“Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville – welcome to Jackass!”*Strum, strum, strum…*
How can one explain those words becoming the iconic piece of millennial culture as they have? What makes this beautiful bastardization of another famous Johnny’s musical intro instill such excitement in global audiences?
After more than 20 years, four box-office hits, and a smattering of spin-off television shows and straight-to-video films, it might be silly to wonder why a multimedia intellectual property like Jackass could continue to thrive. But in a world of increasingly volatile performative outrage and so-called “woke mobs”, where even the idea of “comedy” is dissected with such intense scrutiny, it’s truly a wonder that something like Jackass remains as popular as ever, let alone exists.
That a bunch of straight, white middle-aged dudes can spend more than two decades kicking each other in the nuts on their way to smashing box-office records is truly remarkable. And that’s without mentioning how hard it actually is to make something so absurdly dumb, so delightfully enjoyable.
At its best, Jackass is not unlike the bulls that series star and stunt performer Johnny Knoxville has so famously tangled with throughout the film series. It is raucous and unruly, but also uniquely grand and alluring in its own way. It is a boisterous ballet with many acts. It is anti-establishment with a wink and a smile and, in its heyday, there weren’t many other straight white guys on television that would so brashly fly in the face of America’s Bush-era culture.
Jackass the MTV series was a moment in time for early aughts audiences. And 20 years and multiple blows to the head, heart, and extremities later, that moment has proven to be damn near immortal. So why does Jackass work? Is it the charismatic cast of Evel Knievel disciples? The chemistry between its subjects? The influence it’s had on a generation of DIY daredevils and shock vloggers? The homage to silent film slapstick and Saturday morning cartoon violence? The train-wreck psychology that prevents us from being able to look away from such mayhem? Or is it just the thrill of watching a bunch of hilariously dumb pranks, depraved stunts, and dick jokes?
Let’s make like the physicians of Jackass’ collective cast and get down and dirty with some in-depth examination.
Jackass is a celebration of finding your tribe – the people who embrace you for all your faults and eccentricities, because when it comes to Jackass’ onscreen talent, we’re not watching “co-stars” at work. These are not co-workers. They are friends. And it’s that friendship and brotherly love between the entire Jackass crew that takes the franchise’s offerings to another level of humor and pathos, beyond what one might assume would accompany such havoc and hooliganism.
Despite coming from all corners of the US, the chemistry between Jackass’ core cast members has been a driving force of the IP’s appeal since day one. Their camaraderie shines through in even the most chaotic moments. There’s a distinct sense of worry when a fellow soldier takes too hard a hit, and an even more palpable sense of relief and celebration when a cast member gets back up.
Jackass’ cast members each have their own unique personalities, quirks, and interests. Whether it’s Johnny Knoxville’s penchant for blunt force trauma, Steve-O and Chris Pontius’ preoccupation with full-frontal nudity, or even Dave England’s expertise in the realm of toilet humor (and I mean that quite literally) – each individual brings their own unique shtick to the table.
Over the course of two-plus decades, the audience’s understanding of the cast members’ ticks, talents, and fears has made them all the more lovable. We’ve seen these characters grow and flourish before our eyes. Dave England and “Danger” Ehren McGhehey are practically an old married couple by the time Jeff Tremaine’s Jackass Forever rolled around this year. Preston Lacy and Wee Man have gone from the comic ‘odd couple’, united by the contrasting extremes of their physiques, to an inseparable duo with an endearing back-and-forth. For better or worse, even the rock ‘n’ roll flair of Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, and the rest of the CKY (Camp Kill Yourself) crew lingers in the wake of Dunn’s demise and Bam’s subsequent relapse-induced exit from the franchise. Each of these characters represents a colorful piece of the Jackass puzzle.
Another reason the cast works so well is, despite occasionally trying to come off as tough guys – they aren’t. These guys laugh in the face of uber-American machismo (even despite their obsession with the male organ). There’s an every-man quality to each participant, in some way or another. Nine times out of ten, they’re as distressed to partake in their stunts as you and I would be. They embrace their vulnerability without fear of seeming weak or emasculated, and that adds a distinct relatability throughout the franchise’s offerings. All of us know a Johnny Knoxville. And all of us certainly know a Danger Ehren.
