Talking Impractical Jokers and the Tenderloins With James “Murr” Murray

James “Murr” Murray answers our burning questions about the Tenderloins, and talks up the Impractical Jokers movie.

For five seasons, the Tenderloins comedy group has been making a name for themselves as the stars of TruTV’s Impractical Jokers. Made up of Joe Gatto, Brian “Q” Quinn, James “Murr” Murray, and Sal Vulcano, four long-time friends from Staten Island who have been doing improv and sketch videos together long before they got the TruTV show, they’ve become far more popular as they play the worst possible pranks on each other, usually at the expense of unwitting passers-by they encounter.

The show has made the Tenderloins so popular their current Where’s Larry? comedy tour has been selling out across the country, including three nights at Radio City Music Hall earlier this year.  

If you’ve never watched Impractical Jokers, it’s quite addictive, maybe because it’s hard to believe some of the things they put each other through, especially in the punishments for whomever loses each show. Punishments have included everything from permanent tattoos to Murr marrying Sal’s sister, as he watched helplessly, unable to stop that wedding from happening.

Den of Geek had a chance to speak with Murr, clearly the nicest of the group, and he gave us some behind-the-scenes on how Impractical Jokers works and how they develop their touring comedy show. He also mentioned that an Impractical Jokers movie is happening with plans to shoot in August with it likely to be bigger and nastier than anything they can do on basic cable, similar to the Jack-Ass movies.

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Den of Geek: I found out about Impractical Jokers through one of those flipping-through-the-channels moments where I came upon a marathon on TruTV. I was a little late to the game, and I thought it was my own guilty pleasure that no one knew about for a long time…  until I found out you sold out three shows at Radio City Music Hall.

James “Murr” Murray: (laughs) We told a few friends about the show.

That was pretty crazy, because I didn’t realize you had built up that large an audience, so congratulations.

Thanks, man. It’s pretty mind-blowing to us. We tell the story on stage, but no joke, ten years ago we did a live show in Manhattan and two people showed up. This is before Jokers so as performers, to go from that, to a couple nights at Radio City is pretty mind-blowing and humbling and amazing. It’s really cool.

It reminds me of this band The Swell Season. Did you ever see that movie Once?

Yeah, sure.

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They did a small show at a club downtown before that movie came out and then a year later, they too were able to sell out Radio City Music Hall. It’s crazy.

We’re in good company, that’s awesome.

You’re touring a lot and have the show airing right now and I believe you’re bringing back the podcast, so you’re keeping pretty busy.  How’s that work since you have to get ready for the shows?

We film the TV show in New York during the weekdays and then almost every weekend, we tour the country, and now the world–we’re doing another UK tour in January—performing live. It’s a lot of work but the job is fun, man. We spend our days laughing and these are my best friends for 26 years. Even if we weren’t making a TV show, we’d still be hanging out with each other every day, going to see movies and going to dinner and just being jerks (laugh). It doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like I’m hanging out with my best friends and laughing every day, it’s awesome.

I’m amazed you’re still friends because after some of those punishments, I figured you’d never speak to each other, especially after the tattoos.

You know, we’ll see how this season ends. (laughs)

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I live in New York and I recognize a lot of the locations where you do the show, and it’s amazing you’re still able to go out there and not be recognized by the people you’re interacting with who know you’re doing the show. Does that happen a lot?

It happens a lot more now, but it’s still manageable. There are so many people in New York—8 million people that live in the city—and there’s a million tourists that come to the city every year. There’s a new tourist born every minute. (laughs)

I feel like those tourists may be keeping the show alive, but you’re bringing the tour to the UK so you also must have people in Europe who know the show, so it’s going to be even harder the more people that know you.

These are good problems to have, you know what I’m saying?

How do you prepare for the show? There’s a lot of improv but there has to be some amount of writing in advance, so how are you able to do that and keep it secret from each other? Do you have a writing team to help come up with ideas?

Here’s the process. The first two seasons, the team was just the four of us. The show was a lot smaller and we didn’t have the budget to hire writers or have anybody help. And then the past few seasons, now we have a great team of writers we work in concert with them to come up with ideas for the show and we write joke ideas.

