Ted’s Birthday

Digital Photgraphy: Agent Winckler
Mission Inspired by: Rob Huebel
Featuring: Winckler, Arnheiter, Harms, Jesster, Montague, Tyne, Scherer, Cicci, King, Spencer, Dippold, Maestro, Delfino, Morningstar, Arnheiter, Good, Shelky, Harms, Barrison, Todd, Marhekifson, Plumettaz, Rowcroft, Legion, Berman, McMurray, Rosenthal

PLEASE NOTE: This post was written in September 2003. The This American Life episode about this project first aired in April of 2005 and has recently been rerun. While you’re here, please check out our more recent projects.

On September 19, 2003 around thirty guests celebrated Ted Hine’s birthday at Dempsy’s bar on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. This came as a total shock to NYU student “Chris”, who had no idea he was “Ted” and no idea why he was being inundated with gifts from strangers.

Here is the brief Agent Todd sent out to the participating agents a few days before the mission:

We are going to throw a birthday party for a stranger.

We will meet at the East 4th Bar at 9 PM. I will enter another bar around the corner alone and pick out a guy who looks like he’s sitting with friends and not leaving for a long time. I’ll report back to East 4th and identify him for everyone.

Then, either by yourself or in small groups, you will enter the bar, walk up to the guy I’ve picked out and act as if you know him personally and he has invited you to his birthday party that night at that bar. You will then give him an envelope with his present, a $10 gift certificate to a popular store [I will purchase the gift certificates myself and you will give me $10 at the meeting place in exchange for one.]

Here is a fictional biography of the guy we are going to target. Memorize these details so that we will all be on the same page.

Name: Ted Hine
Age: 25
College: UNC-Chapel Hill
Works at: Oppenheimer Funds
Status: Single
Interests: Dave Matthews Band, Monty Python, Rock Climbing

Pick a relationship you have to Ted. Perhaps you work with him at Oppenheimer or went to school with him at UNC. Maybe you met him at a rock climbing gym. However you know him, you are there because Ted sent you an “evite” to his party.

Obviously, the guy we target will, at least at first, claim not to be Ted. Just laugh whenever he says this and say something like, “You’re too funny, Ted” or “Don’t be shy, Ted.” There are 25 of us participating, so Ted will be getting $250 worth of gift certificates. It should ultimately be a very fun night for him, and us. After you’ve said hello to Ted and given him his present, just act natural and have fun at the bar for the rest of the night. Try not to bother Ted too much, but don’t ignore him either. Make sure you tell him goodbye if you leave.

We will never break character. Never say what group we are from, and never say anything to indicate to Ted that there is anything unusual going on. Also, please don’t discuss this event publicly before it happens.

**Remember to bring a ten dollar bill**

See you then!

Agent Todd

Improv Everywhere Mission
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IE Agents with their gifts at the East 4th Bar

As the team assembled at East 4th Bar, Agent Todd outfitted everyone with his $10 gift certificate. Most agents brought their own personally addressed birthday card and placed the certificates inside. Earlier in the day Agent Todd had bought $150 in Best Buy gift cards and $100 in Barnes and Noble gift cards.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Agent Barrison with Ted’s cake
Around 9:30, Agent Todd left East 4th Bar alone and walked around the corner to Dempsey’s on 2nd Avenue. Dempsey’s was our chosen locale due to its cheap drinks, large amount of space, and the fact that it is usually not crowded. The bar was pretty dead when Agent Todd arrived. The selection of who would be “Ted” turned out to be quite easy as there was hardly anyone to chose from. It was key to pick someone who looked like he would be staying for a long while. Two young college kids were sitting in the back corner of the bar with a full pitcher of beer. Agent Todd chose one of them and returned to East 4th to give out the description. “He’s a young white guy with shaggy reddish blonde hair. He looks sort of like a hipster and is wearing a striped shirt with a white jacket and sitting with one friend at the back of the bar.”

