The October video went viral as an over-the-top example of the lengths working Americans must go to during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Conchita Margaret Widjojo
November 16, 2020 08:30 AM
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socially distanced office
| Credit: Improv Everywhere/YouTube

If you're active on TikTok, you've probably stumbled upon a man nonchalantly working from a home office — which just happened to be floating along New York City's East River.

The October video went viral as an over-the-top example of the lengths working Americans must go to after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered offices and everyday life. Our own Kaitlyn Frey, a Style & Beauty Editor at PEOPLE, happened to catch the scene on her phone for a TikTok that was eventually viewed by millions.

As it turns out, the floating office was the brainchild of Improv Everywhere, a comedy collective behind some of New York City's biggest pranks, performances and projects. We caught up with  Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, to learn behind-the-scenes secrets about the headline-making project.

How did you come up with this idea?

Well, Improv Everywhere is known for our projects that take place out in public spaces. And often a lot of our projects have big crowds of people working together. So, we started brainstorming towards the end of the summer. Like what were some things we could do? What were some socially distanced things that we could do that would be safe that would also react to what's going on?

So we started thinking about what are the sort of ways we could do things where people would be six feet apart from each other. And then I'm friends with this group called the Tideland Institute, and their specialty is doing creative projects on the water. So, I had a meeting with them.

And they took me out on one of their boats on the East River. And we were sort of talking about, "Hey, we should collaborate. Maybe there's something that we could do on the water that would be a good fit for Improv Everywhere, and it would benefit you guys," and as we were on a boat in the middle of the East River, we started thinking, okay, we know what we have to do. Let's build something here and let's make the ultimate work from home experience.

How long did this take to come to fruition?

I think probably around Labor Day is when we came up with the idea, and then we had some scheduling issues with some of the people we work with. We ended up being able to pull it off on Oct. 10. I think we spent probably about a month planning it, finding the furniture, finding the person who was going to work out on the boat, and coordinating the whole thing, putting the camera crew together. I mean, Improv Everywhere really is a video production company. So, our expertise is in creating a really great video. And we do that just for our own YouTube channel for fun, and we also make commercials for brands and we work on television series. We actually spent all of 2019 working on a big series for Pixar, for Disney+.

So a lot of our pre-production as we're planning these things is figuring out camera placement, figuring out how we're going to be able to get great reactions. So, if someone like Kaitlyn shows up on a boat, we've got a camera on a long lens, it's going to be able to get the reaction way across the water.

You say the stunt was "unauthorized." What does that really mean?

Well, in this case, it means that we didn't ask for permission to do it. It's not technically against the rules to be on a raft in New York City. We draw that distinction because we do make television shows for Disney and we make commercials for brands like Target. So it's sort of to signify to our audience that this is not something that's sponsored or branded in any way. This is something we just went out and did independently as a way of sort of expressing ourselves.

Is this something you're going to continue to do into the winter or is there going to be an alternative?

I think it's going to be even more challenging to figure out how to stage surprising comedy moments in New York City in the winter, but we're also the group that has somehow convinced thousands of people over the years to walk around the city without pants in the middle of January. So if anybody can figure it out, it's us. But yeah, we got lucky with the weather. We staged it on October 10th and I think it was in the upper 70s on that day. So weather, fortunately, wasn't a concern on that day, thank God it didn't rain.

So it's probably going to be around for a little bit longer or just a temporary thing?

Oh yeah, the raft was only there for the one day.

Oh, I just for some reason thought it was a continuous thing.

Well we told people that. That was sort of a little bit of the prank element is that we had somebody who was on shore... As people were reacting to it, we had someone who was pretending to be from the New York City department of building, who was saying like, "Yeah, this is a pilot program. And in the spring, we're going to have 4,000 of these in the East River, and there's 6,000 in the Hudson River." So that was sort of the prank aspect. But not really a goal of making fun of people, but just creating this absurd world where we're going to be building 10,000 rafts on New York City rivers.

That's hilarious. I had no idea. So, there was only one of these floating offices, right?

That's right. We had one, and we actually had a few different people who tried it out during the day. But the video ends up just focusing on the first guy who went out there because he, Jesse Good, was out there for the longest and had the best reactions.

Did you expect this floating office thing to be as viral as it was on social media?

It's tough. We never know exactly how things are going to go in terms of how they're received and how many views they're going to get, and the internet is controlled by mysterious algorithms. And just because you have 2 million YouTube subscribers like we do, doesn't mean that two thousand people are going to be served your video. So it's always unpredictable, but we knew that this idea was pretty special. And I think the reason why it did so well, and I've seen news stories about this.

It's spread really far. And I think the reason for that is, it's kind of a local news story because this is something so specific, that New York is so office culture centric and all the Manhattan office towers are empty right now. So, in many ways it felt like a local story, but it also was something that people could relate to across the entire world. I mean, every single person, every single country right now is dealing with social distancing and dealing with working from home. I think because you can understand it without language, that image of a man working on a raft on a Zoom call is something that I think can be related to around the world.

I think that's what helped it spread. Then, I think a day or two after we did the project, we came across Kaitlyn’s TikTok, and saw how viral that was going. And that let us know like, ‘Okay, we're definitely onto something here.’ If one person filming from their iPhone on a boat for 20 seconds is getting this much attention, I think we're definitely onto something. In many ways, the way she captured it is sort of the perfect version of the project because those who saw it on her TikTok or, it ended up spreading to entertainment television, Instagram.

And her perspective was from the perspective of just a confused onlooker who's like, oh this is crazy. And that was nice because that's the goal of Improv Everywhere, is to create these sort of surprising moments where people see something hilarious, but they can't explain it. And because it was captured by her and spread so far, it really gave that sort of feeling to millions of people who saw her video.

Was that a staged Zoom call?

No, it was a real Zoom call.

It was a real Zoom call?

Yeah. I mean, it wasn't his actual job, but it was real people. The other end of the Zoom was a group of Improv Everywhere performers who were participating in the project from their home. So we had all that set up. That was really, I think, the most difficult part of this project – pulling that off because we had to have enough power to run a computer with a Zoom call going on it. We had a really powerful boat battery hidden inside the desk that connected the Mac mini and our monitor. And then we had a Verizon hotspot out there as well.

I kept joining the Zoom from my iPhone on the shore just to check in on all of the performers and give them some direction. And it was just really funny to pop in and see the background of the raft. On our website, on the project page, we made the Zoom background available for download. There's a little video loop. So if you want to look like you're working from a raft, you can download the 20 second loop.

I don't know if this is an uncomfortable question, but how did this man go to the bathroom or was he only out there for a bit?

He was only out there for an hour. I mean, when people ask that question the answer is there was the shuttle boat that could pick somebody up and go to the bathroom at the Time Out Market building. But he was only there for an hour, so no peeing in the river [laughs].