Candid Camera and Allen Funt started it in the 1960s. Ashton Kutcher continued it, 21st-century style, with Punk'd. Late-night talk show hosts still revel in it. Even lovable funnywomen like Ellen DeGeneres and Betty White capitalize on the sure-fire laughs delivered by hidden cameras focusing on an unsuspecting, often-mortified public.
But innocents need not fear The Tenderloins' antics, as featured on truTV's Impractical Jokers. The onus of this particular improv-cum-sketch-comedy show, which comes to Bayou Music Center on January 17, is not on bystanders but on its cast members themselves.
"We describe the show as an upside-down prank show," troupe founder James "Murr" Murray says, sounding far more like a contributor to the Oprah Winfrey Network than the YouTube-y, reality-based truTV. "The joke is on us, instead of on the public.
Prior to their Houston show and performances in Dallas and Austin spotlighting The Tenderloins' sketch comedy strength, Murr et al. plan to film segments for Impractical Jokers at various H-Town locations. "We're going to be filming all around Texas for a full week," he warns, scouting "classic Texas locations and Texas activities -- things that, as New Yorkers, we know nothing about."
Where will they be shooting? I query, hoping to offer Murr some ideas for prime shooting locations that are uniquely Houstonian.
"It's a hidden-camera show! We don't want fans showing up!" Murr says, refusing an insider's assistance.
"What kind of makes the show special is that a lot of hidden-camera shows can be mean-spirited," Murr elaborates. "You think, 'Oh, I can't believe they're putting that person through this.' But our show is the exact opposite. We're the butt of our own jokes. The public is just there to witness our embarrassment.
"We always try to stay on the right side of likability."
Murr and his three Tenderloin costars have been goofing off together since the 1990s, when they were enrolled together in a Catholic High School for boys in New York City -- undeniably, a fertile field for comedy. "We know each others' breaking points really well, and we have 20 years of embarrassing photos and texts to pull from," he says.
As gentle as The Tenderloins may be to their audiences, their ruthlessness in pranking each other borders on abuse. With parochial accuracy, they even refer to their setups as "punishments." What could be funnier than capitalizing on a cohort's deep-seated phobia by inflicting a psychologically scarring punishment, and then broadcasting it nationwide?
"I'm terrified of heights; the guys know this," Murr explains his own personal breaking point, soon to be featured in the third-season opening episode of Impractical Jokers. "Literally, my number one fear in life is jumping out of a plane. That's a death wish! Why the hell would you possibly want to do that -- to treat life so flippantly?"
Under the guise of teaching improvisation classes to its death-defying students, the guys went to a skydiving academy in Long Island.
"They had this ruse going for months," Murr says of the scenario. "We wrote pages of jokes for the challenge -- one-liners that we want to try when we're on set.
"We're there on set, and in the middle of the intro, they tell me that there is actually no such class.
"I freaked out!" Murr continues his confessional. "I ran off set, and I locked myself in the van. Then I locked myself in the bathroom for a half hour and wouldn't come out. I had a full mental breakdown, with tears. I couldn't do it!
Eventually, after being pried out of his hiding places and sending good-bye texts to his parents and girlfriend, Murr was thrown out of a plane at 15,000 feet.
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"I literally thought I was going to die. I thought that was it, that that was the end. Even when the parachute was pulled, I became doubly terrified that I was going to slip out of the harness," he describes the exploit, the timbre of his voice elevating almost as high as the plane. "What irony, that the parachute would come floating without a care to earth, and I slip out of it!"
Obviously, Murr stayed in his harness and lived to tell about the experience, which he vows to never, ever duplicate. Never, ever.
Meanwhile, if truly interested in capitalizing on their moniker, the Tenderloins might seek out some true tenderloins -- the mesquite-smoked kind--at any of Houston's legendary barbecue joints as prime locations for their hidden cameras. Murr and the boys couldn't possibly get a more punishable dose of Lone Star flavor than by trying to come between hungry Texans and their meat.
The truTV Impractical Jokers Tour featuring The Tenderloins. Friday, January 17, 8 p.m. Bayou Music Center, $35. For information, call 713-230-1600 or visit bayoumusiccenter.com.