Drawing millions of viewers per episode and spawning spin-offs everywhere from India to Lebanon, Impractical Jokers is a bit of a phenomenon. The TruTV series has taped over 100 episodes over the course of five seasons, and its stars—Brian “Q” Quinn, James “Murr” Murray, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulcano—sold out three nights at Radio City Music Hall this past January.
A prank series where the hosts seek to embarrass each other instead of imposing on random civilians, Impractical Jokers survives not only on the art of humiliation, but on the strength of its pranks, which can range from the subtle to the over the top. Just last night, for instance, Vulcano went through an almost biblical punishment as part of one of the show’s segments, the result of months of planning by the show’s stars and producers. The A.V. Club talked to Vulcano and Quinn about what went down and how it was planned, as well as how Quinn ended up diving into a big pile of horse shit as the result of another recent punishment.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the big punishment from last night’s episode. Q, can you talk about how you guys set that up?
Brian Quinn: We seized upon an opportunity. We were shooting down by Wall Street—there’s an American Indian museum down there—and we told Sal to climb up on one of the statues and grab its nose. It’s completely 100 percent the most childlike, stupidest thing we could imagine him doing. He did it, and we got an angry response from the Department Of Homeland Security that basically said, “Hey man, do us a favor and don’t crawl on any statues in the future. We’re at heightened security. People watch your show, we don’t want them repeating what they see on the show. Please just stop.” That was it.
We’re law-abiding citizens, and we were happy to comply, but we got the idea to blow it up into something bigger with Sal. We started very subtly. We got Pete McPartland, Jr., who’s one of our producers, every once in awhile to be like “I can’t believe that Homeland Security is really taking this so seriously, like they won’t drop the case.” And then he wouldn’t say anything for three weeks.
Sal, did you even notice those when he dropped those in, or was it not even on your radar yet?
Sal Vulcano: No.
BQ: Pete McFarland, our showrunner, is not a guy known for joking around. He’s a very serious, professional individual. Nice guy, but you wouldn’t accuse him of being up to hijinks at any moment.
SV: Pete has an Emmy.
BQ: Yeah, he won an Emmy. People who win Emmys don’t fool around.
SV: We call him Emmy Pete, and we deal with him as such.
BQ: Behind the scenes, the problem is that the more time we have to dogpile ideas on something, the worse something gets. We knew that Sal hates wasting time, so we thought, “Why don’t we make it so that he’s got to answer for this?” Then we’re thought, “Sal also likes money, so let’s hit him with a fine.” So those two things came about. We set up a fake shooting day, and as we got close to the fake shooting day, we canceled the fake shooting day, because Sal had to go in for this hearing. We cast an actress to play someone at the Department Of Homeland Security, and we hid cameras. Let me tell you something, when you’re hiding cameras from someone who works on a hidden camera show, you really have to step up your game. Sal’s no dummy!
SV: I ain’t no dummy.
It just didn’t cross my mind, because we had never done something in this realm yet, which in hindsight is what we’ve been trying to do lately. We always try to evolve the show, and to break new ground within the universe of our show. So we’re always thinking of ideas, so I should have been on higher alert than I was. But it didn’t cross my mind.
I showed up alone to this hearing. Pete met me, but there was no one else in sight. It was on a day we had off. They were fake-texting me from running their own errands and stuff, which I only learned just recently. I didn’t even know when it was revealed, but I only learned just recently that they were actually there and watching me. When I came out of the building that day, I was venting to Pete on the corner alone, and then we parted ways. I didn’t know they were in a van nearby. It was some real A-Team shit.
AVC: Where did you hide the cameras? Was Pete mic’d up?
BQ: Pete was mic’d up. The desk that Sal was sitting at was mic’d up. Again, very risky, because we would expect him to notice these things. We really banked on Sal having his head up his ass.
SV: You exposed the microphones, actually, and one of the cameras, in the guise of [me being] at a deposition, and it needed to be recorded for Homeland Security. So there was one little bolt-like DS camera that certainly looked like it had nothing to do with us, just for recording my testimony, and one microphone that I leaned forward and spoke into, like an actual mic.
