'Jackass' Nation

I first met Johnny Knoxville two years ago, about a month before "Jackass"--the hilariously masochistic show that would make him both famous and infamous--premiered on MTV. It was clear to me from the moment we sat down that Knoxville was going to be a huge star. He wasn't macho or self-serious like most daredevils. He was a sweet-natured goofball.

The stunt that got Knoxville the MTV gig featured him strapping on a Kevlar vest and shooting himself in the torso with a pistol. (Ironically, it never aired on the network. Even Knoxville thought it unwise.) During my interview, I asked him about the experience. So did it hurt? "Not really. The vest actually displaced the impact really well," he said. "It was like someone hitting you in the chest with a shovel as hard they can." Uh, wouldn't that hurt? Knoxville paused. "Hmm. Good point."

The other noteworthy thing I remember about Knoxville is how unfailingly polite he was. Four years into my NEWSWEEK career, he is still the only profile subject who has written me a thank-you note. His little girl Madison, then 5-years-old, scribbled playfully at the bottom of the letter. "First of all," he wrote, "let me apologize for the doodling. I think Madison was going for an abstract tone."

For a year-and-a-half, until "The Osbournes" came along, "Jackass" was MTV's most popular show ever. It's hard to imagine, though, an "Osbournes" movie pulling off what Knoxville and his band of merry pranksters did last weekend. "Jackass: the Movie" opened No. 1 at the box office, raking in a stunning $22 million. ("Road to Perdition," with Tom Hanks, the biggest movie star on the planet, opened with the same total.) The movie is basically the TV show, only longer, with more cursing and more butt shots. There's one more difference: as funny as the show is, the movie, unshackled and going for broke, is 20 times funnier. I'm not going to say it's the funniest movie I've ever seen; it is, after all, just a series of outrageous gimmicks. But facts are facts: I have never, in my life, wiped tears of laughter from my eyes as consistently as I did during "Jackass: the Movie."

At this point, I feel compelled to provide some demographic disclaimers. Yes, I am a white male. Yes, I am between the age of 18 and 35. Yes, I do think men getting hoofed in the Johnson is funny. But. But. People like me aren't the only ones going to see "Jackass." The assumption that we are makes it easier for the film's critics--few of whom have actually seen the movie, all of whom are terrified that they might find it funny--to write the whole thing off as entertainment for the dumb and the infantile. The truth is, anybody can be dumb and infantile. I saw "Jackass: the Movie" with four friends, three of whom did not fit the above demographic. Two of them were women. We all loved it. So did Chloe Sevigny, the fashion-enslaved It Girl. She was sitting one row behind me and laughing like a hyena.

So what's the big deal? This may sound like a dodge, but there's just no way to explain it. The jokes in "Jackass" are the mother of all sight gags. I cannot explain to you what is funny about a man jamming a toy car up his butt, then going to a doctor and telling him he can't seem to sit down after a wild night of partying. I cannot explain this to you because I cannot show you, in print, the X-ray.

This much I can do: the appeal of "Jackass" isn't simply the creativity of the pranks. A big chunk of it springs from that stuff about Knoxville up there at the top. It's the tone he sets, the personality he is. One of the things that's so refreshing about the movie is how utterly ego-free it is. Knoxville is the star, but in name only. He works with a crew of about eight other nutballs--most notably Bam Margera, who loves tormenting his burly father; Chris Pontius, who enjoys dancing naked in public; and Steve-O, who's just plain crazy--and, truth be told, they get the funniest gags. (One priceless moment isn't part of a stunt at all. It comes when Steve-O turns down the chance to do the toy car gag after running it by his father. "It's not that I'd be mad," he claims his old man told him. "I'd just be disappointed in you." (Steve-O had already walked a tightrope over an alligator pit and snorted lines of wasabi, but the toy car idea, apparently, crossed the line.) We see the gang laughing at each other's work, horsing around between takes, planning what to do next. As a result, the audience feels like co-conspirators. This isn't a performance by professionals; it's an afternoon with dimwit buddies.

The most amusing byproduct of "Jackass: the Movie's" success is all the social thinkers and cultural critics scurrying to explain What This All Means. What does it say about America today that this is our most popular movie? Some have asserted that its box office--like everything else everywhere, including the weather--is directly traceable to 9-11. I'm not sure what this means, exactly. Is the idea that (1) we've all been storing up stress since that day and "Jackass" provides safe-but-satisfyingly-violent relief? Or (2) our taste in humor has grown as senseless as the world we live in? Or (3) we're so depressed that we just want something mindless to laugh at? It doesn't matter, because it's all a bunch of hoo-ha. After all, "Jackass" was wildly popular a full year before 9-11. If anything, "Jackass" has taught us--or, more accurately, reiterated--something about 9-11, not vice versa. The lesson? In the world of entertainment, nothing has changed. Guys getting hoofed in the Johnson was funny then, and it's still funny now.

'Jackass' Nation | News