You may know him from the hit truTV show Impractical Jokers, which is entering its ninth season this month, but James Murray is also a published author. His best-selling novel, Awakened, is available in bookstores and online and is the beginning of a trilogy. The second novel in the trilogy, The Brink, was released in June and is also available in bookstores and other online retailers, such as Amazon.
Having recently read (and really enjoyed; I recommend picking it up if you’re a fan of creatures-in-the-dark sci-fi horror) Awakened after stumbling upon it in an airport bookstore, I reached out to James’s publisher to set up an interview. During the interview, we chatted about (among other things), James’s novels and how they came to fruition, how he got started writing, what his father thought of him being on Impractical Jokers, and exactly how the show got its start.
Oh yeah, before we get to the interview, there are some minor spoilers ahead about the Awakened trilogy and the upcoming season of Impractical Jokers. Be warned!
Scott (GNN): So, I’m here talking to author and cast member of the show Impractical Jokers, James Murray. I’ll get started by saying that I’m a fan of the show, but I didn’t even realize that you hadn’t written a book until I was in an airport bookstore and I came across your first novel, Awakened. I read the description and it sounded really good, and then I saw your picture at the bottom and was blown away. Do you find that most people are fans of the show (Impractical Jokers) and go pick up your book, or do they read the book and find out you’re on TV?
James Murray (JM): Most people are fans of the show and know that I wrote two books. You know what I mean? I think they start as Jokers fans and they read the book and like, “Oh. This is really good,” and they leave being book fans as well.
GNN: That’s awesome…it’s good that people are picking up books. I haven’t read the second book, The Brink, yet, but Awakened was really good. I look forward to reading the second novel.
JM: Yeah. The second one is even better. The second one’s great because I wrote the first one 15 years ago…before Impractical Jokers. I spent a year writing it at home and I was pretty much unemployed, and I spent a year writing it, and I couldn’t get anybody to read it. I wasn’t on TV. I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t know anybody in the business, so literally, I sent it out to every publisher, and it got returned to me unopened. And, so, it sat on my computer for a decade and a half, if you can imagine! So, The Brink, the second one, obviously, I wrote end of last year, so presumably I’m 15 years smarter than when I wrote the first one, which is a big stretch, but I like to think I am, and I think it’s even better. I think you’ll love it. And we’re writing book three right now.
GNN: So, have you always enjoyed writing? I read that you majored in English at Georgetown, so was writing a thing you always wanted to do, or was writing a book just sort of a thing you did to cross off your bucket list?
JM: Yeah, I always loved writing, creative writing. I hated writing papers, but I always liked creative writing. I mean, writing comedy, thrillers…I always loved that stuff. And I’ve tried writing– over the years, I’ve tried writing—but Awakened was the first book I ever tried to write. And The Brink is the second book. But I always tried writing sketches and screenplays and things like that. And yeah, I always loved it. But, I mean, I also love, as much, if not more, performing too, especially comedy. So, it’s all kind of all part of the same creative pool, I guess.
GNN: As an English major myself, it’s great to see another English major get published and be successful. So, you enjoy performing and you enjoy writing…what was your ultimate life or career goal?
JM: From when I was a kid, even before high school, I enjoyed comedy. To be on TV or movies. Always, even in high school, the guys would say that I’ve had a singular obsession my entire life. And it was to create something that would affect millions of people. I love writing…even though my father wasn’t necessarily a big fan of my career choice (Laughs). He’s like, “Why did I pay for Georgetown for you to be sitting at home in the city writing a book?” It’s not exactly the same career path he would have chosen, or did choose, in his life. So, sometimes it’s a parent’s tough pill to swallow, but it worked out in the end. There you go (Laughs).
GNN: So, when the book came out, did you finally get to show him that his hard-earned money paid off?
JM: Well, I tell you, when the TV show came on the air, and then the guys and I started touring, even then I could feel like he wasn’t necessarily…I still had a day job. My job for 10 years, even during Jokers, was I was the SVP of development for a TV company. My job was literally to create and sell TV shows. So, in that time, I’d written probably 2,000 treatments for TV shows, and pitched that many in 10 years; TV development is a lot of writing. And even during Impractical Jokers for the first three seasons or four seasons, he was always telling me, “Don’t give up your day job. Don’t stop doing that,” because at least that one had an office and a desk. For a guy of that generation that seemed real and tangible. I get a weekly check and the company has a 401k and I have an office and a phone number you can call me at. And that seems real. The TV show never seems real to him even though he’s been on TV! I think, finally, maybe during season four when the tour was really taking off, I think we had sold out a couple of nights at Radio City. And season five or six, when the book came out, he was finally like, “Maybe it was okay.” It was all a good moment.
