One of my favorite viral videos of all time came out a few years ago and immediately made the rounds on Gay Twitter: “British lads hit each other with chair.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. A few muscly guys, some shirtless, are standing around in a bricked alleyway, or maybe a driveway. One is blondish and wearing black short-shorts, another in light-wash skinny jeans. They give each other a kiss on the corners of their mouths before getting in position. The blonde raises a wooden folding chair. Skinny jeans finishes a handle of liquor before smashing it onto the ground, takes a drag of his cigarette, and warns, “Don’t hit me head.” Short-shorts proceeds to take a whack at him, then does it again to some other guy, sending them both tumbling oafishly into the crushed glass and debris littering the concrete. Skinny jeans comes back for a couple more hits before finally declaring, from the ground, “I am not doing that again.” Short-shorts lovingly helps him to his feet while their friends laugh and laugh.
This video came from the wilds of the internet, but it is clearly a spiritual descendant of the Jackass franchise. Helmed by a gang of roundabout stunt performers/best buds, the short-lived TV series turned movie franchise boasts ridiculously perilous physical challenges and bizarre public stunts by guys who maybe not-so-secretly want to have sex with each other: complete jackasses who delight in being jackasses together. The explicit homoeroticism, the abuse of one’s flesh vessel for others’ pleasure, the way the injured party is cared for and venerated afterward for daring to be foolish as absolute hell — it’s perversely sweet. Uplifting, even. You come to watch somebody get hurt in the most absurd possible way, but you stay because these guys love each other endlessly for it.
The explicit homoeroticism, the abuse of one’s flesh vessel for others’ pleasure, the way the injured party is cared for and venerated afterward for daring to be foolish as absolute hell — it’s perversely sweet.
Long before asinine and often dangerous antics became fodder for YouTube, Vine (RIP), and TikTok, Jackass premiered in 2000 on MTV and almost immediately earned the network its highest ratings in history. The Jackass oeuvre has since gone mainstream, and viral stunts now come in much more insidious forms. But its legacy is also a positive one. Aside from instant social media classics like “British lads hit each other with chair,” we can also thank Jackass for inspiring a new generation of comics. Eric Andre, whose hidden-camera pranks, as shown in The Eric Andre Show and his ridiculously funny Netflix movie, Bad Trip, recently told Jimmy Kimmel about how the Jackass crew “raised” him. The guys convinced Andre to join them for Jackass Forever, a nice full-circle moment (he quickly said yes, he told Kimmel, and then immediately felt terrified).
The motley crew, whose audacity and charm made the show such a smash hit, found each other coming up out of ’80s skateboard culture, performing gnarly stunts for underground supercut videos and write-ups in anarchic skating magazines. The group was led by Johnny Knoxville, the handsome, spiky-haired Jackass co-creator who decided as a young man fresh out of Tennessee that he’d do anything to be famous. Then there was Steve-O, the handsome, briefly unhoused Clown College graduate who decided as a young man he’d do anything to be famous. Eventually, soon before embarking on Jackass, they’d lose the skateboarding and devote their full attention to the stunts, as well as Candid Camera–style pranks on a poor, unsuspecting public.
The show came to an abrupt end after only three seasons. According to a recent oral history from the Hollywood Reporter, that was because Knoxville quit over MTV imposing more stringent safety protocols on set because of liability fears and a spate of bad press. MTV’s film production arm encouraged co-creator Jeff Tremaine to make a movie instead, and the gang’s longtime friend and collaborator, director Spike Jonze, thought it was a good idea. Thus Jackass: The Movie (2002), Jackass Number Two (2006), and Jackass 3D (2010) were born.
Some might have wondered if the world needed another film devoted to naked men doing increasingly harrowing things to their genitals and shooting themselves out of increasingly giant cannons, especially as we’re nearing year three of a global pandemic. But it seems the answer is a resounding Fuck yes. This latest installment, Jackass Forever, which premiered on Friday, has knocked Spider-Man: No Way Home out of the top spot at the box office, where it had been for nearly two months. (Deadline theorized that Paramount’s big promotional push on TikTok played a part in the film’s early success.) Thank god for Knoxville, Steve-O, and their band of mismatched brothers. Though their bodies might be 20 years older than when they first started putting them through hell and back to entertain us — and even more importantly, to entertain each other — their inner enfants terribles have yet to grow up.
Perhaps the same applies for the millennials who watched these guys risk their lives and scare the shit out of each other as impressionable children. Jackass Forever rode into 2022 on a wave of hardcore nostalgia for the early aughts, one that seems able to turn low-culture artifacts into beloved institutions. Jackass is trashy. But like Jersey Shore, malls, and acid wash low-rise jeans — all hallmarks of the great Y2K resurgence — it’s trashy in a fun, youthful, and slightly ominous way. Jackass is so bad, it’s good again — so completely stupid that it’s brilliant.
In the opening scene of Jackass Forever — the latest, and allegedly last, round of these guys’ escapades — people are sitting outside of a busy restaurant on a city street when a Godzillalike monster begins to attack. After a minute of buildings burning and chaos reigning, the camera zooms out to reveal what we all, unfortunately, knew already, which was that the Godzilla is actually stunt performer and original cast member Chris Pontius’s dick, painted green and decorated to look like a murderous lizard. He shoves it through the streets of a model city, which is then edited into shots of a real-life one, where we meet the rest of the cast as they attain their first rounds of injuries. The boys are certainly older, definitely none the wiser, and, best of all, they’re comfortingly familiar. Knoxville in particular has refused to let the original punk spirit of Jackass die, remaining decked out in Dickies, high-top Chuck Taylors, Ray-Bans, and vintage T-shirts layered over long-sleeve henleys, paired with hair that’s still spiky but newly gray, which he’s finally embraced. (He looks amazing.)
