By James Slaymaker.
How does an individual cope with growing old when they have become known to the world as an eternal child? This is the question that dominates Jerry Lewis’s late features, and it just as accurately describes the paradoxical combination of juvenile exhilaration and world-weary fatigue at the core of Jackass Forever.”
At the end of the Busby Berkeley-style musical set-piece that closes Jackass Number Two, Johnny Knoxville recreates one of the most infamously perilous stunts ever pulled off by a Hollywood performer. Standing in the centre of a Wild West-inspired set constructed on a soundstage, Knoxville delivers the final note of Jerry Herman’s show tune ‘The Best of Times’, originally composed for the 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles as a scale model of a saloon entrance falls down around him. Uncharacteristically for a Jackass skit, Knoxville is left unharmed as the hollow upper window of the facade fits precisely around his body. This period of relief is short-lived, however, as a gigantic wrecking ball abruptly emerges from an unseen source on the right of the frame, hitting Knoxville with such force that he is knocked off screen. This moment, of course, is a tip of the hat to Buster Keaton, who risked his life to film the now-iconic scene in Steamboat Bill Jr. in which a two-ton house facade collapses on top of him, landing so that Keaton’s body is framed by the open attic window. Several crew members reported that if Keaton had been standing off his mark by just a few inches, he would have been crushed by the building and possibly killed. Keaton had, at this point in this career, become known for performing his own stunt work with no trickery, and audiences had grown to marvel at his bravery and physical agility of the man himself while also laughing at the misfortunes of the characters he portrayed. Behind-the-scenes stories of Keaton’s willingness to place his body in jeopardy in service of the joke played a vital role in cementing his legendary status: it was widespread knowledge that Keaton repeatedly suffered serious, occasionally life-threatening injuries when shooting his routines, and much of the power of his screen comedy comes from the blurred line between the diegetic threat faced by the character and the genuine threat willingly endured by the performer.
By self-consciously referencing Keaton’s art at this crucial moment, Jackass Number Two makes explicit the influence of this silent pioneer on the series’ own brand of death-defying slapstick while also underlining the key difference between the two forms. Like Keaton, the performers of Jackass voluntarily subject themselves to extreme levels of physical pain in the pursuit of laughs, and they encourage the viewers to recognise that the scars, concussions and other markers of corporeal damage as concrete symbols of their dedication to the craft. The innovation of the Jackass franchise is to make the harm inflicted on the bodies of the cast the central attraction. Keaton invites the audience to marvel at his feats of courage and daring, but his characters always escape from peril unscathed – tales of the wounds he sustained and risks he took during production undoubtedly shape the viewer’s reaction to Keaton’s set-pieces, but they exist as extra-textual documents unacknowledged within the film’s diegesis. We know that Keaton hurt himself while shooting, and could have potentially hurt himself a lot more severely, but what is on-screen are the successful takes. Jackass, in direct contrast, treats as the very substance of its comedy the mistake, the botched landing, the flubbed take, the broken rib and the twisted ankle.
This isn’t to say that the performers of Jackass don’t demonstrate impressive acts of athleticism, but the potency of a Jackass skit doesn’t depend on their ability to pull off a remarkable feat; conversely, the effectiveness of a Jackass skit relies on their ability to fail in an outrageous and visually striking way. The Jackass cast members unflinchingly offer themselves at their most debased, humiliated, and agonised; they do not endure their punishments with macho stoicism, they scream, convulse and lost control of their emotions. Knoxville understands that his audience will feel deflated, on some level, when they see that he has avoided being hit by the falling saloon, and so the addition of the wrecking ball is necessary to bridge the gap between Keaton’s antics and Jackass’.
