Art by Cath Virginia | Photo via Getty Images
At 9 p.m., the theater lights finally come on. I’m in a full audience that just wrapped up a marathon viewing of all four Jackass movies in a row. Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze are onstage with the film curator of the Museum of Moving Image, a guy named Eric. Knoxville looks out at the crowd and asks how many people have been here since 1 p.m., and I raise my hand, along with 20-odd other people around the room. He asks, “How was that?” Someone closer to the front says something. I can’t hear them, but the generationally arresting stuntman laughs: “She said, ‘Enough!’ And you know what? Tough but fair!”
I’d gotten to the first film a few minutes late, just in time to watch a golf cart flip over and see Knoxville, 20 years younger than he’ll be in person that evening, lying as a crumpled mess just off the green, concussed, but pretty much fine. Fifteen seconds later, we’re in Japan with Party Boy, the Chris Pontius character who will simply not be repressed by clothing. None of the international bits in the first movie would fly now, but as the afternoon presses forward and the series progresses, the most openly offensive footage fades into memory until you’re watching something that feels current. Sure, the nonstop barrage of dickshots, concussions, bulls, spiders, snakes, fireworks, enemas, and animal cum never lets up—but never once have you heard a cast member lament in the press that they can’t hit a gong behind someone in Japan as a gag anymore. Jackass doesn’t change, but it’s happy to grow. Because it’s not a belief, it’s a feeling. I have spent a good deal of my life trying not to feel, so partway through the first movie, I step outside to have therapy over the phone. I’m not sure if I conjured up much growth as I paced Astoria sidewalks, wondering if I was dishonoring the late Ryan Dunn’s memory by missing his coup de grâce: the scene where he puts a toy car up his ass then goes to the hospital for an X-ray. I’ve seen Jackass: The Movie enough times to know I’m also missing the part where, in a challenge to provoke his mom to say “fuck,” Bam Margera places a live alligator in her kitchen. My therapist checks several times that I’m being paid to be where I am. I keep saying, “They don’t know what Chekhov’s gun is, but that’s Chekhov’s gun! It’s theater, it’s so deeply human!” Whatever.
I’m back inside before the second film, to get a better look at the crowd. There’s an older couple, one bald guy, and about two dozen minor variations on myself: a white guy between 25 and 40. Because of the tyranny of small differences, I’d rather shoot myself with “less lethal” ammo than admit we were alike in public, but I’m not oblivious. Later, I grab quotes from a few folks. There’s a 21-year-old woman who skipped college classes to attend, and I ask her how she got into Jackass. “From the time I can remember it was just on,” she says. “I mean, it predates me!” Jackass Number Two is the Godfather: Part II of Jackass movies. The first movie is the television show in its purest form, where they could finally shoot twice the footage and throw out stuff they didn’t love, with the free reign to swear and show nudity (exclusively male, and largely under duress, thank you). Nobody’s offscreen addictions were out of hand yet: It is the perfect mix of mess and lack of consequence, of budget and imagination. When reviewing Jackass Number Two at the time of its release, the New York Times declared, “You may prefer a Buster Keaton gag to the spectacle of a man leaping from a trampoline into a ceiling fan, but you can’t argue with its purity of expression.” Back in the theater, Knoxville seems to refer to that onstage. “I didn’t start watching or referencing Buster Keaton until Jackass 2,” he says dismissively, doubling down on his often-stated insistence that Looney Tunes is the project’s primary influence. I think everyone’s right.
Before the third film begins, the curator notes that while the first two movies were shown in their original 35mm, the third will be in Its original format, 3D. Since we’re all wearing masks in the theater, this is a foggier experience. I drift a little, thinking of the last time a friend tazed me: I was 17, in a venue parking lot, and they said it was because I was wearing shorts in December, but really it was just for fun because it was funny. In middle school, Jackass made the four-foot gap in between the roof of your middle school’s snack shack and the roof of its bathroom building not only seem jumpable—because of course it was that—but maybe you could do it with a shopping cart, and what if the shopping cart was on fire? But the third installment in the movie series reveals cracks in the facade. Some cast members are puffy in a way telltale to those who know addiction. The “fuck you, man!” moments, where a cast member nearly cracks but laughs and carries on, have been replaced mainly with existential questions. Steve-O stops before a stunt and wonders aloud, sadly, “Why do I always have to be Steve-O?!” Only some Jackass stunts can be copied at home. For a smaller subset of these, even if you could do them, why would you? It’s in that slice of the pie chart that we begin to find the difference between them and us, and, maybe, where the magic is. Steve-O getting paper cuts between the webbings of his fingers and toes is a perfect example. I’ve never seen anyone attempt this. The glory of the bit is, of course, its build-up and release. The actual action will have you gasp, yelp, or just say “nope,” but the beauty is within the margins, in the face of a sentenced man. It’s there when he’s looking at the bull/riot control device/pair of tighty whities on a bungee cord, in the maniacal laughter from the failure of it all.
“I changed my mind. Stun guns are the number one most thing that I hate now. Bulls are second, snakes are third.” –Bam Margera in Jackass 3D
So why does it feel so good to watch? A lot of what these lifelong friends do to each other violates the Geneva Convention—and yet we do not feel dirty. They incorporate the ugliness of so many gritty, self-serious art films, and yet they find joy instead of sorrow, and we laugh until we cry. By making us think less and feel more, by being exactly anti-intellectual, Jackass subverts and rises above the vast majority of intellectual works that try to paint with similar shocking materials. Violence, shock, fear, and pain become leverage toward boundless, almost animal laughter. The cast of Jackass gathers some of the most painful and humiliating parts of life—universal in one sense or another—and bursts out laughing.
Once you get to the fourth movie, the newly released Jackass Forever, you can see what’s not there as much as what has remained, and what’s new. Younger cast members breathe life into the proceedings, and they’re largely the ones to take it on the chin—save for Knoxville, who saves the most dangerous shit for himself. This is another crux of the thing. Knoxville may bully you into a dangerous and humiliating situation, but the ringleader is the one to do the thing that’s actually likely to get you killed. Bulls are his white whale. Do they haunt him? No, he tells us in the audience. “I love bulls! They give great footage.” The vibe in the theater has been convivial all day, and though I feel like my fight or flight has been triggered for nine hours straight, by the end I feel only peaceful satisfaction with a hint of nostalgia. I remember walking around setting off M-80s in the late afternoon in college when I knew my friends were napping, or my old business partner shooting a BB a centimeter into my ankle (the X-ray alone was worth it). I go home and put on one of the in-betweens, the Jackass.5s with bonus footage that Knoxville tends to put out six months after each release. My nerves are shot, I won’t get to sleep until it’s nearly morning, and it’s perfect. I want more.Follow Jesse Miller-Gordon on Twitter.
Jackass doesn’t change, but it’s happy to grow. Because it’s not a belief, it’s a feeling.