Ted’s Birthday

For our latest mission, 30 people throw a birthday party for a random stranger in a bar. The mission was filmed with cameras hidden behind two way mirrors, and the audio comes from hidden wireless microphones (both on our agents and hidden around the bar.) Watch the video first, and then check out our behind-the-scenes report.

This mission is a remake of the original Ted’s Birthday mission from 2003. Back then we had no access to hidden video camera equipment, so we decided not to film the mission. It just wouldn’t work with an exposed camera. We figured as soon as “Ted” saw people filming, the moment would be ruined. So for the original mission only a handful of photos exist to document it. Years later when we were working on a television pilot, we had a budget to work with professional equipment and decided to give this idea another shot.

A newly installed two way mirror in a closet door
The morning before the mission, our crew made some serious modifications to the Gaslight Bar in Manhattan.

Another crew member installs mirrors up top

A video monitor is installed for the cameraman who will be hiding up high
The Gaslight bar had a second, private bar attached to it called G2, and we were able to rent it out and set up our production there.

Explaining the mission to the agents
The mission plan was the same as the original Ted’s Birthday. I had emailed all of the agents a back story for a fictional guy named “Ted” that included basic information about where he worked, where he went to college, and what his hobbies were. The agents were instructed to make their own personal choices about how they knew him. Some chose to be his work friends, some chose to be his family members, and Agent Reeves chose to be his ex-girlfriend.

The mission begins, as Agent Carbone watches the monitors
Agent Rodgers and I chose to play the role of “Ted’s college buddies,” and we had the task of starting the mission. As the cast and crew looked on from the video monitors at G2, we entered Gaslight and approached a random stranger who was sitting with a friend at the bar. Agent Rodgers and I greeted “Ted” and apologized for being a little early to his party. His friend informed us that we had the wrong guy, that “Ted” was actually Chris (coincidentally the same name as the guy we picked from the first Ted’s Birthday.) We just laughed it off and acted like the friend was the one who was misinformed and left them to go get a drink.

Agent Barrison gives Ted a gift
Other agents started entering the bar pretty quickly. The first bunch to arrive were Ted’s work friends, with Agent Fountain playing his boss. Everyone had a card and a present for him. Most folks gave him gift cards, but a few had more personalized gifts.

Agent Sklaren gave a gag gift, a DVD of Basic Instinct

Ted gave her a hug anyway
Though certainly confused as to what was going on, Ted very quickly decided to play along and have fun. Why not? He was getting a new present every few minutes and Agent Good started a tab for him.

Agent Fairey poses with Ted
More and more party-goers started asking Ted about his ex-girlfriend Lauren, and if he knew if she was going to make it. Everyone was shocked to see her name on the “e-vite” since he had recently broken up with her.

Agent Reeves and Ted
Lauren, played by Agent Reeves, finally arrived and Ted was very friendly to his ex. She gave him a hat for his birthday and they chatted politely.

Agent Kaz and Ted
Agents Rose and Keech brought their 10-month old son to the party. They were excited for their friend Ted to get to hold him for the first time. Kaz was a little scared of Ted at first.

Agent Lindquist presents Ted’s cake

A birthday toast for Ted

Agent Wimpy enjoys some cake
Agent Wimpy played Ted’s grandfather. He bought Ted an iPod Shuffle for his birthday.

Agents Purnell and Arnheiter say goodbye
After about an hour, agents started leaving the party one by one, saying goodbye to Ted on the way out.

Agent Nicholson snapped one last photo of Ted and Lauren before he left as well
Lauren was the last to leave the party, giving her some alone time with Ted. Ted played along hilariously and the two ended up having a very tender scene together, even though they had obviously never met. She then told him goodbye and left Ted alone to discuss what the hell had just happened with his (real) friend.

Over a year later I ended up running into Ted (real name Chris Conway) at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in the middle of the night during an improv marathon. As it turns out, he’s a comedian himself. Small world.

Since this mission was for a TV pilot, we ended up doing it two more times on the same night. (When you’ve spent money on all that equipment, you have to make sure you get the footage you need!) The second two were both successful, but the footage wasn’t quite as good as the first try.

