The indignities mount. First, Murr is told that he has to compete in a bodybuilding competition. And to be clear, Murr is nobody’s definition of fit. Stripped down to an American flag Speedo, he looks like a fillet of cod -- a soft, slender, floppy whiteness untouched by the sun. Next, his three best friends -- Joe, Sal and Q -- oil him up and spread on a nice layer of bronzer. Murr seems amused. He’s done worse with these guys: He’s faced off alone against a professional dodgeball team, he’s been stuffed inside a piñata and hung from a crane and he’s even had his nipple pierced. So twitching in front of guys who could bench-press him? Sure, why not.
Murr is waiting with a bunch of meatheads when his name is called. He is led down a hallway and toward a door. As it opens, you can see him thinking through his next move. He’ll channel Schwarzenegger, make his buddies laugh and then --
Oh, God. There’s no bodybuilding competition in this room. There’s just a woman -- a very beautiful, very familiar woman -- sitting in a chair. Murr knows he’s being filmed, just like he knows his three best friends are watching his face drop; he can hear them through the earpiece he’s wearing, and they’re dying of laughter. What has he walked into?
This is how it goes on Impractical Jokers, the show in which four buddies compete to embarrass each other, or at least to endure their own humiliation. The show’s setup is simple: One guy goes out -- into a supermarket or a crowded art gallery or wherever -- wearing an earpiece, while his three buddies hang back, watching the action on a TV screen. The three feed instructions through a microphone, and the guy out in the field must do whatever they say. They’re all real friends, and they routinely weaponize their deep knowledge of each other -- flaws, personal insecurities, past crushes and more. They know every time the other guy has been drunk. They have access to every soft spot, every cringe button and they use it all mercilessly. How is Impractical Jokers not just a half-hour series of these guys punching each other in the face? It’s a miracle.
It’s also a hit. The show began nearly six years ago as a modest screwball comedy but has grown into a mainstream phenomenon and the hottest thing on TruTV’s lineup. Impractical Jokers is a top-five show on cable in its time slot. In 2010, the guys filmed the pitch episode on their iPhones; this February, their sixth season debuted. They draw 1.6 million viewers a week. The show is number one on Comedy Central in the United Kingdom and India, and it’s in roughly 70 other international markets, airing both original tape and spinoffs with a local cast.
But do not dismiss them as a bunch of made-for-TV goofballs. Take a close look at the opening sequence of Impractical Jokers and you might notice a show bill in the background that reads “Featuring the Tenderloins.” This -- the name of their four-man comedy troupe -- is their true core, and their future. Jokers will stay around however long the television gods bless it with good ratings. But the Tenderloins are built to last. “The Tenderloins are a creative force for hire,” Murr says. That means making TV shows, movies, books and more. The way they see it, Impractical Jokers is just their first big hit. They also have a successful touring business that plays arenas around the world. Last year, they sold out three straight nights in a row at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and they just wrapped up a nine-day swing in the United Kingdom that sold 100,000 seats. The tickets always say “The Tenderloins.”
And yet, the Tenderloins are successful for the same reason the Jokers are successful. These four guys have mastered the art of working together as a team. They are consistently open, honest and vulnerable with each other -- something that’s hard for anyone to do, let alone leaders of a company. It isn’t always easy for them, either. But it’s the only path forward. And it’s working.
So, about the woman in the chair: That’s Danica McKellar, forever known as Winnie from The Wonder Years -- and, critically, Murr’s childhood celebrity crush. He has always wanted to meet her. His pals know it. And now he’s doing it in the most humiliating way. “You have to interview her!” Joe screams into a microphone, and so Murr shuffles over toward McKellar, nearly oil-slips off a stool he tries to sit on, and picks up some cue cards he’s been left. The final indignities begin.
“You’re America’s sweetheart. I’m America’s douchebag,” he reads aloud. “What would America call our baby?”
McKellar looks at him in a way she never did to Kevin Arnold, even in his most selfish, most adolescent of times. Because here instead is Murr, glistening like an Exxon-Valdez disaster.
“A mistake,” she replies. The guys backstage lose it. Q just starts swatting at the air, delirious.