GNN: Yeah, I remember him being on one episode saying something like, “I sent you to Georgetown.” It was during one of your punishments…
JM: Yes. I think I was on the front lawn of his house getting shot with paintballs by the other Jokers while wearing a centaur outfit. And it’s very funny, right? Like if you compare [my life with the other Jokers], right, like the guys who went to local colleges. Q [Brian Quinn from Impractical Jokers] dropped out of college and went on to work as a tollbooth collector. Obviously, he was a fireman for many years, but he was a tollbooth collector. At one point, I think he sold ice cream, and used to make like metal signs that are on the sides of telephone poles. I went to Georgetown, spent a lot of money, had a 4.0 average. I was valedictorian, salutatorian, I did well in school, and him and I make the exact same amount of money (Laughs).
GNN: And you had to wear a wig made out of his hair for an entire season…
JM: Yeah. The indignity!
GNN: So, I kinda’ jumped ahead and mentioned how I discovered your novel, Awakened, but we never talked about it. Can you give the readers an overview of what the book’s about?
JM: Sure. Sure. Awakened is essentially about the mayor of New York and his wife. They build this brand-new train underneath the East River. It’s called the Z Train. And they build this gorgeous, underwater visitors’ pavilion, this glass, steel, super high tech and modern. It’s like the hub where all the trains meet. The mayor’s obsessed with completing this project. When the pavilion opens, it’s the inaugural run of the train and in the pavilion is the mayor, the president of the United States, press covering the event. On the train itself are 100 lucky New Yorkers that kind of won the lottery to ride the train for the first time. The mayor’s wife is on the train. When the train rolls into the underwater pavilion all the passengers, including the mayor’s wife, are missing. The cars are covered in blood and there’s a singular crimson handprint on the glass and the mayor goes into a panic, he doesn’t know what happened. Are the passengers alive? Is his wife alive? And it becomes essentially like Escape From New York where they’ve got to hunt down the survivors, see if there are any and see what’s hunting them down. And what they come to learn in the book is that there’s this – spoiler – secret nest of these vicious creatures that have evolved separately from humanity on the surface of the earth. They are smarter than us, faster than us, they evolve quicker than us, and they have only just recently learned of our existence as humans have dug deeper and deeper into the earth with these super-tall megastructures. And they go on the hunt for the humans that are in their territory and it becomes– all hell breaks loose. They’ve got to escape from these subway tunnels before either they get killed by various events in the book or by the creatures themselves.
And what Cafferty comes to learn in the first book at the end is that there’s a secret mastermind that has been orchestrating these creature attacks around the world who is, on paper, the defender of humanity but in reality he doesn’t give a shit who he kills in the process while trying to save humanity. This is this villainous character called Albert Van Ness. Book two, The Brink, is all about Van Ness. It is very much a villain’s book. There are very few creatures in book two, really. Book two is very much Cafferty and his team on the hunt around the world for Albert Van Ness and the quest to take him down as essentially revenge for what he did to New York. And they were the unknown pawns in the events in New York City. And Van Ness is one of the great villains out there. He’s wonderfully eccentric. Like, for example, he has no problem– well, I don’t want to spoil this because you haven’t read it yet, but you will and you’ll love this scene. But President Reynolds has been captured at the end of book one of Awakened. He’s Van Ness’s toy in book two. And when Van Ness is toying with him it’s a very twisted scene but at the same time– so Van Ness has no problem with these kind of twisted scenarios, which you’ll read about in book two. But, on the other hand, he cannot tolerate cursing. You know what I mean (Laughs)? Like little details like that– it’s just uncouth. So, when the President curses, it’s just uncouth. Why would a President curse? It just makes no sense to him. Wonderful little eccentricities like that and he’s a great character. You’ll love him. You’ll love to see him go down. And the ending is so damn good. And book three, it essentially poses this question: Van Ness has been fighting these creatures while not caring who he kills around the world in the process, but what happens when you take down your enemy who’s been secretly protecting humanity? What happens then? You’ll learn in book three.
GNN: So, as you’ve been saying, and as I realized when I read more about the book that Awakened is the first of a trilogy, and as you mentioned The Brink has just released. When you started writing the first book, did you feel you had enough story for a trilogy? Or did the story grow as you wrote? Or did you have the idea when you were done?
JM: Yeah. Yeah. When I wrote book one, I had certainly put in the elements for a trilogy. There were all these teasers for a larger conspiracy to come. I mean, the fact that Samuels is a spy, the fact that there’s a chapter with Van Ness at the end of book one. That was all in there from the beginning. But I never thought I’d write the trilogy unless I sold the first one and I didn’t. I didn’t sell it for 15 years.
