Nobody flies through a plate-glass window like Johnny Knoxville. In the trailer for Knoxville’s forthcoming film Bad Grandpa, the Jackass co-creator plays Irving Zisman, his crusty old-man character familiar to fans of the MTV show and hit movies. Charged with transporting his grandson cross-country, Zisman gets into all kinds of trouble—including having the tyke dress in drag for a girls’ beauty pageant. But the trailer’s signature moment is when Zisman sits atop a coin-operated children’s ride and gets unexpectedly catapulted into a department store, broken glass flying everywhere and horrified onlookers scrambling for cover.
It’s a stunt, of course, but in those few moments you get Knoxville’s lowbrow genius in a nutshell: the love of a good dumb prank, the courage to risk grave injury for a laugh, the fiendish desire to cause public mayhem. I haven’t seen Bad Grandpa yet, but I hope it’s full of such moments. It’s been three years since Jackass last offended the parts of America too uptight to get the joke. The country has been poorer for its absence.
Maybe the single funniest phenomenon of the 21st century, the Jackass franchise combined stunts, pranks and the occasional Candid Camera–style goofs on innocent bystanders. An aspiring actor when he first moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, Knoxville ended up finding his true calling as a nervy performance artist. (Which is good, since, as demonstrated in Men in Black II and The Ringer, he’s not a great thespian.) We tend not to think of immature punks who make a living getting hit in the junk as artists, but Knoxville’s talents are a reflection of (and a willful contradiction to) modern times. He’s so stupid he’s brilliant.
To the uninitiated, Knoxville’s technique seems pretty obvious: Plan something dangerous, turn on the camera and see what happens. Although that does describe much of what occurs on Jackass, it doesn’t come close to describing what it feels like to watch these stunts unfold. Horror, comedy, theatricality and cleverness intermingle on Jackass—viewers oscillate between queasiness and nervous laughter as we prepare ourselves for what we’re about to see. It’s bad enough, for instance, to know that Knoxville is trapped in a pen with a bull, but he ups the suspense by painting himself to blend in with a piece of artwork that’s inside the pen as well. Will the camouflage be enough to distract the bull? And if isn’t, how badly will Knoxville get hurt?
Like The Three Stooges, Jackass is unquestionably male in its humor. Jackass became an institution by honing in on men’s fascination with the pain-pleasure dichotomy of physical comedy. We laugh at someone being beaned in the head with a speed bag because it’s shocking, because it clearly hurt and because, damn it, it’s funny to watch an unsuspecting person get knocked to the ground.
Those who shake their heads at such silliness dismiss it as mindlessly violent, but that’s not quite right. The fact that the Jackass crew are all friends endlessly laughing at each other’s misery makes the cruelty forgivable—even sort of touching. Consequently, the program’s juvenile hijinks feel like the purest, truest, most cathartic form of male bonding ever captured on screen.
It also helps that these guys look the way they do. Despite the heavy douchebag musk that emanates from the Jackass crew—which includes guys with names like Steve-O and Wee-Man—Knoxville and his guys are no Axe body spray clichés. Instead, Jackass is quite inclusive. Dwarfs and quadriplegics aren’t shunned—they are part of Jackass’s bighearted family.And although the show and films are sausage-fests, there isn’t a drop of homophobia to be found. Often half-naked while doing stunts, Knoxville and the gang exude subversive homoerotic overtones, gleefully making close-minded members of their audience squirm. As Steve-O explained to Vanity Fair, “We always thought it was funny to force a heterosexual MTV generation to deal with all of our thongs and homoerotic humor. In many ways, all our gay humor has been a humanitarian attack against homophobia. We’ve been trying to rid the world of homophobia for years, and I think gay people really dig it too.”
Indeed, the group has shown the films in gay bars and been embraced by the LGBT community. “John Waters once called us the gayest straight guys of all time—which I’m very pleased about,” Knoxville told The Guardian in 2010 when Jackass 3-D came out. “Jackass the Movie was listed in this book of, like, the greatest gay movies of all time. We were on the cover, and we were like, ‘Yes!’ We are not macho men; I can’t fight a lick.”
