Johnny Knoxville captured the Jackass ethos when he said, “There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity.” This line was uttered in the first episode of Season 2 as his castmate, Chris Pontius, prepared to be savaged by a trained attack dog. Pontius was best known for his thong-clad, gyrating stripper alter-ego Party Boy. For this bit, though, he was wearing a fuzzy pink bunny rabbit costume. So which was this: brave or stupid? Bravery is a word that conjures images of daring and determination in the presence of danger. Which fits the bill here. Except—and this is crucial—one can be brave only in service of a cause that is generally considered worthwhile, larger than oneself, even noble. Does doing it for attention count?
“Are you nervous?” Knoxville asked Pontius, grinning behind black sunglasses. Lanky and rakish, Johnny was a struggling actor and writer before his exploits as a willing flesh-piñata turned him into a dirtbag James Dean. Pontius, meanwhile, with his broad face and soft smiling features, exuded a guileless quality that read as innocence All this created an interesting contrast when he was doing stunts, like, say, drinking horse semen.
“In a way,” Pontius replied.
“In what way?” Knoxville asked.
“In the way that this big dog is going to come attack me.”
Attack it does, with a snarling alacrity bespeaking to the joy it takes in its job. Pontius’s bunny head pops off. The trainer, a genial older gentleman, jogged over and stood between the dog’s snapping jaws and Pontius’s exposed head and neck. They ran it back a second time with similar results. The third time, the dog, which is roughly the size of a small horse and, in Knoxville’s words, “so mean,” ripped the bunny head off, shook it, spit it out, then returned to feast on Pontius’s upraised right arm. Knoxville cackled with delight. The next segment featured Steve-O, the down-for-anything (and as we would later discover, very troubled) ex-circus clown snorting an earthworm into his nasal cavity and removing it still wriggling from his mouth.
This, dear friends, was Jackass.
For those unaware, Jackass was an extreme stunt reality show that ran on MTV from 2000 to 2002. The program spawned three full-length films along with assorted spinoffs and has been blamed for several deaths and numerous injuries. The show developed out of a video recorded by Knoxville, née Philip John “P.J.” Clapp, in 1998, to accompany an article he was writing for the influential skateboarding-culture and humor magazine Big Brother. It depicted, with harrowing vérité, Knoxville testing pepper-spray, a stun gun, and a taser on himself and culminated with him donning a bulletproof vest and firing a .38 revolver at his own abdomen.
“When [Knoxville] came back with that video footage,” Jeff Tremaine, Big Brother’s editor, said in 2007, “it was my big, bright idea moment and I thought, ‘This could be on TV.’” Tremaine recruited his friend, the director Spike Jonze, to the project. A demo reel was produced. A bidding war between MTV and Comedy Central. MTV offered Tremaine, Knoxville, and Jonze more creative control and, voila, Jackass had a home.
The rest of the cast was recruited through Big Brother. Pontius was a writer for the magazine. Dave England, a former snowboarder whose best Jackass skits all seemed to involve feces, was the editor of Blunt, Big Brother’s snowboard publication. Jason “Wee Man” Acuña worked as Big Brother’s subscription manager. Steve-O cold-mailed videos of himself to Big Brother. Skateboarder Bam Margera appeared in the magazine’s pages and his like-minded exploits got him noticed by Tremaine. Like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently working out calculus in the 17th century, the Pennsylvania native began releasing stunt and prank videos in 1999 under the brand name CKY (Camp Kill Yourself). These featured numerous future Jackass cast members including Brandon DiCamillo, the late Ryan Dunn, Raab Himself, and Rake Yohn.
I first saw Knoxville’s self-defense test in 1999 at my friend Keith’s house while in a state of abject inebriation. This is how all skate videos were meant to be watched in the era before YouTube. The clip appeared on Number Two, the second of Big Brother’s line of sporadically produced tapes. These were highly prized by skateboarders and especially by the skater-adjacents who didn’t have the requisite skills or pain tolerance but liked wearing Independent Truck Company hoodies and getting baked in parking lots.
I was neither; Keith was the latter. Too uncoordinated and nerdy and round-the-clock stoned to do more than kick a board across flat pavement, Keith was nevertheless accepted into the local skater firmament by being the Dude Who Knew Things. This was an invaluable skill in the days before Google and smartphones. For example, around that time, Keith, with minimal explanation, handed me a dubbed VHS tape of something called The Blair Witch Project. I watched it in a darkened living room with a few buddies, one of whom fled in terror minutes into the film. I spent the next two weeks thinking I had watched an actual demonic snuff movie.
Knoxville’s display of dumbass bravado floored me. It was way beyond stupid. It was utterly reckless. It was shocking but also somehow cathartic. I was transfixed. “MTV is making a show out of this,” Keith said matter of factly through a haze of bong smoke. There’s no way they can air this, I thought. (Months later, Keith filmed himself biting the head off a pigeon in the parking lot of the local skate shop. I was and am still appalled. Both for the senseless death of an innocent animal and because Ozzy Osbourne did it first.)
