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Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough: An Ode to Jackass

Jackass first aired over ten years ago in October of 2000, before 9/11, before the iPhone and before Facebook. There's something about those early episodes that harken back to a simpler time. Perhaps it's the sheer and raw excitement of seeing someone risking getting injured for our amusement. Perhaps it's the fact they used a Minutemen song (the excellent "Corona") as their theme. Perhaps I'm a little too hungover right now to write a "list of three" punchline here. Perhaps it's a combination of all these things.

It wasn't so much a show as it was a spectacle; an America's Funniest Home Videos for people that weren't dead inside. Sure, it was filled with poo and vomit and people drinking enough milk to vomit into a top hat1, but there was something about THOSE guys at THAT time doing THEM stunts. The thing about Jackass that you have to keep in mind is that it was a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Jackass came about due to skate culture; a combination of talents from the east coast CKY collective and Big Brother Magazine. The CKY collective (based in and around West Chester, PA) consisted of Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Rake Yohn, and Raab Himself. The Big Brother guys were a little more all over the place, with Big Brother editor Jeff Tremaine working with legendary music video director and skate photographer Spike Jonze to pitch a show to MTV. A young freelancer (hey!) named Philip Clapp had recently pitched Jeff an article wherein he tested self defense equipment such as stun guns on himself. You may know Philip by another name: Johnny Knoxville.

Following Knoxville, Tremaine hired a quite literal street clown — the son of a Pepsi executive who at that time was performing at a freak show within a run-down flea market in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida — who had also submitted videos to Jeff. His name was Steven Glover, or Steve-O to his friends. Jason "Wee Man" Acuna was the subscription manager at Big Brother and himself a skateboarding little person, and fit the bill perfectly. Previously an improv comic and bit part actor around Los Angeles, Preston Lacy was the only member of the group to actively audition.

The show went from a cult hit to the mainstream within the first six episodes airing, and it's easy to see why2: it's the kind of thing people talk about. Hey, did you see that guy swallow a goldfish and throw it back up? Hey, did you see the guy wearing a suit of armor get picked up by the scrapyard magnet? As a high school student in the year 2000 it was one of those things that EVERYONE talked about. It was one of the last culturally relevant things MTV did before venturing headfirst into a pile of shitty reality shows and tween baiting3.

By the beginning of the second season, the cast was beginning to express their dissatisfaction with MTV to the media, with Johnny Knoxville stating in an interview with Rolling Stone that the show would cease its run after the end of the third season. MTV was paying the cast "next to nothing," according to Steve-O, while the network reaped huge profits from advertising and merchandise from the show, the networks second flagship behind the TRL juggernaut. Halfway through season three, after a particularly nasty battle with MTV, Bam Margera and the CKY crew left the show for good. As it turns out, due to the cast's dissatisfaction over censorship and lack of decent pay, the network had been toying with the idea of recasting the show and keeping the name. Fortunately, that never came to pass.

Without any sort of finale for the show, the cast decided to reunite for Jackass: The Movie, which came out in 2002 as a farewell to fans. MTV had only given the cast $5 million to shoot the feature, and the film garnered twelve times that on its opening weekend, grossing $60 million.

After the movie, the cast disbanded and worked on separate projects. Bam appeared on his own reality fuckaround Viva La Bam, Johnny starred in movies, Steve-O and Chris Pontius appeared in the Tremaine-directed Wildboyz, and Ryan Dunn got his own show entitled Homewrecker, a rather lackluster offering which underutilized him and lasted but one season. During filming of the fourth season of Wildboyz, Knoxville hung for a number of weeks and filmed segments without necessarily getting paid for them. This in turn cause Tremaine to ask Johnny if he'd be interested in doing another movie. Jackass Number Two (and its hour-long outtake reel Jackass 2.5) grossed $85 million despite only costing MTV and Paramount $11 million to make. For 2010's Jackass 3D, the budget was upped to $20 million4, and yet pulled in an astounding $172 million worldwide.

On June 14th of this year, Jackass 3.5, a collection of outtakes from Jackass 3D, was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. This was, in theory, to be the last of Jackass movies. Less than a week later, on June 20th, one of its stars would die in a horrific car accident.

Ryan Dunn was the perennially bearded member of the crew who always seemed the most reluctant to do a stunt, thus making him the most relatable to the viewing audience. His easygoing personality made him one of the most likeable, too. In a cast full of archetypes (little person, Hollywood frontman, circus freak) Dunn was the everyman; the guy you'd most like to share a beer with. Ironically, he died after driving his car 140mph into a forest with a blood alcohol level significantly higher than twice the legal limit, his car flying some 40 yards through the trees before finally laying to rest and bursting into flames. It was a truly horrific accident.

What does this mean for Jackass? It's hard to say. There's a part near the end of Michael Chabon's novel Wonder Boys that says that true male friendship verges into Don Quixote territory; that one must be ready to ride and fight the metaphorical windmill together, doing outrageously stupid shit and pushing the boundaries of sobriety and common sense together, in order to cement those bonds5. One can imagine that the cast would not want to carry on without Ryan. The show's true brilliance came not from its gross-out stunts but from the real comraderie that seemed to come from the screen, the overwhelming feeling that those guys truly liked each other so much so that they'd go to lengths as great as diving into a river of poo to outdo one another.

Separately, the members of the crew we came to know as 'Jackass' were all talented in their own rights, and arguably charming. But together — between Tremaine's straightforward honesty and non-ironic-to-the-point-of-irony style of direction, to the visual aesthetic of the show, to the impeccable music selection, to the cast as a whole doing stunts together — there has never been nor will there be anything else quite like it.