Improv Everywhere Mission
Agent Todd sits with Ted
Agent Todd and Harms were the first to head over. Birthday cards in hand, they went straight to the back of the bar and pulled up to chairs to Ted’s table. The two told Ted happy birthday and met his friend, Harry. Ted was absolutely bewildered and tried to clear up the confusion. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he kept insisting. Harry chimed in, “Any minute now someone who looks just like you is going to show up.” Todd and Harms laughed and said things like, “Ted, I didn’t live with you for our entire senior year at UNC for you to act like you don’t know me!” Ted became frustrated.

Ted: If it’s my birthday, then buy me a shot.
Agent Todd: You bet. What would you like?
Ted: A Kamikaze. You have to get Harry one too.
Agent Harms: Ok. 4 Kamikazes coming up!

Todd and Harms returned from the bar moments later and the foursome did their shots. Todd ordered a pitcher of beer from the waitress for the table. Ted and Harry were visibly uncomfortable with what was going on and at this point still convinced that it was a mere case of mistaken identity.

Improv Everywhere Mission
More guests arrive to greet Ted
At this point a steady stream of party guests began to enter. Ted began to insist more vehemently that he was not who everyone thought he was, and made clear that he would not accept any gifts. “These are for someone else,” he kept saying.

Ted and Harry got up from their table and went outside to smoke on the street. While outside, Ted was greeted by the second wave of party guests who fortunately were able to recognize him by Agent Todd’s description. Ted was curt with the second wave of guests, tossing his gifts aside and not engaging in small talk.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Ted sits by his cake and presents
When Ted returned to his table, Agent Barrison presented him with a chocolate birthday cake and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” heartily. Harry looked at Ted and with great urgency told him, “We need to get out of here. Now. Let’s get the check.” Several agents attempted to pick up Ted’s check, but he insisted on paying himself. He and Harry exited the bar quickly after paying, leaving behind a stack of gifts and cards.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Harry pays the check as Ted shows waitress Courtney one of his gifts
At this point it seemed as though Ted was gone for good. Agent Todd told everyone to prepare for the possibility of having to reload and attempt the mission at a new bar with a new Ted.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Ted and Harry smoke outside as agents Todd, Good,
Spencer, and Delfino talk with them
While Ted did leave the bar, he didn’t go far. He and Harry hung out on the street chain-smoking for a good ten minutes while several agents talked with him. Agent Spencer was able to slowly calm him down (while staying in character), and Agent Good was able to get him back in the bar with a promise of another Kamikaze shot and a round of pool.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Ted plays pool
Ted re-entered Dempsey’s with a new attitude. His denials were gone, and he was ready to agree with everything that came his way. He began answering to Ted and corroborating everyone’s personal stories. His outlook had done a complete 180.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Ted’s stash of presents
From this point on Ted’s party was an absolute blast for everyone involved. Ted and Harry downed countless shots and beers, all paid for by his IE friends. They played several rounds of pool and began flirting with the female agents. By the end of the night, the duo had bought Agent Delfino 6 shots and were trying to get her to come to their apartment to hang out.

Improv Everywhere Mission
One slice of cake left
Ted also started hugging. He became sad when folks started to leave around midnight, and he administered hearty bear hugs to everyone on their way out. Only a handful of agents outlasted Ted. Agent Todd put all of Ted’s presents in a grocery bag for him, and he left the bar with $250 in gifts and a great story to tell.

Improv Everywhere Mission
Ted poses with Agent Winckler

Agent Montague
What surprised me the most was Ted’s 180. After 10 minutes, he was paying the check and out the door. After an hour, he was back in the bar and playing the part. After 2 hours, I think he’d convinced himself he really was Ted. I remember him saying to me, “Why is everyone leaving my party. It’s still so early.”