In Knoxville, you will find the best kind of 21st century masculinity: an ability to maintain youthful exuberance but an unwillingness to embrace outdated ultra-macho attitudes. Draped jauntily in a red cape or sporting a cheesy old wedding tux on Jackass, Knoxville, about to launch into a stunt, wants you to think he’s a mouth-breathing moron who doesn’t know better. But his maniacal laugh after he survives is like unbridled, uncorrupted adolescence taunting the rest of us for our relative cowardice. While most men spend their 30s settling down and getting more cautious, Knoxville (who’s 42) spits in maturity’s eye, as if elated to discover that coming up with pranks and stunts is the secret to staying young. The Jackass crew members go through plenty of abuse over the program’s run, but they also seem incredibly alive while they do so. And the rest of us, with our mortgages and adult responsibilities, happily (maybe even enviously) live vicariously through them.
But if Knoxville undermines cultural expectations of the cocky young white male, he simultaneously challenges the notion of what an artist is supposed to look like. Even when Knoxville’s crew does disgusting shtick like crapping in department-store display toilets, Jackass feels like combative performance art, upsetting the tranquil status quo and reminding us about our essential physicality. Knoxville has been compared to highbrow artists such as Marina Abramović, who has made a career out of delivering uncompromising performance pieces that often include nudity or difficult feats of physical endurance, such as sitting in a chair staring calmly at museum patrons who sit across from her.
In its slapstick way, Jackass achieves the same aims. With so much of our lives spent passively—watching TV, surfing the web, playing games on Facebook with people we’ll never meet—Jackass is incredibly active and primal. Even if we’re not the ones involved in the stunts, we feel them in a way that connects us back into our bodies. Jackass is juvenile, but it’s also an urgent, instinctive call to action that makes us rethink our connection to the outer world.
That artistry also stands in defiance of our increasingly high-tech age, especially when it comes to movies. The modern action film is inundated with expensive special effects—creating the illusion of a reality that we all know is fake. By contrast, Knoxville’s Jackass is proudly lo-fi and cheap. No stuntman subs in for Knoxville or Steve-O—they take the punishment themselves—and the productions look as if they cost about $4. But Jackass’s rawness makes it liberating. Not unlike the silent comic stars of yesteryear who did their own stunts to heighten the tension and laughs (including Buster Keaton), Knoxville’s buddies risk their well-being for our entertainment, losing teeth, breaking bones and ending up with scars from the stupid shit they attempt. We live in an age of endless anxiety in which we’re constantly assaulted with warning labels and other concerns for our safety. Jackass mocks all that. Knoxville wears a helmet when he attaches himself to an oversize rocket, but that doesn’t keep him from almost being killed anyway—and his ballsiness is deeply compelling.
It was a shock for some when Jackass 3-D was invited to hold its premiere at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Knoxville’s Jackass might seem like the work of lunatics, but it’s actually profound, tapping into an unspoken desire for chaos in a society that overvalues the sleek, polished and buttoned-down. Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, another of the show’s creators, once said, “Sometimes Knoxville gets confused that life isn’t a cartoon,” a seemingly offhand comment that perfectly illustrates what makes Knoxville such a lowbrow virtuoso.
Life is not a cartoon, but with Jackass Knoxville has consistently and defiantly tried to bend the outside world toward his personal adolescent vision. Despite its participants braving disgusting Porta Potties and unspeakable beer enemas, Jackass has always been a welcoming, surprisingly cheerful place. Knoxville would reject such a highbrow analysis of what he does: “Nobody gives a shit. We’re just having fun. We don’t intellectualize it like that,” he told The Guardian. That’s why it works so well: There’s an innocence to his mayhem that’s blessedly uncontaminated by cynicism or self-consciousness. And maybe that’s why it’s struck such a deep chord for so many fans. Everybody gets knocked down in life and develops scars along the way—at least Knoxville has figured out a way to make it entertaining.
Photo by © AF archive / Alamy