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.

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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