James ‘Murr’ Murray interview: Impractical Jokers, Say Whaaat? & The Awakened

We chat to Impractical Jokers' Murr about his new show Say Whaaat?, starting tonight on Comedy Central...

In Comedy Central’s new show Say Whaaat?, a panel of participants compete to win judge Jayde Adams’ favour by creating a dialogue over seemingly innocuous video footage (typically) of random strangers.

The pilot features British comedian Russell Kane along with Joe Gatto, James ‘Murr’ Murray, Brian ‘Q’ Quinn and Sal Vulcano. The latter four make up improv comedy troupe The Tenderloins, best known from the hidden camera show Impractical Jokers, which has deservedly become ludicrously popular in the UK in the last couple of years.

While Impractical Jokers trades as much on social discomfort as the group’s trademark brand of silliness, Say Whaaat? finds the group free to be as playful as they like.

We got on the phone (more manageable than attempting to interview the Jokers together in a room) with The ‘Loin’s own James ‘Murr’ Murray to chat about the show along with some of the other things he’s been working on. It went like this.

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So we’re here to talk about Say Whaaat?

That’s it.

How come you’re making a show in Britain with a title that is impossible to say in a British accent?

(Laughs) Why? Why can’t you say it in a British accent? What do you mean?

It’s elongating the ‘a’ sound in what in a British accent. I feel like an idiot saying it.

Yeah, I don’t know how you… Well, you don’t have to elongate the a’s in your accent. Say What?!

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Oh, I like that.

‘Say What?!’ I can’t do a very good British accent, as you can see in the pilot of Say Whaaat?.

Obviously we’ve been on tour to the UK twice this year, our fan base is so strong. We love our UK fans so much. And we love working with Comedy Central in the UK in particular. Say Whaaat? is actually the first TV show I ever created, in 2001.

The story is this; Joe and I from Jokers were having lunch in Rockefeller Centre together, in New York City, and as tourists were walking by Joe and I started dubbing over their conversations and we were crying laughing at what we were creating for these people, these strangers walking by. Fast forward to 2017 I sold that idea to Comedy Central and we just shot the pilot for it. It’s a show that’s near and dear to our hearts, the guys and I from Jokers, and I think it’s kind of universally funny.

I think everybody does it, you’re sitting in a restaurant and you watch a couple be all lovey dovey and really into each other, and you’re like ‘What are they talking about?’ or you see a guy arguing with someone and you’re like ‘What is he complaining about?’ and you start to double their voices. Some people turn the volume down on their TV and dub over the characters on screen.

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It seems like it’s likely to hit with Jokers fans, because it’s a similar thing. It’s people being silly with their friends.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. Jokers is an improv show in disguise. Say Whaaat? is exactly the same. And as you can see… did you see the pilot?

Yeah, I’ve just seen it this afternoon.

The pilot has this loose feel to it where anything can happen. And you see we’re screwing around with each other. We make mistakes, sometimes we succeed, but it’s always funny. Even watching us stumble through things is funny, just like Jokers. So I think there’s enough tonal connection to Jokers, camaraderie and friendship and screwing with each other. Sal at one point even calls one of us out, like “there’s nobody talking right now”. Why are we talking if the characters on screen aren’t talking? That kind of feel is just like Jokers.

I know you’ve said you came up with the idea a while ago, but how long has the development been? How long have you actively been trying to make this a show?

We came out to Comedy Central back in May or June and pitched them the idea of this gameshow kind of format based on the idea of dubbing over people in real conversations. It was a really quick process. The guys and I from Jokers, we are a comedy troupe called The Tenderloins, so we’ve got a lot of improv background, and I used to teach improv for a long, long time, so coming up with the games to play over clips is really easy. It was a very fluid process. Really quick.

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In September, I came out two weeks before the pilot to film all the footage of British people going about their daily life and then brought it back and that’s what we dubbed over.

Do you see this as something that could work differently in different countries? Because there are cultural differences in what people find funny and of course people act differently.