Again: How are these guys not punching each other in the face?
Yeah, they have full names. Joseph “Joe” Gatto, James “Murr” Murray, Brian “Q” Quinn and Salvatore “Sal” Vulcano. They’re grown-ass men, too: They’re all 40. But on Impractical Jokers, and to each other, and therefore to their fans, they’re just one-syllable pals.
This show was not the foursome’s original plan. They grew up on Staten Island and met in their all-boys Catholic high school’s improv troupe, then went their separate ways for college and found real jobs. Joe became a personal shopper at a baby store called Giggle. Murr was a freelance TV producer. Q became a firefighter. Sal ran a bar. But they reassembled in their hometown as young professionals with a dream: They’d form a troupe called the Tenderloins and become successful comedians together.
The Tenderloins had a few hits on MySpace, posting sketch comedy videos. They won a few awards. In 2000, they were accepted into a showcase called PS NBC, which the network used to scout new talent. They hoped this would be their big break, and after their set, Murr asked the producer how it went. “You guys are funny, but you’re not ready,” he replied. “You don’t have a point of view, and you haven’t lost enough yet.’”
Murr spent years puzzling over that statement. You don’t have a point of view. A little while later, the guys sold a sketch comedy show to Spike TV. Finally, that big break? No. The show never made it to air. Murr returned to the producer’s critique and realized the guy was right. The Tenderloins had talent, sure, but no point of view -- and talent wasn’t enough. “We didn’t know the right format for what we do,” Murr says now. “We didn’t know the best way to put our comedy forward to the world.”
By this time, Murr’s TV career had grown. He’d become the senior vice president of development for a production company called NorthSouth, and his job was to write treatments for hundreds of shows. He learned what sold and, importantly, what didn’t. And the secret wasn’t really different from selling any other kind of product: It isn’t enough to just make something good or pleasing. It must be necessary -- a thing you know people will want, because you have a unique insight about what makes it work.
After five years of TV development, Murr felt he had the insight.
It was 2010. Hidden-camera shows had made a comeback, but everyone did them the same way -- prank an unsuspecting civilian or celebrity. Boring. And also, kind of uncomfortable. But what if the format was flipped, and the people being pranked were always in on the joke? That way, the audience might see the whole thing differently.
And the Tenderloins were holding an ace: They were real friends. That wasn’t something they could leverage in a sketch comedy show, but it presented an opportunity now. If they put themselves at the center of a hidden-camera show -- as old pals, making the antics a part of their lives -- their chemistry and comedy would be organic. They’d push each other, sure, but this wouldn’t go into Jackass territory. The guys could always bail on a challenge if they wanted to. “This is not a show about what we’ll do,” Murr says. “It’s a show about what we won’t do -- that we’re gentlemen, we’re regular guys putting ourselves in these crazy situations, but we have faults and weaknesses.”
For example, in one episode, Joe is sent to pose as a consultant at a wedding dress store. One of his buddies tells him to look at the bride and say, “What style was your first wedding dress?” Joe grimaces. It’s just too mean, and he can’t do it. “Now, this one’s flowy,” he says, scrambling for something else to say. And it’s good TV. In fact, it’s better TV than if Joe had actually said the line -- because this way, the audience gets to laugh at the joke, then laugh at Joe for not saying the joke, and nobody is ever made to feel bad.
“It was the first time ever we strategically approached our career,” Murr says. And in doing so, the Tenderloins finally found their point of view. Theirs is old-friend comedy -- familiar and natural, lovingly mocking and occasionally too personal in that way only old friends can pull off. It’s a style that reminds people of their own old friends, and invites audiences to feel like part of their crew. And now they wondered: Could this brand of comedy scale? They bet yes.
The foursome oversee all aspects of the TV and live show, as well as any extensions they build out, like an annual cruise for fans. And they’ve decided to run everything as a pure democracy. There is very intentionally no leader of the group; there are four co-CEOs, so to speak. This could be a recipe for chaos, but Sal says they’re helped out by something that, not coincidentally, is now a favored team-building exercise among the corporate set: improv. “When we used to do improv, you’d have to learn how to listen and contribute and not talk over each other and learn timing, and you fall into roles where that permeates in your regular life as well,” he says. “So when the four of us operate as a unit, you learn how to contribute and when to take your role.”
