Comedy troupe the Tenderloins are having a moment.
This month finds the “Impractical Jokers” in a wonderful place. They took to the sea Feb. 10, on their fourth cruise; three days later their truTV show celebrates its 200th episode; their movie opens Feb. 21. And they recently announced six weeks of arena dates for “The Scoopski Potatoes Tour.”
Not bad for goofballs who delight in cracking up each other. The four have been doing that since meeting as freshmen at Staten Island’s Monsignor Farrell High School. Sure, the pranks are more elaborate now. And they haven’t done all on their wish list. (They still want to speak out when the wedding officiant asks if anyone has objections and have considered crashing the receiving line at a funeral, for example.)
But even when good sense prevails, their authenticity remains.
“The reason the show works is we get to be ourselves,” says Joe Gatto.
Fans and colleagues agree.
The premise is deceptively simple: Four guys — Sal Vulcano, Brian “Q” Quinn, James Murray and Gatto — pull hidden-camera pranks. The joke, however, is always on them. The unwitting public interacts with one prankster, while the others whisper increasingly nuttier instructions into an earpiece. Fail a challenge, and he must take the punishment doled out by the others at the episode’s end.
“We punch sideways,” Quinn says. “We are our own marks.”
The group has thrived for two simple reasons: They make people feel good, and they’re funny. In an increasingly nasty world, their humor is silly, not dirty or mean. Murray recalls receiving letters from fans who said three generations watch “Impractical Jokers” as a family. “That changed the show fundamentally,” he says.
It’s a raw day just before Christmas when the four gather in a Chelsea studio to shoot publicity photos for “Impractical Jokers: The Movie.” Their banter isn’t one of those rehearsed, “oh-we-all-became-a-family-on-set” gush-fests. No, this is the genuine deal, friendships forged over three decades.
“It was an all-boys school, and we had nothing to do but focus on each other and making each other laugh,” Quinn says of the early days.
No one was crazy enough to think this could turn into a career. Before the Tenderloins took off, Vulcano worked on Wall Street, then bought a bar; Murray was in television development; Quinn was a New York City firefighter for eight years — a job he kept through the show’s first two seasons — and Gatto worked in an upscale children’s furniture store, where he once assembled cribs for Elvis Costello’s babies.
“We punch sideways. We are our own marks.”
Brian “Q” Quinn
For 11 years, they played tiny clubs. “We would sell 200 tickets,” Vulcano recalls.
“And 198 of them were to family members,” Gatto says.
During the first season of “Impractical Jokers,” they quickly learned what worked and adjusted. “We let the show breathe more,” Vulcano says. “We focused on the comedy from a broadcast point. It became more stylized and interactive. We got more people on board.”
Among them is Casey Jost. Another Monsignor Farrell alum, although nine years younger than the gang, Jost was taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade when he met Vulcano. “We would watch each other do standup and hang out,” Jost says. “I had known about the Tenderloins. Before they were famous, they were Staten Island famous.”
Jost began as a PA on “Impractical Jokers,” became a writer and is now a supervising comedy producer. Though the Tenderloins remain the core four, most people who work with them stay.
“Impractical Jokers” sold to truTV “even though it didn’t feel like a fit, it wound up guiding truTV toward comedy,” says Simmy Kustanowitz, vice president development and original programming at TBS, TNT and truTV. “It was our comedic pioneer.”
The series consistently delivers ratings. In the second half of Season 8, now airing, it reaches 731,000 viewers over a week. While much of the show appears improvised, the challenges are mapped out.
“It is very similar to a live sporting event or a live taped show where there is an idea of what is going to happen, but there are lots of people who need to be told what to do while it is happening,” says Andrew Hood, director of most episodes.
Insurance is secured based on individual challenges, and anyone participating signs a release.
Every so often, though, someone does refuse. Gatto recalls a challenge at Ikea, where a man climbed into an armoire with him. The guy was furniture-shopping with a woman, except she was not his wife. That scenario happened again — at Ikea.
Gatto grasped the lesson: “All cheaters shop for Swedish discount furniture.”
Also unseen? Security. There was a huge, furious man on whom Murray attempted to try a bra in Season 7. He was not amused. “Within seconds, our security and producers were there to intervene,” says Marina Catala, an executive producer on the show for seven years. “He was such a big guy, and clearly, violence was there behind his eyes. That was the only time that ever happened.”
The rest of the time, especially in New York, where most scenes are shot, people take the Tenderloins in stride. Luckily, there are plenty of folks who still don’t recognize them. “While we love our fans, it is not beneficial to have fans watch because that blows our cover,” says showrunner Pete McPartland.
“The reason the show works is we get to be ourselves.”
That fandom reaches beyond New York. The show has traveled a handful of times, and in the U.K., some 2,500 fans showed up at a soccer stadium just a couple of days after their appearance was announced. The guys are genuinely surprised by their popularity. Jeff Daniels, Steve Carell, Chrissy Teigen and Paul McCartney count themselves fans. Paul Rudd emailed Quinn to ask his opinion on the “Ghostbusters” trailer. It still all seems a bit surreal to guys who practiced in Gatto’s mom’s basement.
As successful as “Impractical Jokers” is as a cottage industry, each has outside interests. Gatto is producing, Quinn bought a brewery, Murray writes books, Vulcano does standup. As for personal lives, Gatto is the only one who’s married, with kids. Murray is engaged, Vulcano is in a relationship and Quinn says, “I live alone with three cats.”
But even juggling all this, they’re looking to expand. “We have had a number of spinoffs, and an afterparty hosted by beloved Joey Fatone,” says Charlie DeBevoise, CEO and founder NorthSouth Prods., the group’s production company from the start. “We are looking to work on that format a bit more, bring in a little more firepower on the creative side to build that out. We have had a skit show that was not as well received.”
“Impractical Jokers,” however, could go on indefinitely, all say. The Feb. 13 two-hour 200th episode special features clips from their greatest hits during the first hour and in the second, they head to Los Angeles for new challenges and surprise guests.
Their Caribbean cruise — with 3,000 fans — is also a unique venture. Rather than just standing on a stage and delivering a comedy show, their fans become a part of the action and experience. While they show videos aboard the ship, for example, the audience “is chanting the lines from the show and dressed like us,” Vulcano says.
“It’s like we are throwing a party,” Gatto adds.
One that started back when they wore school uniforms and couldn’t drink legally.
“I didn’t think we would make it past the first season,” Murray admits.
So, after eight seasons and more than 1,500 ideas, what’s next?
“People’s Sexiest Men Alive,” Gatto deadpans.