The structure of a prototypical Jackass stunt goes something like this: first, the performers announce the premise of the stunt and detail the potential danger that it entails. Usually, at this stage, the camera will linger on the participants’ feelings of uncertainty and dread to heighten the viewer’s anticipation. Then, the stunt itself, a grotesque spectacle of self-inflicted violence conducted in front of the other members of the cast who laugh, recoil and offer running commentary – often, these spectators will provide off-the-cuff suggestions to increase the level of torment involved in the stunt as it is taking place. Frequently, the members of the technical crew will be shown breaking down in reaction to the event that they are tasked with recording. Finally, there is the aftermath, in which the performer displays their wounds and describes the intensity of their physical trauma before, crucially, laughing it off. This is a fundamental component of the set-piece, and often constitutes the longest part of the stunt. There are parts of Jackass that stray from this formula, such as the sporadic hidden camera pranks and the interstitials which present a single, surrealistic image for just a few seconds (for example, in Jackass Number Two, when Bam Margera, wearing a fabric suit, skates up a ramp and attaches to the side of a truck covered with Velcro), but this type of stunt forms the backbone of every entry in the Jackass franchise. It is essential to the Jackass franchise that the audience builds a sense of familiarity with the cast members who volunteer to face these tortures – there is something deeply carthartic about seeing the same individuals subject themselves to unimaginable pain, become beaten and bruised, and then rebound, again and again. To witness these punishments be doled out to anonymous subjects, or to people who may not be able to handle the pressure, would merely be sadistic. The clear affection that the Jackass performers have for one another, an affection that comes to be shared by the viewer, bonds them together. We laugh when Steve-O places a leech on his eyeball or when McGhehey gets his tooth extracted by tying it to a Lamborghini because we know that they have the ability to recover.
Another key part of Jackass’ appeal is its low-fi, DIY formal style. In the late 1990s, series grew out of the intertwined currents of the underground skateboard scene and the burgeoning culture of amateur videomaking. Before MTV entered the picture and transformed the exploits of this group of daredevils into a worldwide, generation-defining phenomenon, the seeds of what Jackass would eventually develop into were found in two micro-budget film series that circulated through the underground video market. The first was the CKY series, shot by Margera in his home town of West Chester, Pennsylvania and featuring his own friends, family members, and other acquaintances he encountered on the skateboarding circuit. Margera, in close collaboration Ryan Dunn, would continuously record wipe-outs and pranks, along with some straightforward sports tricks, and then splice together the highlights into compilations that would run roughly 40-50 minutes each. The second was the sporadically released series of tapes produced as an offshoot of Big Brother magazine, a controversial outlet which combined genuine skateboarding reportage with vulgar gags, written accounts of stunts and deliberately idiotic ‘advice’ columns. Like the CKY movies, the Big Brother videos (which were directed by Jeff Tremaine and included performances from multiple future Jackass stars such as Knoxville, Jason “Wee Man” Acuña and Chris Potinus) featured dangerous comedic stunts intermingled with authentic skateboarding montages, though the skits in this series generally tended to be more deadly, more ambitious and more conceptually creative. The most famous of these segments involves Knoxville – at this point a struggling actor and sometime-contributor to the magazine – ‘test’ a variety of self-defence devices by turning them upon his own body: he is pepper-sprayed, hit with a stun gun, shocked by a taser, and, finally, shot at close range while wearing a bullet-proof vest.
The Jackass TV show combined these two groups, added a few new cast members, and largely dropped the non-ironic sporting sections, but it retained the endearingly unvarnished quality of these precursors. The series doesn’t attempt to add any narrative or competitive element to the stunts; each episode simply consists of a randomised collection of skits, each of which was recorded on location with a minimal crew, using cheap handheld camcorders. Most of the stunts are performed with common household consumer items, and in the scenes where more complex contraptions are employed, they seem like they could have been hastily put together by a group of friends over the course of a lazy afternoon. The series never shies away from showing us the moments in which the equipment malfunctions and the desired effect is not achieved. In an early sketch titled ‘sling shot pond’, for example, several members of the CKY crew attempt to launch Dunn across a lake by duck-taping a chair to an elastic bungee cord attached to two tree trunks. After three botched attempts, the team concede defeat, with Dunn commenting that he hopes that the footage they captured of the mechanism’s breakdown ‘at least looks cool’. In the stunt ‘bungee wedgie’, featured in Jackass: The Movie, the crew have to modify the contraption after a false start before they capture the shot they were hoping for. In a similar vein, the recording devices used to film the antics are often depicted malfunctioning, becoming scratched or getting covered in bodily fluids. The pay-off is not the only source of the humour in Jackass – the series constantly prompts the viewer to think about the process of production, and the logistics of pulling off these antics is often an integral part of the joke. The famous sequence in which Dave England soils himself en route to a department store climaxes as cameraman Lance Bangs vomits into a nearby bush while still operating the camera. The resulting footage becomes increasingly difficult to decipher, until the film cuts to an alternate angle being captured by a different operator. Bangs explains that he had a particularly rough time, because he had to sit close to England while he defecated to ensure that they had usable footage. After this incident, Bangs’ weak stomach became a running joke throughout the series, and the cast members often add an extra layer of vulgarity to their more grotesque stunts by trying to make him puke. Of course, because Kosick is the one holding the camera, his perspective is aligned with the viewer’s, so when the crew succeed in prompting him to lose his cookies, the picture itself becomes distorted. Jackass sets up a space in which social hierarchies, conservative values and traditional conceptions of ‘acceptable’ behaviour are gleefully upended – an important aspect of this is the series’ conscious embrace of technical faults, obfuscated points of view, and all the other imagistic ‘flaws’ that pose an affront to the conventions of classical continuity editing.