When I first encountered Ted one on one, he was just starting to get into the idea. I was playing the part of Ted’s frat brother from UNC. I sat outside on a bench, as Ted exited the bar. I said, “Hey Ted! What’s up!” “It’s Ted, not Todd,” he responded. “Ted, what are you talking about? Kappa Sig man!” I exclaimed.

Ted gave me a confused look. Then, in a moment of pure Ted genius, he brought his fist to his heart. “Brothers for life,” he replied casually. “I’m going to get some smokes, I’ll be right back.”

Sure enough, he came back. He would leave time and time again. Every time I wondered, “Is he coming back?” That crazy Ted, he had us all the way. He always came back when he said he would.

To top it all off, I had the chance to play Ted in pool. I felt bad for him, because everyone was watching him, and he really wasn’t very good at pool. Whenever anyone played him, you could kind of tell they were missing on purpose. It was never easily done, but Ted usually came out on top. In my case, Agent Shafeek and myself lost to Ted and his buddy. 3 cheers for Ted!

Agent McMurray
The boy seemed a bit skittish at first. He’d probably never gotten that much attention in his life…and not because he wasn’t a upstanding fellow…but probably because he had avoided it. But as the night went on he seemed to talk things out with his friend and started to get more comfortable. I offered to play a round of pool with him even though I was a self-proclaimed “sucky pool player” and he agreed to it. But, alas, a friend who I had not hung with in a long time was out and about and I had to leave the party early. I left Ted and wished him a happy birthday. I think he had a good night.

The next day I was out running on 2nd avenue, huffing and puffing my way back home, and who did I see? Ted!! So I winked and smiled at him hoping he’d recognize me from the night before but I guess we’ll never know because I just kept on running.

Agent Delfino
I spent a good portion of the evening kicking ass on the pool table, and beat Ted senseless on one or two occasions. Ted and Harry tried to convince me to come to their apartment. They ended up buying me like 6 shots, and I wasn’t even asking for them. They were just like, hey, Jessica, come take this shot. I didn’t end up going wiht them, and it was probably for the better. I was so pooped after the party I just went home and crashed out.

Agent Rowcroft
Right as two of my former “college friends” were about to go into the bar to meet Ted we noticed him outside smoking a cigarette with his friend. He didn’t notice us, and I over heard him say something along the lines of “…what the hell is going on in there, this is so weird…”, and as he was saying that me and my “friend” yelled “Ted what’s up! Happy Birthday buddy!” And he just stood there thanked us all wearily and took our gifts. It was hilarious. I also overheard him say to his friend later on that everything he got he would split evenly with him.

Agent Morningstar
I was in one of the last groups to head over to the site of Ted’s birthday shindig. We intercepted by another guest to Ted’s party and informed that Ted was now smoking/on his cell phone outside. Agent Plumettaz dove in and chatted it up with “Ted”. Agent Marhekifson and I chilled outside awaiting Ted to head back in. Ted seemed a bit perturbed and confused, while his buddy appeared to find the whole thing pretty amusing (smiling, and snickering under his breath when Ted was not looking.) When Ted went inside, Agent Marhekifson and I entered as well.

Once Ted re-entered and approached the back of the bar where everyone was camped out, a cake was brought in and he was treated to a festive rendition of Happy Birthday. Ted still looked very confused. He posed for pictures with the birthday cake. At this point a number of people congratulated him and showered him with gift certificates and cards. Then Ted made an attempt to pay his check and leave. A number of birthday well wishers leaped at the opportunity to settle his tab since it was his birthday. One or two of them were especially convincing, refusing to let the birthday boy pay. Alas, Ted politely declined. I then overheard Ted trying to explain to the waitress what was going on, that he had arrived at the bar and he had been approached by strangers giving him gifts. He didn’t know what to do with the gifts, and he didn’t know who we were. After the check was settled, Ted exited. We weren’t sure if he was coming back.

After an extended smoke break, Ted re-entered the bar. He seemed to have warmed up to what was going on at this point (I don’t know if his buddy convinced him to roll with it or what). Around this time, I remember the waitress informing us that this was her first night. Kripes!

