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Brothers in Broken Arms

‘Jackass Forever,’ the fourth movie in Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, and Spike Jonze’s profanely hilarious series, is a reminder that there’s far more to it than nut shots

Dan Evans

Of all the ways they put their penises in danger, the swarm of bees was the worst.

While shooting a Jackass Forever stunt, a butt-naked Stephen “Steve-O” Glover hung a tiny box holding a hive’s queen bee on his dick. That caused thousands upon thousands of other bees to fly in and latch on. “Before the movie he’s telling me all about his meditation and his yoga. You know, mind over matter,” says Johnny Knoxville, who was watching nearby. “Instantly he just started losing his mind. Because the bees started stinging him.”

The pain was so intense that the man who once got tattooed while off-roading through the desert in a bouncing Hummer screamed and shook. “As soon as you start freaking out, they react to you reacting,” says director Jeff Tremaine. “He came in cocky—then he got the first sting and that just started melting him down. And he’s getting stung in places you don’t like getting stung.”

When Jackass Forever opens in theaters on Friday, the bee scene is not the only one that will make audiences grab their crotches in reflexive sympathy. Throughout the movie, the cast—and specifically their groins—take hits from hockey pucks, softballs, a pogo stick, a UFC champion’s fist, spring-loaded flip-flops, wild animals, and various other projectiles. Infantile mayhem is a long-standing Jackass tradition—from “Nutball” to the “Cup Test,” from “Basketball Nut Shots” to “Tee Ball.” To this crew, the bit never stops being funny.

“If you’re walking down the street and you see someone fall and hit their elbow real hard, you’re not going to laugh,” Knoxville says. “But if you see their nuts get smoked, you’re just instantly going to laugh.”

Tremaine shrugs: “You get a bunch of guys that have been together this long, and I guess the most primal, basic thing to do is just attack their wieners.”

Since it debuted on MTV in October 2000, Jackass has appealed to the most base of instincts. Knoxville and his band of reckless imps have risked life, limb, and genitals with a single goal: to make each other laugh. But in the midst of letting baby alligators bite their nipples and shooting fireworks out of their buttholes, they tumbled face-first into something else. Nearly every Jackass sequence—even the most torturous stuff—is an exercise in trust, bonding, and mutual support. In this group, extreme vulnerability is a prerequisite. And underneath all of the nut shots, the party boying, and the porta-potty hijinks has emerged a genuinely profound exploration of masculinity.

“Well, it’s an examination of brotherhood,” Knoxville clarifies. “As far as masculinity goes? We’re not that masculine.”

Jackass’s gloriously broken brain trust of Knoxville, Tremaine, and filmmaker Spike Jonze say they don’t spend much time ruminating on the meaning of what they do. For them, thinking too hard about the franchise goes against its nature: “I can’t intellectualize it,” Knoxville says. “I know how to make it funny.” But whether or not he acknowledges it, there’s far more to Jackass than nut shots.

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

These days, Johnny Knoxville’s hair no longer matches his black-rimmed glasses. Chatting over video, his grays are prominent—and wearing a green cardigan embroidered with a small Jackass skull and crutch-bones logo, he looks just a little like his grandpa character Irving Zisman. But just because the franchise’s ringleader has hit 50 doesn’t mean he acts like it.

Hell, for Jackass Forever, Knoxville was willing to be shot out of a cannon. And get run over by a bull. Twice. The first time, he says, “was painful but didn’t look great. Which is like one of the worst things on Jackass.” He recalls looking over at Jason “Wee Man” Acuña and asking him how he thought it went: “He goes, ‘I don’t think it’s what you wanted.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

For the second attempt, a new bull entered the ring. That one charged at Knoxville and sent him flying. “The physics of it …” Tremaine says, trailing off. “He’s spinning so fast and nothing breaks the fall except his face and head. It was the first thing to hit on a flip and a half. He didn’t go up. He just pinwheeled super fast. And it was scary because he was snoring.” By Tremaine’s count, Knoxville was unconscious for at least two minutes. “I was in the hospital for the weekend with a broken wrist, broken rib, concussion, and brain hemorrhage,” says Knoxville. “And my cognitive skills were just off the rails for a few months afterward.”

The collision led Knoxville to opt out of some dangerous stunts that were planned but hadn’t been filmed yet. But hearing him list his injuries leads to an obvious question: Why would he want to do this shit to himself again? Knoxville can’t answer that exactly, other than to imply that treating himself like a crash-test dummy is what he’s always been best at. “Half-ass stunt men are terrible long-term planners,” he says, repeating a version of a quip he’s used in other recent interviews.

Jackass pioneered a style of DIY comedy, fully ushered in the era when anyone can be famous, and inspired a generation of fame-seeking social-media posters, but Knoxville claims not to feel the weight of his cultural influence. His hope for the new Jackass movie is the same one he’s always had. “The goals haven’t changed because in the beginning we were just trying to make our friends laugh,” he says. “If the guys are laughing and Tremaine’s laughing, I know we’re on to something.”