It’s an opening scene that befits a franchise known for increasingly off-the-rails introductions, especially one whose stars have never been afraid to whip it out. New cast member Sean "Poopies" McInerney — a surfer and YouTuber who was bitten by a shark in an ill-fated stunt last year, and who allegedly got his nickname because he once pooped in the street — confesses in the closing credits sequence that the most intimidating thing about joining Jackass was having to show it all on camera “to the whole world.” But that, perhaps even more so than being willing to provoke a deadly animal or shove a firecracker up your ass, is the cast’s most sacred duty.
In the Hollywood Reporter oral history, Pontius said that they were “never afraid to have fun,” even if that included doing things with their naked bodies that might provoke the public’s gay panic. “Especially at that time, people were really afraid of anything they’d be called gay for, and there are people who put gay people in the same category as child molesters and perverts,” he said. “And we never bought into that. We just wanted to have fun and push our own envelopes and shock ourselves and make ourselves laugh.” Remembering when he rollerbladed with a jockstrap on, he said, “people actually wanted to beat me up for that.”
As a social justice warrior teen who refused to watch even a minute of Jackass, I probably would have thought that these tattooed masculine men wearing wigs and sparkly thongs while dancing in the street, as Pontius in particular is wont to do, were making fun of gay and trans people. For their part, the guys never thought of it that way. In a 2010 story for Vanity Fair, when the cast was promoting Jackass 3D, reporter Eric Spitznagel mentions that “there’s a lot of half-naked men in Jackass, and a lot of anal play and nipple torture and testicle touching.” He asks Knoxville and Steve-O: “Is it possible that Jackass is at least a smidge gay?”
Knoxville: I’m offended you just said a smidge!
Spitznagel: It’s more than a smidge?
Knoxville: We’re over here sitting on rainbows and you say a smidge.
Spitznagel: You’re a gay pride parade waiting to happen?
Knoxville: We’re a gay pride parade that’s happening! And in 3-D!
Spitznagel: It’s not just homoerotic tension?
Knoxville: No, man, it’s all about release with us.
Steve-O: 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.
Whether or not you believe their stated intentions, keep in mind that this was back in 2010, when anything even suggestively queer was far less likely to make it to broadcast television than it is today. Jackass 2, from 2006, had John Waters in it!
Though American culture and its acceptance of queer people has changed a lot in the last 20 years, Jackass hasn’t changed a bit, in the sense that the new movie is still just as blatantly gay as any of its predecessors. Two guys squeeze their dicks between hard plastic sheets and play ping-pong with the resulting paddles. A buck naked Steve-O attaches a queen bee to his dick, which is swarmed and then stung by hundreds more bees. Pontius gets punched in the nuts by a hunky heavyweight champion. Lots of guys do lots of stuff with each other’s penises, and the resulting laughter and joyful crying into each other’s chests is their great release.
Jackass is so bad, it’s good again — so completely stupid that it’s brilliant.
I don’t mean to go so far as to suggest these lugheads are actual humanitarians. In this and all other Jackass properties, there’s something for pretty much everyone, even die-hard fans, to object to, or at least feel weird about. I don’t love most of the stunts with animals, like Knoxville yet again risking his life in a bullpen, or a chained bear eating salmon from a guy’s crotch. (Neither, no surprise, does PETA, which called for a boycott of the film.) The franchise uses fat bodies as spectacle. And there are plenty of moments, including in Jackass Forever, where you think the crew is going too far, pushing each other to do still more dangerous things even though they’re older and frailer. Every day they defy death is a miracle.
But there’s plenty I do love about Jackass. Watching somebody get catapulted through a ceiling. People falling, then being OK. I grew up watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, and now few things can make me laugh quite as hard as, say, a dad losing control of a hoverboard. It’s that same kind of slapstick appeal that has made Jackass an enduring success.
There’s something wholesome about how much simple joy these dipshits bring to themselves and each other by pulling pranks and falling down. “I know that’s counterintuitive to think of Jackass as wholesome,” Steve-O said to the Hollywood Reporter, “but it’s the spirit of it. It’s so warm, like there’s nothing hateful, there’s nothing negative. We give each other and ourselves a hard time, but we can handle it, and we love it. And just the spirit of it is so positive. I’m really proud and grateful for that.”
The spirit of Jackass, and what makes it something more special than the sum of its disgusting parts, is community and friendship — specifically, the kind born from alienation and struggle. Many of the guys have checkered pasts and got their start on the fringes of the mainstream, weirdos and misfits who came to the world of skateboarding and its proudly antiauthoritarian culture to make a home. They didn’t have a lot of resources, but they had their bodies and their imaginations, which were more than enough to leave a mark. Acting out became a kind of beautiful rebellion: a way of reclaiming space for young people and anyone else deemed too unruly to participate in public life.
The end credits feature split screens of the guys in the early days, which can only remind those in the audience of when they, too, were young. Jackass has the power to bring you straight back to a time when you were a bored kid coming up with ridiculous shit to do with your friends, a time when all you had was each other. But even if you never physically harmed someone in an attempt to be closer to them, I bet you’d still laugh at some of this stuff. There’s a reason even babies cackle when people hurt themselves; it’s a surprising disruption to the usual peace of everyday life, a ridiculous, explosive interjection. For grown-ups, it can be scary if you don’t know whether someone who’s injured is going to get back up again — but when they do, their having survived the indignity is a silly, joyous reminder of the pain and the glory of being alive.
That, and it’s really funny.
Jackass forever. ●