Impractical Jokers: Funny, silly, and well worth watching

The hidden camera show Impractical Jokers may not be big or clever, but it is very, very funny...

I’m not entirely sure what made me try Impractical Jokers. I’d catch the odd segment here and there and would chuckle before flipping over. Then, maybe I’d leave it on. Then I’d start taping the second half of the show when I wanted to know how something played out but couldn’t keep watching. Now I record every single one, and I have to wait for my wife to get home because she’s totally into it too.

It’s not a program I would have consciously made an effort to sit down and watch, though. The show format isn’t particularly interesting or unique. It’s a hidden camera show where one of the members of the improv troupe The Tenderloins will be given a task, such as attaining signatures on a petition, but will have to follow instructions fed to them through an earpiece by the other three members of the troupe. The member who fails the most challenges in the episode has to face a forfeit at the end of the show.

That’s fine, but it’s not the most inspiring set up. 

What hooked me, though, is that it makes me laugh so much. There have been pranks on Impractical Jokers that have made me double over laughing. The shows simple format is just a framing device to hang the cast’s talent from, and it’s a very effective one, too.

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Larry! I was calling you!

The Impractical Jokers team are Joe, Murr, Q and Sal. They’re very funny gentlemen indeed.

A typical challenge on the show will draw different things from each cast member. Let’s take as an example the challenge where the jokers compete to see who can shake the hand of a stranger in a department store for the longest time. Murr feigns a muscle injury and is able to convince a helpful person to shake his hand to get his muscles moving. Sal huffs and puffs, stresses about the task, and then pretends to recognize someone, takes and shakes the gentleman’s hand and attempts to explain to him how he knows him. Q freaks everyone out trying something strange and fails spectacularly. Joe calls over to a guy, holds his hand out for a handshake with no explanation and then just keeps going while looking at his watch, openly timing the handshake and happily wandering around the store with the confused man as he does his shopping. Joe even manages to change hands.

I think Murr might be my favorite joker, although it can change multiple times during each episode. Murr is very sharp and is the most inventive in the face of some of the more difficult challenges. He always has a fool proof plan. He also looks the least likely to be on a hidden camera show, which seems to allow him to get away with more. Whether scoring a decent customer rating while posing as a dentist, while following the instruction of his co-jokers to refer to teeth as tooths throughout, or collecting signatures on his petition for the cause of ‘Enough with this rain already’, Murr brings something like formality to utterly ludicrous situations, and it makes everything funnier.

The biggest laughs, the ones that make the inside of your ribs ache, usually come from Joe. Occasionally, when a challenge is so ridiculous, or he happens to be in a certain mood, Joe just shrugs his shoulders and becomes utterly shameless. Whether it’s responding to every question he’s asked when “working” in a car showroom by summoning his manager with a lung-busting scream of “Larry!” or dishing out unrequested mashed potatoes to diners in a restaurant by singing a wacky song at them, Joe can smile and stroll through even the most awkward of situations.

Q is the joker most likely to likely to get annoyed at the people he’s pranking and is the only joker I’ve seen disqualified for cheating. Q absolutely kills in a set-up that sees the jokers serving burgers at a fast food restaurant, where he’s tasked with speaking like a character in a fantasy game. Q hollers the gentleman’s order back at him, “Two burgers of ham! Two burgers of cheese!” When he then crashes the till, rather than folding, he simply bellows “Tis confusion!”

Finally, we have Sal. Sal struggles a little with the stress of being on Impractical Jokers, which only serves to encourage his cohorts. A particularly great Sal sketch finds him delivering a presentation on how to deal with stress, only for the presentation prepared for him by his fellow jokers to turn him into a strained, stuttering state of a man. Perhaps my favourite Sal moment comes from a prank that puts the jokers at a supermarket sample stand. Sal hands out cheese samples and then turns to his clipboard to ask a few questions. His question to a baffled middle aged man? “Where’d you get all that booty from?” It’s beautifully stupid and Sal is mortified to ask it.

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The cast of Impractical Jokers are so, so important to the success of the show. We need only to look at the dire British remake of the show that stopped running last year to see how poor the format can be without The Tenderloins.

Why do you have a brick labelled pain?

For me, there are two further key elements that make Impractical Jokers the rare hidden camera show worth digging into. The first is that the joke is not on the public. In pretty much every instance, the joke is on the jokers. No matter how annoyed or confused the member of the public is, the effect on or workaround devised by the joker is always the focus. 

In fact, one of the causes of a joker failing a challenge (and they do fail them or opt out from time to time) is being fed a line or given an action that would cross the line. Instances where they’re asked to do or say something mean spirited or rude to someone are rare, but they do crop up occasionally. The jokers would sooner take the loss than be unpleasant, which means the show never descends into nastiness.

The other element that makes the show so watchable is the authentic friendship between the cast, who have been friends since childhood. It’s the one way the show reminds me of Jackass. It’s a group of real friends having fun together, and their fun and laughter are infectious. It makes watching a TV show like a communal experience. As anyone who has seen a really funny comedy film in a packed cinema can tell you, other people laughing changes comedy.

We’re then able to invest in the cast, which contributes, in turn, to creating a good deal of tension as we wait to see whether these guys we’re rooting for are able to complete their task, how they’re going to work their way out of a corner or how people will respond to them. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so satisfying is that so many of the jokes come with a little tension relief, too.

Don’t call me clown, moustache.

I think it’s the guys’ improv background that means the pranks don’t just play out, they escalate. Perhaps the best example of this is the waiting room/text message set-up, where each joker has to read text messages, sent to them by the other jokers from another room, aloud for the other person or people waiting. When Murr is up, there’s only one other gentleman in the waiting room with him. The first message is a complaint from someone who has found a camera in Murr’s shower. As Murr struggles to explain, a second message identifies the texter as Murr’s Uncle. Murr attempts to spin a story about his Uncle moving in with him and him not having time to move the camera, which is horrifically creepy but at least takes the edge off. At least, it does until the follow up message about a box of video cassettes labelled “Uncle Clem’s Showers, January through October.” Murr is cornered. Finally, as Murr sits, stewing, defeated, one more text message arrives, which simply has him recap the entire thing. The gang expertly turn the screw on Murr.

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It’s also amazing seeing what people will do, or will stand by and let the jokers do, just as it’s fascinating to see people respond when someone is acting slightly off, subverting our unspoken social agreements. It’s an interesting show and it succeeds where so many shows don’t, in that it teaches you something about people. Logically, you would never do some of the things they ask people to do, but it rarely takes much cajoling to get people to do things like let a stranger clip their toe nails or share their plate of food at a buffet. If they don’t get a firm no right away, there’s a good chance the joker will be able to complete their task, no matter how ridiculous. Impractical Jokers shows that some people will just do what they’re asked and that, despite us using logic systems to judge the actions of other people, we don’t necessarily employ them when making our own decisions. Plus sometimes they make good fart jokes. Parp!

Skoopski potatoes!

Everything on Impractical Jokers is done knowingly, with full acknowledgement that what they’re doing is silly. Before any prank takes place, there will be a short segment where the jokers will explain what’s going to happen, usually with a few jokes. Typically, they’ll be walking the streets of New York. In one segment, they tease the segments, suggesting that they walk between every prank because the show is green. Joe remarks that, with all the walking “We must be tired.”

I don’t know if any of this has sold you on Impractical Jokers. It’s really difficult to explain why something is funny. I really think it is though. Explaining a joke is usually the easiest way to stop it being funny, and describing silly, physical comedy is arguably worse.

But do check out Impractical Jokers. For me it’s the funniest thing on television at the minute.