Jackass hurts. The guys who perform pranks and stupid human tricks are out to crack themselves up and crack their own noggins. Because it’s funny. Skateboard into a hedge? No problem. Pretend you’ve got a dead guy in your trunk to freak out gas station attendants? Check. Attach fireworks to your privates and set them off? Sure. Play human slingshot, joust on BMXes, and dive into a vat of sewage stunts, and catch it all on video with a cutting-edge DIY vibe (even though Spike Jonze filmed a lot of it).
Jackass: The Box Set captures the depraved, taboo-busting, good-taste blasting series in all its glory. The four discs (one including previously unreleased material), and a substantial companion booklet tell the story of Jackass‘s birth and series lowlights. Jeff Tremaine, editor of the skate magazine Big Brother cooked up the show with Johnny Knoxville, who pitched a story to the mag about him getting “self-defense” weapons tested on himself, what the booklet calls something akin to “an amateur backwoods snuff film.”
Skateboarders and other extreme sports enthusiasts typically capture their best stunts on digital video in order circulate them among friends (and increasingly, market them to fans). Knoxville and company rode the wave of their MTV success into a film version and several spin-off shows (like Wild Boyz, Viva La Bam, and Homewrecker). My favorite part of each sketch is when Knoxville says (or gets someone else to say), “Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville. And this is Jackass.” He’s giving a shout-out to Johnny Cash, a knowing gesture confirmed in the “Where Are They Now?” featurette when Knoxville explains he used his earnings to buy a cabin from Cash. So now you know: he’s sincere as well as cynical.
Jackass documents the fun-lovin’ dude lifestyle, replete with homosocial bonding. In one sketch, the boys gather to play a game of ball-busting, where they strip to their briefs, paint red bulls-eyes on their crotches, and proceed to hit each other with racquetballs. In another, Ryan Dunn agrees to the most degrading prank the crew can dream up: they stick a model car up his ass and have him walk into the hospital claiming to be in pain, just so they can see the look on the doctors’ faces when they perform X-rays and find a toy car in his body.
Steve-O, famous for inflicting pain upon himself, was trained as a circus clown, and some of his skits play like performance art. In the commentary tracks for the series footage (which is broken into sketches rather than episodes), director Tremaine and cast members say they found Steve-O working as a clown in a circus inside a flea market in Ft. Lauderdale. In other words, he’s happy to be here. He has a tattoo of his own face put on his back. He pierces his butt cheeks. He dons a leopard-print thong and rides the hood of a car into a car wash. He dresses like a mouse and crawls across a floor full of mousetraps, yelping and laughing as they go off and snap him. He and the other guys give each other paper cuts in the webbing between their fingers. Jackass is atomic wedgies taken to a sublime extreme.
What are these postmodern tricksters up to? The joy of gross-out humor when everyone is in on the joke? Pain means you’re alive? I kick you in the balls because I love you?
Maybe they’re coming to terms with their own mortality by killing themselves a little piece at a time. Maybe it’s acting out that reflects the fragmentation of the self, the existential alienation that leads to ironic self-hatred. Perhaps it’s just the most famous example of disturbing trends in reality TV, where violence and humiliation are entertainment.
“Where Are They Now?” suggests the guys just like to fuck themselves up. In talking head interviews (for which several are drunk), they explain that they would be pranking and pissing on each other even without cameras. Steve-O says that he and Tremaine share the same greatest love: filming Steve-O hurting himself. Even though this featurette and the lengthy commentary tracks on the skits sometimes try to address the nature of the show’s appeal, the guys usually laugh it off and spend more time reminiscing about teaching each other how to puke (the commentary track gets old fast). Cast member Dave Englund claims he’s heard that “historians are going to look back on this” and say this show “changed everything.” According to Englund, “Those people should be shot.”
The commentary tracks also reveal some downsides to the skate rat race: people were badly hurt, certain stunts went wrong, fame and semi-fortune can create group tensions. One extreme downhill skateboarding stunt gave Bam yet another concussion. For the “Abe Lincoln Beard of Leeches” bit, the leeches wouldn’t cooperate and kept running off of Knoxville’s face. Bam, famous for beating up his father every episode, explains that his dad needs the “adrenaline rush.”
More entertaining is an inside look at their Cannonball Run-type race, immortalized in the “Gumball Rally 3000” extended sketch. In a contest full of rich bluebloods running their Ferraris from London to Russia and back again, the pranksters drive a beat-up Jaguar and a minivan. Chris Pontius says they should ask all Ferrari drivers, “Um, weren’t rich enough for a Lamborghini, were ya?” Bursting the bubble of the establishment is what they do best.
But the fun and games vibe doesn’t always hold. The sketches designed to shock innocent passers-by on the street are the least amusing, because they often suggest a destructive hostility beneath all the smirking. Candid Camera with a punch in the face. In one bit, the guys take a dead skunk, put it on a remote-controlled toy monster truck, and drive it around a sidewalk, freaking out passers-by. An irate man confronts them, asking why that’s funny. “That’s terrible. I really think that there’s a health issue involved and I really think instead of getting off, I mean that’s what you’re doing….” He trails off into criticisms of their sense of humor.
The guys laugh at him for being uptight, a pious straight arrow who can’t take a joke. But he has a point. Knoxville and crew are basically just jacking themselves off (often literally, we learn in the commentary track) through this aggressive pranks subculture. And they’re inviting millions of viewers along for the ride. If this is the TV apocalypse (the DVD packaging markets the show as a sign that “the end of the world is nigh”), they’re toasting it with fireworks and tequila.
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