The concept for the TV show may seem painfully simple: four lifelong friends compete in ridiculous challenges in order to embarrass, and ultimately punish each other. But the chemistry, looseness and ridiculousness of the show make “Impractical Jokers” one of the funniest shows on TV. As an extension of their show, the four guys involved are currently on their Impractical Jokers: Cranjis McBasketball World Comedy Tour, which makes a stop for two shows in San Antonio on Saturday, September 8. CineSnob.net spoke with one of the jokers, James “Murr” Murray about the show, the upcoming “Impractical Jokers” movie, and being a best-selling author.
I wanted to start by talking a little bit about the comedy tour you are on now. For fans of the show who haven’t seen you guys on tour, what experience can they expect and how can they expect it to be different from the TV show?
The tour, I think, is the funniest thing we do. When you film a hidden camera show you have no idea how its working. We have no idea if the fans like what you’re doing. It’s hidden camera and we’re hiding in the back or the basement somewhere. We come from a live tour background, so when we’re on tour, it’s a great way to interact with the fans. The live tour is our friendship on display. It really is. We have a giant screen behind us. We shot hidden camera challenges just for the live show that you can’t see anywhere else. It’s basically like stand-up comedy with all four of us on the stage at the same time. We’re having fun with the audience. It’s a lot of fun.
As a fan of shows like “Nathan for You,” anything that Sasha Baron Cohen has done or anything that involves unsuspecting people, I have always wondered about the risk of becoming too big, where everyone knows you and it becomes harder and harder to do challenges in public. Is that something that you guys are cognizant of or had to adapt to?
That’s a good problem to have. It means that the show is doing really well and we’re doing our job right. It will be interesting next year when the movie comes out. We just shot the “Jokers” movie and it comes out next year in theaters, so we’ll see. It has changed the show a bit. We don’t do baseball stadiums anymore. We don’t do boardwalks. It’s harder to do malls. It changes the way you produce the show because we hide more and its rare that you see two of us together somewhere. But it’s a good thing. The show is constantly evolving.
Do you feel like that need to adapt and evolve has kept the show fresh or made you guys think about different or more unique challenges?
For sure. I think what keeps the show fresh and unique is our own drive. We made a pact in Season 1 that if we ever felt the show was getting repetitious or stale, we’d stop doing it. We owe it to our audience to constantly evolve the format and push it in new ways with different styles of challenges or format busters. We try to do it every season and advance the show. That’s the fun of making a show like this. We produce so many episodes a season that we have a chance to play around and test things out and see what works, so it’s a lot of fun.
In terms of punishments, it feels like a lot of prep work goes into that. Is that something where you guys are thinking about punishments year round and making notes about what you want to do?
Yeah, it’s funny the way punishments evolve. One of us will leave set for a couple of minutes to the restroom or something and when we come back to the set you’ll hear the other guys go, “Shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh.” You know they were conspiring when you left. A lot of what’s happening in our real lives inspires the punishments.
Speaking of punishments, it seems a lot of the time they can be silly and ridiculous but others are completely excruciating to watch. Do you have a favorite type of punishment that you like to see go down?
I love to watch Joe do something physical, like Captain Fatbelly where he’s riding on top of a tram or the one that aired last night. We built him into a massage chair at the mall, which was so funny. It was the funniest challenge in the show’s history. Seeing Sal get scared is very funny. For me, I like when they punish me in a way that attacks my emotions and my ego. My pride, if you will. I like those psychological ones, where I’m walking into a room thinking it’s going to be a body building competition and it turns out that I’m walking into Danica McKeller, who is Winnie Cooper from “The Wonder Years” in a dress, looking gorgeous. It’s psychological. It messes with my mind. I like those ones the best.
In terms of the movie, is it something where you were trying to go bigger with it, or different, more edgy? What were your goals with the movie with the new format?
I think the time is right. The audience wants to see us push the show even further. The movie is bigger than a big episode. It has a narrative, a beginning and an end. There’s a structure to it, even moreso than the TV show to help get us on this journey. That being said, 85 percent of the movie is a hidden-camera movie. We’re improvising, which is a lot of fun, honestly. I will say, something slightly different than the TV show, the movie has multiple punishments throughout, which is great fun. You get to see us squirm a lot and punishments in the movie were spectacular. They hit all the right marks.
