Southern Fried Daredevil

Johnny Knoxville in JACKASS | MTV Films
MTV Films

In defending one’s love of Jackass—the short-lived MTV program turned film franchise devoted to the exhibition of what can only loosely be described as “stunts”—it is possible to take a variety of “respectable” approaches. One may construct a historical lineage, placing Jackass in dialogue with its obvious ancestors like video art maverick Chris Burden or John Waters, who blessed the Jackass boys with a cameo appearance in their second film. Perhaps one could extol the existence of Jackass as a by-product of a post-Beavis and Butthead, War on Terror world that found American boys, whether out of suburban malaise or as remittance for the sins of Abu Ghraib, compelled to desecrate their flesh. Maybe Spike Jonze’s association with the series as a co-creator, executive producer, and occasional participant is enough to redeem it for those who value his work as a filmmaker.

But there is no denying that, no matter what intellectually convincing arguments we might appeal to, the attraction of Jackass is in its relationship to the body: both the bodies it displays, and what it does to them. And there is no more defining body in Jackass than that of Johnny Knoxville, the sadistic, shit-grinning ringleader of a motley crew of misbehaved merrymakers. With his signature Stars and Bars helmet and Southern sense of smarm, Knoxville seemed to purposefully situate himself in a lineage of all-American rapscallions: professional daredevil Evel Knievel, television’s fictitious Dukes of Hazzard (one of whom Knoxville would himself embody in a 2004 adaptation of the series), and athlete-turned-actor Burt Reynolds, who swaddled himself in an image of Southern recklessness in films like Smokey and the Bandit and White Lightning despite being from Michigan. In particular, Knievel gained infamy due to the failures of his body, specifically at the botched Caesar’s Palace and Snake River Canyon jumps. But his career was still predicated on the success of the stunt, on using machines as a launching pad to thrust the body beyond its natural limits. Knoxville, despite whatever kinship he may have constructed between himself and Knievel, required failure. His fame came not from the ecstasy of a gag or scenario’s successful execution, but from the agony of its aftermath.

Perhaps Knoxville took his inspiration less from Knievel than from his acolytes: not the numerous stuntmen who followed in his wake, but the amateurs, the kids who strapped firecrackers to wind-up Knievel action figures and attempted to recreate his most infamous moments on tricycles. Though I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, Knievel was a mythic figure in my childhood up there with Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, mostly due to stories recounted by my father of his own childhood during the golden age of “the Last Gladiator.” Though I am sure he made countless other attempts at recreating the stunts he saw on television, my father’s signature Knievel-related story involves him modifying his bicycle in order to attempt a jump over a small ravine, only to have the bike completely fall apart in mid-air.

It goes without saying that Johnny Knoxville possessed a similar magnetism to young men of my generation, though I’m not sure if the nature of the stunts he executed and children across America attempted to mimic will make for good storytelling down the line. Nevertheless, one must only type the words “Jackass imitation” or “Jackass remake” into YouTube to find a litter of amateur videos, mostly captured on mini-DV, cheap camcorders, and early camera phones, that provide evidence for the cult of Knoxville. Unlike the work of Evel Knievel, there is little grace to these acts. They mostly consist of adolescent boys stuffing themselves into shopping carts or concrete pipes and rolling down hills, slapping each other on the ass with Ping-Pong paddles, and shooting each other with airsoft guns. A surprising numbers of these videos are in other languages, though the word “Jackass” requires no translation, countering the idea that Jackass was and is solely an American phenomenon.

Knoxville’s body is not one of the many impossible male bodies that have existed in the cinema: Sandow the silent strongman, Reg Park’s peplum Hercules, Sylvester Stallone’s beefed-up Saint Sebastian in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Many of the most inconceivable and wildest of cinema’s male “hard bodies,” the ones who have endured and survived significant amounts of pain, real and illusory, stem from certain non-cinematic traditions. Arnold Schwarzenegger began in bodybuilding, Stallone originated in stag films before transitioning from sensitive screen artist to steroid titan, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme started in martial arts. Professional wrestling in particular has leant many of its stars to cinema over the years: Jesse Ventura, future governor and Predator victim; “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the noble everyman Nada in John Carpenter’s They Live; John Cena, who has begun to spin his all-American baby face into comic gold; and perhaps most successfully, the artist formerly known as The Rock.

Knoxville also has his origins in the world of sport, though his body could not be more different than these sculpted action figures, and like bodybuilding, martial arts, and professional wrestling, the exact sportiness of his game has been contested for years. There is no Johnny Knoxville without the world of skateboarding and its associated activities, though he could only loosely be called a “skateboarder.” Unlike many members of his cohort, Knoxville did not have much skill to speak of, or at least not much more than your average suburban hobbyist, when it came to skateboarding, BMX biking, or other extreme sports. A number of the stunts in the Jackass films take advantage of Knoxville’s lack of skill at these games in contrast to his co-stars.

But it is impossible to segregate Knoxville from skateboarding culture at large: he was given his start by Big Brother, a skateboarding magazine run by future Jackass director Jeff Tremaine, who took interest in Knoxville’s early stunt videos. Though Tasers and bulletproof vests may not seem related to skateboarding per se, the sport has always had its sadistic side. Take, for example, the Hall of Meat, a regular feature and video series created by the skate publication Thrasher Magazine, which is entirely devoted to the documentation of skaters’ most painful failures. The sadomasochistic impulse at the heart of skateboarding explains why someone as seemingly unskilled as Knoxville could organize a universe of pain around himself. He is not the center of the Jackass constellation because of exceptional skill or physical prowess; no, it is his extreme affability and inability to say no to almost any stunt that pulls us into his orbit.

