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?

They were professionals, as the show’s disclaimer insisted. Do not try this at home! Steve-O was actually a trained clown, an alumnus of Sarasota’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Sure, they cracked tailbones, lost teeth, sustained concussions, needed stitches, but (a) they got paid for it, and (b) things could have been a lot worse—things would have been a lot worse, but for their special jackass flow and athleticism, and the Bushido of all-male idiocy they had mastered to keep themselves in the zone. No downtime permitted: there was the teasing; the exploitation of phobias (mustard, snakes); the surprise attacks with the clippers, a swath or two of naked scalp on the head of every jackass; the immediate victimization of anybody who fell asleep. And a permanent, pitiless chorus of laughter. It all combined to effect something supernatural: you could see it as they went tumbling and gamboling through the streets of Tokyo in their panda costumes, pneumatic with glee and protected, apparently, from all vicissitude.

So they were ready, and the world was ready for them. Movie studios flung money. With 2002’s Jackass: The Movie, we got to know them all a little better—discovering, for example, what Steve-O wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t insert a toy race car into his rectum and present himself at a hospital to be X-rayed. But that was okay, because Ryan Dunn would. Alan Dale, in his excellent book, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, quotes Northrop Frye: “Comedy often turns on a clash between a son’s and father’s will.” And here was Bam Margera making midnight assaults upon his father, Phil—setting off fireworks in his parents’ bedroom or, more direct, bursting into the bathroom where Phil was placidly enthroned and swatting at him with wild Oedipal paws. (“Now you’re gettin’ crazy on this shit!” protested Phil. “Hey, he’s starting to lose it! Jesus Christ!”) Margera’s own verdict on the movie was poignant: “Everybody has ADD nowadays and it’s the perfect movie to see because you can get up and piss and come back and you didn’t miss anything.”

The jackasses were now famous. Steve-O went on the road; Margera got his own MTV show; Knoxville had some starring roles: in The Ringer, he played an able-bodied man who tries to con his way into the Special Olympics. (One wonders: what would Harold Lloyd have made of that?) In 2006, a second movie appeared, Jackass Number Two, and made even more money. Some of the stunts were fantastic. Margera, wearing a Velcro suit, adhered himself at high speed to the side of a Velcro-covered truck. “Firehose Rodeo”—in which a fire hose was suspended nozzle down from a crane, turned on, and then ridden by a screaming Dave England as it bucked and plunged and mashed the earth with its white jet—was worthy of Keaton, Jackie Chan, any of them. The hose itself performed like Jim Carrey.

Universal approval was not granted, of course. There were questions, constantly, about the jackasses. Were they guilty of making everything just a little dumber and more terrible? Were they inciting kids to jump into ceiling fans? What were they really expressing, apart from some violent jackassery of the American soul, like Hunter S. Thompson without the books? Steve-O succumbed to addiction and then—more serious for a clown—to narrative: he went into recovery, he cleaned up, he made a comeback. There was an MTV special about it, and he partnered with an attractive woman named Lacey on Dancing With the Stars. (“Last week, Steve-O’s Viennese Waltz received the lowest score of the night.”) By the time 2010’s Jackass 3D hit the theaters, people were wondering: for God’s sake, shouldn’t they give it a rest? How much more of this can we take? How much more can they take?

Plus, the world had changed. The jackasses themselves had changed it. Celebrity bull-riding; the naked-wrestling scene in Borat; the huge audience that arose for the Ultimate Fighting Championship; Spike TV gladiators ringed by millions of distantly baying viewers in a Colosseum made of bong smoke: these were post-Jackass phenomena. Now there was a show on ABC called Wipeout, in which regular people in protective headgear were sent hooting and floundering through a surrealist obstacle course. Padded flails swept them off their feet, walls of boxing gloves jabbed at them. They bounced off massive red orbs: the famous Big Balls. No edge to it at all; it seemed to presage a democracy of jackass-hood, of cushioned jolts and pratfalls for everyone.

Jackass 3D did fine. The jackasses could still get the laughs, the deep animal laughs, from centers in the brain untouched by priest or movie producer. And what fun to have the jackass audience, the burping, high-fiving jocks and the titillated aesthetes, sitting there wearing 3-D glasses! For some of the jackasses, the movie bankrolled retirement; others it seemed to inflame, sending them on pilgrimages, long and dangerous, upriver and into the heart of jackass. The rest just kept doing what they did. They were still young men; they had careers, kind of. But from here on, all was recession, withdrawal, counting the cost. Human cannonballs hitting the ground.

In the ship’s ballroom an air of fatality had settled. Drinks were grimly slurped at, while away to starboard the Bahamian coastline glowed livid in the night. Later there would be speeches, and somebody was going to give a paper: “Smartass or Jackass? Modes of Being in Early-21st-Century Entertainment.” Who the hell had organized that? The jackasses bickered and then slumped, and the Iron Man 4 sailed on, into what was left of history.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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