Ben Folds Fake

Digital Video: Agent Goldman
Digital Photography: Agent Nicholson

A little over five years ago, shortly after I moved to New York City, my friend Brandon Arnold commented that I resembled rock star Ben Folds when we were out drinking at a bar. I decided we should test his theory out, and I wound up fooling an entire bar into thinking I was Ben Folds. We had so much fun that we repeated it the next night to even crazier results. It was the first scene I ever caused in New York, and the inspiration for this website.

Last week I got an email from New York musician Corn Mo, “Hi, I play in a one man band called Corn Mo. I’m on the road with Ben Folds. He wants to do something with you at one of the NY shows this weekend.” Although I suspected that someone might be playing a joke on me, I responded enthusiastically and said I was up for anything (on the off chance it was actually for real.)

Corn Mo
The next day I got an email from Ben Folds himself. My jaw dropped. He said some nice things about Improv Everywhere and asked if we would be available to cause a couple of scenes at his NYC shows. He had an idea he wanted to do involving the 10Hz Frequency and said he was open to others as well. I wrote back immediately letting him know we would be thrilled to work with him on anything. He called me the next day and we worked out a couple of ideas.

Night One: Hammerstein Ballroom

The plan was for the show to begin with three imposters entering the stage rather than the actual band. I would reprise my role as fake Ben Folds and Agents Barrison and King would pose as Ben’s bassist and drummer, respectively.

We were all very anxious, as all three of us had been huge Ben Folds fans since our college days. We all met up at soundcheck at 4 PM.

Walking to soundcheck

Meeting the band
“Improv guys!” Agent Folds shouted as he walked into the room. He and his bandmates, Agent Jamieson and Agent Reynolds, couldn’t have been nicer. Agent Reynolds, the bassist, turned out to be a fan of Improv Everywhere and was the one who had first told Agent Folds about us. The first thing he said to us was, “Where’s the asian guitarist?” Once everyone was introduced, we got to work.

Agent Folds gave me a tutorial on how to mimic his piano-playing style.

Since none of us could actually play our assigned instruments, the plan was to play a CD as we pretended to jam. Agent Folds had his engineer down in Nashville burn a CD with a special song just for the prank. The CD had a version of his cover of The Cure’s “In Between Days” that had some skips and restarts programmed into it. If our ruse worked, the audience would be fooled into thinking the band was lip-synching, only to discover we were imposters when the real band showed up.

The sound guys play the CD
Agent Folds loaned me his glasses, and we rehearsed the song a few times along with the CD.

After a certain amount of CD skipping, Agents Barrison and King would panic and run off stage, leaving me to be stopped by security. Once security had me, the real Ben would come out, reclaim his glasses, and punch me in the gut.

Rehearsing the punch with Agent Folds and his manager Agent Wilkinson
Agent Jamieson taught Agent King how to make his drumming look believable. He set up a special cymbal that was taped down, allowing Agent King to bang on it without it making noise. Agent Reynolds set Agent Barrison up with his bass and gave him some pointers as well.

Here’s a video of one of our rehearsals:

After the rehearsal, we were able to hang out and watch the band soundcheck a few songs.

We left for dinner, and came back a couple of hours later to watch Corn Mo. We then met the band backstage, and ran through things one last time with the real security guards who would be holding me down.

Moments before go time
The three of us were incredibly excited. On the other side of the curtain, there were 3,300 people screaming like crazy to hear Ben Folds. Would we be able to pull it off? Would the crowd believe us? Would they boo us when we were caught lip-synching? Laugh? Riot?

Sold-out crowd
We were able to film the prank with only one camera from the sound board area (Hammerstein house rules.) Here is what Agent Goldman caught on tape:

Ben Folds Fake, from a distance

(Taken by an audience member)
The reaction from the crowd was amazing. When we first walked on stage it was unreal how loud they were cheering. A second pop from the crowd came when we started “playing” In Between Days. The first couple of rows, particularly the super-fans who had waited in line for hours to get right in front of Ben’s piano, figured things out pretty quickly. A few in the very front started chanting, “Where is Ben? Where is Ben?”