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Whenever one guy leaves the room to use the bathroom and comes back into the writer’s room, three of us are whispering. “What happened? What did I miss?” He knows that we’re conspiring against them. That’s a lot of it, and then when we go to a location—we’re filming today a little bit—what you don’t know is who is going to walk into the store or the restaurant or what have you.

So the show is really an improv show in disguise, and we come from an improv background. We’re an improv group and a sketch comedy group called the Tenderloins, that’s our alter ego. Our Clark Kent to our Superman.  We improvise a lot of it because you don’t know who is going to walk in and how they’re going to react. A lot of times, all the ideas we try to think of in advance

We probably improvise 60% or 70% of the show.

The punishments especially have gotten so elaborate that it’s almost like if you’re trying to hold a surprise party for someone, trying to keep it a secret is almost impossible.

The punishments are tailored specifically for the loser and they’ve gotten out of control. We’re now planning punishments months in advance. We did one to Sal…The past eight months we’ve been pranking him and he had no idea and he thought that something was real in his life that wasn’t real.

We finally revealed two weeks ago that the past eight months, this thing that was going on in his life was all fake.  He literally screamed out, “What’s real in my life?”  I loved that, it’s great, and I got to marry his sister, that’s pretty damn good, too.

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That’s a really good example of a punishment that’s so elaborate you wonder how you pull it off without Sal finding out.

That was to date the biggest punishment we had done about two years ago and I got a wife out of it, so that’s pretty damn good. Now we’ve got a lot of bigger things planned.

I watch the show a lot and I notice that you and Sal get punished the most and I think it’s maybe because Joe and Q are meaner…

Nah, I think it’s because Sal and I are America’s sweethearts like Meg Ryan. (laughs)  It could be jealousy, it could be our good looks and Joe and Q realize that they’re not as talented or good looking as us so they need to punish us or it could be that we’re just pussies. That could be it.

Certain times when you lose, you’re doing everything they tell you to do and then they go way too far and extreme.

You know, Sal and I, we do get the brunt of it and I think that’s because at the end of the day, we’re just full-on cowards.

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I understand you’re bringing back the podcast in some way and doing it live with an audience now. Has that started yet?

We’re doing ten more podcast shows here in New York City and what the podcast shows are is that we do a live tour where we tour theaters all across the country, right? Currently we’re doing the Where’s Larry? tour and coming up in June we’re start a brand-new hour and a half theater show called the Santiago Sent Us tour, but the podcast shows are how we generate all the new jokes for the big theater tour. It’s our testing ground, if you will.

Really intimate shows, like a hundred people in the crowd, that’s it. There’s no script. We just go up there and tell stories and see what sticks, see what they like, and then we keep all the best material from a dozen shows and we piece that together into the new Santiago Sent Us tour in June.

It’s pretty cool how it all develops. If you come to those, you get to see the wheels in motion of how we create a brand-new theater show that we’ll tour the country with for the next year.

That’s pretty amazing. I saw your schedule and you finish Where’s Larry? in May and then you start Santiago a month later in June.

Yeah, we’ve been testing material for the Santiago tour for the past two months, so it started in January, creating the new theater show.

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Is Where’s Larry? the same every night? How does it vary when you’re playing multiple shows in the same place like Radio City? Did you try varying it a little?

Again, we come from an improv background, so there’s a lot of jokes that we planned and we shot a bunch of hidden camera challenges just for the live show you can’t see anywhere else. That being said, we improvise a lot. We start riffing, we go on rants, and you never know where a show is going to go. It’s pretty fun.

I started listening to the podcast, just to check it out before we spoke, and I was listening to the first episode without realizing that was from four years ago. Until you started talking about Cabin in the Woods in the second episode, I didn’t realize those shows weren’t that recent.

We don’t get much time to do the Tenderloins podcast anymore. We do the live shows, but Q and Sal have the What Say You? podcast, and Q does Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave and a bunch of other podcasts, so we keep busy.