Louis CK put it best in an interview he conducted with Pitchfork which had the unusual distinction of being released the day the news broke about Dunn's death:

The Jackass movies are honestly some of the best movies I've ever seen. I laugh so hard at them. Those guys are geniuses. If they had grown up with a different group of people, they could've been performance artists at Bard College, and people would be writing papers about them. There's a real beauty in it, and there's a release to watching those movies. But it's because they're doing things to each other as friends.

Louis is exactly right. Right at the end of Jackass 3.5 there's a montage of clips of the crew being getting hit in the balls with a basketball, in a segment that Johnny introduces as "Epic Nut Shots." The timing in what they did was impeccable; there is something almost Buster Keaton-esque about watching Johnny Knoxville get slammed in the nuts with a basketball thrown from a 50 foot tall bridge; something truly classic about him sitting on the wing of a biplane, whooping and yelling before throwing a basketball (and amazingly connecting) with one of his friends poor nutsacks on the ground below. While it's certainly not what scholars might consider classic cinema, I'd be willing to bet that Jackass will be shown as classic comedy for years to come. I think it showed a group of guys having the time of their lives and offering much needed release during a time in American history when it needed it the most.

There's something, watching the early episodes now, quite, dare I say it, "magical" about the cast. If you take away the contemporary music and put on, say, Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable," the show takes on a whole new quality. Go ahead. Try it. Get some friends over. If you're not a fan, give the show another chance outside of the context of the frat-boy humor in which the show was framed by. Shit, enjoy a bottle of wine and a platter of fine cheeses as you watch the merry men take pleasure in epic nut shots and poo diving. I can assure you that the magic will not be lost. There was no ego. There was no pretension. Can you find an ounce of pretension in watching a fat man wrapped in a bedsheet chase a midget in a diaper? No. You can't6.

What shines through is that it's a show, ultimately, about the absolute true friendship between that group of guys and the lengths they went to to make eachother laugh. Dunn's death might have ended the show as we know it, a fact that is nearly as sad as his death: that the laughter has ended.

Perhaps that's why I'm finding the ending of this article so hard to write; that I don't quite want to believe the show (and the gang as we know it) to be over. That show was just so fucking cathartic. Art, in essence, and I'm probably fucking up the quote anyway, is about making one realize something that they've buried. And that show was pure art. It made you bond with everyone in the room when you watched it, forgetting your differences or the fact you'd had a bad day… I can remember looking around the room some of those times, watching everyone — people coming in from other rooms to see what we were guffawing about so loudly — laughing along with the stunts. I laughed so true and so hard with so many friends over the years over that show. There was something so primal in laughing at those stunts; that kind of ultimate release comes from a deep place. Yes, I'm giving poo and willy jokes a lot of credit. Brilliantly done poo and willy jokes don't get nearly the amount of honest credit that they rightfully deserve.

1 This bit features the only appearance by the one and only Chris Nieretko, who wrote an oddly poignant and hilarious memoir disguised as a book of DVD porn review entitled "Skinema", which I highly recommend for those who might find that sort of thing interesting.

2 The kind of pre-internet word of mouth marketing that social media professionals these days foam at the mouth over, amirite? #brocial-media

3 Also: "something something music videos", "something something get off my lawn".

4 Keep in mind that the average low budget Hollywood studio movie costs around $50 million.

5 This is probably not what Chabon intended to say, one can imagine.

6 If you can, you have no soul.

Ned Hepburn lives in New York and really misses LA's tacos.

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  • Brad Nelson@twitter

    "ode"

    • Ned Hepburn@twitter

      @Brad Nelson "bro-ode"

    • STC@twitter

      @Ned Hepburn@twitter DIDI MAU!

  • http://twitter.com/nonvolleyball nonvolleyball

    totally agree that Jackass is too often dismissed as stupid brah comedy & thus totally underrated–although Viva la Bam & Wildboys did a good job of diluting the "brand" enough to make that critique seem more valid. Johnny Knoxville may not be the most sophisticated performance artist out there, but his impact (& the visceral reaction he's gotten from an audience of millions) is undeniable.

  • joeclark

    “MTV had only given the cast $5 million to shoot the feature, and the film garnered twelve times that on it's opening weekend, grossing $60 million dollars”: Sixty million dollars dollars? And are you saying the movie took in five 5 times times 12 twelve or sixty 60 million dollars $ total, and it all happened in one weekend?

    (“It’s”?)

    “An astounding $172 million dollars”!

    • Ned Hepburn@twitter

      @joeclark good catch. It looks like I deleted half of a sentence somehow during my final edit, looking at my notes here. Thanks dude.

  • Ryan Warnberg@facebook

    Totally agree. My friends and I would have "Jackass Parties" whenever a new episode aired back in the day. Great article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darin-Bulai/100001269810793 Darin Bulai

    Amen to this whole article. I remember when the show first started (and it truly was a phenomenon at the time), and I was one of those people that dismissed it as stupid frat humor. My friends were vehement, though. So I sat my dumb ass down and watched it with some of them, and ended up having a similar experience to what you describe: everyone laughing (together) as hard as I can ever remember. The whole franchise might be past it's expiration date at this point, but if they do end up putting out something else, you can bet I'll be front of the fucking line.

  • http://www.worleygig.com Rezpect

    Nice piece! By the by, the oft-referenced "CKY" stands for "Camp Kill Yourself." I didn't see that explained anywhere in the article (let me know if I just missed it) and I think that is worth mentioning