Even as budgets grew larger and the aesthetic design became more polished, the series maintained this handmade quality. A lengthy sequence in Jackass 3D sees the cast members explore all the ways they can potentially hurt themselves using a single tube of superglue, and a particularly excruciating moment in Jackass Forever depicts Dave England crushing Ehren McGhehey’s scrotum with a standard-issue pogo stick – two remarkably low-fi stunts considering that the respective budgets of these films were $20 million and $10 million. Some of the skits in the series’ later entries evidently exploit the more extensive resources available to the team, but no matter how high-concept the idea is, the execution always has an intentionally ramshackle aura. When Knoxville climbs onto a (supposedly) functioning miniature rocket to be launched several meters into the air, the machine malfunctions – causing foot-long metal rods to be propelled out of the side of the structure and leaving the performer sitting in place. The gigantic, four-way teeter totter made for the gang’s ‘Toro Totter’ stunt works like a charm, but it is completely destroyed by bulls over the course of the sketch. An essential part of the spectacle of these later Jackass skits is that they feel like an adolescent’s notebook doodles writ large, a true realisation of Orson Welles’ playful description of Hollywood as ‘the biggest electric train set any boy ever had’. Jackass 3D utilises state-of-the-art stereoscopic Phantom high speed cameras, but, it works against dominant industry imperatives towards realistic multi-planar representation and smooth viewer immersion. Instead, the feature uses the technology to destabilise our sense of space, create jarring multi-dimensional distortions and forcibly make us aware of the illusory nature of the 3D design.
Jackass 3D was infused with a sense of finality; the series had been running for a full decade and the performers, now in their mid-to-late thirties, no longer seemed like they could withstand any punch or bounce back from any fall. The film climaxed with an extreme redux of the ‘poo cocktail’, one of the earliest stunts to ever air on the TV show, neatly bringing the series full circle. As if to hammer home this feeling of ephemerality, the end credits sequence consists of unused footage from Jackass 3D juxtaposed with clips from the early seasons of the show and photographs of the performers during their childhood and teenage years. Over these images, a Weezer song titled ‘Memories’ plays, detailing a former wild child’s struggle to come to terms with their encroaching middle age and the responsibilities that come with it (although the song wasn’t written specifically for the film, several members of the cast provide backup vocals and clips from Jackass 3D feature in the song’s official video). During the 12-year hiatus that followed the release of Jackass 3D, it indeed seemed as though another film would never materialise. The tragic death of Dunn in 2011 would inevitably cast a dark shadow over any project the group would pursue under the ‘Jackass’ moniker, and many members of the original cast seemed content to embark upon their own, Jackass-adjacent endeavours: Knoxville and Tremaine collaborated again for Bad Grandpa, a comedy that uses a loose narrative framework to structure a series of hidden-camera pranks; Knoxville then starred in and produced Action Point, a more conventional studio comedy which nevertheless clearly reflects on Knoxville’s legacy as a stunt performer (Pontius also has a key supporting role); Steve-O developed a string of successful stand-up specials, largely revolving around the behind-the-scenes exploits of his work on the series; Margera received steady television gigs, hosting shows like Bam’s Bad Ass Game Show and CKY: The Greatest Hits and appearing on an assortment of reality TV episodes. Morever, as each year passed it felt increasingly as though the performers would simply no longer be able to physically endure trials of the kind that made them famous. The stunts in Action Point aren’t nearly as demanding as the ones featured throughout Jackass, yet Knoxville reportedly suffered a higher number of injuries during its production than on any shoot he’d ever worked on – how, then, could the aging performers possibly submit themselves to the tribulations of another Jackass feature?