It was then that I approached Ted to give him his birthday card. I just kind of shyly told him it was really great to see him, that it had been a long time. He played along, telling me he was happy to see me too, coming over to me and giving me a hug. I motioned toward the stack of cards/gifts and mentioned that I was impressed by what a haul he had raked in for his birthday. He shook his head, and said he did not know what to do with it. I told him, “Enjoy it, it’s your birthday man!” At that point he turned to me and asked me, “Seriously, do you know what’s going on here?” I told him, “People love you man. All of your friends and co-workers just want you to have a good time on your birthday.” Ted, apparently having heard this kind of response before just shook his head and said, “Okay.” Then Ted introduced me to his friend Harry and asked me not to refer to him as Indian, because he is in fact from Pakistan. Some more birthday well wishers showed up, so I trotted off and hung out elsewhere in the bar. Later on he asked me to take a shot for him in the pool game he was playing. I screwed up the shot, apologized for screwing up his game on his birthday, and excused myself from the game.

Later on, someone toasted Ted’s birthday. Alas I forget what was said in the toast, but everyone in that corner of the bar raised his glass for Ted.

Agent Tyne
We were probably in the third wave of people to go in, and as we get to the bar a red-haired guy is coming out, so a moment of fear and “Is that him?” cross my mind.

Luckily, he’s saying, “I must be losing my mind.”

Taking that as my cue, my friend and I yell, “TED! Happy Birthday!”

He looks confused and says “Um…thanks…the others are inside…”

“Oh great! Is it the rest of the college crew?”

“I don’t know who they are, but they’re inside.”

“Awesome…Janice couldn’t make it, but she pitched in on this.” I say handing over the card.

“Thanks,” says he not taking it.

“Here, Happy birthday!”

He just stares at the card, continuing to not take it. “Take it. Take it! TAKE IT!” and he takes it with a polite nod and a smile as we duck in the bar.

Later on after the party has been going on for a while, the illusion still seems to be holding. Just before we leave “Janice” calls on my phone to say sorry for missing the party (it’s my friend Caitlin). I tell her what’s going on and pass the phone over to Ted, “Hey, Ted…it’s Janice on the phone. She’s stuck in the hurricane, but wanted to call and say “Happy Birthday!”

I pass the phone and from my end I hear, “Wait…listen. Do I sound like Ted?”

Agent Shelky
When we got to Dempsey’s, Ted was already outside smoking so we doubled back around so we could walk up and make an entrance. He was going back inside. Initially, Ted did not seem too pleased with his party. In fact, it seemed like he was going to leave. I went up and gave him my gift and said how it was really good to see him outside of work.

There was a moment where it seemed like Ted was going to leave and we all started to gather up our presents in case we had to pick another Ted. But luckily Ted came back. He got very used to receiving lots of cards and gifts and getting lots of free drinks.

Eventually, even Ted’s real friend starting calling him Ted. Ted went to call up one of his best friends who wasn’t there, and Agent Spencer acted all pissed that “Ben” wasn’t coming to Ted’s b-day party. Ted suggested she leave a message so she did.

Ted got over $250 in gift certificates.

I wish I was Ted. I think we all do.

Agent Jesster
The only idea I had come up with for my relationship with Ted was that he had dated my sister until fairly recently, and so I made use of that idea by putting my name and my sister “Tanya’s” name on my card as well – and in my head I planned on making it a point to tell Ted that “Tanya” wanted to come out, but she felt it was “too soon.” So I walked to Dempsey’s a while after everyone else and once I got inside I realized that Ted was actually smoking a cigarette, meaning I had just walked by the guy I’m supposed to know. I quickly walked back outside and gave Ted a big apology for walking right by him without seeing him. Ted was clearly not enjoying himself at the moment. He sat on a bench in front of the bar smoking his cigarette, avoiding eye contact with all of us. Sitting next to him was a large pile of cards and gift certificates. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Agent Jesster: Teddddd….buddy! Ah, man sorry I missed you – Happy Birthday! Here’s a little something for ya!
Ted: Yeah…ok…thanks. (He tosses the card into the pile without ever looking at me or at the gift)
Agent Jesster: So listen…Tanya says hello, and she sends her regards, but she couldn’t make it out tonight…
Ted: Uh, ok…whatever.
Agent Jesster: So how’s Oppenheimer treatin’ ya?
Ted: (with extreme disdain) You know, I HONESTLY don’t know.”

