A Hell’s Kitchen resident since 2013, this former performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade used his talent to start Improv Everywhere nearly 20 years ago. Since then, he’s brought smiles and surprises to the public. His sense of humor has never failed him during the pandemic, especially when creating “New York’s Most Socially Distant Office.” Here’s Charlie Todd’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. I went to UNC Chapel Hill and then moved up to New York in July of 2001 to pursue theatre and comedy.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I lived on 8th Avenue between 29th and 30th for 10 years, which I guess is North Chelsea, or really “Penn Station Adjacent.” I was a performer at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre which was on 26th Street at the time, so it was very convenient for that. When my wife and I decided it was time to move to an apartment that didn’t have a view of a combination Taco Bell Pizza Hut, we found the perfect place on 49th and 9th across the street from World Wide Plaza. That was 2013, and we’ve been in the neighborhood ever since.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
I love how our neighborhood is so centrally located. My primary means of transportation is by bike, often a cargo bike with one or two kids in tow. I can be almost anywhere I need to be in 20 minutes on the bike. Our proximity to Central Park and the West Side Greenway make for great recreational rides too. In terms of what I love inside the neighborhood: amazing restaurants and great public schools.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
My biggest pet peeve is the decaying phone booths taking up space on our sidewalks. Thankfully, they are finally starting to come down! One came down in front of Norma last month right after they opened, and now it’s space for an extra sidewalk table for them. Phone booths have stuck around for at least 15 years beyond their actual usefulness. They’ve existed solely as advertising shelters for too long. I recently did a project with Art in Ad Places, a group that replaces the advertising in phone booths with art, without authorization. My project took a Powerball ad and changed it so the digital display gave the odds of winning rather than the jackpot. Outdoor advertising is such a blight on our streets. I really hope we don’t get LinkNYC kiosks on 9th Avenue. Their ads are even brighter than the phone booths. They feel like pop up ads you can’t close!
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I founded the group Improv Everywhere nearly 20 years ago, and over time it has morphed from a small side project to a full time job. We specialize in creating big moments of surprise and delight in public spaces.
Right before COVID, our team got a chance to make a show with Pixar for Disney+ called Pixar in Real Life. It’s a 12-episode series that features iconic characters from Pixar films surprising real people on the streets of New York City. In my favorite episode, we had a full size remote control Wall-E robot rolling out of a dumpster and surprising people on 29th Street.
Obviously, the past year has not been great for video productions that involve surprising people in public. We did manage to stage a really fun pandemic project though. We created New York’s Most Socially Distant Office on a floating raft in the East River. It was nice to get a chance to make people laugh during this rough year.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I learned that you can fit restaurant seating for 8 people in one single parking space. I’m really happy that the Open Restaurants program has caused more and more people to realize that there are better uses for our curb than free private vehicle storage. Most of us don’t have cars! Plus, our streets just feel more alive with the outdoor dining. I love it.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
Finding out that Nirvana Unplugged was taped in the same spot where my local CVS currently stands. Though to be clear, I’m a Rite Aid guy not a CVS guy. Get out of here with those long receipts.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
In 2006 I played a prank with Ben Folds where I impersonated him during the first song of his Hammerstein Ballroom set. I was pretending to play piano while a pre-recorded track played through the PA. Then the track purposely started skipping, and the whole crowd thought Ben Folds had been caught lip synching. Then the real Ben Folds came out and shoved me off stage and started the show. I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk out onto a stage in front of 2,000 screaming fans.
What’s your superpower?
Remembering people’s names.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
“Everything’s Right” by Phish has been my pandemic go to. It’s hopeful. “The long night is over and the sun is coming up!”
Which people inspire you the most?
I’m inspired by people who take it upon themselves to fix things in their community, rather than simply complaining about it on Nextdoor or Facebook. Take Catie Savage, for example. She was fed up with the trash on our streets and just started cleaning it up herself (while simultaneously lobbying our elected officials to restore the sanitation cuts). Lately, my family has been going to her Litter Legion event on Sunday mornings.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Dream up the kind of world you want to live in. Dream out loud. At high volume.” — Upper West Side resident, Bono.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
In a normal year I avoid Times Square, but I’ve been walking through it regularly during the pandemic. The pedestrian plazas are great. I wish they’d just go ahead and pedestrianize all of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Union Square. It would be so easy to do and would barely affect car traffic.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
I want to like Hudson Yards, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the neighborhood yet. It feels like a luxury island. It was disappointing when the mall opened, and it was full of ultra-luxury shops. Maybe now that many of those places have closed during COVID, they can get some tenants that would actually serve the greater community outside of the surrounding glass towers.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I was very sad to see the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on 42nd Street close during the pandemic. I had been a part of the UCB community for nearly 20 years. My wife and I met at the old Chelsea location. I’d also bring back The Pony Bar. That was the spot that first got me interested in craft beer. They were way ahead of the curve on good beer. In the late 2000s, everywhere else was selling crappy European “imports” and The Pony Bar had great local brews on tap long before it was a trend. They still have an Upper East Side location.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Check out Improv Everywhere’s website to see our long history of joyful stunts. like giving the Chelsea Best Buy 100 extra employees one afternoon or letting random New Yorkers conduct a Juilliard Orchestra in Herald Square. And check out Pixar in Real Life on Disney+!
Anything we missed?
Don’t forget to vote in the primary election on June 22. It means more than the general election in our city!
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
Clinton Gourmet Market (10th Ave between W45/46th St)
While it may appear on the outside like a humble bodega, this place has the best beer selection in the neighborhood, if not all of Manhattan. It’s incredible. Let Wada recommend you something new and fresh. He takes great care of his regulars, always pointing me in the direction of something I’ll like.
43rd Street Kids (corner of W43rd & 10th Ave)
Both of my children went to 43rd Street Kids, a neighborhood co-op nursery school. The school is inside Manhattan Plaza and the kids get to take swim lessons weekly at the health club. I have fond memories of being the parent assistant and swimming with 8 three-year-olds and Shawn the swim coach. There’s a great community around that school. Plus, Alicia Keys went there!
Trek (corner of W46th & 10th Ave)
I’ve been going to this bike shop since it was Danny’s Bicycles. I was worried when it got bought by Trek, but it’s remained an excellent shop with a friendly staff. I’ve bought three bikes there and they’ve taken good care of me. Now if we can just get a bike lane on 10th Avenue so it’s easier to drop off my bike for tune ups!
Hell’s Kitchen Free Store (corner of W45th & 9th Ave)
We’re members of the local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook, but the Free Store has added another really great freecycling option for the neighborhood. I love taking my kids and dropping off things we no longer use and letting them pick out a new book or a toy. The best is when you see someone take something you just dropped off with a smile.
Manhattan Community Boathouse on Pier 96 (56th St in Hudson River Park)
I don’t know if it’s returning this summer, but in past years the free kayaking at Pier 96 has been a summer highlight for our family. The Hell’s Kitchen skyline looks beautiful from out on the water. Such a great activity on a hot day. I’m looking forward to the renovation of Pier 97 as well.