Mondo Stuntmen: The Death Defying Maniacs of Jackass
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
If you're gonna be dumb, ya gotta be tough...
There are those who look at near-certain doom and think, “fuck it.”
You might find these madmen on the battlefield, but a cadre of these game-changing treasures aren’t any further away than your remote control. It takes an especially potent amygdala, not to mention a lack of certain brain synapses, to ignore risk and charge full-speed down a rickety ramp and over a filthy creek, and the folks at Jackass (2000 - 2022 [?]) have always had it in spades.
The boys, as they were introduced in Jackass’ pilot episode, were Johnny Knoxville, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Steve-O, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy, and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña. Under the guidance of creators Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, and Spike Jonze - who, thanks to Tremaine's tenure at Larry Flynt's Big Brother skateboarding mag, were fans by Margera’s underground CKY videos - these fine fellows would kickflip and prank their way to daredevil glory from October of 2000 to February of 2002. Jackass' debut episode showcased just how much the series was flying by the seat of its pants - ten of sixteen segments had no name, as the team scrambled to figure out their communal vibe. “Poo Cocktail” has Knoxville going topsy-turvy in a stagnant porta-loo, while “Daddy and Baby” stars Dave England and a baby in horrifying situations as onlookers, unaware that England is actually holding a doll, are utterly horrified.
Scoring shock points and pearl-clutching vitriol from Senator Joe Lieberman over its dangerous antics being accessible to impressionable kids, the series quickly took off and gained heavy purchase in the pop culture consciousness. Knoxville showed up on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the series spawned spinoffs like Steve-O and Pontius’ Wildboyz (2003 - 2006), and Margera’s Viva La Bam! (2003 - 2006) and Bam's Unholy Union (2007). Hell, when this writer was in high school at the height of the show’s fame, a classmate won a contest and Wee Man came to campus as a result, which carried all the mayhem of a Presidential visit.
This band of merrymakers enjoyed a meteoric rise that couldn’t possibly last. Between claims of low cast salaries, crew departures, and scrutiny from MTV’s “will this get us sued and/or punished?” department, Jackass aired its final episode in February of 2002, with no official finale. But in the spirit of John Donne’s epic, aforequoted rebuff of Death, the boys wouldn’t be taken down so easily. Five feature films grew forth from the Jackass franchise, where the better pranks and shenanigans could be enjoyed with creative freedom that any cage of S&P monkeys couldn’t touch. Beginning with Jackass: The Movie (2002) and working its way up to Jackass Forever (2022), Death and danger are the skate punks' old frenemies, with the opening twang of The Minutemen’s “Corona” inviting all to the big dance.
If there’s any holy trinity blessing these triple-dog dare proceedings, it’s Evel Knievel, trash empress Divine, and the Dionysian God of Excess. You can especially hear Johnny Knoxville’s lifelong adoration of the former in the documentary he produced, Being Evel (2015). Another of Tremaine's Dickhouse productions, the doc features Knoxville singing Knievel’s praises, presenting a portrait of the daredevil as a once-in-a-lifetime force of talent and showmanship alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali and Elvis. As a 20th century icon, Evel influenced generations of adrenaline-chasing stuntpeople, and a larger culture of shit-kicking recreation; the common thought being that Evel walked so that the X Games could run. Jackass, The Dudesons, CKY, Britain’s Dirty Sanchez, and even Nitro Circus are all abscesses of the same body, proto-vlogging boils whose juvenile puss oozed onto the aughts and greased the face of culture for waves of TikTok knuckleheads to do dumb shit just for the clicks.
But Jackass was never really about clout-chasing, was it? It was dumber, and thus, more pure than that. Keeping an audience’s attention isn’t a hard target to hit for these self-professed shitty stuntmen, but success isn’t exactly what the crew goes for. From director to key grip, all involved are cognizant that no one is buying a movie ticket to watch a jump or durability test. They’re tuning in to witness the landing, the impact. Nailing a stunt in one take won’t do. The cameras keep rolling until Ehren loses another tooth, video god Lance Bangs hurls (good god, a whole other piece could be written about Bangs’ position at the nexus of MTV and comedic trash culture throughout the 80s/90s), or England voids his bowels once more. Throughout all ventures, failure stays true north for Knoxville & Co.