I left him alone for a while after that. He came back inside, we all sung him happy birthday, and gave him a cake, and he didn’t seem to enjoy that much either. At this point I thought the whole night was a total bust. Our Ted wasn’t having any fun at all. Then, the strangest thing happened. He went outside for another cigarette break, and he came back, had a shot with Agent Good, and then suddenly, he was completely accepting of the situation. He became “Ted” and started having fun with all of us. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the realization that while the situation was kind of crazy, everyone was just trying to have fun, or maybe he finally noticed the $200+ dollars in gift certificates he was getting, but whatever it was, Ted was finally coming around.

A short time later, I tried talking to him again – the conversation went a lot better this time: (paraphrasing to the best of my memory)

Agent Jesster: Ted, uh, about Tanya…you know, she really wanted to be here tonight. But she just felt like it was too soon.
Ted: Yeah well, I would have liked to see her too…
Agent Jesster: You guys had a pretty rough breakup, though, you know?
Ted: Yeah, yeah…we certainly did. There was a lot of emotion there. She was really something.
Agent Jesster: You went out for like what? A year?
Ted: Nah, more like a year and a half.

By the end, Ted was totally embracing my history with him, and it was awesome. His friend, Harry was cool too. I think in the end it turned out to be a big success.

Agent Good
I was the first one to approach Ted and all I had time to get out was a “there he is!” before he interrupted and said, “dude, I’m not Ted.” I passed it off as Ted being a kidder, like always, and then I introduced him to Pam, my girlfriend. He shook her hand. After that a couple of other people came up to say hi, and Pam and I went to the bar. Apparently all the attention was too much for Ted as he went outside shortly after we arrived for the first of his many chain-smoking breaks.

After a while I went outside to see if he was ok. He seemed a little frazzled and was asking what the hell was going on. At one point I think he asked us if he had won some sort of prize. After standing outside for a little while, I told him that I would buy him a shot.

Me: C’mon back in, we need to do a shot.
Agent Todd: Nah we just did a Kamikaze a little while ago.
Ted: I’ll do another Kamikaze.

Sweet! He was hooked and came back after a little while longer. I bought both Ted and his friend Harry a shot. And we all headed back toward the party.

Next time I stopped to see how Ted was doing he was talking to waitress Courtney, who was working her first night at Dempsey’s.

Ted: I don’t know what I should do.
Courtney: Open one of the cards.
Ted: What happens when the real Ted shows up?
Courtney: Do you think there is a real Ted?
Ted: I don’t know.
Courtney: Maybe they just picked you. I’ll read on of the cards maybe they’ll say it’s joke or something.

Courtney opens one of the cards with a Best Buy gift certificate in it and she reads it.

Courtney: Ok this looks like its serious.

When Courtney asked me what was going on I kept telling her that Ted did the same thing on his 21st birthday too.

After a while though, Ted started to lighten up and even started answering to the name Ted. We played pool together and I after I lost the game for us by sinking the 8 ball in the pocket and then scratching, he told me not to worry about it and gave me a hug. I had to leave shortly there after and Ted was very accommodating.

Me: Well, I think Pam and I are taking off.
Ted: You’re leaving already? Well, thanks for coming.

Ted gave me another hug good-bye. I had my cell phone out and asked him if he had the same cell number. He told me he had actually gotten a new number and gave it to me. It actually was his real number, as I found out the next day after dialing *67 and the 206 area code number, he picked up.

