As a best-selling horror novelist, James Murray spends a lot of time dreaming up terrifying scenarios.
But to him, there’s nothing he could imagine that would be scarier than hanging out with his three best friends. And for good reason.
Best known as one of the stars of TruTV’s hit show Impractical Jokers, Murray has been strapped atop a plane while it did stunts, been forced to interview actress Danica McKellar—his childhood celebrity crush—while wearing an American flag Speedo, and made to get a tattoo of a skydiving ferret, all at the behest of his longtime friends and co-stars.
It comes with the territory on Impractical Jokers, which features Murray, Joe Gatto, Sal Vulcano and Brian “Q” Quinn competing in hidden-camera missions designed to push the participants beyond their comfort level—and occasionally common decency. Whoever fails to do the most tasks gets “punished” by the three winners with an even-more-extreme challenge that the loser must do.
It might be scary stuff for Murray, but the show—which started filming its ninth season Sept. 10—has catapulted the four friends to celebrity and spawned multiple TV shows, national tours, a movie and even a fan cruise.
“Just to have a show that goes this many years, I think that we don’t take it for granted, ever,” Murray said. “It is astounding to me what has been able to be built from it. I think it’s a combination of the guys and I still being invested in it 100%, and having the right team of people around us that help us come up with these ideas.”
Murray, 44, has been busy away from his role with Impractical Jokers, too. He moved to Princeton last year, a relocation that also saw him purchase his first car. (“Think about that—44, I’ve never owned a car in my life until I bought the house. It’s crazy, right?” Murray jokes.) He married Melyssa Davies Sept. 25 in a ceremony scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And he has been growing his reputation and his catalogue as an author.
Murray, along with co-author Darren Wearmouth, published the final book in his Awakened trilogy in June. The pair’s fourth book, Don’t Move—the tale of a West Virginia camping trip gone awry—will be released Tuesday, Oct. 20. Then, the writing team has another standalone book called The Stowaway due out June 2021, with young adult series Interns of Area 51 hitting stores starting the end of 2021.
Out this month, Don’t Move is an indirect result of the pandemic. When COVID-19 caused the New York metro area to shut down, it shelved filming for Impractical Jokers as well as a national tour of live comedy shows. It left Murray with a lot of time to write in his new house.
Being stuck at home also made Murray acutely aware that he had never lived anywhere other than densely populated cities before moving to Princeton Township. Murray grew up in Staten Island, went to college at Georgetown University in Washington, and later moved to Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The idea that it’s dark, lonely and sometimes scary away from the city had been bouncing around Murray’s head since his first night in Princeton. It wasn’t until that first night that he noticed how dark it got on his property and how the darkness lent the trees there a different aura. It scared him a bit initially, but he shook the feeling and went to bed.
When morning came, Murray had another surprise.
“I remember the first night we slept in Princeton,” Murray said. “I woke up the next morning, and the back door was open. Just wide open. I must not have locked it correctly because in a Manhattan apartment, when the door closes it’s bolted shut. In the suburbs, you’ve got to lock everything, and the door was open. I lost it, man. I was so scared.”
This fear got his imagination working, and several months later, the shutdown gave him time to put the idea to paper. The result is Don’t Move.
The novel follows Megan Forrester as she grapples with the trauma of witnessing her husband and son die in a horrific accident and the guilt of knowing she could have done more to save them. In an attempt to heal herself, Megan joins a local church group on a camping trip to West Virginia. The group makes a navigational mistake, leaving them stranded in an untouched canyon. The canyon also happens to be home to a large, hungry arachnid that can stalk its prey through even the slightest movement or vibration.
In her attempts to survive, Megan draws on her professional experience managing the logistics at Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx, a massive operation that requires a keen attention to detail. Murray borrowed the idea from a show he created on Hunts Point in his pre-Jokers career in TV development.
“It was important to me that she has skills and possesses an inner strength that the average person doesn’t have to figure out a seemingly impossible puzzle,” Murray said. “You’re being surrounded slowly by all sides, you’re cornered in the forest. It’s a logistical nightmare. How do you get out?”
Murray’s TV development background comes in handy while writing, too, approaching his novels as if they are scripts for television shows. It’s a vivid, descriptive style that’s apparent from the first page of Don’t Move.
“My style of writing is very much cliffhanger endings, fast-paced visuals, action packed, punchy dialogue, definitive action sequences,” Murray said. “It’s written like a TV show or like a TV treatment, like I was selling a TV show. It grabs you in Chapter One, and I like that the pace is unrelenting and you are on board for the characters. It’s almost like reading the best episode of the TV show 24. Some of those episodes, man, they freaking got you, and you just couldn’t stop watching. It’s so catchy.
“That’s the way I think we write, too. You get to the end of the chapter, and you’re like, ‘I have to see what happens.’ Just like you have to come back from a commercial break.”
The experience developing and pitching TV shows provides one last thing that Murray believes is an advantage: extra perspective on how lucky he is to do what he’s doing.
The company he worked for—NorthSouth Productions—produced shows like Say Yes To The Dress: Atlanta and Say Yes To The Dress: Bridesmaids. So, Murray saw what can happen to a business and the people who work there when their shows are successful. But far more often, he saw the opposite result.
“I knew in my mind it could happen,” Murray said. “When it works, it can really work. But 99% of the time, it doesn’t. Most shows get cancelled in the first couple episodes, in the first season, and never make it past that. So, it’s very, very rare.”
This unlikely success—and the potential for it to disappear any moment—inspire him to make the most of the opportunity, even if that means writing multiple books, moving, planning a wedding and filming multiple TV shows and a movie at the same time.