Trying to fix the skip
When the CD skips happened, they stopped chanting and started cracking up. Those further away seemed to be largely fooled at first. Most of the crowd was clapping along with the song. When the skips started happening, it was tough to read the crowd. Some booed. There was lots of talking. Some cheering. Some laughing. One thing was certain, when the real Ben Folds appeared and socked me in the stomach, the place went apeshit.

Agent Folds starts the show

Agents Reynolds and Jamieson perform
I don’t think I really look like Ben too much, but with his glasses on I looked pretty good from a distance. Agents Barrison and King looked pretty damn close to their counterparts to anyone not up front. Compare the real guys in the photo above, to this:

A friend of Agent Goldman’s managed to get some actual crowd reaction using the movie mode of her still camera. Listen carefully and you can here a dude screaming, “You guys are fucked!” as he thinks the band has been caught faking it.

Night Two: Beacon Theatre

For the second show, we were going to try out Agent Folds’ aforementioned idea involving the 10Hz frequency, also know as the “Brown Note.” The band had been playing the frequency at every gig on the tour, informing the audience of the urban legend that it is so intense that it makes humans defecate in their pants. Someone from the band’s crew would throw diapers into the crowd as the sound played, but of course nothing ever happened. Tonight would be different.

Agent Folds explains the plan
We would scatter four agents in the audience have each of them freak out when the sound was played. Security would bring them to the stage to get medical attention, and I would arrive dressed as an EMT to clean them up with towels (pre-stained with chocolate syrup, of course.)

Agent Linder, undercover in his seat pre-show

Ben plays the “brown note”

Crew member throws out diapers

Agent Linder runs on stage, grabbing his rear

Agents Lindquist (center, white shirt) and Barrison (left corner, green shirt) scream as others laugh and cover their ears

A security guard brings Agent Barrison to the stage

Agent Barrison’s (chocolate syrup) soiled pants

Agent Wilkinson helps him off stage

Agent Lindquist crawls in pain
As Agents Mason and Lindquist made it to the stage, I appeared as an EMT with a mask, rubber gloves, and some (pre-stained) towels to clean them up.

The crowd caught on pretty quickly that something was up, but as the brown note continued to shake everyone’s eardrums it did create a nice chaotic atmosphere, where no one was sure who was in on it, and what exactly was going on.

The Beacon also had strict filming rules, so we were only able to capture this with one static camera. The lighting was a bit dark too, but you’ll get a feel for what went down.

All in all it was an amazing two nights working with the band. The entire Ben Folds crew was completely awesome to us, and it was so cool to come full circle on five years of Improv Everywhere, winding right back up where we started, with the great Ben Folds.

Mission Accomplished.


You can see more photos (in larger resolution) of this mission at Flickr.

Agent Nicholson’s Photos From Night One
Agent Nicholson’s Photos From Night Two

Agent Mason’s blog account of night two


  1. Every comedian secretly wants to be a rock star. This comedian secretly wants to be rock drummer (even though I don’t really play the drums that well), but this prank got me closer than I ever thought I would be. I’ve also been a fan of Ben Folds since BFF first played the Cat’s Cradle back in college in Chapel Hill. I have every recording of every one of his songs I’ve been able to get, even the pre-BFF stuff, and I’ve seen him live more times than I can count. So…I was more than psyched.

    We did a sound check in the afternoon, met Ben and his band, and Lindsay his drummer showed me exactly what to play and how to play it. He also set-up a dead cymbal for me to hit so I could really hit the drums as loud as I wanted. They were all ridiculously cool. So that night when the announcer said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Folds," we took the stage and the 3,300 people in the audience went crazy. The audience had no idea we weren’t Ben and his band. I took my place behind the drum set, pretended to count-off on my drum sticks, and then banged away on them when the secret CD started – and the audience went nuts again. They still had no idea. When the CD finally skipped, the audience was totally confused. Some people cheered, some laughed, a few booed. It was a really weird energy in the room – total confusion. The people closest to Charlie were yelling "Where is Ben!?" Then Flynn and I ran off the stage. When Ben finally took the stage and punched Charlie in the gut – the audience went nuts again. It was amazing.

