The merch stand at the Borgata’s Music Box theater in Atlantic City, New Jersey is buzzing. Fans—some of whom drove four hours up the East Coast to get here—are pushing towards the booth, trying to get their hands on T-shirts and hoodies. Despite what the scene resembles, neither Kanye West nor Drake just finished performing. These people are here trying to score swag because of four unlikely celebrities, a comedy quartet from Staten Island, New York better known as the Impractical Jokers. Joe Gatto, James Murray, Sal Vulcano, and Brian Quinn may not be household names, but they’ve turned into truTV’s golden boys thanks to their self-titled hit show. Deep into its fifth season (the finale, and a two-hour live special with Travis Pastrana's Nitro Circus, air on Nov. 3 starting at 8 p.m.), Impractical Jokers is the network’s highest rated series. The four men, lifelong friends who also go by the alias “The Tenderloins,” are delivering a throwback kind of humor far removed from comedy’s current penchant for irony. And while the group may never be labeled “cool,” the numbers don’t lie: people are digging the Impractical Jokers.
For those who haven’t seen the show, the premise is simple: One of the guys is sent out into the streets with an earpiece, while the other three watch from afar and flood their friend’s ear with challenges. While innocent bystanders look on, the victim is forced to do ridiculous, hilarious things; if he chickens out, he’s subjected to even more awkward (and sometimes painful) “punishment” at the end of an episode. In season 3, Murray had to get his nipples pierced. Eleven episodes later, Vulcano had to get a picture of Jaden Smith’s face tattooed on his thigh.
The thing about Impractical Jokers is at first glance, it shouldn’t be your favorite show. There’s no A-list celebrity talent, no good-looking reality TV stars flush with scandals. These four guys, in their dad jeans and nondescript button-ups, definitely aren’t looking to go viral, but their appeal is undeniable. The group’s chemistry and lived-in camaraderie is magnetic; the warm feeling you get watching them mess with each other makes the show that much funnier. As these guys put their friends in impossibly awkward situations, you feel like you’re in the booth watching with them. In a world where high-minded dramas and scripted reality shows are king, the Jokers’ low-brow, on-the-spot humor is a winning formula. And if you were ever skeptical of just how authentic the comedy is, spend any time talking with them in person, and it quickly becomes clear that they make themselves laugh even harder than their viewers are.
We're way past the Punk'd era, and even further removed from Candid Camera. Why do you think Impractical Jokers has lasted so many seasons?
James Murray: Because we remind people of friends they have or had growing up, and we remind them of the stuff they used to do when they were young. I think people get that the joke is on us, not on the public. I would watch Punk'd or Candid Camera—I love the shows, but also I would feel bad about the people that were getting pranked. We're the ones getting pranked, so the show is a nicer version of those shows, I think.
Joe Gatto: We're barely a prank show, in my opinion. We don't consider it that, we don't call our stuff pranks. The challenges that we do are more social experiments that put each other in awkward situations. Nothing's been really done to [the public], they're more an instrument of embarrassment.
Murray: It's our reactions that matter.
The refreshing thing about you guys, and I mean this in the best way possible, is that you seem like you’re unconcerned with “catching cool.”
Gatto: We can't catch it. No matter how hard we run.
That sometimes seems to be the foundation of reality TV, so that’s rare...
Sal Vulcano: I think it's just inherent to our friendship, really, and also our age. We're not MTV, we're not teenagers. We kind of have a little bit more of an idea of who we are and what our comedy is because we've been doing it for so long. The show is just basically a mirror of our lives, and the goal was to stay true to that.
Murray: I want to go on record as saying that I am chasing cool. [Laughs.]
Vulcano: Also, we're comedians. We're not trying to make a reality show at all. The show gets described sometimes as a reality show, sometimes as a prank show. I think it's neither. It's just about us, and it's just about us having a platform to be funny and do comedy, really.
All of the great bands—from the Beatles to Dipset to *NSYNC—break up. You guys have been friends together for 26 years. How does your bond stay strong?
Murray: Well, we wanted to announce here, first on Complex, that we are breaking up.
Gatto: Now it's awkward. [Laughs.]
Brian Quinn: That's interesting. I've been reading a lot of biographies lately, of Monty Python, Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello. I've been trying to research that—why they break up. It always seems to be ego.
Vulcano: It's ego.
Quinn: It's never money, it's always ego. And we don't really run into that problem, just because it's the four of us and we've been friends so long. None of us are really singled out as like, the star of the show, you know what I mean? Nobody's in anybody's shadow.
Are you guys a package deal through and through?
Murray: I'll take that one! We do independent stuff, too. Like, Sal and I were on an episode of Bones. Q and I did 12 Monkeys last season, Sal and Joe are doing it this season. We have solo interests, but we love working together. We'll keep working together for a long time to come.
Gatto: We have other aspirations as a group, as well. We like to produce other shows that don't have us in it, that's a big thing. We're chasing that.
Murray: And we're hoping one day to do a movie. A Jokers movie—that'd be fun.
Who's the biggest celebrity fan of the show that you know of?
Gatto: Steve Carell was a big one for me.
Murray: We heard Jim Carrey.
Quinn: Jeff Daniels.
Murray: Britney Spears.
Vulcano: Blake Griffin, too! That was cool.
Do you guys feel like the show is labeled as a guilty pleasure? Have you heard that a lot?
Gatto: Oh yeah.
And are you guys fine with that or what?
Quinn: Checks still clear. [Laughs.]
Quinn: I get it, I get why they're saying it. It's not progressing society. We're just goofing off with our friends. I don't say it’s a time-waster though because time laughing is time well spent.
Murray: You know what's been weird? We get letters a few times a year from people that write papers on the show. You know, like, "Oh, my psychology or my cultural studies class—this is my term paper." Somebody wrote it as their thesis, about the social experiment of the show, because the show is a reflection of what's going on in culture.
Gatto: It's so odd, we either get that it's a guilty pleasure or "You saved my life, thank you." You know, people come up to you, their opening sentence could be anything from, "You're a fat asshole!" to "Oh, my daughter died of cancer. Thank you for making me laugh again.” You have to be able to feel both of those receptions. It's really weird.
Quinn: Yeah, you didn't handle that well, because you told her her daughter was a fat asshole. [Laughs.]
Gatto: That’s right, I put it right back on her. She said, “My daughter died of cancer.” I said, “Doesn’t matter, she was a fat asshole.”
Sal, we need to talk about the Jaden Smith tattoo—
Vulcano: We actually met him at Comic Con. He was actually wearing a Batman suit, the one that he wore to Kim and Kanye’s wedding. We thought it was just somebody, and when he got up to us we realized it was him. And this was right after I got the tattoo, so we were all like, this is too serendipitous. I have to show it to him. But the episode hadn't aired yet, so we were afraid that if he had an adverse reaction to it, he'd be like, "I don't think that's funny, I don't like that," and stop us from putting it on TV. But he was really cool about it. He actually taped it—he has him seeing it for the first time on tape. He was like, "Oh my God!!!" We thought we might become best friends with him after that, and we've never heard from him ever again. [Laughs.]
Who are you more focused on impressing, your fans, yourselves, or the comedy community?
Quinn: I don't even think about the comedy community at all.
But do you guys consider yourselves part of it?
Vulcano: The comedy community has embraced us, wholeheartedly. People that are more in the public and celebrity, but even stand-ups, sketch people on SNL, those people—and it's been wonderful to have them embrace it. But I think for us, the barometer of the show is what we think might be funny.
Murray: Our goal is just to make each other laugh. If we can make each other laugh, then we know. We hope that people will respond to it in the same way we do.