Come winter, many germ-conscious New Yorkers are glad for the opportunity to wear gloves while holding subway poles. However, for a distinct group in the city, cold weather is a chance to engage with the subway in a very unexpected way: by forgoing pants and participating in the annual No Pants Subway Ride.
The visionary behind this event is Charlie Todd, the founder of the performance group Improv Everywhere. His first pantless ride was an improv performance in 2002 with himself and six friends. Today, Charlie is at the helm of a yearly gathering where up to 4,000 New Yorkers –from young parents with their newborn baby to a grandmother with her granddaughter–bring joy, humor, and uncertainty to their fellow subway riders by enjoying a commute in their undergarments. On the eve of the 15th annual No Pants Subway Ride this Sunday, 6sqft spoke with Charlie about the lure of riding the subway without pants and what keeps him motivated each year.
Fourteen years ago, what compelled you to take your pants off and get on the subway?
Improv Everywhere is a New York City performance group that orchestrates elaborate, undercover performances that are meant to be surprising moments of comedy that delight random New Yorkers who happen to witness them. In 2002, the group had been around for six months or so and our plan was to stage these surprising events in public spaces, but in the winter you don’t want to be in too many public spaces in New York City because it’s so cold. So I was thinking of funny and surprising things that could happen in the subway. I got the idea of how unusual it would be if people dressed in a particular way entered the subway car at several different stops and seemed like they couldn’t possibly know each other. Then I tried to think of what the most striking thing someone could do that would definitely get attention, and since it was January I went with not wearing any pants.
What happened on that first pantless ride?
I convinced six other friends to ride the 6 train with me, and I was the very first person to take his pants off. We had no idea if it was even legal (it is), but it went really well. There’s a video you can watch of the very first No Pants Subway Ride, and you will see this one woman in particular who just happened to be across from the hidden camera. When the second guy gets on the train in his underwear, she realizes that two random people are riding in their boxer shorts in winter coats, hats, scarves and gloves, and the look on her face is priceless. When the third person comes on, she just busts out laughing.
It was this footage and that it had been so much fun for everyone involved that I decided I wanted to do it again the next year with 20 people. After that I kind of trapped myself into doing it forever because it started doubling in size every year. At a certain point, I realized I accidentaly created this holiday that probably couldn’t stop even if I decided not to do it anymore. Thanks in part to the rise in blogs and social media, it now happens every year in about 60 cities and 25 countries.
What is the appeal of getting on the subway without pants?
For the first couple years it was largely friends of mine from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. The appeal for us was the comedy element. I think now the number one reason is that it’s something fun and offbeat to do. For someone who is not a performer and isn’t used to drawing attention to themselves in public spaces, it’s an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and try something different. It’s an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself and do something that is a little bit transgressive, but ultimately very harmless. And there is a social aspect, too. We have an after party every year that is always very well attended and turns into a really fun night.
The actual participation in the ride is very mundane because the comedy comes from the fact that you’re not wearing pants when it’s 20 degrees outside and you’re not making a big deal about it. You’re sitting on the train and you’re playing on your phone. I usually pretend to fall asleep just because I find that funny. When the event is over, it does become a celebration and our route converges on Union Square.
How many participants are repeat riders?
There are two categories of people: people who do it once and people who do it every year. At this point, a lot of people have heard of the No Pants Subway Ride, have seen the videos on our YouTube channel, and know it’s a New York tradition. If they’ve recently moved to the city or are a freshmen at NYU, they’re excited to get a chance to be part of it. And then there are others who started doing it a few years ago, met a couple friends, had a great time, and make it a tradition each year.
What instructions are participants given to make the No Pants Subway Ride flow seamlessly?
It’s really important that the event has a level of organization so it doesn’t descend into chaos. It’s not a parade; it’s not an event like SantaCon where it’s a mob of people cavorting. People report to one of ten different spots around the city. Participants get assigned a train, a train car (1-10), and a stop along the route at which point they board. It’s a lot of logistical work. You don’t want a 1,000 people on one subway car. We try to keep it true to the original intent of the event. We divide it up so one person goes first, one person goes second, then two people, then four, then eight and then it grows in a manageable way.