That ethos has fueled Jackass since before it even had a name. As the editor of skateboarding magazine Big Brother in the late ’90s, Tremaine hired Knoxville to test self-defense equipment and write about it. Naturally, Knoxville filmed his exploits—including a climax in which he donned a bulletproof vest and shot himself in the abdomen with a .38 revolver. The demonstration, which miraculously didn’t turn into a snuff film, left Tremaine transfixed. It also intrigued his high school friend Jonze enough to help them pitch the idea of a stunt and prank-focused series to MTV. To their shock, the network bought it.

From the beginning of Jackass, the cast was hell-bent on making each other laugh—whether it was Steve-O swallowing and then throwing up a live goldfish or Bam Margera waking up his brother by playing an electric guitar in his face. “The group has its own checks and balances and its own taste of what is funny to us,” Tremaine says. “And that’s a moving target.” But, he adds, “It’s not a clean line.”

By the second season, when Senator Joe Lieberman was calling for Jackass to be canceled, MTV began to question the show’s taste. At one point, a stunt involving Dave England cooking a “vomelet” led the network brass to send a representative from OSHA to the set. Despite pushback, Knoxville and Company refused to tweak their approach. They knew that a sanitized version of Jackass wouldn’t feel like Jackass at all. “I think we’ve adamantly never looked at it as a business or brand or anything,” Jonze says. “We really looked at it as something very personal. Especially Knoxville, because he’s put his life on the line.”

In August 2001, after only 24 episodes, Knoxville quit. But Jackass wasn’t dead. The demise of the original series freed its creators from network meddling and allowed them to make movies. From 2002 to 2010, the crew made three free-flowing movies that took everything great about the TV show—the camaraderie, the stunts, the gross-out humor—and simply multiplied it. Those movies made a combined $335.8 million worldwide.

A decade after Jackass 3D, Knoxville came to Tremaine with a proposition: Let’s get the band back together. “I was like, ‘Fuck, all right,’” the director says. Then they went to Jonze, who had his own reservations. “We’re old,” he says.

Jonze wondered if reuniting a group of guys now in their 40s and 50s would “feel sweaty.” They asked Paramount Pictures to pay for a test shoot to “see if this was really worth doing,” Jonze says.

When the Jackass cast assembled again, it just felt right. “We were all so happy to be back together and it was just fun,” Jonze says. “And we’re like, ‘Oh, this feels like we were just doing this yesterday.’ But also the new crew just blended right in and brought a whole new energy and perspective to it.”

Several of the stunts they filmed over those two days, including one called “the human ramp,” ended up in the movie. “Every dumb little idea we shot, it was just gold because of the energy,” Tremaine says. “It wasn’t because the ideas were great—we shot a lot of stupid stuff.”

Production officially began in March 2020 before COVID-19 forced a seven-month break. “When we came back, Knoxville had gray hair,” Tremaine says of his pal, who told GQ last year that he stopped dying his spiky locks.

For the first time in, well, forever, the minds behind Jackass also decided to bring in some ringers to occasionally spell veterans like Knoxville, Steve-O, Acuña, Ehren McGhehey, England, and Preston Lacy. “The fact is, we’re all older and we’re going to need some younger people to take some of the hits,” Jonze says. “It just seemed like a fun opportunity to sort of mix it up.”

The most obvious addition is 30-year-old Zach “Zackass” Holmes, a box-TV-shaped stuntman and social-media sensation. “He was one of the first names that came up and we brought him in and he was just so easy to be around,” Tremaine says. “He wasn’t trying hard. I don’t like the guys that are just so amped up. He just came in low key and easy.” Unsurprisingly, Holmes grew up idolizing the cast of Jackass. “Zach was heaven-sent,” Knoxville says. “The guy’s got a big Jackass tattoo in the middle of his chest.”

Joining Holmes are actor/hip-hop artist Jasper Dolphin, surfer Sean “Poopies” McInerney, Knoxville’s Action Point costar Eric Manaka, and Rachel Wolfson, the first woman to be part of the main Jackass cast. “She’s almost too brave,” Tremaine says. “It’s hard to get footage from her because she doesn’t have that scared reaction that you want.”

Three years ago, Knoxville first reached out to the now 35-year-old comic on Instagram. He’s been a fan of Wolfson’s comedy for years and cited a joke she once told about her mother, a judge in Nevada who once presided over a high-profile robbery case. “O.J. Simpson got sent to prison by the same woman who sent me to my room,” she tweeted in 2017. “We both got out.”

“He was very, very supportive of the content I was pushing out. Way more supportive than the guy I was dating at the time,” Wolfson says. “I went to my boyfriend at the time. I was like, ‘Why does Knoxville like all of my photos, but you don’t like one?’ And then one day, Knoxville slid into my DMs—respectfully, of course.”