This is not to say that pleasure cannot be extracted from Johnny Knoxville’s figure, no matter how vastly he might differ from the class conception of the hard, masculine body. In fact, I would argue that it is the regularity of his form that compels us. His shape is slim and trim, not overly defined, but not ill defined either. It’s the kind of body possessed by any number of Southern young men I grew up with; the boys who run cross country in high school for the kicks but never commit to it entirely, who only need to go to the gym once in every other blue moon to remain in peak condition, who can let a Red Sea of Miller High Life flood down their throats and never feel a slip in their metabolism. It is, in a word, an effortless body, perfect not for an apparent lack of flaws but for its totality, its wholeness, its sense of completion and harmony.

But it is in this apparent perfection that the contradiction of Johnny Knoxville, or the contradiction he appears to resolve, emerges. Knoxville’s stage name links him to the site of his birth: Knoxville, Tennessee (the place not of my birth but of my own coming-of-age, which perhaps explains some of my fascination with Johnny and Jackass). Like his name, his body, becomes a site, one which a number of – sometimes inane and idiotic, other times gruesome and deadly – actions are enacted upon. Like the boys who slam back beers and throw themselves into risky reverie, Knoxville’s body begs to be destroyed, tested like an elastic band stretched to its limits, dangled into the fire to see if it ignites. His persona, despite his age, is trapped in an endless state of puberty.

And like those boys, Knoxville’s persona is a source of peer pressure, sucking his crew and audience alike into acts they might not otherwise engage in. There is perhaps no moment sadder in the entire Jackass franchise than in Jackass 2 when, after Knoxville and Bam Margera have been fired upon by a crowd control gun, Bam exclaims: “I just wanted to skate. I didn’t want to get shot at.” But like their bodies, the friendships and relationships that circulate around Knoxville always seem to bounce back, springing into shape just in time for the next act of insanity.

Knoxville made a career out of harming himself for one reason: why not? We could maybe say that the emergence of Knoxville and company had something to do with the time, the edge of the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. Maybe it had to do with the skateboarding and “slacker” cultures that served as a crucible for Jackass. Maybe it had to do with the dissemination of consumer video technologies, which provided a canvas for bodily harm and a means for its capture before Viacom came calling. But I imagine that Jackass, and Knoxville’s presence as a star, has as much to do with the desire of young men to test their bodies, not in rituals that prove their manhood, but in experiments that question its elasticity, its dexterity, its fluidity. Sometimes, when something is so perfect, there is nothing left to do but tear it down.

And that is exactly what Knoxville has done, throughout the course of Jackass’ brief television run and the three films that followed. With each subsequent movie, the production values and budgets increased. The first was shot entirely on mini-DV, with many sketches culled from the show itself. The second featured an endless string of celebrity cameos, from Juicy J to John Waters, and closed with a vaudevillian musical number complete with several explicit references to Buster Keaton. The third was shot and shown in the glorious third dimension, leaning harder into Knoxville’s kinship, both unconscious and explicit, with the ghosts of “American gladiators” like Evel Knievel.

But each film also expresses a decline, not in quality or imagination, but in the bodies of its actual stars, who have become older and begun to creak. No longer could they throw themselves into ceiling fans or shove toy cars up their buttholes; the limits of age and health obviously dictated the shape of their stunts. Jackass 3D may have upped the shit and the vomit, but it decreased the physical toll overall (and is notable for being the only film in the series in which alcohol was forbidden from the set).

By the end of the 2000s, Knoxville had torn his urethra and was using a catheter to drain it twice daily, Bam Margera and Steve-O were in and out of rehab for addiction, and most tragically, Ryan Dunn, one of the central members of the collective, who was claimed by a fiery car crash in 2011 while driving above the legal blood alcohol limit. Mortality and materiality began to bust through the once-impervious concrete of their carelessness. In fact, the most recent film in the franchise, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, explicitly takes up the issue of age. Instead of playing himself, Knoxville spins his regular “Bad Grandpa” sketches into a feature-length narrative. He dons enormous amounts of makeup and prosthesis to transgress society’s expectations of what the elderly can and should do, displacing the issue of his own middle age by playing even older.

Johnny Knoxville, then, complicates the notion of movie star as commodity or product. I’m not sure if he set out to be a stuntman or a daredevil; at least in the narrative he gives us, he always wanted to be an actor. Throughout the 2000s, he maintained a regular presence at the multiplex, appearing in films like Men in Black II, the remake of Walking Tall, the big-screen adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard, and even as a voice actor in yet another incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For a brief moment, it appeared as if he might make a detour to the arthouse, appearing in John Waters’ last film, A Dirty Shame.

But since the release of Jackass 3D and Ryan Dunn’s death, Knoxville’s star seems to have slipped, despite the occasional acting role and appearance. It’s never a sign of good times in your career when you have to go to China to do a movie with Renny Harlin. I imagine that part of the difficulty Knoxville faces in crafting a career for himself as a commodity because his body is nothing without the destruction of it. Though he continues to grow older and his body weaker, he is drawn time and again into the orbit of danger, because maybe there’s nothing else for him.

If the star body is a commodity fixed in the grasp of an owner, whether that owner is an audience or industry, Knoxville’s tendency to hurt himself is like lubricant that loosens our grip. Desecration then becomes the commodity, but by the very nature of its existence, it resists commodification. Knoxville reminds us of the body’s constraints while seeking to rise above them, failing like Icarus each and every time. We can witness his acts of self-harm again and again, but the limits of the body and the processes of aging inevitably emerge, reminding us that even cinema’s ability to endow its subjects with everlasting life isn’t always impervious to erosion.