We have a meeting point in Flushing that uses the 7 train. We have one in Astoria that uses the N train. In Brooklyn we use the F train and the L train. In Lower Manhattan we use the E, R, 1 and 6 trains. The Central Park location is where people take the C. The N train and 7 have elevated outdoor tracks. I think the people that participate in those two trains are the bravest of the bunch because they have to wait outdoors in their underwear.
Do you have to coordinate with the MTA and the NYPD?
I do not coordinate with the MTA at all. It’s nothing we have ever run by them. At the same time, everybody is paying their fare and abiding by the rule of subway travel. There is no indecent exposure involved. We give a reminder to participants that the goal is not to offend anyone. The police have been very supportive. I don’t have direct communication with them about the event, but they tend to send one officer to each meeting point to escort us and make sure everything proceeds safely.
Can you describe some of the subway riders’ reactions to seeing people get on without pants?
A lot of people comment that we’ve been doing this for so long it’s not a surprise anymore. And that’s probably true for a percentage of people on the train. But every year we get great reactions from tourists, people who moved to the city recently, or people who don’t go on YouTube. My favorite reaction, and this happens every year, is when someone decides to take their pants off in a spontaneous way. By the end of the ride, you might find yourself on a subway car where you’re the only person wearing pants, or at least in the minority. And in this situation seeing people laugh saying, “Alright if this is what we’re doing, I’m going to do it too,” and take their pants off.
Do some participants go all out with their undergarments?
In the instructions I tell people that it’s not a costume party. The point is not to wear some ridiculous flashy underwear because you’re supposed to keep a straight face and act as if you forgot your pants. I would say my favorite participants over the years have been people with a specific, but realistic costume. For example, there was a guy who participated in a UPS uniform one year. I have seen someone participate dressed as a priest. It wouldn’t be that weird to see a UPS worker or priest on the subway, so they’re doing something that doesn’t seem unrealistic.
How do you decide what you’re going to wear?
I have worn the same pair of orange underwear with polka dots and the same big, brown winter coat for the last ten years. I wear it once a year and it’s just fun enough to not be too silly. I do bring a roll-aboard piece of luggage with me, which is practical because I need to take the megaphone and all those prep items. I think it’s funny because I look like someone on the way to JFK.
In addition to the No Pants Subway Ride, what other performances does Improv Everywhere hold in the city?
We don’t repeat ourselves a lot. The No Pants Subway Ride is one thing that caught on and became an annual event. Around once a month we put a new video out on our YouTube channel. We’re most well known for the event we did in Grand Central Terminal where 200 people froze in place for five minutes, making it seem like time had stopped for commuters and tourists in the terminal.
Our most recent event, The Light Switch, was done in Father Demo Square in the West Village. We put a giant light switch in the square and walked away. When random New Yorkers flipped the seven-foot-tall switch on, every single surface in the square lit up with Christmas lights, as did 100 performers covered in lights. At another recent event called Ballroom Crosswalk, we had a group of 20 ballroom dancers spontaneously start dancing in the intersection in front of Penn Station at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street. Every time it said walk, the dancers would look like normal pedestrians crossing the street and then bump into each other accidently and start dancing.
For New Yorkers who are skeptical about going pantless on the subway, what would you say to them?
It’s definitely not for everyone. I completely get that most people are not interested in chilling with bare legs on the subway in the middle of winter. I would also say it’s a very easy thing to do. Walking around in underwear is no different than wearing a bathing suit, and I’m sure plenty of New Yorkers have gone to Coney Island on the train and come back still wearing their bathing suit. If you’re on the fence, I would encourage you to do it because it’s a fun event, you might make a couple friends and you’ll have a fun, New York story.
What does overseeing this quirky subway tradition mean to you?
As much work as it is, it’s something that I get a lot of satisfaction out of every year. Last year I had my six-month-old son participate for the first time. He will be about 18 months old this year, and I think he might be old enough to think it’s funny. It’s a fun tradition that for the foreseeable future, I will be taking my pants off with my wife and son. The fact that 4,000 other people are doing it at the same time is pretty hilarious.
This year’s No Pants Subway Ride will take place on Sunday, January 10th at 3:00 p.m. To learn more and join in, click here.
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All photos courtesy of Improv Everywhere except lead image (via Wiki Commons)