Now, improbably, Jackass Forever has hit theatres, and, perhaps by necessity, the film confronts head-on issues like the diminished status of the series in the cultural zeitgeist, the physical frailty of the cast members and the increasingly apparent inability for the performers to continue performing these feats forever. When Jackass first premiered, it was treated as something radically different and novel, the expression of a new generation who believed whole-heartedly in their own invincibility and were willing to use any tools at their disposal to rail against the values and attitudes of their elders. Depending on whom you asked at the time, Jackass either represented a bracing rejection of the staid aesthetic conventions and tired structural formulas associated with the institution of American television or it represented the moral decay and destructive nihilism at the heart of 1990s youth culture. The series generated such controversy, in fact, that Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman launched a public campaign against Jackass, accusing MTV and its parent company Viacom of gross irresponsibility for airing such an indecent project on a network targeted towards children and teenagers. The furore directed towards Jackass from so many corners of the mainstream media and the political establishment soon became a central part of its appeal, helping to cement the ‘outsider’ status of its young stars and contributing to the sensation that one was watching something illicit. The lengthy warning displayed at the beginning of each episode at the behest of the network’s Standards and Practices Board has, ironically, become just as iconic as the franchise’s skull-and-crossbones logo.
Although there is something heartening about the original team’s eagerness to embrace new talent, the introduction of these younger participants feeds into the strange atmosphere of melancholia that infuses the film.”
But in Jackass Forever, the former wunderkinds have grown into old masters. The underground VHS circuit that spawned Jackass appears quaint and outdated in comparison to the user-fuelled video sharing sites and social media channels that saturate contemporary digital communication networks. The muddy, grainy CKY tapes had to circulate as material objects physically passed on from friend to friend; the young daredevils of today can record their antics on easily accessible HD cameras, edit them with powerful consumer-grade editing software, and upload them to Youtube or TikTok within the span of a few hours. The open-platform, participatory nature of these sites enables viewers to share small snippets of idiocy, receive instant feedback in the form of ‘likes’ or comments, and potentially amass millions of views. And while young people once fawned over Jackass’ 30-minute offerings of pranks and stunts on broadcast television, they are now far more likely to get their fix of death-defying shenanigans in 30-second chunks through scrolling the timeline of their chosen platform. Needless to say, the Jackass cast display an enormous degree of skill, showmanship and ingenuity that distinguish them from the legions of internet users trying to build an online following, and it is certainly not my intention to suggest that the proliferation of online video-sharing sites has made the series irrelevant. But it’s important to note that the media environment in which the franchise is embedded has undergone a vast transformation since the early days of the show. So much time has passed that the adolescents who used to sneak into the living room at night to catch Jackass episodes without the knowledge of their disapproving parents are now old enough to be parents themselves, perhaps trying to convince their own children of the series’ brilliance. In Jackass Forever, the core group openly acknowledge the depth of their influence on the modern media landscape through the induction of a troupe of new members into their fold, most of whom (Zach Holmes, Eric Manaka, Rachel Wolfson, Sean ‘Poopies’ McInerney) gained notoriety by posting Jackass-inspired content on new media channels. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that these new members take on the most physically demanding stunts in place of the original performers (Steve-O covering his genitalia with bees, McGhehey taking a punch in the crotch from a heavyweight boxer and Pontius being bitten on the penis by a snapping turtle easily rank amongst the most painful skits in the film, and they are all performed by the series’ stalwarts), but their presence indicates that the crew are growing cognizant of their own biological limitations and have accepted that they need to pass on the torch if the series can survive in the future.