BQ: There actually were hidden mics on that table.
SV: I don’t know that! The ones I could see also disarmed me. I was just like, “Okay, this is par for the course.” I didn’t know. There was an air of incompetence in the room, too, and I don’t know how to put my finger on it. I think it was the way she was treating me. It was very dismissive, and it led to, “Well, they must not even want to be here.” It just felt that way. I don’t attribute much to these agencies [Laughs.]—I mean, wait, let me say that over.
BQ: Whoa, whoa, whoa!
SV: I’m wearing my “F Homeland Security T-shirt” right now.
I know it’s Homeland Security, but government agencies have consistently proved themselves to be inefficient at times, like the post office, and things like that. So when I was in there being recorded on this DS camera, I was like, “I guess this is normal.” I didn’t know.
Q, you still haven’t divulged to me where these other cameras and mics were. Really, you guys did a good job at that.
BQ: There was a water bottle that was actually filled with water, and on the label of the bottle that you can’t see inside, was the electronics of a camera. So it looked like a full water bottle but there was actually a tiny camera in the water bottle. It was crazy. I was very impressed with that crew and how they were able to handle it.
Our instructions to the Homeland Security woman were just “Be a bitch to Sal.” Which she did in spades. We were in the next room watching, and I know Sal better than I know just about anybody else on the planet, and I could see on Sal’s face the annoyance at the fact that he couldn’t really say anything because they were threatening to pull our shooting license for the entire city. And if you pull our shooting license for the entire city, we’re screwed. We have no TV show. He was doing the best he could to keep it in check while this woman just harassed him, but I could just see it written all over his face that he was not having it. It was great.
SV: What you had here was the future of the ability to shoot our show in New York City in the balance versus my complete intolerance for incompetence. They were battling each other in that moment. Because she was incompetent. She was building a case against me that had very few merits, and I had to politely defend myself, but a lot of the points she was making were intentionally trying to infuriate me and I had to grit my teeth through it. But I think I got my jabs in.
BQ: Yeah, but not like you would have gotten.
SV: Yeah, I mean, if there was nothing at stake, I would have gotten up and been like, “Good day!” Then she would have went to speak again, and I would have said, “I said good day!” I would have done it.
BQ: So that goes as horribly as it can for poor old Sal. We ran downstairs, and Pete was mic’d up with a camera. Did you know that there are buttonhole cameras, so the button on your shirt is a camera? It’s incredible. We ripped off one of Pete’s buttons and put one of the buttonhole cameras on it. He stood on the street corner and recorded Sal just bitching and complaining about this lady for about 20 minutes while I sat in a van next door laughing my ass off. And, to further get Sal angry, I was texting him shit like, “Man, I’m having a great day off. Woo, this is a relaxing day off!” Stuff like that.
SV: It is a very dangerous precedent to set, though, because what you have here permeates the show and blurs the line between our real lives. If you want to open that can of worms, it’s open season for them, too. I’ve since been plotting my revenge.
Usually, about 90 percent of the punishments are kept secret. It makes for a visceral, palpable reaction from us that day. We’re really are truly in the dark. We play everything as real. It is real. So in order for this to happen, I had to be lied to by our entire extended staff and crew for all those months. It’s not often that you find out that 50 of the people you spend 60 hours a week with have been lying to your face for months. I know it’s for the good of the show, I know what we’re all trying to accomplish, I know this is all meant to be, but it doesn’t take away the human feeling that you’ve been completely thrown to the wolves. The people you trust have been so deceitful. When it was revealed to me, I had a pit in my stomach, and was secretly looking at everyone like, “You low-life son of a bitch.” I love you all and everything, but I secretly wish light harm on everybody.
AVC: Sal, after you did your deposition, did you think you were off the hook?
BQ: We told the woman to tell him that it was not even close to over, that she’s not satisfied with his answers, and that she’ll be following up. We sent a letter a week later saying that Sal—actually, I think we overplayed our hand with this letter, because in the letter, it said that he was possibly fined up to $100,000. I thought that number was a little high. That hit a note in you, right Sal?