The show debuted in October 2000. Four months later, Johnny Knoxville was on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Stunts are primal entertainment. Perhaps the first entertainment. I could imagine some hunter-gatherer on the African plain thousands of years ago saying, “Hey, watch this,” to their tribemates before eating some really gross bug. Unlike narrative-based mediums like stories and jokes, a stunt doesn’t need any setup. They render the taxonomies usually deployed to divine deeper meaning from sound and images practically useless. A stunt exists as a feat unto itself, requiring no further interpretation. It’s free from historical context. A stunt is simply a very bad idea, undertaken with total commitment in pursuit of a simple aim: attention.
Joseph Pujol, an ex-soldier and baker by trade, was one of the most famous entertainers in Europe during the last decades of the 19th century. He was better known by his stage name Le Petomane. Or, in English, “the Fart-maniac.” Pujol’s talent was the ability to fart to the tune of various popular songs. I don’t speak French. I know very little about 19th-century European popular culture. None of which dims my appreciation of his craft. It’s the same with Evel Knievel’s ouvre, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, and that theoretical hunter-gatherer.
The best stunts allow an audience to vicariously experience things that human beings most wish to avoid—the imminent threat of death, grievous injury, mutilation, revulsion, humiliation. Jackass’s spin on the genre is to use symbols and settings that would normally be considered banal or harmless or even sacred.
“Anaconda Ball Pit,” for instance, finds Knoxville, Wee Man, and Dunn in a ball pit like you might find at a Chuck E. Cheese’s. Hidden under the colorful plastic balls are, as the title suggests, several appallingly large snakes. “Cup Test” sets a gang of grade schoolers to work kicking Knoxville’s testicles seemingly up into his skull. “Poo-cano” opens with shots of a model train gently rumbling across an emerald landscape of rolling hills and toy trees as Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” plays. Suddenly, a geyser of orange-brown liquid erupts from one of the hills which, it turns out, is Dave England’s ass. “Get me out of here,” he screamed from underneath the train set, butt up, knees pinned on either side of his head. “Beard of Leeches” finds Knoxville with leeches on his face dressed as Abe Lincoln reciting the “Gettysburg Address.”
This is profoundly sophomoric material. But it’s also uniquely life-affirming. An effective Jackass stunt reminded us that—beneath the glossy personas people present to the world, these beautifully filtered images of meals and vacations and perfect friends—we bleed, we shit, and we die. And though we struggle mightily, every day, to distract ourselves from these truths, we shouldn’t. Indeed, we can engage with those realities in ways that are hilarious.
Jackass grew out of skate culture, and they share a lot of philosophical DNA. One way to think about skateboarding is as an act of reclamation. The skateboarder takes existing spaces—a set of stairs, a curb, a handrail, a swimming pool, and so on—and repurposes them as a medium for public expression. A similar dynamic is at play when, say, Steve-O launches fireworks out of his anus. We all have a body. Few of us would ever use it this way.
Unfortunately, some with less training and supervision tried. In 2001, a 13-year-old from Connecticut, inspired by a Knoxville stunt involving a barbecue, lit himself on fire with the help of some friends, suffering second- and third-degree burns. Senator Joe Lieberman issued a statement to Viacom, MTV’s parent company, denouncing the show. “Ideally, I would encourage you to either cancel this exploitative and degrading show or eliminate the stunts that could be dangerous if imitated by children.” The effects were felt right away with a sketch titled “Vomlet,” in which Dave England ate the ingredients for an omelet, regurgitated them, cooked the vomited-up materials, and ate that. “We turned it in to MTV, and they decided the puke fumes were airborne pathogens,” England said in 2010. “I was pretty bummed, because we nailed it the first time. The first time I fed a bite to Steve-O, and he puked all over my leg. MTV’s insistence was to have everyone except me wear a Hazmat suit.”
Knoxville was unwilling to compromise, and in August 2001, he quit. MTV canceled Jackass soon after. And though three feature films followed, an era was over.
It was too good to be true, anyway. The moment in time when a show like Jackass could exist on television is gone. Smartphones and YouTube, aided by apps like Vine, Twitter, and Instagram have effectively democratized the kind of content that Knoxville and Margera broke their bones and penises to produce. Jackass felt special, illicit; like getting away with something. Now anyone with a phone can film, distribute, and promote their own stunts without exposing an overarching corporate entity to litigation. Within a few years of Jackass’s end, MTV moved on to the safer, celeb-friendly fare of Punk’d. It is truly bizarre to consider that Spike Jonze—in between directing Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, critically acclaimed with multiple Oscar nominations—produced and starred in a weird, lower-than-low-budget reality show influenced by skateboarding. Imagine turning on basic cable tonight and seeing, I don’t know, Denis Villeneuve draped in a latex old-person suit trailing teets like udders. It boggles the mind that this actually happened.
Jackass was, in retrospect, something like the last wheezing exhale of reality in the visual medium. When you saw a Jackass stunt, you knew that the images therein depicted an actual event. Now, the first thing you think when you see something shocking bubble up from the depths of social media, the first question you ask is: Is it real? The inheritors to Jackass’s mantle who populate YouTube are either despicable or con artists or both, and they produce viral videos that are either cringe-inducingly exploitative or computer-generated illusions or some combination of the two. Jackass was real; just look at the blood.