Ted: Hello?
Me: Ted?
Ted: Yeah.


Agent Berman
That cat hasn’t changed since college. Still the same fiery red head I’ve always loved. Ted asked me, “Hey, do I get to keep the presents for real.” I answered, “Umm,Ted. It is YOUR birthday.” He responded, “Cool!”

Agent Maestro
I overheard Ted saying to his friend, “We are going to get laid tonight”.

Agent Legion
I was proud to be among the first wave of operatives that entered Dempsey’s that evening, as this was my first mission with IE. I had some previous experience with similar outfits in my past, but nothing could have prepared me for the overpowering wave of absolute disbelief that came from our birthday boy himself, Mr. Ted Hine. Ted, a young man in his 20’s, tall, thin, and red haired was fast approaching sheer panic by the fifth or sixth birthday greeting that was offered to him, having left frantic denial that he was not Ted behind him.

I took the tack of being a friend form work, namely, Oppenheimer Funds, although Ted was quick to point out that he never worked there, and showed me his student ID. NYU. Very nice. Oh that wily Ted. Hanging onto his old ID just to get into movies cheaper.

Interestingly enough, the greater “Ted’s” discomfort, the more amused and interested his friend – who’s name, I believe was Harry, became. Several times Ted seemed on the verge of leaving, but as it turns out, the tension of receiving happy birthday greetings, gifts and free drinks offered by a host of friendly people was only fueling his desperate need for a smoke or ten.

As the evening wore on, and Ted grew accustomed to the situation, his once ringing denials of being Ted Hine grew faint, and his mood elevated. A few games of pool, and a few rounds later, Ted seemed to be absolutely at ease. I think he must have realized that somehow he was at the center of something very strange, but if he just rode it out, he would leave a winner, and maybe, just maybe, score with the cute waitress.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances I had to exit rather early from the evening, although, Ted was quick to respond with an, “I’ll see you at work on Monday,” upon my exit. Ted, I might never see you again, but happy birthday man, happy birthday.

Agent Plumettaz
I had fun at Ted’s B-day bash although I must admit I was a little worried in the beginning. His hand was shaking when he tried to give me his birthday card back and he seemed so distraught (I kept laughing at him as if he were being funny but I felt a little bad doing so). Once he decided to go along he was quite the charmer but I still felt a little more reticent than I might have otherwise. I talked to him a few times outside about his “inability to quit smoking although he’s been trying” and his favorite Monty Python episode with the “Killer Joke” which I finally saw etc…

Even though I think the B-day cards were part of his decision to come back into the bar I also felt that once in swing he was enjoying himself. He actually seemed upset when I was leaving. In any case he has quite a story to tell.

Agent Marhekifson
Agent Morningstar and I headed down to Dempsey’s together, one of the last groups to leave, and even before we reached the bar it seemed like the mission would have to be aborted. Word was that Ted had been thrown out of the bar and was sitting, dejectedly and under some form of chemical influence, on a bench outside the bar. Well, Ted WAS on the bench and WAS somewhat dazed/hammered/both, but he was just out smoking a cigarette.

Dude was definitely a bit perplexed (who wouldn’t be?). Soon after he re-entered the bar, with the birthday party following behind, he slipped out again and we feared he was gone for the night, leaving behind all his hundreds of dollars worth of gifts. I guess some people are just weird about their birthdays. But he returned in time, and by the time the cake was served (by a very confused first-time waitress), Ted was starting to get into the birthday spirit.

Happy birthday, Ted, and I hope you weren’t too hung over at Oppenheimer Funds the next day!

Agent King
I was late to Ted’s party – but when I got there, I walked up and said, “Ted! Hey! I told you I’d make it!” and Ted said, “Yeah you did!” and gave me a big hug. He may have been skeptical at first, but by the time I got there he was fully Ted.

Mission Accomplished.