  2. Awesome. You guys actually got to be onstage with the band! I can’t believe you were allowed to do the Brown Sound prank though. Long live IE!

  3. absolutely fantastic :) must’ve taken a lot of guts to have stood on that stage, you must’ve been seconds away from being lynched!

    Looking forward to the next one – Cheers, guys :)

  4. Man! Ben Folds and Charlie Todd…two of my favorite things! Well done, everyone. This is awesome. My day has officially been made!

  5. Awww, shoot, I missed it! I went to the Warsaw concert on friday (which was AMAZING). The venue was a little too small for this prank.
    Great job guys – I’m so jealous you got to meet Ben.

  6. Props on this one guys, I really enjoyed it. Can’t wait for another group project; keep up the good work.

  7. That’s amazing! I was in the back at the show and could barely see what was going on, and was completely tricked at first. I just thought Ben had hired a double for the opening. That fact that it was Agent Todd makes it even funnier!

  8. That is absolutely the coolest. My favorite mission yet, and I’m jealous that you got to hang with BF and his band to have fun like that!

  9. I was in the crowd at the show on Sunday, in the balcony. People couldn’t even tell anything was really wrong until the CD skipped. And they loved the punch!

    I was lucky enough to be one of the Agents affected by the Brown Sound last night. Ben and the whole crew were totes nice and helped plan the whole thing. And Corn Mo rules the schools.

  10. P.S. When are you coming back to NC? Anthony, the Bojangles biscuits and sweet tea are calling your name! I eat them so often, I’m getting sick of them….

  11. Saw the show last night and thought Ben was behind the whole thing. Awesome mission. Ben fucking rocks.

  12. Excellent work. But the fake Ben Folds I know would have at least gotten some free drinks out of this. Or a groupie’s phone number.

  13. I was at the Warsaw show on Friday (which rocked) and at the Beacon last night, pretty near the front. I didn’t see the shenanigans from where I was standing after the agents rushed the stage, but I DID think it was weird when I saw the interlopers standing backstage.

    One of the guys standing next to the one chick – I’m not sure which guy as I was some ways away – mooned the audience as Ben continued to play! Yeah, I caught that. ‘fess up, moonyboy!

  14. AHA! i’ve been involved in improveverywhere’s public missions for a while and i was surprised to find out in e-mail today that peculiar things had been afoot at the ben fold’s shows because i had attended the beacon theater one. maybe it’s because i wasn’t by the agents, but i had NO idea what was going on when they were being pulled onto the stage like wild animals. i thought maybe they were just some lucky people being pulled to go backstage, and i was all like "dayummm, why can’t i be up there"

  15. Gwin,

    Last night two people jumped up on stage who were *not* in on the mission. We worried that would happen, and it was tough to prevent as the security guards wouldn’t be able to remember who was in on it and who wasn’t. Anyway, the two who were not a part of it stood backstage rather than walking out of sight, so I guess that dude is your “moonyboy”. :)

  16. Another IE fake band! I’m so psyched that Ben Folds got on the IE bus! Can’t wait for the mission that Bono dreams up…

    Agent Nicholson’s photographs are beautiful.

  17. Hey Todd, thanks for the clarification. I am glad to know that it wasn’t an IE agent who dropped trou… too bad those non-agents didn’t get tossed out!

  18. I’m proud to say I was around for the original Ben Folds skit. I never thought that you would get to do one with the real thing. Amazing. You rock, Charlie.

  19. Great job! I always wondered if the Ben Folds prank would get around to him. Way to go.

    Please tell me you’ve got Shatner booked for the next MP3 experiment.

  20. I was at the Hammerstein show, and I thought you guys were excellent. The next morning I trawled the interweb looking for information or articles about the prank. Fortunately, one of my friends is on your mailing list, and she sent me the link to your page!

    Once again, you were effin’ A. And it’s weet that Ben Folds is such a good sport.