GNN: So, if people pick up the book, they’ll notice you co-wrote it with a fellow named Darren Wearmouth. I’ve always wondered how things worked with co-writers. I know that now, James Patterson co-writes a ridiculous number of books. I realize that not all co-writing relationships are the same, but how did it work with you and Darren?
JM: Well, the first book I wrote on my own, 15 years ago. I spent the year writing it and not knowing…I started in the middle and wrote behind it and after it. It was not a structured kind of writing style. I didn’t know who the characters were, what was going on. I literally had to find the story and had to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite as I went forward to make it match. And 15 years later when I sold the book, Harper Collins said, “Great. We love the book. We want to buy a trilogy. We want you to spend like a month rewriting and polishing.” And our schedule for Jokers does not allow for me to take a month off to rewrite. I’m not in the same position I was 15 years ago. We do stretches of time where we work for like 20, 30 days in a row without a day off because we’re on tour. Like this is a perfect example. I filmed every day this week, I leave today to do a book signing, an event in Michigan, and then tomorrow I have shows; Saturday I have shows; Sunday I have shows. Fly back Monday and go straight to work. It’ll be 20 days before I’m off and I’m like, “Guys, I can’t take a month off to rewrite and work like that.” And they suggested, they said, “Why don’t you hire somebody to help polish it up with you? Like a sci-fi author?” I said, “That’s not a bad idea.” So, they gave me a list of a dozen names. I interviewed a lot of people on FaceTime and stuff. I met Darren. I liked him immediately. He’s a best-selling British sci-fi author in his own regard. And we’re the same age, we like the same kind of thriller, sci-fi movies. He’s a huge Jokers fan. We got past the accent barrier (Laughs) and he’s just a great guy. So, I said, “Okay, great.” And I hired him to help me polish the book. We worked for a month or two remotely on it. Kind of whipped it into shape. One thing was that it was out of date at this point; it’s 15 years old. I don’t think there was an iPhone back then, you know what I mean? There weren’t even smartphones. Right? So, we had to change a fair amount of that kind of stuff, and the technology and all those things.
So, he’s a great guy. And then for the trilogy we just kept working together. Book two, obviously, he’s from the UK, but book two, he essentially moved into my apartment. And, so, what happened with book two and three, I came up with the plot of each one. I did a detailed chapter breakdown for everything that happened, like each proposal was around 15 pages long of what’s going to happen in book two and three. And then when I started writing it, the way we do it is that I write a chapter and send it to him, he polishes it. He’ll write a chapter and send it to me, and I polish it, and it goes back and forth like that. We worked remotely, but he’ll be here next Monday, and he’ll basically be living with me for a month while we’re on deadlines for book three.
GNN: That’s amazing. I’m at work in meetings with folks for a few hours and we can’t get along…
JM: Yeah, he’s a great guy. We drink a lot; it helps. Yeah. Yeah. But spoiler alert, I will tell you, we sold two more thrillers as well, that you’ll be hearing about in the next…that comes out in stores in the next 18 months to 24 months. Including the Awakened trilogy, there will be five books all together coming out.
GNN: At the end of the book, when you’re giving thanks to people, you say that you wrote the first book on a dare…is that true?
JM: I did. I did. I had this idea. Yeah, I had this idea for a short story about a monster in the subway. And my friend dared me to write it, my friend Chris Spear. So, I did. I wrote it in one night. It’s chapter six or eight in Awakened. It’s when the two cops are walking down the subway tunnel, they follow his voice saying, “Help me,” through the walkie talkie. I wrote that. My friend called me back 20 minutes later, he goes, “This is a book, what’s the story here?” And I was like, “Ah!” So, I figured out– I wrote the book around that chapter.
GNN: And that short story has blossomed into…a trilogy and two other books! Five books? That’s great.
JM: Yeah. Yeah, we have five books. And then literally next week we’re pitching a sixth book, sci-fi. But it’s a young adult series. It’ll be a series of books. Now, the idea here is– what I love doing is selling, I love selling TV, movie, things like that. So that’s my background. I’ve sold TV shows for 10 years. That’s how we sold Impractical Jokers, is through my job. And what I love is creating properties, creating things and selling them. So, the idea here, even with all the books, is to create an entire company essentially outside of Jokers that does nothing other than create sci-fi thrillers and sell them through to TV and film. So, like the Awaking trilogy, in September, we’re pitching it as a movie. And then the other books I will sell as TV shows and movies as well. That’s always my goal to sell a TV show or movie afterward.
