NEW YORK — A paunchy, bearded 41-year-old man nervously paced the floors of a mirror-lined dance studio as the sun set over Manhattan and eight couples showed up for what they thought was a free tango lesson.
“I literally feel like throwing up,” Sal Vulcano said under his breath — and also to the 40-odd people, including his three best friends, secretly stationed in the room next door to watch the scene unfold on hidden cameras.
Sal’s assignment on this December night was to help teach the couples to tango, but also to proposition each of them with an indecent proposal.
“You might want to bend the knees a little bit,” Sal coached one dancer as the class began. “You want to get your feet off the ground.”
“And, by the way, you might want to bang me for money,” cracked Sal’s buddy, Brian Quinn, to the great delight of their two other pals, Joe Gatto and James Murray. Sal, who could hear the guys through a tiny earpiece, had to keep a straight face.
He circled the room before isolating one couple to offer a few tips. And then, sheepishly added: “I myself do swing. . . . In dance — and in life.”
The invitation was met with shock and disgust by the dancers, and peals of shrieking laughter by Sal’s friends. So, it all went according to plan.
This kind of behavior has earned the four men, who’ve known one another since high school, a cable television show called “Impractical Jokers” that airs up to 180 times a week — as well as 3 million followers on Facebook, a national tour and, last month, a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
It is also the kind of behavior one woman says carried her through the sorrow of multiple miscarriages. And that another fan credits with saving her life as she grieved the early loss of her father.
" 'Impractical Jokers' wasn't just funny to me. It filled the void that for so long I thought would never be filled," Michelle Monforto wrote on the website TheOdysseyOnline.com. Laughing at the guys and their antics was, she continued, "the thing that allowed me to be whole again."
Among the least likely candidates to be heroes of this juncture in history are a quartet of adolescent-minded, middle-aged white dudes from Staten Island who spend their days pranking one another.
And yet: If glimmering moments of hilarity are a temporary respite for overwrought American psyches, then it should be said, at least, that these particular white dudes are doing their part.
A decade of false starts
Television executive Marissa Ronca remembers the day she got the pitch for the show. She walked into the room, saw the crowd of guys and felt her heart sink. She’d have to watch the tape in front of them and reject them on the spot. Then they explained their concept: a group of best buddies, challenging one another to do ridiculous things on camera.
"And my heart just sank again," says Ronca, executive vice president of TruTV. "This is one of the most often pitched shows and generally one of the worst shows. Every person thinks that there should be a show about them and their friends. They're so funny."
But Ronca, who says she’s generally “not a huge laugher,” walked out of the room with tears streaming down her face. And, seven years later, she credits those goofballs with changing the very nature of the cable channel.
In 2011, when “Impractical Jokers” debuted, TruTV, a rebranding of CourtTV, was doing mostly fringe, conflict-driven reality shows that took place in pawnshops and swamplands. The show’s success led the channel to reinvent itself again, adopting the slogan “Way More Fun” and developing shows with comedians such as Billy Eichner and Amy Sedaris.
Meanwhile the guys, who go by one-syllable nicknames — Sal, Joe, Q and Murr — have attracted fans who watch their show on repeat and spend hundreds of dollars to see them in person. Which astonishes no one more than the Impractical Jokers themselves.
“I still think this might be a seven-year dream right now,” Murr says. “I’m still waiting to wake up.”
Even for a dream, it’s a stretch. What teenage boy who loves to bust his buddies’ chops would imagine he could make a killing doing it? These guys didn’t. But here they are.
The four met in 1990 at Monsignor Farrell High School, where they were not, actually, the class clowns.
“Everybody wants me to say that what you see on TV is what they acted like in high school,” says Rosaria Lanza, a former Spanish teacher at the Catholic school. “They were extremely respectful, intelligent, diligent, hard-working — all the good stuff.”
They also weren’t best friends, but the four ran in overlapping circles and joined the same improv comedy group their junior year.
After college they all found themselves back in the New York area and still interested in comedy. So, in 1999, they formed a troupe called the Tenderloins. (Q was only an occasional guest, though he later joined officially, and another high school friend dropped out.) For six months they’d practice three hours a night, three nights a week in Joe’s mother’s basement. Eventually they put on a show for friends and family. Soon they were performing monthly, then weekly.
They entered comedy festivals and began putting clips on YouTube. In 2005, the Tenderloins won more than $100,000 in a competition for an NBC sketch-comedy show that never aired. There were other false starts and near misses and television pilots that didn’t get picked up.
There were also bills to pay and careers that demanded attention. Sal owned a bar; Q was a firefighter; Murr worked in TV production; and Joe, oddly enough, sold high-end baby furniture.
After 10 years of tremendous fun and so many stumbles, they started to think it was time to hang it up.
‘Friendship on display’
“We had this moment of, ‘Do we keep going or do we stop?’ ” Murr recalls.
Over lunch in the New York apartment Murr and Joe shared, the four decided to give it one last shot. Murr knew that hidden-camera shows were selling well, though they hated the usual format.
“We came up with the idea of an upside-down hidden-camera show where the joke is on us, instead of the public. So it takes away the thing people hate about hidden-camera shows, which is, ‘Oh, I feel bad for the people getting pranked,’ ” Murr says. “We’re messing with each other. The public is just there to witness our embarrassment.”
They shot a demo on their cellphones and showed it to their agent who said, “It’s really funny, but you guys are too old for TV.”
Ronca at TruTV disagreed. The cable channel executives ordered eight episodes to start and then, before those even aired, ordered eight more. Slowly the guys felt confident enough — and exhausted enough — to quit their day jobs.
Once it debuted, fans kept coming back and the guys are now filming their seventh season. In each episode, the foursome challenge one another to put themselves into awkward situations. Sal had to continually raise a patient's chair up and down while pretending to be a dental assistant. Murr had to eat ribs while giving a woman a pedicure. Joe and Q had to make noises in a library to see who would get shushed first. Whoever is deemed the loser — which is usually the one who couldn't work up the nerve to do or say whatever absurd thing the others asked — is given a punishment. If they don't complete the punishment, they have to quit the show, which is why Q once spent 24 hours handcuffed to a mime and how Sal ended up with a tattoo of a pensive-looking Jaden Smith.
The show’s humor is decidedly, unabashedly juvenile. Producers say it reminds viewers not just how they acted as kids, but how they engage with the people who know them best and longest.
“They do make you want to hang out with your friends,” Ronca says. “And it’s that chemistry they have — it just comes right through the screen.”
Of the four men, only Joe is married, and he has two children. The guys have spent so much time together over the past two decades that they know one another’s secrets and sensitivities — and are delighted to exploit them on air.
“Literally, our show is friendship on display. It’s not a written comedy show. It’s not a reality show,” Joe says. “It’s just four friends making each other laugh. And who doesn’t enjoy watching people enjoy their friends?”
The men find so much joy in torturing one another that their laughter occupies almost as much screen time as the actual pranks. “I think we reinvented the laugh track,” Murr says. “Us laughing in the back and screwing with the guy on the floor gives the audience permission to laugh.”
Perhaps everyone needs that shot of diversion. Especially now. Onstage at Madison Square Garden, Sal told the audience they were “literally witnessing dreams come true.”
And later, as the show came to a close, he posited a theory behind their success: “In this day and age, when no one can agree on anything, I think it’s important that people can come home and turn on the TV and have some good old-fashioned laughs.”
So, one day soon, fans will watch him sweat and stutter, working up the nerve to ask unsuspecting dance students to sleep with him for money. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he said when it was over.
But of course, there’s nothing he — or any of them — would rather be doing.