Where Hilarity Meets Horror
While Jackass’ place in the pantheon of American comedy is unmistakable – serving as a link between the days of Buster Keaton and a generation of amateur chain-yankers and daredevil documentarians including YouTube pranksters the Nelk Boys, Roman Atwood and even eventual Jackass Forever cast member Zach “Zackass” Holmes – it’s hard not to recognize the franchise’s more horror-influenced characteristics. I’d go so far as to say that Jackass might be every bit a horror franchise as it is a comedy.
As impossible as it may be to not laugh whilst a troupe of “attention whores” are collectively shot, shocked, shoved, stung, and shat upon – we’re drawn to such content because of our inherent desire for novel experiences, often at others’ expense. It’s the train wreck we can’t look away from that brings us the mental and physical stimulation we crave. Our brains recognize what occurs onscreen as a non-threat as we continue to stare or engage with what we’re seeing in an effort to face our fears without risking immediate harm.
Like horror films, the calamitous and mortifying events depicted within Jackass give us the opportunity to confront our fear of death, pain, and degradation from the safety and comfort of our local movie theater or living room. It’s the same sensation experienced when looking out the observation deck of a towering skyscraper or staring down a dangerous animal in an enclosure at the zoo.
According to psychiatrist David Henderson, “We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: ‘If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? […]’ We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control.” (Page, 2017)
Some psychologists theorize that an inherent negativity bias, or the tendency to automatically give more attention to a negative event and negative information than positive information or events, drives our inability to look away from disastrous scenarios. They believe humans react to and learn more from our negative experiences than we do from our positive experiences, as negative events activate more psychological arousal within our brains compared to positive ones.
To that end, watching something like Jackass might even be good for you. According to John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at Doctor on Demand, “The healthy mechanism of watching disasters is that it is a coping mechanism,” he explains. “We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives. Looking at disasters stimulates our empathy and we are programmed as humans to be empathetic — it is a key psychosocial condition that makes us social human beings.” (Page, 2017)
And here you were, thinking you wouldn’t learn about the mental and emotional benefits of watching Jackass!
The Bright Side of Bodily Trauma
Ultimately, however, I believe the most prominent reason for Jackass’ success to be its complete and total lack of malice. For all the harrowing stunts, pranks, and debauchery, there’s seldom anything actually mean-spirited about what transpires.
With the exception of turning some bystanders into unwilling participants during hidden-camera hijinks in the franchise’s early days, the Jackass crew does their damnedest to avoid punching down – especially if it gives them an excuse to punch each other. But of course, through all the crotch shots and targeted on-set shenanigans, nothing ever ends without a laugh. This is a group of individuals who have learned to trust each other with their lives, and it shows.
At its core, Jackass is a reminder of its audience’s own mortality, executed in the most absurdly lighthearted of ways, begetting true timelessness. It’s Barnum & Bailey for the social media generation. Furthermore, much of Jackass’ audience has grown up along with its cast. We’ve seen them thrive and fail, both within the confines of Jackass and elsewhere. For every Viva La Bam there is a Steve-O rap album. That’s the funny thing about being a bunch of self-admitted “attention whores” – you can’t always control what kind of attention you receive.
And now, with the recent injection of newer, younger cast members in Jackass Forever (Tremaine, 2022), it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the torch (and crutches) will soon be passed. A new generation of Jackasses is assembling – one more reflective of its diverse audience, but hopefully with the same degree of rapport.
I say bring on this next generation of professional buffoonery. If we’ve learned anything from Jackass, it’s that this poop-, puke-, pee-, blood-, sweat- and tear-covered franchise can seemingly survive anything. So why not let it continue bridging the gap between the antics of Wile E. Coyote and the appetites of the TikTok generation?
Jackass is a complex beast. It is a case study in the sadomasochism of worldwide film and television audiences, and a testament to the theory that fame and fortune really are the great, unrivaled American motivators.
It is a twisted and turbulent sideshow gloriously devoted to a distinct alternative to American hypermasculinity – and an exemplification of the Freudian preoccupation with the human phallus.
It is an exploration of the limits of the human anatomy and yet a celebration of body positivity – where full-frontal goes full-throttle and low-brow goes high-octane.
It is a profound and pioneering form of chaos media from which millions of movie-goers have been unable to avert their eyes.
Or, maybe it’s just a bunch of hilariously dumb pranks, depraved stunts, and dick jokes.
*Strum, strum, strum…*
Page, D. The Science Behind Why We Can’t Look Away From Tragedy. NBCNews.com. 6 November 2017. Retrieved 22 February 2022.