The roles tend to fall like this, according to Sal: Murr gravitates toward business; Joe, production and crew; Sal and Q, the creative side. But this isn’t to say they defer to each other on these subjects -- which Sal sees as a useful thing. “For whatever topic we’re talking about, we don’t leave any stones unturned,” he says. “I’m all about dissecting everything. I like that by inherently having to make a group decision, you’re really thorough. And I have a lot more confidence with a decision going forward if I know it’s been thorough.”
The four men are unabashedly in love with each other. They always refer to each other as “best friends.” In interviews last year, they all said they’d known each other for 26 years. This January, unprompted, they said 27 years. Which is to say: They’re counting. But as anyone who has built a company with loved ones knows, work can test even the strongest of relationships. And the Tenderloins’ greatest achievement has been creating a working relationship that doesn’t overtake their friendship.
The partnership was challenged early. While filming the first two seasons, Sal was still running his bar in Staten Island and Q was a New York City fireman. Both would go stretches with very little sleep. Q would sometimes be driving the fire truck and pull up next to a bus with his face on it, prompting mockery from his colleagues. And as the show took off and consumed more of his time, Q felt conflicted. He loved being a fireman. “It’s the best job in the world,” he says. He even asked TruTV what would happen if he left the show. The answer: They’d cancel Jokers. “What am I going to do?” he says, the tension of that time still in his voice. “I can’t do that to these guys; you know what I mean?” Ultimately, he took a hiatus from the department.
And complications continue to this day. It was evident off-stage last May, when the Tenderloins played a night at the Bell House, in Brooklyn.
The venue is just a little bar with a theater in the back. Before doors open, perhaps 50 fans form a line that nearly snakes out the door. When the four guys take the stage, they open the way they always open these little shows -- by explaining that it may not be funny, because they’re working out new material. The most important thing in the room is actually a camera in the back, filming what happens over the next 90 minutes. True to warning, what follows is decently funny but often flat. They do two shows a night like this, for about 20 nights, at clubs scattered around New York. During that time, they’ll watch the footage and catalog all the jokes spreadsheet-style, then workshop what’s successful and what isn’t. And this is how they build a show that will eventually be performed in arenas.
All comedy, to be a total buzzkill, is a product. And that means it needs R&D. But no matter the task, it would be impossible to expect four people to prioritize this level of meticulousness the same way. That’s a burden Sal feels on his shoulders.
“So this six months, I have literally major, major anxiety until we get that show right,” Sal says before the club performance. He’s a man of lists and overanalysis; he sweats the details. And some of his anxiety, he admits, comes from the other guys, who aren’t nearly as nervous as he is. He is often nagging them -- Come on; we need to work on the show. “The people I respect the most are my peers, my fellow comedians. I want their respect. It’s my whole life. And I don’t know if the other guys feel the exact same way about that, so that’s why this weighs particularly heavy on me.”
The four guys have their blowups, sure. It’s inevitable; they’re together almost every day. But that has taught them to navigate the storms. Each one can play a role as mediator. Each one has also learned what to let go -- what just isn’t worth a fight. And during the peaceful periods (which, they want to be clear, is most of the time), they’re constantly showing each other goodwill, picking up each other’s slack, saying, Take a break; I got this. It’s a reminder that everyone is equal, that everyone has each other’s back.
This gives Sal comfort, even when the other guys aren’t focused in the way he’d like them to be. “Murray’s attitude, for better or for worse, is, Eh, it’ll get done. It’s almost like he doesn’t care; that’s how it comes across,” Sal says. “But to his credit, everything has always worked out.”
Company leaders often do this rhetorical dance where they’ll insist that their business is something broader and more abstract than it appears to be. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes says, “We’re a customer service company that happens to fly planes.” Uber founder Travis Kalanick says, “We’re a robotics company.” Google the phrase “We’re a technology company” and you’ll find it uttered by Mark Zuckerberg, yes, but also by the heads of farms and music labels and more. But this isn’t a trick. It’s a vision for a company’s future -- an acknowledgment that its current product cannot last forever but that the business has something more fundamental at its core.