You were saying that the live comedy show is good because you don’t get that instant audience response when you’re filming the show. But with a movie, you get one shot. Did you guys spend a lot of extra time writing for the movie or thinking about the punishments?
Yeah, we put a ton of planning into it, which you always do when you’re working on a movie. It was kind of like the beginning of the TV show in a lot of ways. It was the four of us writing. In Season 1 of the TV show, it was a small show. We had no staff. We were literally calling locations to get them on board. We were writing all the material. I mean that loosely, of course. There is no script for the TV show. It’s improvised. But we still think of all the punishments and challenges. In the movie, it was back to our roots. It was the four of us in a room for a month coming up with ideas for the movie and secret punishments. It was fun.
One thing, too, that seems to be the case is the support of your network. Your show is on all the time on TruTV. It feels like there is an extension of the show as well, through the After Party or the specials and documentaries. How great is it to have the support of the people behind the scenes to know that not only your show is in good hands but they are letting you extend it beyond having just a 30-minute TV show once a week.
Are you kidding me? That’s it. TruTV continues to be an amazing partner. The fact that they funded the movie…the network has been so supportive from the beginning, I will say. I can’t imagine the show with another network. And they are willing to take big risks. For a network that has never produced a movie to take the risk to make a movie is a huge, huge show of support and confidence in the brand and the guys and I. It’s not bad. We are forever thankful to them. When we pitched the show to them several years ago, they made good on their word. They said, “This is the show we want to define TruTV and the direction we want to go in” and they made good on that.
In terms of the brand expanding, you guys have an after show, you’ve got a tour, you’ve got a cruise. There’s a lot of stuff that gives the fans more content or access to you guys. Do you feel like that’s important for not only your growth but interacting with your fanbase?
Oh, sure. The guys and I come from a live-comedy background. We are a comedy troupe called The Tenderloins. We have performed live for many, many years. So, going into live touring was a natural common sense expansion for us. From there grew other, cool opportunities. I think a lot of it is having the right team around you that knows how to get these opportunities. Our management team and agents look for these cool extensions of the brand. As the tour grew, a natural question was, “Wouldn’t it be cool to hang out and party with fans and go on vacation? What if we went on a cruise?” It’s just these natural questions that you ask yourself. And the after show was the same kind of idea. We really clicked with Joey Fatone and he’s been in a couple episodes of the show. He felt like a good fit for our show, cause we don’t really have guest cameos but on the times we do have cameos its been based in reality. He’s a similar kind of guy as us. And Danica McKeller is steeped in our history. I had a crush on her growing up so she was a natural extension of what we do. The show is very organic. It has to stay that way for us. So, the opportunities that we have now are a combination of how awesome our fanbase is and how they support us, how amazing the network is, and how great our team is that thinks about the questions like, “What would be a cool fan experience to do next?” The four of us have wanted to do this our whole lives and to have the ability to do something cool like this made us think, “What else could we do that is cool like this?” What if we could do a Hawaii episode?” I’ve always wanted to go and never had the money to go!
A few months ago, you had a novel come out that you wrote, “Awakened.” I was wondering not only what that experience was like to foray into a completely different world, but what the response has been and how you feel about now being an author.
The crazy part of the novel is that it is very similar to how we developed “Jokers.” I wrote this fast-paced, action-packed thriller 14 years ago. This was before TV. I had a BS job working from home and I spent a year of my life writing this book. Like “Jokers,” the guys and I are regular guys who had no contacts in publishing. I had no agent back then. No lawyer to represent the project. After a year of writing, I sent it to every publisher in New York. And you ready for this? It got returned to me unopened. No one would open the envelope to read it. I have no problem dealing with rejection if I’ve been considered. But to be rejected without having someone look at it is a tough pill to swallow. It sat on my computer for 14 years. Fourteen years later, because of the fanbase and how amazing they are, I sent in the same book and the publishers at Harper Collins ended up buying the trilogy from me. I always believed in the project. I always thought that the book was really good and action packed and exciting to read. I will say, I’ve been really pleased with the fan response and the reviews online are amazing. Not just fan reviews, critical reviews are great, great, great. And the book is a best seller. It has been really rewarding thing, I must say.