Oh yeah. That’s the strength of the show, for my mind. Speaking from a development point of view, this show can translate into any culture, any country. You get local comedians and their local brand of humour. Because people are universally funny. Voyeurism, watching people go about their daily lives, is universally funny, no matter the culture, no matter the anything, it’s just always funny to watch people. So this show can travel around the world for sure.

Do you have a dream guest?

Well the cool thing about the guests is that they don’t have to be comedians at all. It would be hysterical to see Adele doing it. Because, again, the strength of this show is that people failing at it is as funny as people succeeding at it.

So, ideal guest? Ricky Gervais would be amazing. I think Steve Carrell would be great to have on the show.

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So, with regard to Jokers now, you guys have been doing it for quite a few years. The seventh season is your next one.

Well, in the United States we’re shooting season seven which is the equivalent to season thirteen for you guys.

Yes. It’s a long time to be going. I listened to an interview with the cast of It’s Always Sunny In Philiadelphia and they said that before the start of a new season, they’ll watch bloopers from the other seasons on YouTube to remind themselves how much fun they have on set. I wondered if you had a ritual or something you do to get yourself psyched up for shooting Jokers?

It’s not so much rituals as it is revenge.

(laughs)

I think about the stupid tattoo I have on my body because of Joe. I think about the two months it took for my eyebrows to grow back. We filmed an entire episode in London, and I had no eyebrows because Joe shaved them off two days before we left. I think about those things and it inspires me to come up with new, creative, clever ways to torture my friends.

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Oh, that’s lovely.

To get ideas, to keep motivated, I just think of all the horrible things they’ve put me through.

Is your passport still the eyebrowless picture?

Yes, thank you for bringing that up. No, my driver’s license has no eyebrows, my passport photo has Q’s hair. They made a wig out of Q’s hair and I had to wear it for six months and they made me get a new passport photo. So I’ve got a driver’s license with no hair and a passport with nothing but hair. I look so stupid.

It could land you in serious trouble. People will think you’re faking your identity.

The funny thing is, whenever I go through customs they recognise me from the show, so they’re waiting for the passport, they’re waiting to see it, and they ask to see my license too. So I’ve become a running joke to Homeland Security agents.

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I wanted to ask you about one of my favourite recent episodes of Jokers, which is the Universal Studios one. I think it’s a great idea because you can have cameras around, because it’s Universal Studios and people do, but also because people behave differently there. I wonder whether that’s something you consider, where do people behave differently than on the steets?

Yes, that’s a big part of it. How are people interacting with this place? We’ve learned good and bad lessons from that. We were like ‘oh, let’s film at a dry-cleaners’ one day. Guess what? People don’t want to talk when they come to a dry-cleaners. We learned that the hard way. They walk in, drop their clothes off and want to leave immediately. No one ever is like ‘hey, let’s go and hang out at the dry-cleaners’. Dry-cleaners suck. We tried filming there in New York once and it was the worst day of shooting ever. People were not playing with us.

Whereas you go to Universal Studios and people are in a good mood and they’re having fun. There’s also this weird social etiquette that you have to obey in theme parks. You know what I mean? It’s so crowded, you have to be careful of people and there’s rules and ways that it functions. There’s set rules that you need to follow. And that’s always fun to screw with. When there’s some kind of norms or rules that people en masse are following, when you defy those rules, when you take up two seats on a rollercoaster, things like that, that’s when people react strongly.

A theme park is a great place to do Jokers.

Now, when you said earlier that you guys toured over here, you didn’t just tour, you sold out masses of dates at the O2 and I know in the US you’ve just played Madison Square Garden. That’s insane.

Yeah, we did five nights at the O2 this year, sold out. We did Madison Square Garden about three weeks ago, sold out. It was crazy.

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We told this story on stage at Madison Square Garden. Ten years ago, before we did Jokers, we did a show in New York and two people bought tickets. Two. They spent five dollars each per ticket. So we made ten dollars in a night total, split four ways, two dollars and fifty cents each. And ten years later to sell out the Garden, as a New Yorker, is a dream come true.

It’s humbling, and not a day goes by that we don’t realise how lucky we are, and how much we love our fans because of it, for giving us these opportunities.