That’s why Murr says the Tenderloins are “a creative force for hire.” It’s how four friends can continue to work together.
Of the four, only Joe seems to fully embody the Jokers’ style of comedy itself. Some gags on the show, in fact, have come out of things he does in real life to make people laugh. There’s a bit called nosing, when Joe walks up to a stranger and rests his nose on their shoulder. He came up with that in high school. He’s fearless. “Outside the show, I’ll still do it,” he says. “I’ll hear from them at least three times a week: Joe, we’re not filming; what are you doing?”
The rest are a multitude of ambitions. Q loves darker comedy and comic books; he cohosts a popular podcast called "Tell ’Em Steve-Dave!," which has nothing to do with his Staten Island pals. Sal does his own stand-up. Murr imagines writing thrillers and novels one day.
But “a creative force for hire” gives them a North Star, and a purpose big enough to satisfy them all. The Tenderloins are already growing beyond the Jokers. They’ve developed and sold numerous TV shows -- one to Spike TV, one to A&E. Last year, they made a comedy game show pilot and shopped around a scripted comedy. “On the one hand, we want to seize the opportunities that are in our lives right now,” Murr says. “On the other hand, we need to grow beyond that as well.”
That’s the thing about a team: You bring it together, you sacrifice for it, you accept that resolving the bad times can only lead to more good times. And once you have a point of view, and you’ve lost enough to know what’s worth keeping, and you confirm that you are better together, then you move forward as one. You create a mission, so everyone feels committed. You become bound by ambition, and the sense that it’s only accomplishable together. That’s the Tenderloins’ plan. Keep the team.
In what felt like another lifetime ago, back in 2011, Impractical Jokers had just started airing, and an aw-shucks Iowan with a nasty cough named Jeff Johnson began booking them in in, of all places, America’s Corn Belt. One night, after the biggest stretch of shows in their young career, the group retired to a hotel to settle expenses. “We were about to make real money here,” Murr says. “Well, real money that’s split four ways plus taxes, so it’s not like real money. But still, it’s a big number.”
Q goes to sleep. He’s exhausted. So now the three remaining pals double- and triple-check the receipts, and Jeff starts writing their check, and he’s about to sign his name when he begins coughing again, then gives off two big hacks -- “cha! cha!” -- and a third that turns into a wheeze, like “ehhhhhhhhhhhh,” and then he flops face-first onto the table, motionless. “Ha ha,” Joe says. But Jeff is still. A panic sets in. Their tour manager is dead.
Q would know what to do here, but he’s gone. Instead, Murr shakes Jeff’s shoulder. Joe attempts the Heimlich, though poorly. And Sal picks up a hotel courtesy phone and screams, “nine one one!” “Everything happened so fast, so I was just screaming,” Sal says.
And then Jeff takes a gulp of air, like in a movie when someone is dragged out of a river. He sits up and continues writing the check as if nothing happened. Then he looks up to see Murr frozen next to him, Joe behind him and Sal with a phone in his hand, and he says, “What happened? Did I die again?” It turns out Jeff has a health condition that causes him to sometimes not get enough oxygen and pass out. But he’s fine, he says.
The guys are shaken. Jeff had just driven them from stop to stop, sometimes six hours at a stretch. They could have all actually died. But they finish up their work, then head up the elevator. Jeff gets off first, the doors close behind him, and the rest stand in a daze. A moment passes. “And I just wheeze -- ‘eh-heeeeeeehh,’” Joe says. “And that’s it. We. Were. Done. The elevator opened to our floor and we just spilled out of it. We were punching each other, laughing, for 45 minutes in the hallway.”
They’ve retold this story for years, embellishing the details, finding new punch lines. Quick, forge the check -- we earned that money! It’s a funny moment but, more important, an early sign of their point of view: They know that no matter what happens, if they can find joy in something, then so can everyone else. Everything follows from the team.
That even includes Jeff. He’s still their tour manager. “But do we let him drive us now? No -- fuck, no!” Murr says. “There’s no way he’s driving us anywhere.”