Although there is something heartening about the original team’s eagerness to embrace new talent, the introduction of these younger participants feeds into the strange atmosphere of melancholia that infuses the film. It’s impossible for anybody with even a passing interest in the series to watch Jackass Forever without feeling the weight of its two glaring absences: Dunn, who receives a touching tribute in the end credits sequence, and Margera, whose descent into alcohol abuse following the death of his friend and close creative collaborator kick-started a spiral of self-destructive behaviour that ultimately resulted in him being fired from the project several weeks after production had began. Elements beyond the creators’ control also contribute to film’s overall feeling of disquietude: most of the shoot took place during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, requiring the crew to film in isolated and de-populated areas. This was unavoidable, of course, but it adds to the uncanny vibe of this latest instalment. For a series that so overtly places the body – its excesses, its limitations, the scars that it can endure – at its centre, a reckoning with the physical decline of its leads is inescapable. It’s difficult not to feel taken aback by the greying locks, the receding hairlines and the wrinkled skin of these men who have made a career out of refusing to grow up. In the film’s most genuinely disturbing sequence, Knoxville suffers several severe injuries after being launched into the air by a bull. At this moment, something deeply unusual happens: the chorus of affectionate laughter falls silent and the other cast members look on with genuine fear as Knoxville lies immobile on the ground. We then see Knoxville emerge from an emergency ward in a wheelchair, and he explains the full extent of the damage: a broken wrist, a concussion and several broken ribs. It’s the most shattered any member of the crew has ever looked after a stunt, and we’re left with the impression that this will be the final time he ever steps into the ring with a bull.
I opened this article with a discussion of the influence of Keaton on the Jackass franchise; to conclude it, I’d like to turn to another seminal film comedian-auteur whose work stands as a significant precursor to the hijacks of Knoxville and the gang: Jerry Lewis. Lewis, an earlier incarnation of the perpetual-pubescent figure that the Jackass team would push to obscene new levels, similarly indulged in gleeful, id-driven destruction – expressed through an irreverence towards social mores and the traditional ‘rules’ of narrative filmmaking. Though Lewis’s work is far less explicit than Jackass, both demonstrate a fascination with physiological degradation and emotional hysterics, an impulse to push the performer’s body to its limits in the interest of challenging dominant conceptions of masculinity and turning upside down the viewer’s preconceptions of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour.
While watching Jackass Forever, I was particularly reminded of Hardly Working and Cracking Up, the two films directed by Jerry Lewis following the decade-long absence from the big screen which followed the release of Which Way to the Front? (during this period, Lewis took on the ill-conceived task of directing the Holocaust-themed comedy-drama The Day The Clown Cried, which he ultimately decided to shelve, and the stress of this experience lead him to take a voluntarily sabbatical from Hollywood). Returning from this extended break, Lewis didn’t shy away from exploring the impact of aging and decreased stamina on his ability to perform his established comic persona. Each of these films features the loose, episodic structure and sketchbook-like ingenuity of Lewis’s earlier directorial efforts, but the zany, rat-a-tat pacing is replaced with a flatter, more discomforting ambience. It’s not that these films aren’t funny – they contain some of the most brilliantly conceived set-pieces of Lewis’s entire career – but they are funny in a distinctly more unsettling way than films like The Bellboy and The Ladies’ Man. Lewis recognised that the erratic behaviour and emotional histrionics that characterised his on-screen personality played very differently when enacted by a middle-aged man compared to a 20-or-30-something, and he was also aware that the landscape of Hollywood comedy had shifted irrevocably during his absence, causing much of the film-going public to see him as something of a relic. Throughout these films, Lewis simultaneously reflects back on his professional glory days and wrestles with his feelings of obsolescence: a recurring joke in Hardly Working sees Lewis attempting to recreate celebrated routines from his past, only to be met with derision and scorn; the even darker Cracking Up opens with a depressed Lewis, incapable of assimilating into the modern world, trying to commit suicide. How does an individual cope with growing old when they have become known to the world as an eternal child? This is the question that dominates Lewis’s late features, and it just as accurately describes the paradoxical combination of juvenile exhilaration and world-weary fatigue at the core of Jackass Forever. As the title indicates, the creators may wish that the series could live on perpetually, but they also know that this is simply not possible. Time is catching up with the performers, and they are rapidly approaching the point at which they will no longer be able to carry out their brand of extreme reality-slapstick. For those of us who grew up with them, watching the cast grapple with this fact is a profoundly moving experience.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.