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