There’s a timelessness to your comedy because I can watch a show from any season and it feels current, even if things get more elaborate with each progressive season.

Yeah, it’s still our friendship. It’s still us ripping into each other. It’s kind of universal. We will always be this way. (laughs)

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One of the questions I’m sure you’re asked a lot is whether you guys want to make a movie. I remember that episode where they showed an old movie you made, so you have inclinations to make films.  Have you sat down and said, “Let’s take some time off from touring and try to work on a movie?”

We are hoping to shoot the Impractical Jokers movie this August, yes. If you look at our calendar, we have all of August off from touring.

So that will be a bigger version of the show?

Exactly right. The idea is that it would be a mega version of the show, kinda just like Jack-Ass. It would be a buddy comedy, pranking each other all across America.

That will be nice since you shoot so much in New York and the surrounding area. You’ve been other places like Vegas but there are plenty of places that you haven’t been yet, I’m sure.

We’ve been doing a bunch of destination episodes and destination punishments, too. Like we filmed a Miami episode, a cruise ship episode. We just shot a punishment in Vegas and in two weeks, we’re shooting a whole episode in the UK, so it’s pretty cool.

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That should be really interesting. I’ll be interested to see how they react and respond to your stuff.

Well, one of the bits we’re going to do I think… well, I can’t tell you what we’re going to do. But we’ll see how their humor is different from ours. I think they’re a little more proper and a little more respectful over there than us brash, dumb-ass Americans, so we’ll see what happens.

The episode where they did the Q n A after showing your movie Damned! is one of my favorites because Alison Bailes is a good friend of mine. She told me you did a whole hour of that Q n A, so do you have a lot longer versions of these punishments that you put on the DVD as extras? You obviously only have 22 minutes for each show.

Tons. It’s the hardest part of the show, man, is figuring out how to cut it down to 22 minutes. You have to get every challenge and every punishment down. The punishment we just did to Sal was over the past eight months. We have hours of footage of it, particularly filming him, and he has no idea, and we have to cut it down to a five minute punishment. Crazy. It’s the most exciting part of the show and it’s what drives us wild. It’s tough to choose what to put in and what not to.

How does that work? Do you have one person who is more involved with editing or do all four of you watch it and make notes? How do you decide?

Joe oversees all the editing in the show and the four of us give notes on every cut and every episode. There you go.

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I haven’t checked out the DVDs so is a lot of the stuff you edit out on there as extras? You do a few shows made up of extras and deleted bits.

Yeah, we come from a production background, the four of us. For years, we wrote, filmed and edited all of our own sketches, the Tenderloins sketches, so we’re pretty well versed on how to do that stuff. We’re very involved in the editing of the show.

You mentioned this elaborate Sal punishment so do you guys have cameras on you at all times at this point when you have stuff like that going on?

That’s the crazy thing. I don’t know! I’m constantly scared they’re going to break into my apartment and put a camera somewhere and I have the kind of apartment you shouldn’t be filming in, know what I mean? There should be no cameras allowed in here at all. I’m terrified of that. That’s the problem. I’m always scared.

Anything good that happens in my life, I’m always thinking, “Hm… maybe this is part of a joke and they’re just trying to fool me.” An audition came in last year for a movie role in a Seth Rogen movie or something and we’re like, “Is this real, is this part of a joke?”

Anything bad that happens in your life, you’re thinking it’s just secretly a punishment on the show. Anything good that happens, you’re doubting it’s real! I guess that’s what’s great about the show.

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Is it 24 hours Tenderloins since you’re touring so much together? Are you able to spend a little time on your own and apart?

Basically, the only time I get alone from the other guys is when I’m in the shower… and I’m not even sure they’re not filming that. We’ll see!

The Tenderloins are in the midst of Season 5 of the Impractical Jokers show on TruTV, while the Where’s Larry? tour carries on over the next few months. They’ll be recording six podcast shows at Le Poisson Rouge in New York on March 22 and 29, and The Hall at MP in Brooklyn on March 30.

You can learn more about the Tenderloins’ shows as well as get tickets (when available) at their Official Website.