Since the birth of cinema, men have been documenting themselves doing the most dangerous things they can think of. Marcel Perez was delivering stunt after stunt in his underseen silent comedies. Harold Lloyd blew off his own hand with a bomb, and continued to do his own stunts in his films. Buster Keaton had the entire front of a house fall on him while he stood in the perfect spot to make it through an open window. Film has come a long way since then, but our taste for physically dangerous hasn’t evolved much. Frankly, one could argue that bodies in motion and the harm inflicted upon them are the groundwork of most great cinema. With that in mind, the fact that the TV-turned-film series Jackass has become a staple of Millennial culture is then not at all surprising.
Jackass inherits the tradition of the slapstick treasures we cherish. There’s horror and humor alike built into the way that Johnny Knoxville and his cadre of buffoons eagerly court scorpion stings, being shot out of a cannon, and getting hit in the crotch with so, so many different things in so many different ways. And the creators are well-aware of this legacy. Jackass Number Two (2006) closes with an elaborate musical sequence that references everything from Keaton (with a direct recreation of the house gag) to Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams dance numbers.
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Each Jackass film not only acknowledges the past, but also plays with it in new ways. Take the opening of Jackass Forever, the newest installment in the series. Chris Pontius has his genitals painted and puppeteered as a giant monster, animated to rampage Godzilla-style through a city, imperiling the rest of the gang. As Knoxville tells Hyperallergic in a recent interview, “We wanted to do a big Japanese monster movie opening, and also I had this idea of wanting to puppeteer Pontius’s penis in a hula skirt. Derek Freda said, ‘Why don’t you combine those two ideas?’ and we did. [Director] Jeff [Tremaine] started throwing in ideas and [producer] Spike [Jonze] lost his mind, making it big, cinematic, and hilarious. It was a team effort.”
But such imaginative setpieces are not why Jackass has stood strong over the past two decades. The refreshing simplicity of its gaze, the efficiency with which it presents its truly wild assortment of pranks and stunts — this is the true appeal. As documentary, these films aren’t quite vérité — some scenes are obviously staged. But even those segments have a bracing immediacy that lets the viewer play along. (It helps that even when the guys are clearly expecting to be hit, they’re still taking those hits for real.)
Knoxville notes that “When we’re in the middle of making it, we’re not in the moment of reflection — we are in the right now, because you have to be. You have a dangerous stunt you’re doing, or you’re looking over your shoulder because someone might be walking over to prank you.” The cast (and often the crew as well) have to be hyper-conscious of their surroundings, emphasizing that divide between reality and fiction. Regardless of how much Wee Man or Steve-O may talk to the camera, these are actual human beings risking their well-being for the sake of laughs, and audiences are drawn to this realism, no matter how heightened and performative it may be.
Not only did Jackass take on the legacy of silent cinema’s stuntmen, but it also presaged the onslaught of prank and joke videos across social media. As YouTube, Vine, TikTok, and the like have risen, each in turn has seen its own wave of DIY daredevils gain popularity. A great deal of what the crew does feels like something anyone could replicate, from trying to light a fart on fire while underwater, to running with a bull, to aiming everything from a hockey puck to a baseball at somebody’s groin. Anyone could pick up their cellphone and film their friends engaging in such idiotic behavior, which lends the show and films a sense of familiarity. (For many years, this was also the cause of a great deal of consternation from censors and concerned parents.) You don’t have to be Buster Keaton; even the smallest pratfall can be captured and shared at any given moment.
Spectacle is great, but intimacy is better, and Tremaine and Jonze have built a lot of legitimate emotional attachment to Knoxville and company as they’ve followed these dumb friends around with cameras for more than two decades now. Revisiting them after so many years also adds a fresh element: after all the torment these bodies have been through over the years, they now defy the presumed frailty of age. Jackass Forever shows that there’s nothing more rewarding than watching old comedic pros back at it again.
Jackass Forever is now playing in theaters. Jackass, Jackass: The Movie, Jackass Number Two, and Jackass 3D can each be streamed from various sources.