The occasionally-updated blog of M. Scott Smith

Famous for a Day: My First Improv Everywhere Mission 🔗

On Saturday, March 29, 2008, I changed professions for a day and became a member of the paparazzi. My first assignment: to capture shots of an illusive celebrity, rumored to be visiting Washington, DC for the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Only, I'm not really a member of the paparazzi, and the celebrity wasn't really a celebrity. This didn't end up being a problem. We were all part of a mission put on by the DC chapter of Improv Everywhere, a group chartered to cause "scenes of chaos and joy in public places." The original group was created in 2001 in New York City.

You may have heard about past missions performed by Improv Everywhere. The group has sent hundreds of "agents" dressed up in blue polo shirts and tan khakis into a Best Buy store. They have held "freezes" where hundreds of participants suddenly freeze for several minutes in a public setting, such as Grand Central Station. They have gathered together redheads to protest in front of a Wendy's store. And they recently put on this Food Court Musical in a shopping mall in California:

Missions have been held around the country, and there are now local chapters spread throughout. Volunteers are called "agents." For the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival in DC, the local chapter decided to create a scene called "Celebrity for a Day."

The premise: a famous celebrity arrives in a chauffeured car along the DC Mall. Members of the paparazzi have received a tip about the celebrity's arrival, and are ready to rush the celebrity when he arrives. The celebrity and his entourage (consisting of a girlfriend and scary-looking bodyguards) then walk towards the Washington Monument, and attempt to gain entry into the monument without a ticket. Along the way, throngs of fans notice the celebrity and rush over to get an autograph or snap a photo. The mission will be considered a success if tourists in DC are convinced the celebrity is really a celebrity, with bonus points awarded if the celebrity can talk his way into the Washington Monument.

Only, the celebrity is really a normal person. The entourage, paparazzi, and dozens of screaming and adoring fans are all in on it, too.

This event was organized by Bruce Witzenburg, and volunteers were solicited using Facebook and the Improv Everywhere web site. (You can read Bruce's account of the event here). Volunteers were asked to meet at a specific location around 1:30 p.m. However, Washington DC was extremely crowded, with the cherry blossoms in bloom, a popular kite festival underway, and beautiful weather, so it took extra time for all the key agents to arrive.

Bruce (far left) provides background information and instructions to gathering agents before the start of the mission. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Once a critical mass had gathered, Bruce provided background information on the mission. The fake "star" would go by his real name: Peter Cardinale. Peter is a normal guy, but in our mythical reality, we decided that he had been "the child star" during two seasons of the X-Files, and then ran into some problems with underage drinking before crossing over to music. Since then, he had published several albums, including his popular first album, called "Self Titled." His new album was about to drop. He sang such hits as "Into my Heart."

With that fictional fabric in place, agents were free to improvise and make up additional (plausible) details.

Peter would be accompanied by two bodyguards and "arm candy": an attractive young lady who might be his girlfriend, although it was more fun to leave that unclarified. (I helpfully suggested that the girl was his sister-in-law when agents yelled "who's the girl?") An agent had volunteered to serve as a chauffeur, dropping off Peter and his entourage near the front of the National Museum of Natural History in a red Lexus. Members of the paparazzi had been "tipped off" about the celebrity's visit, and were staked out near this location.

Several dozen agents were assigned the role of crazed fans, and were spread out along the Mall. Crazed fans were supposed to be surprised by the celebrity's visit, and were instructed to only surround the star if they received a clear and nearby view of the star's face, or heard the name of the star.

Members of the paparazzi stake out a bench, looking for the celebrity. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

It was clear from the beginning that the mission was going to be a success. Heads turned as soon as a pack of photographers surrounded Peter and his entourage and then, like clockwork, random tourist/agents came out of the woodwork and began to yell things such as "oh my gosh, that's Peter Cardinale!" Within moments a crowd had started to gather around Peter.

Peter, center, is flanked by his girlfriend (not really his real girlfriend) and a bodyguard (not really a bodyguard). Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Peter Cardinale and his entourage arrive, and the spectacle immediately turns heads. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

The "fans" were absolutely incredible; if the marauding pack of paparazzi didn't sell the event, the fake fans sure did. They came in all shapes, ages, and sizes, and while some of them became completely emotional as soon as they saw their favorite celebrity (along the lines of girls fainting at the site of the Beatles), others casually helped seed curiosity into the crowds, saying things like "who is that?" "Isn't that someone famous?" "Isn't that the singer?" Some fake-spoke on their cell phones, telling friends loudly that they had to get to the Mall as soon as possible -- after all, Peter Cardinale was there -- right there in front of them!