Ted #2
We staged the mission for the second guy about an hour later (long after the first Ted had left the bar.) The guy we picked had lots of fun, but we probably shouldn’t have picked someone 10 to 15 years older than most of us. It made it a little too unbelievable.

Ted #3
The third Ted was a guy named Mandar, who as it turned out was a regular at the Gaslight bar. His party went incredibly well. In fact, it went so well that the video footage seemed fake. He was just too excited and agreeable about the whole thing. Mandar was known around the bar as someone who often broke out into a dance (even though the bar was definitely not a dance club.) Midway through his birthday party he did just that.

Our agents joined him and the bar was temporarily converted into a dance party. It was ridiculous.

It was a new experience for us doing the same mission three times in a row. We were exhausted by the end, but it was a ton of fun.

Mission Accomplished

It was exciting to get another chance to do this mission, as the first one from 2003 was covered by This American Life in a very negative way. While that mission itself was a total blast, and it seemed like the “Ted” that we picked had a great time (hugging us goodbye and thanking us at the end of the party), he told This American Life a year later that the experience had upset him greatly. In the end, I think we just got unlucky and picked the wrong person. This American Life did not give me an opportunity to respond to the news that “Ted” did not enjoy the experience and instead edited in an earlier interview with me that made it seem like I was heartless and unapologetic. For the record, of course I was upset to learn that he had a negative reaction to the mission. You can read a little more about my thoughts on the TAL coverage on a Reddit Q&A I did here and here.

Admittedly, this mission was a little bit different than the first Ted’s Birthday, so it’s not entirely fair to compare them. Since this was for television, we had to get all three Teds to sign a release form when it was over, which let them in on the joke. I really didn’t like having to break character for an IE mission, but the fact is you need someone’s permission to put them on primetime television. So the Teds from this mission didn’t have quite the same experience as the original Ted, who was never told exactly who we were.


  1. This is ridiculously hilarious!
    I probably would have responded in the same way, accepting gifts and whatnot lol

  2. So since you guys are so well known now, will we not see another best buy type mission? Those were the best

  3. Great job!! I am an avid This American Life listener/Improv Everywhere fan, and I was disappointed to hear the negative coverage the first time around. This is an awesome opportunity and anyone would be lucky to be “Ted” for a night! Glad to see that you all had a chance to make things right with a second try.

  4. i enjoyed both of the birthday “pranks” (because it’s really more a surprise than prank ;))
    and although i really liked this version the reminders on how some show and/or some lawyer gave you trouble kinda ruined it for me in the end. why stab back?

  5. I really really don’t understand how “Ted” could have such a negative response to the mission. It was, as always, another great mission. I think anyone of us would do anything to be in an IE video…
    Thanks guys, for filling the world with fun.

  6. best one ever. i wish i was ted. who was the blond? i have seen her somewhere before. keep up the great work

  7. This is one of my favorite missions/videos Charlie! Such a shame this wasn’t picked up. :-(

  8. In my humble opinion, I think it works better to tell the “Teds” what just happened, as you did with these folks for the TV pilor. I know the mission of IE is to bring joy to people’s days, and let me tell you, people have more joy after these pranks when they think they understand what’s just happened. If you leave them confused, happinesss is the not the logical conclusion to their experience. Frustration and anger are more likely.

    • They DID tell them what was going on xD. and if your talking about other pranks. I disagree, its more fun to know that you gave someone a crazy memory then to shatter the illusion and have them know that some people just pranked them.

  9. you guys surprised Mandar…that is great!!!….for the record, he IS a regular, and not just there, but EVERYWHERE. and yes, all he does is break out into dance. just to blow up his spot a little more, this is some footage i shot @ the hudson hotel with Mandar @ DJ Frosts 30th.

  10. “I love lunch” is my favorite along with the Storefront Window Symphony and the Cell Phones in the Backpacks. I would love to run into one of your missions the next time I’m in NY.

  11. I loved the first mission (2003) so was glad to see video footage of it redone.
    Have to admit, though, a little bummed not to read the ‘agent reactions’ to the mission. That usually gives better insight, because they all experience it in different ways and catch little funny moments.