SV: Yeah. I still believed it was real, but it was so absurd that it made me take the position of “No effing way.” I was like, “No way I’m paying this, they can all go F themselves.” My body rejected it like it was a virus. If it was a little more plausible, if they were like “You will be fined $2,500,” I would have been mad in a different way. Like, “I can’t believe this is happening, but I’m going to have to cut this check.” But there’s no way my brain would let my hand write a $100,000 check, ever. I rebelled against it.
Q, you did mention something, and I started to realize why this pissed me off the most. You said it in the beginning and it’s so true, but I can’t stand wasting my time. If there’s traffic, I’d rather drive a longer way and get there later than sit in traffic. Time is all I have, you see. Time is all I believe any of us have. My time is literally my most valuable possession. No, time won’t give me time. Time makes lovers feel like they have something real.
BQ: Are you just quoting ’80s songs right now? What are you doing?
SV: That was just the last few sentences. Everything before that was my own feelings.
AVC: So then you guys set up a shooting day in a plaza.
BQ: I remember we set up a shooting day in Union Square. We all got there an hour earlier than Sal. We had the same actress that we cast as the Homeland Security woman to come out. We coached her on how to approach Sal. We hired off-duty cops to dress like off-duty cops. We set up and we started shooting the introduction for the bit for that day, and then these off-duty cops come out of nowhere. Some of them have Department Of Homeland Security windbreakers on, and they’re like, “You have to shut down shooting. Your permits have been taken away.” Then here comes Pete McFarland, doing his shuck-and-jive routine, being like “Ooh, guys, they’re pulling our permit, they’re going to the city, we don’t know, we’re going to have to shoot in Jersey,” and all this other stuff. And I have to say, Sal, you seemed disappointingly unconcerned at that point about our TV show going down the tubes.
SV: No, no, no. What I think it was was that as he was telling me that, they also served me with papers I opened immediately, and they said I had to appear at five more depositions. I had to make five more appearances.
What the guys did was, they went through—we have a group calendar, because we have to synchronize everything we do—and they picked five dates that I had important things to do, like my sister’s wedding, and things like that. And they put those as the dates that I was required by law to be at these events. I think that was in the forefront of my shock more than them saying that there was potential we couldn’t film anymore.
BQ: Credit where credit is due on that one. That was Murray who took the time to go through your personal calendar and start pulling out bad dates for you.
SV: I just started yelling, “I booked airfare!”
BQ: You kept saying, “I booked passage!”
SV: I’m yelling that at a fake F.B.I. agent. In hindsight, you just bought a coat and did a screenprint on it that just said “F.B.I.” And I’m yelling at him, “I booked passage!”
AVC: So you weren’t concerned about the show? You were selfishly concerned about your own flights.
BQ: Is that what you just heard? [Laughs.] That’s what I heard, too.
SV: I was processing it all at one moment. I wasn’t thinking anything, really. I was just kind of in shock a little bit. Or a lot.
I’ll tell you this, I had some choice words to say about—what was her name, Brian?
BQ: I don’t remember.
SV: I think it was like Officer Green?
BQ: Oh, yes! Her fake name was Officer Green.
SV: I am super respectful. I grew up around women. I have three sisters, no brothers. I have four nieces, I’m the godfather to them all. My grandma, I’m very close to them all. But I had some choice words to say about Officer Green that were damning to females all over the world.
AVC: How long did you let Sal steam before you told him it was a ploy?
BQ: We did a good 15, 20 minutes. We could have done more, but really, the whole thing was going to get cut down to six minutes.
So then, Officer Green comes out and sneaks up behind Sal, and me, Joe, and Murray put our arms around her, and we’re just standing there with these shit-eating grins on our faces, waiting for Sal to turn around. And Sal, you didn’t turn around for like three minutes, which is a long time to be standing there, smiling, waiting for someone to turn around. But the look on your face? I don’t have any kids, but I assume when you see the birth of your children, it’s something akin to how I felt when I saw the look on Sal’s face. I love Sal more than I can even say, but for some reason, that translates into loving seeing him confused and upset. Does that make sense?