One of our fake fans gleefully waits for an autograph from Peter. Everyone else in this photo is not in on the joke. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Peter and his girl make their way towards the Washington Monument. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

As Peter made his way to the Washington Monument, I rushed around trying to snap photos and look as paparazzi-like as I could. At the same time, though, I was trying to take reaction shots of on-lookers. This was a challenge. I did not want it to appear obvious that I was taking shots of spectators, so I only had a split second to frame and compose the shots.

I was also trying to get good close-up shots of the entourage. I was using my industrial-strength telephoto lens, which has a minimum focusing distance of about 7 feet. To play the role of paparazzi, I often had to be much closer to the celebrity than that, snapping photos that were destined to be out of focus. The huge lens was a great prop, but an audience member knowing a thing or two about photography might have thought it was somewhat ridiculous for me to be shooting so close to a subject with that type of telephoto lens.

Everyone numbered in this photo was a non-agent, watching the event unfold with great curiosity. That’s me on the left with my camera, trying very hard to stay in character. Photo by Bruce Witzenburg.


The guy on the left (who was not part of our group) asked to pose with Peter. Peter posed with and signed autographs for a large number of people who had no idea who he was. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


One of our fan agents even had Peter sign, um, part of her body. These volunteers were really committed to the cause. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


“Peter who?” Photo by M. Scott Smith.


This reaction was common among tourists. Clearly someone very famous is in front of them; they just can’t quite figure out who he is. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

By the time we reached the Washington Monument, a huge crowd surrounded Peter, with tons of people (non-agents) snapping photos and gossiping among themselves. I was repeatedly asked "who is he?" Being horrible with names, I could never remember Peter's last name, so I would usually just respond "oh, he's some child actor turned music star. I don't care for his albums, but he's all the rage these days."

My fellow paparazzi and I would also yell out questions to Peter in an effort to get a "reaction." We yelled things such as "do you apologize to your fans for your second album?" Or "is it true you'll be in the next Batman movie?"

Huge crowds begin to gather, wanting to get a peak at a celebrity. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


A fellow member of the paparazzi. This guy was serious: he had two cameras. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Peter negotiates with the National Park Service, attempting to gain entry to the Washington Monument. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

After arriving at the Washington Monument (along with a huge pack of spectators, most of who were not agents by this point), Peter talks with a friendly National Park Service employee in an effort to enter the Monument without a ticket. The NPS employee wants to oblige, but his supervisor comes over and says Peter needs a ticket. So, with screaming fans in tow, Peter heads to the ticket office (even though they sold out of tickets for the day early in the morning).

The scene at the ticket office was really crazy. Peter and his girlfriend went inside, while his bodyguard prevented anyone else from entering. A huge crowd gathered around, wondering what was going on. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


One of Peter’s bodyguards protects the star. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


These ladies (non-agents) were thrilled to see Peter. Even though they couldn’t have known who he was. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Peter is not a great role model. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


That’s me in the background, taking a shot of Peter smoking. Photo by Joseph Heng.

Participating in this mission was a blast. It was great to gather together with people I had never met and collaboratively put on a safe and harmless spectacle. At one point, I overheard a group of people saying "wouldn't it be a gas if this was all fake?" Umm, yeah! But the performance of the agents made even the strongest skeptics believers. In some cases, when asked who the star was, an agent would start singing one of Peter's songs. (Except, of course, the song was purely made up.) This usually resulted in a sudden knowing nod. In at least one case, a tourist was so convinced they had heard the song that they started singing along! Probably all of this provides some sort of deep and insightful commentary about popular culture. Sure. But above all, it was fun for everyone. It was also somewhat exhausting; we were all worn out by the end.

Apparently the mission did get people talking. On the metro ride home, I heard several people talking about a celebrity who had been at the Washington Monument. The following Monday, I even heard people at work talking about it. Improv Everywhere's motto is "we cause scenes." That's certainly true, and kudos to the DC group for putting on a good one.

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