GNN: You beat me to the punch on that one! I read online that you were pitching the Awakened trilogy as a television show or movie…
JM: Sorry! (Laughs) At first, I thought it might be a TV show. And we haven’t pitched it to networks yet. We met with a bunch of production companies, studios, and after pitching it in that way, I think it’s a better movie. So, I talked to the team and I was like, “I think it’s a better movie, guys” And they agreed. So now we go out with it as a movie. If I want to in the future since I have not pitched it to networks in terms of how you pitch and sell something, so I can always go back to pitching it to networks [inaudible].
GNN: That’s awesome. And folks can get Awakened and The Brink at brick and mortar stores like Books-a-Million or online at Amazon, correct?
JM: Yep. Of course. Anywhere books are sold (Laughs).
GNN: Now, I’d be remiss, and my wife would kill me, if I didn’t ask some questions about Impractical Jokers.
JM: Okay. Of course. You’ve got it (Laughs).
GNN: Impractical Jokers has been on the air for eight years, and the ninth season is coming up soon. If I were to travel back in time nine years and tell you that your show would still be on the air nine years later, what do you think you would’ve said?
JM: Well, I have a greater appreciation for this question, excuse me, than the other guys, I think. Here’s why. Like I said, I’ve worked in TV development for 10 years. In that time, I have sold a lot of TV shows, some of which have only made it to the pilot stage, some made it to three episodes, some made it entire season, some made it two seasons, but no other show has gone the distance. It is so hard to get a TV show to last more than two seasons. It’s near impossible odds because most shows don’t get the promotion they need from a network. Most shows don’t get the time slot that’s right. They don’t get the right lead-in. They’re not cut right. It just fails. They don’t find an audience. 99% of shows don’t go more than a season or two. It doesn’t happen and I know from direct first-hand experience. So, from my point of view, to be over 200 episodes in to a TV show and it’s still going and still building and you know we have the Jokers movie that comes out soon and we’re on tour, and the tour’s still growing, it doesn’t happen. So, I am amazed every day. I can’t believe it’s still going on. Man, I have the luckiest job in the world.
GNN: You have an odd definition of “luckiest!” I watch the show and my wife and I can’t imagine how you can do some of the stuff you do on that show!
JM: Yeah, that’s true. Well, get past me having my eyebrows shaved, getting two prostate exams on live TV, or having a ferret tattoo on my leg…if you get past that, at the end of the day, I get paid to make my best friends laugh. That’s pretty cool. Yeah. That’s awesome (Laughs).
GNN: You’ve known the other Jokers for a long time. How, exactly, was the show “born?” I can’t even imagine a meeting where you talked about some of the stuff you’ve done!
JM: The meeting was this. Joe [Gatto] and I were roommates. Neither of us could afford to live in the city alone. We’re roommates down on Wall Street. We have a 600-square-foot apartment and three of us were living there. It was Joe, myself, and his now-wife, then-girlfriend. His room had no power; we had to run an extension cord from the hallway into his room. We put up a VS wall. It wasn’t even technically a room. Right? And that’s where we lived. And the guys came over one night, and we ordered– here is what most of our meetings are like. We order a lot of food. We got some chicken parm. We got some prosciutto. We got some manicotti. Right? We’re sitting playing video games…not Guitar Hero…DJ Hero, right? And we were talking about our TV show ideas, and I said, “Hidden camera is coming back.” And we were like, “Well, none of us really like prank shows. We don’t like hidden-camera shows. So, we’re like, ‘Well, what’s our version of it? What’s our twist that makes it not…?” What we hated about prank shows was you feel bad for the people getting pranked. They didn’t sign up for this. They’re just walking in the store, and they look like fools on TV. And we said we hate that. We hate it. So, we said, “Well, what’s our twist on it? How do we solve that problem?” Okay, what if we’re the ones we made fools of instead of the public? That takes the teeth away. You don’t feel bad for the public. You feel bad for us, and that single twist makes the format different from any other hidden-camera show. So, we don’t consider it a prank show. We consider it a hidden-camera show, but the joke’s on us. That’s exactly how the meeting went. And then, we went back to the playing DJ Hero.
GNN: So, you don’t mind making fools of each other or making each other uncomfortable…but what makes you the most uncomfortable?
JM: I think I get most uncomfortable violating social norms.
JM: I do. I do. For example, one of our punishments was that I had to go to people in the street and take a cigarette out of their mouths and toss it on the ground and step on it.
GNN: I’ll be honest, I got so uncomfortable watching you do that I almost had to change the channel!
