Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Jason "Wee Man" Acuña, Chris Pontius, Preston Lacy, Dave England, Ehren McGhehey
(Paramount; US theatrical: 15 Oct 2010 (General release); 2010)
In order to appreciate the notorious MTV stunt show (and now successful movie franchise) Jackass, you have to get a few aesthetic caveats out of the way right up front. First, it’s almost impossible to defend the scatology-as-slapstick format. In essence, these are grown men, individuals who should know better, covering themselves in all manner of human and unnatural fluids and found substances while mangling their genitalia, and other important body parts, with reckless abandon. The Supreme Court’s pornography test—i.e. redeeming social value—need not apply here. It could barely stand to stay in the same room as this wanton disregard for individual wellbeing.
Second, the concept suffers from an insane amount of repetition. If a certain blow to the crotch worked once, reconfiguring same a couple hundred more times can’t hurt, right? Better yet, several scenes of vomiting are much better than a single sequence of cookie tossing. Third, and definitely not least, Jackass is often grouped in with that otherwise insidious mix of documentary and overhyped dreariness known as “reality” media. While its founding network reinvented itself with such Real World/Road Rules/True Life/Jersey Shore shilling, the exploits of Johnny Knoxville and the gang are often viewed as the lamentably lurid pinnacle of such low brow bad taste pandering.
Even fellow Music Television slave Mike Judge argued for this determined dumbing down of entertainment. His brilliant social commentary Idiocracy envisioned a dystopian world where a show similar to Jackass—“Ow! My Balls!”—was the future shock couch potatoes favorite. In fact, if Jackass needed a subtitle, one could easily envision some excitable exclamation followed by a quick descript of the fractured physicality involved - something like “Yikes! My Scrotum!” or “YEOOUCH!!! My Lower Intestines!”
So it’s clear that this clip fest of mindless juvenilia isn’t going to win a Peabody any time soon. Similarly, for every person who finds the sight of Bam Margera getting smashed in the solar plexus with a giant hand funnier than free cheese, there will be hundred who harrumph and protest the single digital IQ level of proposed ‘wit’. And yet, somehow, in spite of our self-proscribed sense of propriety and demand for public shame, Jackass makes money. LOTS of money. The latest big screen installment, given the 3D treatment to ensure an aura of newness and commercial viability, grossed nearly $50 million over the 15 October, 2010 weekend, quite an accomplishment for something relegated to bad memories, repeated groundings, and endless reruns on MTV2/U for the last four years.
Since its start over a decade ago, Jackass has always been an anomaly. After all, can you name another “ambush comedy” co-created and overseen by an Academy Award nominated filmmaker (Spike Jonze, for those outside the know-it-all zone). Cobbled together from various skateboard videos—the core group of ‘performers’ came from the sport’s Big Brother Magazine—and hobbled/helped by its rites of passage/hazing approach to casting, primary director Jeff Tremaine stumbled upon a nucleus of nonplused guys who all enjoyed one thing: making each other laugh by whatever means necessary. The stunts didn’t have to be pretty, well thought out, inventive, fresh, original, meaningful, or logical. All they had to do was make the participants split their sides (figuratively… or even literally) and they were in.
But there was/is more to Jackass than an “AFHV” dynamic, otherwise referred to as the “football to the groin” style of satire. Because of their notoriety and their need for the limelight, we have come to learn more about Knoxville, Margera, Steve-O, Ryan Dunn, and the rest, than we ever really wanted to know. Some of the information arrived in the form of semi-scripted knock-offs, shows like Viva La Bam and Wildboyz picking up where a frazzled, standards and practice battle weary original left off. Some was not so preplanned. Former flea market circus clown turned addict Steve-O had so many public meltdowns that MTV actually gave Knoxville a chance to champion his pal (and push him toward rehab) with a Behind the Music-like expose all his own.
While familiarity can often breed disdain, in the case of Jackass, it also fostered a fraternity. One critic described the show as a “perverted Our Gang”, and on a level of likeable camaraderie and obvious mutual affection, the label fits. Over the course of time, through a pain (!) staking series of trials and errors, Tremaine unearthed the right combination of nutjobs to make even the more horrific “joke” seem genuine and affable. The best example of this genial group ideal comes in the various ‘Net head copycats who are desperate to YouTube their way into the same moneymaking mainstream. Honorariums like Web Soup and TruTV’s World’s Dumbest showcase these unworthy wannabes, but nothing ever sticks. Once you’ve seen a nameless nerd get pelted in the gouillons by a rocket-powered bowling ball, you come to appreciate Jackass‘s sense of family.
An even better example comes from within the group itself. When the show finally pulled up stakes, unable to deal with MTV’s censorship notes, lead lunkhead (and CKY savant) Margera got his own vehicle. Centering around his eccentric parents and relatives, as well as a recognizable collective of pals, Viva La Bam may have been Jackass-lite, but it argued for the recognizable collective formula that had worked before. Once we settled in to see the interaction between our heavy metal loving anti-hero and his “bros”, we embraced them as our own. Even when he switched the idea over to his impending nuptials (Bam’s Unholy Union), things more or less worked. But the minute he dropped almost everyone from the original effort to create something called Where the #$&% is Santa? , it just wasn’t the same.
That’s because Jackass is as much about chemistry as chaos. On the one hand, the regressive adolescent male in all of us giggles as a human being gets an exercise ball to the forehead. On the other, we see the rest of the gang laughing hysterically and long to be part of such a feeling of belonging. Sure, it may be a club made up of freaks, outsiders confirming their less than cool status by taking ‘playing the fool’ to near nuclear levels, but the connection is undeniable. While they may be linked by the unlikelihood of fame, or the last lingering facets of a fading zeitgeist, the guys of Jackass seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. As long as they let us in on the fun, albeit indirectly, we will gladly pay for the privilege.