  12. Film pitch: The Bourne Improvisation

    Jason Bourne walks into a bar. IE randomly surprises him with a birthday party. then 60 min of reconstructing his life, before he begins to kill off all the “agents.”

  13. Awesome job.. this was thought out and executed beautifully. Although I can see why the first Ted might have been upset later on, never knowing what had really happened. So I think these guys had a better experiance being able to laugh it off later :D

    Great Work!
    Particularly Agent Reeves. She her preformance was fantastic (^_^)d

  14. I think I would have felt guiltier about accepting all the gifts than the three teds. Did none of them insist they wern’t Ted, even after it was laughed off?

  15. Why are you still complaining about This American Life? They interviewed two people separately to get two different perspectives on a story. I think you are making that all about IE instead of getting the bigger picture, that two people can come away from one shared event and have way different experiences. Also from the mission write-up in 2003, it was stated that Ted was visibly uncomfortable. Obviously you choose the wrong guy in 2003 and you should have abandoned mission. Here the guys seem to play along nicely and thus it makes sense the mission would work more smoothly.

    I like what you guys do, and find this mission awesome. The previous 03 Mission was a great concept and just poorly executed.

    Keep up the good work.

  16. This was hilarious, if only i could gather enough people to go and do something like that here in KL. hahahahahha tonne of fun, makes me feel like i missed a great party…

  17. For what its worth, I never would have found you guys if not for This American Life and obviously did not take a negative view of ya’ll from the piece or I never would have come here. I thought their piece made you sound like the good people / great artists that you are. I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard it that way.

  18. I think Ted was the first new mission put up after I found out about IE. I remember talking to my friend who showed me the site about it. And Ted was the first mission I would point people towards when spreading the word.

    I was really glad to see it redone… Now just waiting for worlds greatest gig redux…

  19. I’m glad you guys re-did this Mission. Definitely worth the effort and time you put into it. ^_^ I don’t think it is so bad that you had to break character. You still got enough reaction time after everyone left.

    The “real” friend makes this video. His reactions are AWESOME! He totally can’t believe how his bud plays along and takes another guy’s stuff!!!

    Thank you!

  20. If you guys are thinking about doing a show, it’d be cool to do the kids baseball game again. At teh end the parents could sign a release and the kids would never have to know. That’s one of my favorite missions. it really does spoil the fun when you find out.

  21. I really don’t think this is a good idea, unless you let them know after the fact what you did. I don’t think the Ted who was interviewed by This American Life was really that weird. I know that I would have been really upset by that. I don’t even like real birthday parties.

    Furthermore, some people handle ambiguous situations better than others, cognitively speaking. This mission is a bad idea.

  22. Calm the down Kyle, if it went wrong the guys wouldn’t have signed the release forms and the footage never would of been put up. It didn’t happen to you so quit complaining about nothing. Some people just have no sense of fun, no wonder you don’t even like real birthdays.

  23. This American Life podcast #286 “Mind Games”. Much more interesting than the video… much more in-depth…

  24. I just love this mission!
    But this footage is not “new”. It was allready on the second DVD which is available for what… one year? So it’s not completely fair claiming that this is your latest mission.
    Anyways, it remains my favorite mission!

    • Thanks for buying the DVD! For the 1,000 people who bought the volume 3 DVD, yeah it’s not new. But for the 80,000 who have watched the YouTube video in the past day, it is!

  25. When Ted’s ex told him that “He broke her heart,” Ted’s reply was amazing. “I kind of broke my own heart” was such a perfect thing to say, it almost felt scripted. Hearing he was a comedian makes it all make sense though, he likely has a quick wit and can think on the fly.

    Great mission as always guys.

  26. Calm the down Kyle, if it went wrong the guys wouldn’t have signed the release forms and the footage never would of been put up. It didn’t happen to you so quit complaining about nothing. Some people just have no sense of fun, no wonder you don’t even like real birthdays.

    i’ve been a fan of IE for awhile. but man, do these comments give me the creeps. IE is so american: “we’re doing this for your own good!” democracy, fun, whatever. i like IE, i like america, but commenter GC sounds like george w.