One anecdote in particular motivates him. Murray said he wrote his first novel Awakened 17 years ago, before Impractical Jokers had started. No one would read the manuscript or even meet with him about the book until Jokers hit it big.
Now, he has a team of people to help make his projects happen—to secure a meeting with a publisher, to pitch a novel, to get it sold—and a fan base who will read them.
Like his writing career, Murray’s comedy career only took off after years of false starts. Murray, Gatto, Vulcano and Quinn formed The Tenderloins comedy troupe after they graduated from college in the late 1990s, and tried and failed for years to get a TV deal. Murray wound up pitching the concept of Impractical Jokers to his bosses at NorthSouth Productions, who agreed to produce the show.
Now a decade later, the quartet have three TV shows: Impractical Jokers and Impractical Jokers Dinner Party on TruTV and game show The Misery Index on TBS.
“Imagine 15 years of not succeeding,” Murray said. “And then finally succeeding. So, I’m gonna run with it, you know?”
This success also indirectly led him to Princeton. Murray said he has always loved the town, particularly for the restaurants and culture in downtown Princeton. He had some time to explore the area the past few years, thanks to book signings at Barnes and Noble in West Windsor. The trips made an impression.
When it came time for him and Davies to settle down, Princeton immediately came to mind. As a bonus, the town was halfway between her family in Philadelphia and his in New York.
They found a listing for a house, toured it and put an offer in the next day. They never looked at another house. Murray said they didn’t even do any research, and he sometimes feels like fortune led him to the home.
The couple has been further familiarizing itself with the area. They had their engagement dinner at Mistral in Princeton, have become regulars at Witherspoon Grill and La Mezzaluna and started exploring new eateries. They recently tried the Peacock Inn for the first time.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God that I’m here,” Murray said in mid-September. “I look outside, and it’s fresh air and trees. Take the puppy on a hike, or go kayak in town. We go to Witherspoon Grill, and have a couple pineapple cosmos. On Sunday, we went to Hopewell Valley Vineyards, and that was great, too. It’s great. We love it.”
Wife, house in the suburbs, a car and a puppy—it’s a life Murray never thought he’d live, and neither did his Jokers co-stars.
It became a joke among his three friends that, until recently, they had no idea what Murray’s life was like because their lives were so different. While Gatto, Vulcano and Quinn had hour commutes and homes outside the city, Murray lived in a Manhattan apartment and could make it to and from the Impractical Jokers set in 10 minutes by bicycle. And once home, Murray was single and had the time and the freedom to enjoy all Manhattan had to offer. His co-stars couldn’t relate.
They immortalized the inside joke by including a running gag in Impractical Jokers: The Movie, where the guys—on a New York-to-Miami road trip—would knock on Murray’s hotel room door each night only to find zany things behind it when Murray answered.
“Now my life has kind of normalized a bit,” Murray said. “But that’s the gag in the movie—the guys for the past 10 years are like, ‘What the hell does Murray do?’”
The movie, by the way, is one of the few that has been released in theaters in 2020, a fact that has not escaped Murray.
“It came out in theaters two weeks before theaters shut down. Somebody joked with me recently that just because of the nature of the world, since we were the last comedy to come out in 2020—there’s only a few movies that came out before us in 2020—we have a chance of winning an Academy Award. A win by forfeit is still a win, my friend.”
As much as an Oscar win would alter life for Murray, the pandemic already has changed things for the Impractical Jokers TV show and forced the team to adapt. In the spring, they launched Impractical Jokers Dinner Party, a TV show filmed via Zoom where the four Jokers eat dinner together from the safety of their respective homes. The format highlighted their friendship perhaps even more than the original show, and was a ratings success. It ranked as cable’s No. 1 new unscripted comedy series, with WarnerMedia ordering 10 additional episodes, to be aired this fall.
With Impractical Jokers itself now resuming filming in a distanced world, Murray and his friends have been faced with another challenge. The show—the No. 1 unscripted comedy on television—largely relies on strangers’ genuine reactions and interactions with the four stars. How do they adjust to the realities of a pandemic without losing what has made Jokers work?
“It’s been an amazing ride and an interesting, fun challenge to keep evolving the show not just creatively over the past 10 years but also the past six months,” Murray said. “How do we envision Jokers in the new world? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I think it’s working really well.”
Murray said the show has found success in the past going with the flow and taking advantage of the opportunities that come along the way. The fan cruise, for example, came to be after The Tenderloins filmed an episode of Impractical Jokers aboard a cruise ship filled only with fans of the pop rock band Train. They wondered, “If Train can pull this off, could we?”
They tried it, and had thousands of people sign up. They’ve done four fan cruises to-date now.
“A lot of the opportunities just come like that,” Murray said. “It’s born out of the moments of inspiration or somebody simply saying, ‘I wonder if we can do that.’ So it’s been a wild ride, man.”
Murray said he’s enjoyed the wild ride, but whatever he’s working on—whether a novel or a hidden-camera TV show—he finds the most satisfaction knowing his work allows people to take a break from the stresses of the world.
“We need more things in this world that bring people together and show the good of the world,” Murray said. “I think what the guys and I are trying to do is make Jokers an island of positivity in what can be a very cynical world. We hope that by laughing at us, it makes your life just a little bit better.”
James Murray’s latest novel, “Don’t Move,” from Blackstone Publishing, will be available Tuesday, Oct. 20 in hardcover, e-book and audio formats. For an autographed book and an invite to a virtual launch party with Murray, go online to meetmurr.com.