Last summer it seemed like it was the case, you were talking about shooting a movie and I guess that hasn’t happened yet, but is that something you’re still looking at?

I can’t report in the press anything about that yet. But I will say that we are very, very, very, very hopeful to shoot an Impractical Jokers movie next year.

We would love to. We have a great idea for the movie and fingers crossed it will happen.

The other project I really wanted to talk to you about is, you’ve written a book.

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Ah, thanks man. Yeah, I did.

I’ll tell you a little funny story about the book. Like Say Whaaat?, I wrote the book in 2004. I spent a year of my life writing it. I have a degree in English from Georgetown, I can write a book, I felt confident in my book writing skills. I spent a year writing this book. The guys and I are regular guys, we don’t have an uncle in the business, so in 2004 when I wrote this book I had no contacts in the publishing world. So I sent the book out to agents, to publishers, to literary managers, and it got sent back me by everyone, unread. No one would even read it because I didn’t know anybody. And I was like ‘gosh darn it, I spent a year writing this book and I can’t get anybody to read it, but it’s a really good book’.

Fast forward to now, with the strength of Jokers and how amazing our fans are, I pitched Harper Collins on it and they bought it a day later, when I sent them the book. And now it’s coming out.

Anybody that buys like ten copies of the books as gifts, I Facetime them and read them a chapter of the book. So I’ve been doing tons of Facetime calls with fans from the UK. Tons. Probably a hundred in the last few weeks, Facetime calls with UK fans.

Well it must be selling well then.

Yeah. It’s on presale now, it comes out in June worldwide. But yeah, the presale’s going really good. I’m hoping it’s going to be a trilogy. I’m working on book number two now.

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What’s your process when you write? Do you outline, do you dive right in?

Well, you know, I teamed up with a British writer. His name’s Darren Wearmouth. He’s a super Jokers fan, a great guy. He’s a bestselling author. Harper Collins recommended that I meet with him and we hit it off immediately. He lives in Manchester. And he’s a really good writer. What we did was, I hired him to basically polish off the book for me, and him and I are co-writing book two and three together. He brings a different sensibility to it, being from the UK, a more worldly approach to the writing. He also has a military background which is really helpful for the book.

The book’s a horror movie, it takes place in the subways of New York City. It’s about these creatures that hunt us and they’re very, very scary. We have complimentary skills. I’m really good at pace and dialogue and action, he’s really good at description. He’s excellent at that. He really paints a picture of what’s happening.

And it’s been optioned for a TV show with IDW, right?

That’s right. My background, for the past eleven years, I’ve run development for a TV company called NorthSouth Productions. I’m the Senior Vice President of Development. So my job is literally to create and sell TV shows, for the past decade. That’s how we got Jokers. The guys and I created Jokers and I pitched it through my job in development, and that’s how we sold the show.

My goal with the book was always to develop it as a TV series or a movie. Right after I got the book deal I immediately started going out and pitching it as a TV series. IDW picked it up and we’re going out to networks with it.

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I have time for one more question, so I wanted to ask you what your influences in comedy are? What do you find really funny?

Oh wow. I was a huge Zucker brothers fan. Those are the guys that made Naked Gun and Airplane, they do a few of the Scary Movies. I’m a huge Mel Brooks fan, all the guys are. Blazing Saddles, History Of The World, Young Frankenstein. We’re all Richard Pryor fans. In terms of British comedy, I used to love The Mighty Boosh. Do you remember that?

Yeah.

Oh man, they’re so funny.

I love Kids In The Hall, Steve Martin. Those are the influences I had growing up. The guys and I have a little bit of a slapstick sensibility, which I think is from movies like Naked Gun and Airplane. And Joe, I think, excels at slapstick comedy, the kind of classically funny buffoon. I think that’s why people connect with Jokers, it feels familiar, like the shows they used to watch that were just funny. You used to watch I Love Lucy and you laugh the physicality of Lucille Ball. So those are some of our influences.

Thank you, James Murray!

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Say Whaaat? airs on Comedy Central UK on Monday 18th December at 10:30pm.