JM: I know! It’s so tense. It’s so tense. I don’t know if people are going to take a swing at me. A pack of cigarettes is like 18 bucks, right?
GNN: And you can never predict what people are going to do…
JM: I had no idea. It’s just a social– you don’t cross a social barrier because– and I’m also a huge believer of individual freedoms; live your life. Don’t hurt other people. Live your life. Have fun. Enjoy it, right? And that’s it. That’s it. And, so. for me to do that, I feel like I’m literally defying what I believe. That’s your life, your choice. You do what you want. Just don’t hurt other people. And it goes against my very code. And man, oh, man, that get most uncomfortable, I’ll say.
GNN: You mention that as an uncomfortable situation, but you had another challenge where you were in a store and the other guys had you hold up a bra to see if it would fit on a really big dude. That dude got pretty angry. Was it as bad as it seemed on TV?
JM: He got angrier! We cut a lot of it out. We cut a lot of it out to make it not seem so bad. On the cutting room floor, he chased me around the store with three guards that – he’s a big guy – could not stop him physically. And I eventually had to run– I eventually had to run into the basement. He was having a bad day, you know what I mean? And I knew he was going to pop. That’s the first and only time in the whole show history somebody’s reacted that way. The guy was having a bad day, and he overreacted. But also, the guys, my friends took away my only defense, which was to bullshit…to speak my way or to talk about my way through something. For the challenge, they literally said, “Don’t say a word. Just hold the bra up to him.” And you can hear me say on camera, “You’re going to get me killed,” because I can’t defuse the situation by my BS. And sure enough, he popped. You get a really good sense, while doing a show like this, how far you can go before people pop. And our goal is never to make people pop. It’s to make ourselves look like fools. Yeah. And if it takes away my ability to bullshit, I can’t make myself look like a fool. So, the poor guy was just having a bad day. I feel bad for him.
GNN: So, you’ve been on the air eight years, going on nine. I’m sure at first you had people who would recognize you, but now it’s got to be harder. How much harder is it now than it was at the beginning?
JM: Yeah, it’s definitely, definitely much harder, which is a good problem to have. Honestly, it means the show is popular, and we’re doing it well. But a couple of stats for you, on planet Earth, there are eight billion people. Believe it or not, not all of them have truTV (Laughs)!
GNN: Whaaat? Surely you jest!
JM: Yeah. So, don’t worry. We’ll be able to do the show for a long time (Laughs).
GNN: Thank goodness! My wife and I don’t agree on a lot of shows, but Impractical Jokers is something we always watch together. Speaking of that, my wife and I love the “Name Game” challenges where you call out the goofy names in the waiting room…how are those names written? Do you each make lists or is it a big group brainstorming sessions?
JM: Actually, I can give you some spoilers and read you some for the new game! I just got them sent over last night. You want to hear some of the new ones?
GNN: Are you kidding?! Of course!
JM: Let me find them on my laptop…while I’m looking, I’ll tell you the Name Game is a combination of us, our writers, and our producers. Okay. Got it. Got it. Here are some of the names (Laughs): Pamela Anderson Cooper. Don De Elbanio. Has anyone seen Don De Elbanio?
GNN: Ah, high school Spanish coming into play!
JM: Is there a Chinese Name? Is there a Chinese Name (Laughs)? Gal Gadonut from Wonder Woman fame (Laughs). Is anyone here Holden A. Fart? Is anyone here Holden A. Fart (Laughs)?
GNN: Honestly, those names are hysterical. My wife and I have worked those into everyday conversations.
JM: Yeah. I like this Disfatt Bidge.
GNN: I’m glad you’re keeping that game…fantastic. Well, we’re running out of time, so let’s get the plugs in. How about you let folks know where they can find your book or other information about you?
JM: Ah, gosh, you can look at all my book appearances by going to Awakenednovel.com. The guys and I perform every other week all across America and the world. You can see our tour dates by going to thetenderloins.com. The new episodes start tonight (August 8). You can read more about the show on truTv’s website.
GNN: Oh! Season nine starts tonight?
JM: Yes, tonight, new episodes of Impractical Jokers. And The Brink is in stores, everywhere books are sold…and airports, too!
GNN: Well, James, I have to say, you handled that interview…
JM: Liiiiiiiiiiiike aaaaaaaa bossssssssss! I saw that one coming (Laughs).
GNN: I apologize, but I just had to do it.
JM: Yeah. No problem. That was great (Laughs).
GNN: Thanks again for your time…good luck with your novel and the new season of Impractical Jokers!
JM: You got it, man. I appreciate you having me. Thanks so much.