Paul Tompkins Debates Improv Everywhere’s Founder

Comedian Paul Tompkins published several email debates he had with Improv Everywhere’s founder, Charlie Todd.

I am not a fan of chaos. Personally, chaos makes me nervous, because it makes things seem downright chaotic. I don’t equate fun with uneasiness. So I’ve never been a fan of IE.

I’ve also never been a fan of criticizing other comedians publicly—ape shall never kill ape and all that—but I don’t like pranks. I think they’re mean. I feel sorry for the people who get pranked. So after being sent a link to a recent IE “mission” I made a joke about them. Well, I made a couple jokes about them. Although for some mysterious reason, I was only able to find the very first one on my Twitter profile; have I been mission’d!?

That same day I was contacted in my home—my HOME– by Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd. We had a good debate about what he does and how I feel about what he does.

With Charlie’s permission, I have published our exchange below. Charlie gets the last word, because that’s only fair, and because I stand by all my points. And because he ends by saying something that is complimentary to me.


Thanks to Josh who commented with a link to a show of This American Life where they interviewed several of Improv Everywhere’s “victims”.


  1. Tompkins’ attitude drives me nutty. I have mixed feelings about some of IE’s missions, but overall I am a ‘fan’ I suppose. This exchange is hardly a “debate” though. Tompkins makes some jokes and specious accusations and Charlie Todd responds.

    Paul (chaos makes me nervous) Tompkins comes across as a concern troll. Really? Does he spend that much time worrying about random strangers whose friends may have committed suicide? And why is his work in a club or on stage safe from the very same criticism he levels at IE?

    Had this been a real debate, Todd would have whupped Tompkins like a red-headed stepchild. I appreciate that they both wanted to keep the discourse civil and friendly, but this is ridiculous. Oh, one more thing: WHO GAVE YOU MY EMAIL?

  2. I don’t see how Tompkins reaction is different from ‘don’t wave red capes in public or you might offend a matador’s widow’.

    He’s effectively saying there should be no free expression in public places, or at least, doing so in a humorous way is “not funny”. I think whether or not something is funny is a subjective experience for whomever sees it. Kaufman was hilarious because the comedy was all about the reaction. He can’t do his act in a theater because it’s not funny when people expect it. The whole point of freedom of expression is that we should not have to fear the reactions of other people. If Bob wants to be grumpy, why should the rest of us have to be grumpy too?

  3. I definitely have mixed feelings as well about some of IE’s pranks. One that comes to mind is the prank covered in the This American Life story with the band (“Greatest Gig Ever”). The targets in that case (the band members) felt like dupes and fools when they found out they had been pranked.

    I also understand Tompkins’ wariness about the fear and confusion people can be subjected to when IE is pulling something. I think it is easy, in an age where children are being shot up at school and people are flying planes into buildings, for people to assume the worst is about to happen when confronted by an unexplainable and extraordinary situation in a public space.

    That being said, would I want to live in a world where the strange and extraordinary never happened? Hell no. Bless you IE, and keep up the good work.

    1. You know, the story about the band was the one I really didn’t understand at all. A band nobody’s heard of plays a show at 10pm on a Sunday and are provided with 35 energetic people who actually know the words to their songs. They paid cover. They helped turn what would have been an empty boring gig into a fun time. If you’re the band, how could you possibly care why people are there having fun listening to your music?

      1. “Hey, we really like you!”


        “No…not really. We’re just here as part of a big joke, to make ourselves feel cool.”


        Yeah, I don’t see how that would make anyone feel bad.

  4. Jolting us all out of everyday life with unexpected events is all to the good and has arguably been a strategy of comedians and political activists for a very long time. It’s just that if you do it TO people, rather than AROUND people you have a great responsibility to justify your actions. And ’cause I thought it would be funny’ is not a valid justification.

    As the band on TAL proves, real pain is very easily caused by not thinking it through. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to make a band feel like superstars?’. Well yes, funny for you, not for them. My biggest problem with IE is that they’re painfully dull gags that sound better in the retelling by the proponent than the experiencing by the audience

  5. When I read the first paragraph I thought, “IE? What’s he got against Internet Explorer?”

    Anyway, I like J. Allen’s analogy to waving a red cape in public. A minute few might be troubled by their pranks, but what are the odds?

    However, (like nearly everything) I have mixed feelings on this. Some of their pranks can just be ignored and people can walk away if they’re not interested. Frozen in Times Square and the singing grocery shoppers are good examples of this. I didn’t think it was funny to pester some guy in a bar all night. I’m not familiar with the one where they fooled a band, but that sounds mean too.

    I also don’t care for things that disrupt everyday business, like the the one where they hung out in a Best Buy wearing blue polo shirts and khakis. That’s almost on par with prank phone calls.

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