  27. So sorry to hear the pilot wasn’t picked up, I think you guys would make for great TV!!

  28. Superb camera work! The coverage and editing of the footage is so well done, it makes me feel like I was there! Great work, congrats!

  29. I have to say I don’t think much of this mission. Most of the missions are pretty cool, but this one strikes the wrong note. If you think about another mission like, say “Where’s Rob”…The thing about “Where’s Rob” is that you’re trying to get people to help this guy back to his seat. Basically you’re encouraging random people to help out a stranger. With this one, however, you’re trying to get a guy to accept gifts meant for someone else. You’re encouraging him to scam people. Is that really the kind of behavior you want to evoke? Don’t you think these guys might feel guilty after accepting $300 meant for someone else?

  30. Yeah, um, that’s ridiculous. That there is no real Ted is very obvious. These guys might have been left with questions, but whether or not there is a Ted somewhere who should have been the recipient of those gifts is probably not one of them.

    • Are you sure?

      The IE folks maintain that they’re there for a guy named “Ted”. They stick to that story. They never break character. (Charlie even expresses regret at being obliged to let the guy in on the joke.)

      In the face of multiple people sticking to that same viewpoint with such determination, how could it be “obvious” that Ted doesn’t exist?

  31. ted is not a stranger,it’s clear that he has a mic since you can hear him and his friend so good when they are alone.and the way he speaks and act, it’s obvious that he is an actor.not even a good one;).i cann’t believe that all this people get fooled with that.

  32. crissst – that type of audio clarity could be done with a hidden microphone. what, you think they went to the trouble of hiding cameras all through the premises and didn’t bother to wire the place up for audio too?

    you can tell who is wearing a lapel because the audio’s a little more muffled – since the mics are hidden in clothing etc.

  33. I’m surprised that all of these guys stuck with the whole party– I would have leftpretty quickly if they wouldn’t leave me alone. I wouldn’t be interested in playing along with these people’s reindeer games.

  34. For what it’s worth, I found y’all thru that This American Life story. I thought the story did a good job of showing the broad range of human reaction to humor in general, and improv in particular — which is a fascinating, if sometimes dicey mix.

    Thanks for sharing this mission with us. What a good sport “Chris” was — and fast on his feet with the comebacks.

  35. “This American Life did not give me an opportunity to respond to the news that “Ted” did not enjoy the experience and instead edited in an earlier interview with me that made it seem like I was heartless and unapologetic”

    It’s probably because you, a complete stranger, held onto someone’s number FOR A YEAR , and called him again a year later. I have feeling you fail to see what is wrong with that.

    • That’s correct. One of our members befriended “Ted” that night and they traded phone numbers. At the end of the evening Ted hugged me goodbye, expressed dismay that we were leaving his party “early” (2 AM), and thanked me for the gifts, which I privately assured him belonged to him and no one else. He gave no indication that he was the slightest bit upset about the evening.

      I don’t think it’s crazy to call someone a year later and ask if they want to have another party with free drinks and hundreds of dollars in gift cards. If “Ted” had returned my call and accepted the offer, it would have become an annual Improv Everywhere event. Each September 19 we would have thrown a birthday party for this one random guy. Judging by the growth of our membership, it’s fair to say he would have received about ten thousand dollars in gift cards this past year. (We now average 2,000 people at our open call events and each person would have brought a five dollar gift card.)

      So you might think there’s something wrong with calling someone one time and offering him a party (and respecting his desire to never be contacted again once it was made clear), but personally I think it was a fine thing to do. Had I known the guy thought we were “grotesque” and was haunted by the experience (something I learned on TAL two and half years after the event), then I wouldn’t have bothered to call him.

  36. I think this prank is awesome! If the guy approached didn’t like the prank, he and his buddy could always walk out of the bar going “this is totally weird’ing me out. Let’s go.”

    If you didn’t tell him about the prank he’s going to go home and think that somewhere there is a doppelganger who is fool for dumping “Lauren”.. I’m kind surprised that he didn’t say that he had thrown her number away and ask for it. Or set up a lunch date for tomorrow to talk about “what went wrong.” I’d have done it just to see what was up.

    Still I like the Penn Station freeze frame the best.