Q&A: James Murray of ‘Impractical Jokers’
The Tenderloins have been broadcasting their blend of hidden camera public pranks for six seasons on Impractical Jokers on TruTV, constantly expanding their brand along with their increasing popularity. As Joker James “Murr” Murray explained to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, he and boyhood chums Brian "Q" Quinn, Joe Gatto and Sal Vulcano now make regular live appearances here—including this week at MGM Grand on May 19—where people in the mood for a good time are coveted guests for their filmed-on-location segments.
Forgive me for being an Impractical Jokers noob, but who is “Santiago Sent Us” named for?
(Laughs) Santiago is a fictional character created on the show, like Larry. The last tour was the Where’s Larry Tour, this year it’s named for Santiago. Since Season One we’ve had this recurring joke on the show that whenever you go up to somebody in the mall, you say, “Who sent you? Did Santiago send you? Does he want his money?” And the money we always said we’d send Santiago was $5. It’s never lot of money! It’s just $5. We never seem to pay him the money, and he’s this fictional character that hopefully will come to life one day with casting, but you never see him, he doesn’t exist, so it’s the Santiago Sent Us Tour this time.
At your February live show in Tampa you started out previewing an episode from next season. How will your next show in Vegas be different than your November date at MGM’s KÀ Theatre Friday?
Well, it’s still the Santiago Sent Us tour. We’re always improving on the show, actually, but it’ll be the same tour with video and improvements throughout the whole show. I think we’re doing a total of four shows at the KÀ Theatre this year in Vegas. We’re back there again in September, and then we’ll get in one more time before the end of the year, I think.
I’m assuming you were moonlighting while you were in Vegas and taping segments. What kind of challenges are there not being in your own NYC backyard?
We film a lot on the road. We just got back from filming in Hawaii, actually. It’ll be the midseason premiere, the Hawaii episode, and we filmed the midseason finale at Universal Studios in Florida. In New York there are 10 million people. Even though we are from New York, for every person that recognizes us there are 10 more that walk into a restaurant that have no idea who we are. So I think the problem when we do travel episodes is the recognition factor. Vegas in particular is tricky because there’s a lot of tourists that are there for a good time, and those are the people that we want on the show.
I saw the Vegas segments filmed at Bonnie Springs. I thought Brian’s experience at the Old West town departed from format but immediately after that thought struck my mind you surprised him with a roof jump into horse manure.
Which was a direct shout-out to Back to the Future. It’s Back to the Future III right there. There’s another Back to the Future joke in that episode when Q first walks into the town he gets measured for a suit that’ll fit a measure for the coffin. That’s a direct homage to Back to the Future III when Marty McFly walks into town and they measure him for his coffin.
Is that one of those films that’s like a shared talisman for you guys?
Yeah, for sure. The guys and I are best friends. We’ve been best friends for literally 27 years. We met when we were kids, freshman year of junior high school, so it’s one of our shared bonding experience along with The Matrix, Jurassic Park … everything you know from the ’80s and ’90s. You’re right, that joke was a little bit of a departure for that show, but all we wanted to do was beat the hell out of Q. In that sense, it’s still right on brand.
I meant to tell you that my mom was born in Staten Island.
Yeah, she lived in all the boroughs, but she was born there.
Matt, deep down inside we’re all born on Staten Island.
How do you characterize Staten Island to people who aren’t from New York? They generally apply what they see on television to Greater New York, but how do you characterize it when you’re out of state?
You know, Staten Island has its own character, that’s for sure. It’s been exaggerated on TV by shows like Jersey Shore, which really paints a bad picture of Staten Island, but I will say growing up in Staten Island in the ’90s was very different from today … ’80s and ’90s I should say. We reminisce all the time. What I did every Friday night was go see movies then go to the diner with my friends. That’s what we did. We went to play video games. We’re not connected to the city like Brooklyn and Queens are connected, Long Island. The Bronx is connected to Manhattan. We just lived in a separate place, so it felt very sheltered growing up and I think that’s part of what bonded us together as friends. Just a very communal, very sheltered upbringing.
Do you think there would be an Impractical Jokers if you guys were from Flushing?
I don’t know! That’s a good question.
Do you think it’s the bond among friends, or do you think there’s something in the water in Staten Island?
I think there was a uniqueness to Staten Island. And it wasn’t just growing up in Staten Island, it was also the fact that we went to an all-boys Catholic high school so there was literally nothing else to do other than be friends with each other. If there were girls at my high school, I would literally not be talking about these guys currently. (Laughs). Plus, I would have lost my virginity way earlier than I did. It stunted our growth and we never recovered. Now I’m a 40-year-old and I still haven’t grown up.
Who got the rest of you in trouble the most?
You know, I think Joe gets us in trouble the most, but he’s the best at it, too. He has no shame filter, so whenever we’re out he just embarrasses the hell out of us, and he has no problem with it. And he’s very good at it, too. It’s very funny, but now he gets away with it because we’re on TV, so people expect it from him. But he’s been doing that for 27 years, Matt. Do you know what it’s like when you’re not on TV?
Did you form in ’99 or 2000?
We went to high school together in the early ’90s, then went to different colleges. After college we came back together and we still wanted to do comedy together so we formed our comedy troupe called the Tenderloins in 1999, and we performed together for many, many years. Sold a couple of TV shows along the way. We shot two different pilots for two different TV shows before Jokers, neither of them got greenlighted for series. So Jokers is literally our third TV show that we sold. Third time’s the charm, but it took a long time. It took until 2010 to sell a TV show and greenlight the series.
That sounds like bands. Kids think their going to start a band and it will make them rock stars, and then it winds up being the third band they’re in that goes anywhere.