SV: I mean, that’s what our show is built around, I guess.
BQ: I’ve always said Sal has the soul of a sassy old black woman in young white man’s body. It really comes out when he’s upset and flustered.
SV: All I can say about that is, “Believe dat!”
AVC: To switch to another punishment, Brian, you recently got really creamed in Vegas.
BQ: That was a weird one for me, because basically all they did was put me through a physical gauntlet.
SV: What Brian just said echoes what the show is built around. It’s another perfect example. Completely different, stylistically, punishment-wise, than what happened to me, but it still celebrates the same thing, which is watching him be put out and annoyed. That’s something that Brian doesn’t like. He can’t stand being put out in any way, shape, or form.
BQ: I don’t like being put out, and you know why, Sal? ‘Cause I ain’t got no time, buddy. I don’t have time to be put out all goddamn day for your amusement.
AVC: Brian, what was it about the punishment that you think really got to you? You had to wear a funny costume, and you had to pretend to be a sheriff and go up to some guy. There was also that physical aspect of it, where you got thrown through a window and stuff.
BQ: Here’s the thing about that. At first, I underestimated them. I thought that they had put me in a situation that I’d love. I love Westerns, and Back To The Future III is one of my favorite movies. They dressed up me up like a cowboy, they put me in this town, and I figured, “Okay, ha ha, somebody’s going to shoot me with a water gun filled with horse urine,” or something like that. So foolishly, I was like, “Well, these guys are messed up, they brought me all the way out here to Vegas to dress me up like a cowboy, and I’m living out one of my childhood dreams right now.” They had me walk into a saloon, break up a fight, and I was like, “All right, so far this is great.” Then they started breaking chairs over my head, and breaking bottles over my head. They had this 20-ton gorilla dude pick me up and drag me across a bar, breaking glasses. I had a bartender break a bottle over my head, and I was like, “Touché. Touché. Well played, everybody.” But it had just gotten started.
After they break the bottles over your head, they have to stop shooting, because those breakaway bottles are made of hardened sugar. They went into my scalp, and I essentially had sugar-glass shards in my scalp. I was bleeding from a dozen little cuts on my head.
Sal, I was wondering, when did the scope of it come to you guys, of 10 different things, as opposed to the bar fight? Or was that always the plan?
SV: No, we wanted to heighten it, and we wanted to do exactly that. We want to just keep putting you out worse and worse until you got visibly annoyed.
Sometimes the location can inspire the ideas ahead of time, and we knew we were going to be in Vegas, and so we started scouring local sites to see if anything inspired us, and we found this town. There was a time, like a year or two ago—I don’t know if you know this, Q—but we were going to put you through stuntman training, but it was scary as all hell. It was going to be jumping off a six-story building, we wanted to light you on fire, all this stuff. But we couldn’t get it approved. So that stuck in the back of our heads. Then we found this wild west town, and thought, “Maybe we can do a version of that here.” Then we thought, “Well, it’s not going to be as intense as lighting him on fire and throwing him from a building and all that stuff. So maybe we’ll just celebrate how not that it is. And it will be just more completely annoying stuff.”
Punishment days are the best days, if you’re not getting punished. You show up, you eat some catered food, you hang out, and then you get a front-row seat to watch the other guy be miserable. We were like, “This is great, it’s beautiful out, we’re in Vegas, we’ll get to go to this wild west town, we’ll eat, and we’ll just watch Q be miserable.”
So we got a scope of everything they offered and what the town was like, and we just started throwing ideas at the wall and like, “All right, let’s start it off with an old-fashioned scene. You’ll get a couple of bottles broken over your head, you get dragged across the bar.” Then we’re like, “Let’s break a chair over his head, let’s throw him through a window, let’s try to drown him in a bucket, let’s make him jump into a pile of shit, and then let’s just shoot him.” Once you get the idea, we start brainstorming, and those things add up more quickly than you can imagine. We usually have to take ideas out, because it’s just too much to shoot in one day. But we knew there’d be a moment when your switch flipped from “oh, this is kind of cool,” to “I’m completely over this.”
