Jackass Embodied Gen X's Casual Indifference to Authority
Beneath all the harm, humiliation, and non-consensual hair-shaving was a love of freedom.
In 1996, the West Coast skate magazine Big Brother released its first video, mostly of skateboard tricks, but with stunts and gags interspersing the skate segments. Around the same time, in Pennsylvania, skateboarder Bam Margera began releasing similar videos under the title "CKY," which stood for Camp Kill Yourself. These two tribes joined forces with Johnny Knoxville at the helm, and in 2000, Jackass debuted on MTV.
Twenty-two years later, with fewer teeth, more plates and screws, and a few gray hairs, the gang is back in Jackass Forever, released in theaters on Friday. The TV iteration of Jackass was unmistakably Gen X; it was also very much a product of its era. The latest film in the Jackass franchise has bent but not been broken by the times, bringing in new blood but offering the same primal thrills you feel guilty for laughing at.
On TV, Jackass embodied a particular Gen X form of transgression—not a direct challenge to authority, but utter indifference to it. That indifference is still present in the 2022 cast, including a disregard for woke politesse. For example, on a recent podcast, Chris Pontius and Steve-O recalled how they first really connected when they discovered that they shared an indifference toward lesbian pornography; Pontius likened it to "looking at a skateboard magazine and looking at skate spots with no one riding them…I wouldn't say a closed skatepark, but just…a skatepark maybe in the rain."
Similarly, in a recent interview with the New York Times, Wee Man noted that American culture has changed since the show first ran:
"Gender stuff and, you know, things like that….When we first started, there was never going to be a girl in it," he said. "We didn't think it was funny for girls to get hurt. For us, it was like, 'That's not funny' — hurting a girl." Now, paradoxically, it would be in poor taste to not hurt a girl on "Jackass" — and so they do.
The new female cast member, comedian Rachel Wolfson, doesn't hold back, and the addition of a female character winds up opening the door for more jokes. In one scene, after Wolfson has been repeatedly stung on the lips by a scorpion (she was preparing for some lippy Instagram shots) the scorpion tumbles into her bosom. Pontius stands there ponderously, wryly refusing to help until Wolfson grants affirmative consent to remove the scorpion from her breast. She screams, "I CONSENT!"
Wolfson is not the first woman to appear on Jackass. Coyote Ugly actress Stephanie Hodge appeared on the TV show, until she broke her back and pelvis riding an air mattress down a snow-covered hill. In what used to be called chivalry, Knoxville recalled that "It was like your sister getting hurt—and we don't want to see girls getting hurt."
Mercifully, Wolfson doesn't attempt anything that gnarly. That's in keeping with the franchise's ethos: Despite the amount of bodily injury doled out on Jackass, the emphasis has never been on death and injury, but on whistling past the ideas of death and injury. Exiting the theater, I heard fans loudly exhaling "I so needed that!" Jackass has always offered a refuge from forced seriousness, whether it's a pandemic or anything else. One Reddit user posted a touching recollection of how the videos helped him out of a deep depression while fighting cancer.
Two decades ago, America needed Jackass after the September 11 terror attacks. In the first episode that aired after 9/11, Dave England interrupted TV's relentless repetition of 9/11 montages backed by Enya's "Only Time" with his recipe for an omelette: Take a bite of each ingredient, swallow down some raw eggs Rocky style, then vomit the whole thing into a hot skillet.
If there was an end to the beginning of Jackass, it could be seen in the vomelette skit. As England cooked and ate the omelette, Johnny Knoxville paced behind him in a hazmat suit. The show also ran a wiseass disclaimer that the omelette had been cooked to the FDA-approved temperature of 160 degrees. But the hazmat suit and food safety advice were not intended as a part of the bit—they were forced on the gang by MTV.
In England's telling, when they turned in the omelette skit, MTV "decided the puke fumes were airborne pathogens. 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."
So who killed Jackass? None other than that warmonger and torture advocate turned lobbyist for China, Joseph Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut.
After an inevitable teenage imitator set himself on fire attempting to emulate a skit from the show (which included a lengthy disclaimer and showed a stuntman helping Knoxville into a fireproof suit prior to running the stunt), Lieberman called on MTV to "either cancel this exploitative and degrading show or eliminate the stunts that could be dangerous if imitated by children." Every stunt from the show could be dangerous (that was the whole point), especially if emulated by children. Lieberman pressed forward, and MTV caved.
As Knoxville observed, you couldn't do Jackass safely: "I felt that we couldn't do a watered-down version of the show, so I quit." The rest of the cast followed, and the MTV series collapsed.
Eventually, Jackass returned as a sporadic big-screen spectacle. And just as America needed Jackass in the aftermath of 9/11, we need it now, in the third year of our permanent pandemic fog.
The most pervasive message of the show may have been the one offered by Roger Alan Wade, Knoxville's cousin, in the canonical Jackass song: "If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough":
When you get knocked down, you gotta get back up
I ain't the sharpest knife in the drawer
But I know enough to know
If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.
Maybe we're all dumb enough that we should be a bit tougher. Why don't we sometimes carry a hair clipper and randomly chop off a swatch of a friend's hair? Isn't there some way to make fireworks even more fun? Haven't you ever wondered what would happen if you connected a bungee cord to a little person on one end and an acrophobic 300-pounder at the other, while they stood on the edge of a bridge, and then the little person jumped off? Wouldn't it make sense to make a giant ramp at the edge of a lake, lube everyone up, and see who could look the most ridiculous flying off? What was the point of high school physics otherwise?
If you can't take risks, what's the point of being alive at all?