  21. Hey- I was at the gig at the Hammerstein… you guys had me and my friend (hardcore fans) fooled for about 20 seconds, until we realized that "Mr. Reynolds’s" build had completely changed, and "Ben" had cut his hair… the playing looked really believable, though. Thanks for the laugh.

  22. Hahaha!

    You DON’T look anything like Ben Folds.

    That’s awesome that you think so enough to pretend that you’re him. And he’s awesome enough to let you pretend that you look like him enough to pretend to be him.

    Happy thanksgiving!

  23. What a year! Great variety, great pranks, great reports and great photography. I hope Santa treats you guys right, and I hope he brings the rest of us one more IE mission before the close of 2006. Please??

  24. I am a HUGE Ben Folds fan and this is perhaps the greatest story ever told. I’m also totally jealous.

  25. Ha! Leave it to Ben. Thanks for posting the awesome video. Great job–can’t wait for Ben to come back to Chicago!

  26. Improv Everywhere is awesome! I was first introduced to you guys when I heard you on “This American Life” (the radio show) and loved the story. I’ve enjoyed watching your missions since! I really hope all goes well with the NBC stuff!

  27. Absolutely hilarious. Finally someone else getting mistaken for Ben! (Although, I’ve been mistaken for Elvis Costello, Buddy Holly… pretty much any musician with black glasses…)

  28. i really almost went to that concert.
    i think i would’ve peed myself in laughter/shock.
    improveverywhere is amazing in new york :D

  29. Oh man, I was at that show and thought that intro was absolutely hilarious. You only fooled me in the very beginning, but it’s only because I’m a musician and very familiar with Ben’s work. I thought it was some funny intro Ben had going on the tour. It’s only now, over a year later when I read about your cease and desist christmas card from bestbuy on slashdot, that I visited your site, learned of the missions, and that I was inadvertently a part of one. Keep up the good work, and I’d love to attend one sometime. I’ll be checking back regularly.

  30. Thought you’d be interested to know, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals did something similar to the first one when they were in Glasgow a few years back. The had someone dress up as a homeless guy sit in the middle of the SECC (concert hall in glasgow) main foyer and busk while playing “Wild Thing”. I think there were even a few people threw him a few pennies while he was there.

    Anyway, everyone went into the main theatre, watched the opening act and then waited for the FLC to come on stage. Lo and behold, on walks the guy from the foyer, small amp and electric guitar in tow, and he proceeds to play “Wild Thing” in the middle of the stage, complete with huge gestures and dance moves. After getting through the song he was then chased off the stage by security.

    Why am I mentioning this? Not because I think you copied, but rather to mention that it was one of the most entertaining gigs I’ve been to, and one that I’ll probably never forget. It’s great to see other people are having the pleasure of such an experience, and I’m sure that those who were watching will remember this gig for a long time to come :)

  31. Ben Folds performed a concert at Washington State University in April 2008 and briefly invited Moby up on stage to play with him before he accused Moby of pre-recording all his music and kicked him off stage. I had just read and watched this whole Improv Everywhere mission a few nights before the concert. I was quite suspicious when Ben introduced Moby but it was lot of fun to be part of the joke anyway.

    ALthough I doubt you guys had anything to do with the concert I saw, Ben clearly had a great time with you guys and has developed a taste for trickery!

  32. This. is. retarded. I hate hate hate that you want to inflict more ignorance on an already ignorant public. Spreading apocryphal nonsense like this is just plain STUPID.

  33. Just found you guys. Where have I’ve been??? Agent King from Chapel Hill, you guys need to come home to Walnut and do something like that with JT.

  34. What a dream come true! I’ve enjoyed Ben Folds music for quite a while, and I love Improv Everywhere. Combining these two is like a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup for me! Thanks for the details and the laughs! Well done!

  35. In fact brown noise are real if it is realy loud and long. One time i’ve been to a sunn O))) show, a group that they play noise music go check there myspace, and one guy vomit and an other fell unconscious

  36. New york??
    I wish i was living near there mate..
    I live in Malaysia and all i can do is watch IE online lol..

    Tho..BF was really really awesome..Great job you guys x