When I was in high school, I knew a guy who would eat pieces of aluminum cans to get attention. He swore up and down that he had a digestive disorder that allowed him to eat metal and would dramatically chew and swallow shiny chunks for horrified and captivated crowds of tenth graders. I like to tell this story, hoping to produce similar reactions from my peers. Most of the time, however, their responses involve equally disturbing anecdotes about “weird kids” from their own schools. It would seem that everyone has a similar story of the outrageously “different” classmate (eating aluminum cans turns out to be only mildly aberrant behavior compared to some of these deviant tales). And if they didn’t, now they can watch Jackass.
True to its name, Jackass is comprised of idiotic acts, more precisely, videotaped practical jokes, foolish stunts, and unusual behaviors perpetrated by several white male twentysomethings for broadcast on MTV. The show is the latest of the channel’s male-oriented, lowbrow comedy programs with predecessors like Beavis & Butt-head and The Tom Green Show. (Other channels have been quick to follow suit with their own versions of these shows, as evidenced by Comedy Central’s South Park and The Man Show and E! Entertainment Television’s The Howard Stern Show, starring the man who set radio-broadcast precedents for many of today’s TV performers, who also derive from Spike Jones, Benny Hill, Monty Python, et. al.)
Beavis and Butt-head were comically pathetic in their stupidity and, consequently, the show was a highly ironic and self-mocking representation of young men’s inexplicable fascination with poo and dead animals, among other things. Tom Green rushes, somewhat less ironically, to embrace such leanings, and so his stunts range from humping a dead moose and deriving sadistic pleasure by forcing his hapless co-host (Glenn Humplik) to eat a pickle out of a jar (supposedly) flavored with Green’s urine, to playing elaborate and sometimes cruel practical jokes on the unsuspecting, his own parents, and the elderly (like when he turned a seniors’ aerobic class into a simulated porno film). On the irony scale, Jackass situates itself somewhere between its two predecessors in relation to its lowbrow content. On the one hand, the show resembles The Tom Green Show in that its cast members look like they genuinely enjoy playing with poo, taking unrepentant delight in behaviors that would be called disgusting by most observers. Jackass is also self-mocking, however, because (as the show’s title implies) its stars are, themselves, the most frequent victims of their twisted, inane experiments. To the sadism of Tom Green’s practical jokes, the cast members of Jackass add strongly masochistic tendencies and turn their skewed practices upon themselves.
The show’s host, Johnny Knoxville, is probably the most abused of all. In the premiere episode, he wears Elvis-style sunglasses and hoists an American flag while an accomplice variously sprays him with mace, shocks him with a stun gun, and shoots him with tazer darts. The ordeal is, to say the least, a surreal and disturbing spectacle and only hints at the great lengths taken to shock the audience into horrified laughter. To this end, the premiere closes with its host entombed in a port-o-potty, which is then summarily dumped upside down by a garbage truck. The crew is crafty enough to position a camera inside the outhouse (the “Poo Cam”) in order to show every revolting detail of Knoxville’s experience. There’s more, apparently indefinitely more. In the show’s brief tenure on the air, the unfortunate Knoxville has been tossed around by a sumo wrestler and caned by the match’s referee, sprayed repeatedly by a skunk, and set on fire and used as a human grill to cook steaks.
Such stunts are at once more horrific and more enjoyable than the shenanigans on most other like-minded shows on television, as these tend to make unwilling minorities the butt of every joke (women in The Man Show, the infirm on The Tom Green Show, and everyone on the planet on South Park). Jackass doesn’t wholly promote self-abuse, however, no matter how much fun it looks like. And so whether for insurance reasons or out of genuine concern for viewers’ safety Jackass makes it clear that no one should be emulating this behavior. On the show’s official website a warning reads, “MTV insists that our viewers do not send in any home footage of themselves or others being jackasses. We will not open or view any submissions, so don’t even bother.” A similar warning, replete with skull and crossbones, runs at every commercial break during the show’s airing.
And yet, the outrageousness might look for a minute anyway like fun. Certainly, other cast members join in, repeatedly. The first episode highlights the joys of riding in shopping carts as they push each other at high speeds into parking lot medians. Some of the more spectacularly violent crashes are replayed from different angles for full effect. Other sketches show cast members riding skateboards, kayaks, wheelchairs, pogo sticks, and children’s big wheel bikes down cement steps, through four-way stop intersections, and into suburban bushes and shrubbery. The results most closely resemble the painful outtakes from a bizarre extreme sports competition. “Bizarre” is perhaps the best word for it. After South Park and The Tom Green Show burst onto television with their brands of taboo-smashing pranks (anal probing aliens, suckling from cow udders, etc.), it seemed a safe bet that the avant-garde of comedy had pushed the boundaries of cable TV to their limits. The excesses of Jackass prove just how elastic those boundaries are, and just how far television producers think they have to go to provoke laughter. Spike Jonze, noted director of the unconventional film Being John Malkovich and music videos like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” is one of the show’s co-producers and it’s clear that the surreal quality of Jackass is informed by his tendency to break from standard forms of entertainment.
Of course, comedy has always pushed the envelopes of “acceptable” entertainment (see Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, etc.), and so, Jackass is just the latest effort in a long standing tradition of comedy’s antagonistic relationship with cultural norms. No sooner did Tom Green simulate porno with a live sheep, than Jackass showed Steve-O swallowing and then regurgitating a whole live goldfish. No sooner did we see cartoon children throwing up all over themselves in South Park, than Jackass staged its very own hard-boiled egg-eating contest (modeled after the famous scene in Cool Hand Luke) that soon disintegrated into a free-for-all barf-o-rama. While these displays are obviously gross, to condemn them as such is to misunderstand a key element of the cultural function of comedy. The eye-popping, gag-inducing, jaw-dropping comedic assaults of Jackass are funny because they take such exaggerated steps over the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Some may laugh in horror at the shocking behavior represented by the show, others may laugh vindictively at the indignities suffered by its cast members, still others may laugh because the cast get to do transgressive things never before considered by straight laced members of society. For any (or all) of these reasons, then, Jackass is a success and will continue to be so until that day when something as bizarre as “Poo Diving” becomes merely tame and passe.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jackass/