To wit, Jackass is all about getting “the shot”. It can be heard in the cast commentaries on each movie, and often spoken aloud in the series itself: a crew member rattles off a list of gnarly wounds sustained during a bicentennial BMX ride or a lubed slip ‘n slide before their voice tilts upward and they beam, “but we got some great footage out of it!” Compelling the world to bear witness to your destruction is its own legacy. Teeth, bits of hair, and maybe the odd shoe are left behind as remnants of battle, while the bruises and fang bites are the spoils taken home. George Miller fans might find a kinship between these reveler-fools and his paint-huffing, marauding War Boys: if they are to die, they’re going to die historic on Fury Road in a blaze of masochism.
The counterbalance can be found in the viewer, whose sadistic streak compels them to come for the ball taps and stay for the faceplants. Perhaps the Jackass generation is an easy mark; weaned on third-generation VHS copies of Faces of Death (and late nights in the foul, forbidden glow of Rotten dot com on the family computer [Squeamish Editor's Note: you can find that one yourself, if you're so fucked up and inclined]. The only real shame to be had for the likes of us was in looking away.
So, what does it mean when we keep watching? Scholars posit that for shockumentaries like Faces of Death and Mondo cinema at large (an exploitation subgenre one could make the argument Jackass squarely fits into), engaging with grim imagery that we know to be upsetting going in is a sustained flirt with mortality. Observing death rituals in other cultures reminds that the cold, stale breath of the Grim Reaper drifts down all of our necks, and the effect is similar in Tremaine’s unflinching lens.
In Jackass Forever Steve-O concedes, "concussions aren’t great” just before Johnny (dressed as a matador) faces down a bull in a ring. “But as long as you have them before you’re fifty it’s cool—and Knoxville’s forty-nine, so we’re good!” Speaking with Howard Stern in January, a silver-haired Knoxville reveals that the same bull stunt nearly shuffled him off this mortal coil. "I got a brain hemorrhage from that, so my cognitive abilities were in steep decline after that hit," he delivers with a chuckle.
Knoxville got cozy with neurology specialists and received a couple of months’ worth of invasive medical treatments, not to mention a bona-fide depression diagnosis for his troubles. To be fair, a brain bleed could have just as easily happened in any odd 50/50 grind trick gone wrong over the past twenty-two years and, of the entire cast, Knoxville himself has likely been the one with the most near-misses. A metal fragment of a rocket exploded mere inches away from Johnny’s ribcage during the “Big Red Rocket” stunt in Jackass: Number Two (2006), and the previous picture has him barely escaping from the grave when, during a crash derby, a car is inadvertently run up on Knoxville’s, its still-spinning tire coming through the windshield and not too far from shearing off his face.
Every time Johnny Knoxville lands from any height above five feet, his neck seems to directly break the fall each time. He tells Stern that his doctor told him that sixteen or seventeen concussions is enough, and the health/damage bar is running pret-ty, pret-ty low. As such, while the spirit of Evel remains, some fresh blood and less brittle bones are necessary for the laughs and legacy to continue.
In addition to the old crew, the fourth feature Jackass installment introduces audiences to new cast members Sean "Poopies" McInerney (who proved his mettle early on with a vicious - and very real - shark bite through his hand), Jasper Dolphin, Zach “Zackass” Holmes, Rachel Wolfson, Eric Manaka, and Compston "Darkshark" Wilson. As the trailer promises, all involved endure a fresh festival of horrors, to include close encounters with maybe-venomous creatures, electrocution, and all the bodily fluids they can handle. While there’s an amount of apprehension to be expected before any stunt and everyone hopes they don’t die during filming, the set of a Jackass picture is one where Death isn’t so mighty and dreadful. He's a welcome participant, free to throw on a pair of rocket skates and see if He, too, can defy the beckoning, bony fingers of oblivion.