Moving Pictures October 2010

The Jackass Effect

As Johnny Knoxville and friends release their newest film, has everyone finally wearied of their absurdist, violent, and sublime daredevilry? Or is it now in our cultural DNA?
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Aboard the Iron Man 4, a 70,000-ton pleasure barge churning between Miami, Key West, Nassau, and Cozumel, the old jackasses were getting fretful.

Darkness was upon their lumpy brows, and a deeper nihilism in their raillery. They’d turned out in force for this, the 2025 Jackass Reunion Cruise, cluttering the ship’s ballroom with their walkers and drips and motorized wheelchairs. (Only in their 50s, the jackasses’ bodies were wrecked.) All day they’d been doing wasabi snooters, punching one another in the nuts—the old sacraments of friendship—and the familiar black-hole chuckle of Johnny Knoxville had been issuing regularly from a gurney in the corner. But the mood was awry.

What was the problem? The oppression of the occasion? There were empty chairs at the Jackass table (one for Jason “Wee Man” Acuña, lost while rocketeering in 2017; another for Chris Pontius, who two years later finally flapped his genitals at the wrong reptile), but that wasn’t it. The jackasses didn’t go in for sentimentality. Looking back, looking forward, looking before you leaped—these were the things that got a jackass crippled or killed. No: someone, a hanger-on, had suggested screening Jackass 3D, and just the thought of it had bummed out the whole troupe.

How much sense it had all made in the beginning—effortless, miraculous almost, the way the culture had clasped them to its bosom. They came out of the underground in the year 2000 with the limping, surging gait of post-Dogtown skateboarders, which is what they were, most of them, raised in an atmosphere of punk rock and suburban-backyard daredevilry. Jackass, the MTV show, was homemade stunts, pranks, sight gags, loose-limbed exhibitionism, filmed crudely and on the fly. Knoxville, the top banana, slow-voiced and gangly-handsome, had experienced jackass satori while getting himself pepper-sprayed for the skater magazine Big Brother. The moment was ripe, and fellow jackasses were not hard to find. Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Dave England, the gurgling Steve-O, priapic Chris Pontius, often naked, skipping about with his cherub’s buttocks—point a camera at them, and what would these jackasses not do?

Video: James Parker comments on the infamous “Yak Charge” clip and other memorable Jackass moments

Some of it was sub–Candid Camera (Knoxville in the gym with a fake erection, etc.), but then there were those moments of Garbage Age sublimity, as when the jackasses, crouched in shopping carts, were propelled toward the sad autumnal bushes of a grocery-store parking lot, hit the curb, and launched themselves. In some of their assaults, the jackasses were nearly satirical: Knoxville liked to play a rumpled, marginal-looking person who would, for example, fart loudly in yoga class. (“Take a big breath in, and on the exhale just release and relax,” says the instructor, and receives a low-comedy quack from his pupil.) And “Tandem Snowboarding”—two jackasses riding one board—was an actual feat. Their theme tune, their jingle, was the intro to the Minutemen’s “Corona”: three ascending chords, the last one shimmering speculatively in space, a raised eyebrow, a skater at the lip of an empty swimming pool, a grinning jackass on an arc of lunacy.

Viewed critically and retrospectively, the show’s genius stroke was to connect skater humor, which is violently lowbrow and absurdist (skaters love watching other skaters wipe out), to a slapstick tradition that went back to the rougher end of vaudeville, to Joe Keaton—Buster’s father—doing his act “The Man With the Table” at Huber’s Museum in New York City: crashing into the table, flying off the table, fervently and bodily intervening in the existence of the table. (Remember Steve-O jumping into his ceiling fan?) Maybe that’s what they were in the end, the jackasses, under their Ritalin antics: hard-core vaudevillians. No narrative, minimal setup—“My name’s Johnny Knoxville, and this is the poo cocktail!”—just one bone-breaking or atrociously humiliating skit after another. Gravity, if you like, was their straight man: the crunching comedown, the bathos of impact.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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