That conversation led to a phone call, and then a meeting with Knoxville and Tremaine, and then eventually an offer to appear in Jackass Forever. “I remember calling my parents, telling them, ‘Hey, I just got a phone call from Johnny Knoxville. He wants to know if I want to be part of the new Jackass movie.’” Wolfson says. “And my mom was like, ‘Are you insane?’”

Like in the previous films, Jackass Forever is also chock-full of A-list cameos. Except now, the celebrities that stop by have been raised on the franchise. Guest star Eric André, for example, has long cited Jackass as an influence on his comedy. “That first year, Brad Pitt had seen the show and he just mentioned, ‘Hey, I’ll come do that with you. I love the show,’” Jonze says. “And so he came and did it with us. Because he knew the show and loved the show, he just blended right in. But now, when we’re shooting with celebrities, they’ve been watching it for 20 years.”

Knoxville was happy to be back. He missed being around his friends. “We are a great big dysfunctional family,” he says. “And I think that’s what people respond to most about Jackass. They love our dysfunctional family unit.”

Knoxville’s assessment is, frankly, an understatement. The members of the Jackass family have spent much of their existence feeling the effects of being part of a franchise built on risky behavior. And they’re the only ones who truly know what it’s like when the adrenaline rush wears off. Knoxville, a father of three, has suffered crushing physical and mental pain. Steve-O has dealt with multiple addictions. (He’s been sober since 2008.) In 2011, castmate Ryan Dunn died in a high-speed drunk driving crash that also killed his passenger, Zachary Hartwell. And former Jackass stalwart Bam Margera, who’s struggled with substance misuse, is suing the franchise’s creators for wrongful termination from the new film. The litigation came after a Los Angeles judge granted Tremaine a restraining order on Margera, who Tremaine said threatened him and his family.

Knoxville, Tremaine, and Jonze choose not to comment on Margera or the ongoing lawsuit. The amount of collective trauma that the group has suffered is enough to fracture even the strongest of clans. But even as ugly as the situation with Margera has become, the Jackass family is still intact. That’s clear, especially to those who just joined it.

“They’ve been through so much, and it’s so obvious when you get to set and just spend time with the guys that they really do care and love each other,” Wolfson says. “You can’t deny it.”

“There’s a lot of cock in this film,” Knoxville confirms.

Consider: Chris Pontius’s penis doesn’t just appear in the movie, it’s literally a character in it. (Don’t check IMDb—the role is uncredited.) “I think Pontius, as far as Hollywood films go, has probably been nude [on] screen more than anyone else,” Knoxville adds. “Of course there’s blue movies, but that’s a different thing.”

But underneath Knoxville’s dick jokes is a more poignant observation: The Jackass guys are extraordinarily comfortable around each other. “It’s just about embracing who everybody is,” Jonze says. “And Chris likes running around naked.”

Jackass wouldn’t work without a high level of trust and support. How else could McGhehey survive being practically served to a hungry brown bear? “He got some hugs afterward,” Knoxville says. “He was told, ‘Good job.’ You’ve got to give him some affirmations.”

In the world of Jackass, peer pressure can be a positive force. For her most intense stunt, Wolfson had to lick a taser—while attempting not to scream out in pain. Her castmates’ encouragement helped her get through it. “When I did it at first and I didn’t make a sound,” she says, “the reaction I got from all the guys, they were so stoked. And it was like, ‘Oh, wow. I think I just proved myself.’”

To this day, the group’s collective fearlessness is a byproduct of its leader. Knoxville, who last weekend survived a promotional appearance in WWE’s Royal Rumble, isn’t merely the Jackass host. He’s its chief daredevil. “He’s the only one of the guys that truly will just take it out of his control,” Tremaine says. “None of the other guys will do stuff that they have no control over with their free will.”

Like, for example, the time when he let the super heavyweight boxer Butterbean punch him out in a department store. After the severe beating, the concussed Knoxville managed to joke, “Is Butterbean OK?”

“I thought I killed him,” Knoxville says, holding up his fists. “I thought these two things had killed him.”

For now, Knoxville has said that he’s done subjecting himself to such punishment. But though his Jackass reign may be coming to an end, he’s not interested in talking about its legacy. “We do what we do,” he says, “and that’s not our job.”

But it is my job. Over the past 20 or so years, nothing has captured the often inexplicable experience of male bonding better than Jackass. Without relying on misogyny or homophobia, it has depicted men earnestly and vulnerably supporting each other. Sometimes in the name of licking a fart bubble, but what are you gonna do? Boys will be boys.

The franchise is at once infantile, profane, gross, and hilarious—and thus universal. After all, it’s nearly impossible to watch Knoxville knock his unsuspecting buddies over with a giant hand without laughing and thinking about how your own pals would react to it. And therein lies the beauty of Jackass: It’s about friendship. Sure, it’s full of nihilistic, bone-shattering pranks, but those wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the guys pulling them on camera didn’t care deeply about each other.

“The people are people that we want to hang out with,” Jonze says. “And they all love each other.”

Even if they occasionally hit each other in the balls.

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