One day a guy named Charlie Todd orchestrated a “no pants” subway ride. Seven friends stationed themselves at different subway stops in New York City, and one by one they boarded the same subway car, wearing boxer shorts and no pants on a cold January day. They pretended not to know each other. At the eighth stop, a woman boarded the train with a large canvas bag and announced she had pants for sale, and each of the seven men bought a pair, saying something like, “Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed today.” A hidden camera records the hilarious reactions of some of the passengers on the car that day.
Todd’s Ted talk video goes on to showcase several more absurd and entertaining public stunts by his group “Improv Everywhere,” including 70 orchestrated dancers in shop windows, people dressed like ghost busters running through the NY public library, and 50 people dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants standing silently around a Best Buy store. The point is that these random acts of nonsense become bonding experiences when they are shared by strangers; in a huge, anonymous city they bring people together for a laugh, and that’s a powerful thing.
The talk inspired me to begin looking for and watching other Ted talks labeled as “absurd.” Frank Warren’s talk “Half a Million Secrets” details the year he handed out postcards to strangers asking them to share a secret they had never told anyone before. He started a website to post the anonymous secrets, and as the idea spread virally, he began to receive thousands of secrets from people all over the world.
Kees Moeliker, in his talk “How a Dead Duck Changed My Life,” gives us an experience of absurdity that thwarts audience expectation. He is an ornithologist, so when he tells us he witnessed an act of “homosexual necrophilia” in ducks one day we expect that he will report an important research finding from this observation. He doesn’t. Instead, he goes on to talk about the letters he received from others about similar observations in different species, and then the Ig Noble award he received; an award for research findings that “first make people laugh and then make them think.” He shows photos of animals doing bizarre things, like a moose trying to copulate with a bronze statue of a bison, or a bird that flies repeatedly against the same glass door for a period of six years. Moeliker wraps up his talk by passing around the stuffed homosexual duck and inviting everyone to his annual “dead duck day” in the Neatherlands in which scientists talk about ways to prevent birds from killing themselves by flying into windows, and then they go to a Chinese restaurant and eat a six course duck dinner. The audience laughs in yet another shared experience of absurdity.
Derek Sivers, in “How to Start a Movement,” shows a shirtless man dancing wildly by himself on a ski slope who inspires a crowd to join him, one by one. “The first follower,” Sivers points out, “is the one who transforms a lone nut into a leader.” And thus leadership is overrated; we should glorify the first follower instead, the one who makes nonsense into a shared experience.
Acts of random, absurd human (or animal) behavior, Charlie Todd says, can be scary when we experience them alone. But when they become shared experiences, they also become funny, and even poignant. This got me thinking, how can we harness this power as trainers and consultants?