his own business. It's only when a civilian picks up both the challenge and the sword that the ninja-storm falls. Nothing was imposed upon them. Every participant made the choice to involve themselves, including the girl at :50 who's having fun playing warrior and then squeaks in terror once she realizes that it's raining ninjas and she's the umbrella. It's also worth noting that Dare To Fight?! doesn't come from IE.
But those aren't the ones that IE appears to take special pride in. It's the ones like Mall Santa Musical, which falls pretty much smack dab in the middle of the IE spectrum. It's perfectly harmless, to the point where it's precisely the sort of kiddie entertainment a mall Santa display would be putting on anyway. It's more or less redundant, but it improves incrementally on previous outings. For one thing, there's an actual song there; in other IE musicals, there's just singing, which is different. (We get it, Grocery Store Musical: fruit, great. What about it?)
But Improv Everywhere is sort of trapped in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't-(but-please-don't) situation. If they put this performance on in Santa's village, it's not noteworthy. If they put it on at some more unusual time and place like the others, it's insufferable. Instead of trying to inject some magic into the mundane, they should try to inject more of it into their magic first.