I also wanted to get you back. I wanted to make you jump into that huge tank of shit because of what you did to me in season one. They took my car keys when I wasn’t looking, and we were at the circus, and they buried it in 25 pounds of elephant shit. And I had to find it. It was 102 degrees that day, and I also have a very weak stomach. If you sneeze or choke, I get freaked out. So it was really bad. I didn’t throw up, thankfully, but I was close to it. It was bad. If you go watch that clip, you’ll see how bad that was. So I’ve been waiting to get you back on that.
And so we were like, “Why don’t we have him get into a shoot-out,” but I was like, “Yeah, but that’s fun though.” And then we talked to the guy that does the squibs, and he said, “That is not fun. They can hurt, they can burn you, it’s scary, it’s really weird.”
BQ: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I didn’t know any of this information. As the guy is putting squibs on me, he’s telling me it’s fine, these are the squibs that Clint Eastwood uses, he insists on these. You’re like Clint Eastwood. And I’m standing there being like, all right, I smell like horseshit, I’m soaked to the bone, I have glass shards in my scalp, but suddenly, this guy’s telling me I’m like Clint Eastwood. I didn’t know it burned.
It also made me look about 20 pounds heavier than I actually am, too. I wasn’t happy about that. I was like, “Come on guys, you can’t give this to me.”
SV: You know what was an unintentional gift for us? When the guy went to go shoot him at first, the propmaster who controlled the squibs, the squibs kept malfunctioning. The guy would shoot Q, and nothing would happen. And you have to understand, our whole crew is there, the employees of the establishment are there, plus we have extras and fans. With something like that, you can invite a crowd and let them in on the secret, because it’s all about us pointing and laughing at Q. There was a nice-sized crowd there, and the squibs did not work the first nine times. It actually took like two hours of Quinn having to stand there waiting to be shot at. And he was getting even more pissed off at that. It won’t make TV, but we were getting so much satisfaction out of it. After the first time, we were like “That’s unfortunate,” and the second time it doesn’t work, we’re like “Oh, this guy should get on this, what’s going on?” The third time it doesn’t work, there’s a mixture of “What the hell?” and also, “Wait, this is starting to get funny.” Then every subsequent time that it didn’t work, everyone was holding their breath right before kind of hoping it didn’t work, because that’s the most funny outcome. Then it wouldn’t work, and everyone was in hysterics, because it was like everything was falling apart but in the best possible way.
BQ: Can I just say something about that? Every time they aimed a gun at me, and the squibs didn’t go off, the firing mechanism on the gun went off, so you got the report, the bang, and the smoke and everything, and we had to do it about 10 times. The guy would pull the trigger at me 10 times, and all I could think about was poor Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, in The Crow. He got shot to death on set. It’s a horrible story, and I don’t want to be the sequel to that horrible story. You know what I mean? Did nobody share that concern but me? I was the only one pouring out 40s for Brandon Lee while this was going on.
SV: You would have been Fat Crow.
BQ: Yeah, I would have been Fat Crow. That’s not the epitaph I want, by the way. Here lies Fat Crow. [Laughs.]
And those, let me tell you, squibs burn, and if you’re not completely fit—I imagine when Clint Eastwood had to squib, he was lean and in shape. I’m not. I have a healthy amount of belly going on. So when this squib went off, it would vibrate my belly fat like Jello so fricking hard that the pain traveled to my spine and back like a fat shockwave. It was horrible. I had bruises.
AVC: How conscious are you of the other guys’ pet peeves when you’re coming up with punishments?
