Jackass Taught Me More About Friendship Than School Ever Did
‘Hello, I’m Johnny Knoxville and welcome to Jackass.’ Cue Minutemen’s iconic riff, and I’m home.
There was an idea: to bring together a group of (un)remarkable people, to see if they could become something more. See if they could laugh together when we needed them to; to vomit, shit and hurt themselves in ways we never could.
Any moron can snort wasabi. Any tool can shove a toy car up his butt. Any imbecile can take a Butterbean beating. This dream of grotesque catharsis called for a Jackass, an idiot of the highest kind, quality, or order, surpassing all else, or others. Supreme.
The now-iconic MTV reality franchise was born from a humble skating magazine, chance encounters and Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and Spike Jonze’s will to document the puerile and bold – from the off, it was clear they’d captured lightning in a bottle.
I was only three years old when Jackass’ first ever episode aired – yet, in growing up alongside their gross-out legacy, the guys later became my go-to reprieve from the trenches of coming-of-age.
As young adults, we’ve all heard the same irrepressible parental spiel upon letting out a moan: ‘You’ll look back and think school was the best days of your life.’ In theory, it should be. They’re your formative years, forging friendships, desires and aspirations amid the fleeting nectar of youth. Alas, my five years of secondary education carry a heavy emotional toll, even today.
My tenure wasn’t an easy ride: grades-wise it was dandy… socially, not so much. I joined not knowing a soul in my year, an outsider downgraded from a zippy, depressingly confident little boy to an anxious tween. Navigating that stress solo induced a hell of a gulp.
Prior to my early departure for university, where the universe dealt a kinder hand, the subsequent years taught me one thing: today’s schools are limbos for personalities. There’s no call for quirks if you’re not assigned to the elites – keep a relatively low profile, and you’ll avoid the wrath of online ridicule.
Jackass, in its raucous inappropriateness with a capital fuck, is typically popular among adolescents (particularly boys craving vulgar delights). Hilariously, the lovable goofs – from Steve-O and Chris Pontius to Preston Lacy and Wee Man – are probably the exact type of strange that’d be preyed upon in the scholastic thunderdome.
Yet, the mass appeal of their warped antics transcends judgement and translates to near-universal laughs (for example, Jackass 3D’s High Five – arguably the single-funniest prank to grace the screen). For me, the current ran deeper.
As a paranoid inbetweener with a burgeoning love of entertainment, I took sanctuary in Knoxville and co.’s orbit with an Amazon purchase of any and all Jackass DVDs. A mere pile of discs to some, surely unappealing to others – but this was my portal to instant solace.
As I watched the gang fly towards the screen in a giant trolley, run like hell from bulls and strut flamboyantly in front of a rainbow, it felt like the company of earnest-to-god compadres.
The surface level appeal is the shenanigans. Whether it’s Bad Grandpa and his band of nude-prone faux-elderly, Pontius’s Party Boy or winding up golfers with nothing but a fog horn. However, it’s always been quite clear there’s a further fuel firing the Jackass engine: love of themselves, one another and everyone.
Parents may sneer at the implication these reckless pranksters should bear any influence on their children. While the stunts should by no means be replicated (as religiously outlined), this group of men had no homophobic or sexist dispositions, acting as bastions of body positivity and open-mindedness against the grain of masculinity.
Steve-O even said in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair: ‘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.’ Their cavalier, uninhibited ethos is still particularly striking – perhaps role models ahead of their time.
I’m under no illusion my teenage years were uniquely torturous: Social Anxiety: The Movie is a universal production. Like many others, I drifted in and out of friend groups; some connections faded, others shredded. Now, the benefit of escaping some circles is clear – at the time, it felt like an everlasting exile with a personality that clearly wasn’t desirable.
On tougher nights, pondering if I had many, if any, true friends, the Jackass crew felt like a warm hug – a judgement-free group from which nobody ever floats out. Even as a 23-year-old, they’re a tonic for my mind’s self-destructive refusal of Hakuna Matata around new people.
Nobody doubts their status as practitioners of masochism. Most knuckle-whitening of all the stunts is Steve-O’s dip in shark-infested waters in Jackass Number Two – with a fish hook pierced through his cheek, by hand. However, there’s a real urgency in the response – through the constant laughter, genuine reassurance emerges.
Look at the case of Brandon Novak, who plummeted from the summit of Doo Doo Falls and walloped his head. Bam Margera slides down immediately, others quickly follow. Along with being disorientated, they realise Brandon also succumbed to his own doo doo in the fall. Knoxville says: ‘It’s okay, if anyone deserves to shit his pants, it’s you.’
They trust each other to the point they’ll place their well-being entirely in others’ hands. Remember Ehren McGhehey’s tooth being pulled out by a Lamborghini? Throughout the entirety of the stunt, he’s practically distraught – but soon, he comes around thanks to the jovial, congratulatory, pragmatic atmosphere of his buddies.
It was at all times comforting and perplexing to me, watching a group built around recurring torment smile and revel in their own silliness without a worry or care in the world.
They’re all in sync, like a sweary, absurd symbiote who find joy in every single thing they do, to the point they eat each other’s vomit (cooked into an omelette, obviously) and drink another’s perspiration (the Sweatsuit Cocktail is probably their most harrowingly gut-churning stunt).
There’s no grudges in Jackass – only retribution. On-set is a volatile place for its stars, as one-upmanship takes precedence over decorum. Rarely do the pranks descend into the mean-spirited (such as dumping Bam into a snake pit, of which he’s petrified) – but even then, each successful practical joke is always taken on the chin with a chuckle. Their cruelty is always banterous, never aggressive (unlike the Dirty Sanchez boys).
To have such tolerance for looming annoyances, day and night, there must be a solid foundation beneath the franchise’s ensemble. It’s this impenetrable bond – the likes of which I wouldn’t come close to until later in life – that’s driven them to become near-superhuman evangelicals of idiocy and pain.
Bam and Ryan Dunn are a testament of Jackass’ power. Their colourful exploits, from Bam’s arse getting a dick-shaped brand to Dunn being launched straight into a shutter, were made all the more endearing by the pair’s wholesome bro-ship. They waltzed the world together with a boyish confidence – like two pals who knew they were in the good ol’ days before they left them.
In my school days, my best friend was a whole town away. It’s easy to look forward to the weekend, but that five-day stretch of coasting through gnawing uncertainty of where allegiances lie never got easier, right until the end. Bam and Dunn were my light at the end of tunnel.
Tragically, Dunn passed away in a car crash in 2011, less than a year after Jackass 3D hit cinemas (soon after the news emerged, Weezer’s Memories – on which the stars sang – became the most-searched video on YouTube). The loss of his best friend spelled a downward spiral for Bam, soon falling into alcoholism and other mental health issues.
At the tail end of last year, Bam met with Dr Phil after desperately pleading for his help on social media. He’s endured years of struggles, one can only hope Bam is on the upswing – and with a fourth film on the horizon, he’ll be able to reunite with the boys for a proper tribute to his brother.
If you’re a franchise rookie looking to dive head-first into the cacophony of shit, piss and puke, come for the Poo Cocktail Supreme, stay for their unsullied alliance – still an inspiration to me even now. I couldn’t have gotten through teenhood without them.
As the Jackass motto goes, ‘If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.’ With friendships as pure as theirs, it’s no wonder they felt invincible.
Jackass 4 is set for release on March 5, 2021.
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