You hit the nail on the head. At our live shows in particular, it really feels more like a rock concert than a traditional comedy show because I think people treat us like a band. The four of us are up there on stage all the time. It feels like a band. It feels like that kind of experience. People cheer and their holding up signs, wearing T-shirts and that kind of stuff.
So you knew each other in high school and formed in 1999, but what was the flash-of-lightning inspiration moment that led to Impractical Jokers? I understand you are the “unstoppable force,” but what inspired the first recorded joke that could be considered the blueprint for what came later?
The story behind it is this: Back in 2010 there were a lot of prank shows being greenlit by networks. My job outside of the TV show is I’m the senior vice-president of development for a TV company. My job for the past 11 years is to create and sell TV shows. I started a lot of prank shows being greenlighted, like back then Justin Bieber re-launched Punk’d on CW. There were other prank shows going around, and I felt like there was a new opportunity there. And so the guys and I got together and came up with a twist. … We took the traditional prank format like, say, Candid Camera, where comedians prank the public. We spun it upside down. We’re no longer punking strangers. We’re pranking each other and the public is just there to witness our embarrassment. It becomes a test of not what you do, it’s not a dare show. It becomes a test of what you won’t do, what your limits are as a gentleman. That’s what keep the show likable, is that no one’s getting hurt in the making of the show except for us. That twist on the format was enough to make the show feel fresh and different as a prank show, and it didn’t feel like the same kind of prank show you’ve already seen on TV before. And I think what we finally captured is the natural chemistry that the four of us have. We are just doing what we have already been doing our whole lives. We finally stumbled upon a format of a TV show that captured that chemistry and that camaraderie between the four of us. And I think the comments that we get all the time, and I consider this a huge compliment, is that we remind people of the friends they had growing up and what they do with their friends. That means we’re doing our job right.
Right, because if you didn’t get that compliment then you wouldn’t know what you were getting across was authentic.
Exactly right, exactly right. And that was our biggest priority when we created the show. We were like, “This show must be real.” Nothing’s fake, everything’s 100 percent real, and it has to be. And I think you can tell. It’s so obvious that’s it’s real. You see it on our faces. I wish it was fake (laughs). Unfortunately I live through it every day. It has to be because it has to … if it’s not real, it doesn’t work. We have to be nervous to do it. That’s what makes it funny.
The element of you guys watching and reacting to each other is the crucial element of the show. It adds what you get from a laugh track on Friends or Seinfeld. As funny as those shows were, they would be completely different without the shared experience of somebody reacting to it.
Yeah, somebody once told me that the show reinvented the laugh track in a much more realistic way, and I consider that a compliment, too. These are all very highbrow thoughts. Ultimately when I see Joe putting his nose on somebody, I laugh. It’s just funny to watch, so I laugh.
Were you guys old enough to remember Candid Camera, or at least be aware of Allen Funt?
Oh, yeah. Matt, I grew up watching Candid Camera. It was in reruns when we grew up, then came back on TV when we were going through our formative years. Of course, of course. I watched it all the time, and I used to watch Just for Laughs all the time, too. I don’t know if you remember that show.
I remember the title but I don’t remember watching it.
Yeah, we grew up watching that, along with the screwball comedies that we love like Airplane! The Zucker Brothers were our idols growing up, and I think those kinds of prank shows and that kind of screwball comedy is a huge influence on us.
You have a perpetual smile on your face. If there anything that turns it upside down besides large snakes being dropped in your lap while you’re chained to a park bench?
Skydiving nearly broke me. … It’s my number two fear in life, is heights and being thrown out of an airplane against my will. I didn’t go skydiving as much as I went crydiving. Then last me they punished me with my number one fear, which is … we were in Hawaii and and they put me into the ocean, and there were literally dozens of sharks. I couldn’t even look at the sharks, I was so terrified. Those kind of things, I don’t smile at those (laughs).
Have any of you had post-traumatic stress disorder or needed counseling after …
You know, I think we’ve had PTSD for a long time ago. I think after this point it’s like, “Eh.” (Laughs) Last season they shaved off my eyebrows as punishment, and they made me go to the DMV and get a new driver’s license. Two months for my eyebrows to grow back. There’s a point, Matt … I mean, what more can be done? PTSD? It’s not even post-traumatic. It’s traumatic stress disorder. It’s TSD, and the network still keeps ordering more seasons. It’s never ending. I’ll never be “post.”
I really felt for you on that one.
You know what it’s like not having eyebrows? Teenagers openly mock you to your face. Children run. Children are scared. They cling to their parents a little tighter. It’s not fun.
Yes it is. (Laughs). No, that would be horrible. I hardly have eyebrows as it is, and you’re not Italian. My favorite Murr moment was you saying, “Why am I Dracula?” as the curtain is raised before an audience that witnesses you onstage dressed as a vampire surrounded by a gospel choir. I assume your favorite moment involved Danica McKeller from The Wonder Years?
Yeah, not my proudest moment. Obviously she was my biggest childhood crush, and come on! When you grew up in the ’80s, that was it. It was (McKeller’s character) Winnie Cooper, man. And Alyssa Milano. That’s it. Those two were it, and so I always wanted to meet her my whole life. She’s still gorgeous, obviously, and accomplished and smart. She’s everybody’s dream girl, and I never imagined meeting her nearly naked and greased up with very pointy nipples. I didn’t not think that would be my first impression. And she was in a gown, she looked gorgeous, and I was there just glistening with the body of a string bean. It was not, in my mind, what I imagined our first meeting to be. (Laughs)
MGM Grand, 8 p.m. May 19, starting at $39 plus tax and fee. 800.745.3000 Ticketmaster