SV: We’re completely conscious of that at all times. Most punishments are derived from that thought process, of “What would this person hate?” Every once in a while, we’ll have an idea just in general. If I have an idea of, “Oh, this would make a good punishment,” before I tell it to any of them, I decide internally if it wasn’t tailored specifically to them from the get-go, I’m generally like, “Oh, this would be good,” then I’ll think, “Well, who would it be best for, and how can we even tweak if further to be better for that person?” Then if I internally decide this works best for Murray, I’ll go to Joe and Brian and I’ll tell them at that point. And it will always remain a secret.
But for the most part at this point it’s like second nature. We’re not even thinking. I don’t sit down anymore, and say, “Let me just think of punishments.” That’s where my head goes in my regular life all the time. When my mind is turning, when I’m driving, when I’m trying to sleep, whatever, I’m getting these thoughts for the show, just in regular life. So they naturally come to me. It’s actually more of an organic process now than it was when we first started, because it’s been our life now for five years. We’re going to be 130 episodes in at the end of this season. So that’s where my mind goes all the time now.
AVC: How do you keep coming up with all this crazy stuff?
SV: Marijuana. Lots of marijuana.
BQ: It’s like what Sal said about the elephant poop. You do get a revenge vibe going after awhile. That’s a lot of it, actually, at this point. But also, the first few seasons no one knew who we were, so there was no reason to trust us, there was no reason to let us shoot in your place. But we shot a punishment this season— or was it last season Sal, with the New Jersey Devils? It just wasn’t possible the first season until people in the Devils’ office were fans of the show. Now, they’re like, “Come on the ice in the middle of a Devils game and torture each other!” So it gets easier. Access provides more ideas, too. Would you agree, buddy?
SV: Yeah, absolutely. The first season, our staff was very stripped down, and most of the onus of the show fell on us completely. I think we had a staff of eight people, including us. It was pretty crazy. We were learning how to make a TV show. We didn’t know. So, as we went along, we realized needs for certain other roles to be filled, and so on and so forth.
At this point, we also have a really great writing staff that we write in tandem with. Most of them are our friends from home, and the other ones are their friends that have become our very close friends. A lot of people say to us, “it must be amazing going to work, and your job is with three of your closest friends,” and it is, but what they don’t realize is that we’ve actually brought on all of our talented friends. They permeate the entire staff and crew of our show. It’s very collaborative. Everyone from our cameraman to our segment producers to our writers, they’re all our friends from back home, from Staten Island, from school, from what not. So it travels even deeper than us knowing each other for that amount, because we’ve all known each other for that amount of time. Even our showrunner right now is someone that I befriended eight years ago on a different show. We became friends and stayed in touch, and then we thought he’d be a good fit, and he’s turned out to be the biggest blessing the show has ever had. Even behind the scenes, we collaborate together. The line is not drawn. If someone from our art department walks up to me, and is like, “Oh my God, dude, I thought of the best thing for Murray,” we are all completely open to that. It makes for a much more fun production and set every single day, because we’re all friends just hanging out and having fun. It really sounds cliché, and it almost sounds unbelievable, but it is unbelievable. I can’t believe it that we have that kind of set up.
BQ: Yeah, when a new person comes on the show for any job, it’s interesting to watch the transition. There are very few barriers between us and the crew. There’s no hierarchy. So everyone has this weird freedom that we’re told by our very experienced crew isn’t a thing on other shows as much. We have, over time, come to pride ourselves on it, and it has created a very family-like atmosphere on the show.
SV: But God help new people. The new people that come in, they get broken in real quick. They have to learn to joke immediately, because it comes at them from every angle.
BQ: Before I did the TV show, I was a fireman with the F.D.N.Y. for about eight years. One of the things about the firehouse is that you’re thrown right in. You have to swim and keep up. Everybody’s busting everybody’s balls. Everybody’s on top of each other. Everybody is just really having a good time while they’re working. I’ve seen the TV show almost take on that sort of firehouse mentality of like, “Listen, only the strong are going to survive. You can’t come on here and not be fun. You can’t come on here and not have a personality.” We encourage you to shine. It’s a great thing to hear people on our show be like, “This is like nothing I’ve ever done before.”