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The semiotics of Jackass

For all the chaos on Jackass, there were no obvious consequences

September 22, 2019

11:41 AM

22 September 2019

11:41 AM

Sad times for emotionally stunted millennials – which is to say, all of us – as Bam Margera, star of the cult classic stunt comedy show Jackass, has continued his disastrous middle age with a desperate plea to sentient mustache and self-help guru Dr Phil to help him with his alcoholism. Naturally, I wish Mr Margera the best. Addiction is a terrible burden to bear. Still, it got me thinking about Jackass, which, incredibly, was developed about 20 years ago.

Think about what this means. There are thirty-somethings and forty-somethings who, when asked by their innocent children what they watched when they were young, have had to lie or else explain their youthful enthusiasm for watching people set themselves on fire, publicly defecate and eat raw eggs and vomit them into a pan.

Jackass grew out of the skating magazine Big Brother, which was already famous and infamous for its lewd and violent content. Classic articles included step-by-step instructions on how to commit suicide and recipes for LSD. Big Brother also released videos, interspersing skating clips with pranks and stunts. The second, released in 1998, included a struggling actor named Philip Clapp, going by his stage name Johnny Knoxville, testing self-defense equipment on himself. 

Knoxville, in another time, would have been the ringmaster in a circus. He had an obvious flair for theatricality, marching with an American flag before his giggling friend stunned him with a taser, to a background of haunting, bluesy guitars. Jeff Tremaine, an editor at Big Brother, was impressed with his charisma, and with the help of his friend, the film and music video director Spike Jonze, they formulated the idea for Jackass. MTV snapped it up. ‘We just knew there were a bunch of knuckleheads out there who had a very high tolerance for stupidity and pain,’ said Van Toddler, president of MTV.

A crew of crass daredevils came together around Knoxville. Bam Margera was a skater and amateur stuntman with the androgynous good looks that brought in female viewers. Steve-O was a circus clown who took his life into his hands with such unqualified glee as to have the appeal of a train jumping its tracks. Chris Pontius, Ryan Dunn, Wee-Man and Preston Lacy, among others, were also included in this laughing, puking, self-harming carnival troupe.

The stunts on Jackass and its spin-off films, needless to say, were incredibly stupid, reckless and obscene. The performers risked their lives, covered, more often than not, in their own bodily fluids. Crawl across mousetraps dressed as a mouse? Why not. Fill a car with bees while your friends are inside? Absolutely. Wedge a toy car up your rectum and visit the doctor? Sure! None of this was any more sophisticated that if sounds, though if Jackass had one vaguely artistic element it was its creators’ talent for absurdist imagery. In the introduction to Jackass Number Two, for example, (geddit? Geddit?) the lads are running in slow-motion to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s Ecstacy of Gold as rampaging bulls pursue them through a suburban neighborhood.

Jackass was a very suburban show. Most of its performers came from white, middle-class backgrounds. Their driving force, if anything, was fear of boredom, and desire for attention. They had bourgeois comforts, but they were not enough. They needed to overdose on adrenaline.

There was something pathetic about early-Noughties youth culture. Punk, in the Seventies and Eighties, had contained a half-formed revolutionary impulse. Punk pop, its snotty nephew, promoted rebellion in the form of annoying one’s parents. ‘I don’t wanna waste my time, become another casualty of society,’ sang Sum 41 on their hit single ‘Fat Lip’. Preach, brother. How are you going to resist? ‘You don’t know us at all, we laugh when old people fall.’ Damn, Che Guevara over here. Jackass stunts where Bam Margera wound up his preternaturally tolerant parents by letting off fireworks and painting their whole kitchen blue have the same quality. I think you’re meant to laugh at the parents getting mad but I was left wondering why they didn’t kick his ass.

For all the chaos on Jackass, there were no obvious consequences. The performers crashed and burned, then got up for the next stunt. They tormented each other but always remained friends. In this way, Jackass was curiously reflective of bourgeois white America. Generation X might have been cynical about the trappings of modernity, but they never really thought that the good life could end. Kids watched Johnny Knoxville destroy rental cars while their parents took out giant mortgages on their homes. Why not? Nothing truly bad was ever going to happen.

Jackass fans who thought the troupe were impregnable were cruelly disabused of the idea when Steve-O collapsed into a pile of drug addiction – later bravely, determinedly going straight – and Ryan Dunn died in a massive car crash while driving drunk. Now, sadly, Margera’s life is falling apart. Accepting adulthood after years of cycling off roofs and shooting paintball was a tough prospect, and, besides, there were injuries. ‘If you got hurt, you were like, “I can just take a pill for that”,’ said Jackass member Chris Raab:

‘And you justify it’s a painkiller, I’m in pain. I broke my ankle. I need this. And then you justify it to yourself if you broke your arm, you’d need [another painkiller] too.

‘Before you know it, you’re just so caught up in it…you’re surrounded by a bunch of drug addicts and alcoholics and you’re just pointing the fingers at each other.’

 In retrospect, there is a certain innocence to the original Jackass. This is perverse to say given the content of the show, but it is true because unlike the glassy-eyed, fame-thirsty pranksters on YouTube today, the stars of Jackass seemed to be genuine friends having genuine fun. This, more than the craziness of the stunts, is why it has endured. Social connection is hard to find these days, and the fact that desensitized young-going-on-old people yearn for it through watching crazed men zap each other with stun guns only makes this more miserably true.

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