Prior to reading this book, I had not, at least as far as I know, heard of Improv Everywhere. (Some vague memory exists of footage of one escapade, but I certainly don't recall the name of the group involved.) That fact certainly did not keep me from reading the book in a single sitting, laughing frequently.
"Causing a Scene" catalogs some of the work of Improv Everywhere, a group of people devoted to, well, causing a scene--in a word, pranks. What if, for example, 80 people showed up at Best Buy wearing blue shirts and khakis? Or suppose seven people on a subway train weren't wearing pants? What if the next year there were year there were 30 and then 40 and the number kept growing each year? These, apparently, were the sort of questions that the authors thought needed answers. So they set out to answer them.
The thing that separates the "missions" in this book from the realm of the ordinary practical joke is their sheer inventiveness and the fact that there is nothing malicious here. At their finest, the members of the Improv Everywhere are simply providing free entertainment for the lucky few who happen to be present at, say, the Olympic tryout of the New York City Synchronized Swimming Team--in about four inches of water in a public fountain.
The book describes thirteen missions, devoting around 20 pages to each one. The authors share the genesis of the idea, the planning, the execution, and the reactions. This project--by which I mean the book, not the missions--strikes me as a risky proposition. Describing jokes never works, so would describing pranks? The answer is a resounding yes, at least for most of the chapters. My particular favorites were the Starbucks mission (in which the same five-minute scene is repeated twelve times in a row à la Groundhog Day), the live book-signing by the great, great, and dead Anton Chekhov, and the synchronized swimming tryout.
The members of Improv Everywhere are carrying on the best tradition of hoaxing with all the creativity of Robert Benchley or P. T. Barnum but with far gentler motives than the latter. The book truly made me sense what it might have been like to be present at some of these wonderful missions.
I should add that the book raises some sociological or psychological questions about the way society treats difference. Some of the missions end with police involvement and raise issues that would have fascinated Michel Foucault. At one store, for instance, forty agents took over forty listening stations in a music store. The police were called. This response and some of the others detailed in the book are probably ideal for an enterprising graduate student's thesis. "Causing a Scene," however, keeps things light and funny. Only two points keep me from giving this five stars. First, I like to reserve that ranking for the truly outstanding, the work that will be remembered for not just years but decades. Second, there are some points at which the book could have been edited to reduce repetition, though I suppose with the repetition, the book is something one can read 20 pages at a time in multiple sittings.