It is the year 2000. Jeff Hardy flips off a ladder to put Bubba Ray Dudley through a table in front of nearly 20,000 people at the 16th annual WrestleMania. True Life: I’m a Backyard Wrestler premieres, showing wannabe performers falling from great heights in front of far smaller crowds. Dave Mirra nails a double backflip at The X Games just before Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 sells over a million copies less than a month after its release. Under newfound sanctions, UFC 28 sees Randy Couture regain the UFC Heavyweight Championship through TKO, mounting his opponent Kevin Randleman and pummeling his face until blood seeps into his eyes. And Johnny Knoxville introduces himself to MTV’s audience, staring into the camera before promptly falling off his skateboard on the vert ramp, landing with a meaty “Oh, that had to hurt” thud. The next week’s episode of Jackass will break network records.
American entertainment has never been devoid of people hurting themselves, or at least the potential promise of people getting hurt. From the many near-deaths of the acclaimed Buster Keaton to the imported stunt work of Jackie Chan to the countless “fail” videos of today, we’ve encountered a wide spectrum of the trained and untrained, the ones able to afford a nice crash mat and the others just hoping that the mattress set up beside the porch will be enough. We’re fixated on it, even if it’s not at the forefront of our intentions for watching. There’s a tiny part of our brain ready for one knee-jerk and a resounding “OOHHHHHHH” that will echo off the walls of the office, the living room, the sports bar. It’s that tiny part that Jackass, a truly extraordinary great cultural product, taps into.
Jackass, with its consistent troupe of willing test subjects that have now become legends (like Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, and “Wee Man”) was immensely popular and immensely controversial from the start. Their war with censorship was massive and inevitable, and by 2002, the show ended. These guys weren’t powerful idols like professional wrestlers, or experienced athletes like mixed martial artists and extreme sports performers. Instead they were, for the most part, just regular dudes—the kind parents and pundits feared would be eminently imitated by the teenagers watching at home.
The previous bastion of people getting hurt and/or embarrassed on camera, America’s Funniest Home Videos, had an aw-shucks innocuousness to it. Grandpa would accidentally fall into the Christmas tree, earning a comfy laugh due to the fact that it was just a little, funny window into the normal life of someone far away. Meanwhile, every jolt, leap, and tumble from the Jackass cast was accompanied by riotous laughter from their own co-stars. It was real and painful and funny, and its success destroyed the idea that it was merely an abhorrent lump on the side of proper entertainment values. The first movie opened at number one at the box office and would eventually gross almost $80 million worldwide. Reviews ranged between “hilarious and provocative” to “the decline of Western civilization.”
Subsequent films Jackass Number Two and Jackass 3D would make even more money. And now, 20 years later, we receive Jackass Forever, a kind of Dark Knight Returns for the dudes who, at one point, sat on a seesaw as a rodeo bull charged around them. They have some younger accomplices to help more evenly distribute the brunt of the impacts (although Knoxville and Steve-O would end up in the hospital within two days of the beginning of filming,) but the appeal is the same. There’s even a bit of added pathos to seeing someone like the seemingly eternally juvenile Johnny Knoxville sport a head of gray hair. He’s still the carnival barker of the crew, the one most willing to be both spokesman and crash test dummy, but any of the Gen X aloofness that he displayed in the early era of the series has been replaced by earnest glee. Sure, he’s laughing as someone gets punched in the crotch by current UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou, but it’s gone from drunken dare antics to tradition. The back-slapping free-for-all that seemed to horrify so many critics and pundits two decades ago has been replaced and almost recontextualized by elated familiarity.
It’s this familiarity that doesn’t neuter Jackass but instead renders Forever as a nostalgic comeback tour. It harkens back to simpler times. The media landscape is full of Jackass-style stunts and pranks now. Sites like YouTube have thrived on them, turning practical jokers into social media sensations. And surrounding them is all manner of scandal and parasocial relationships, inauthentic cash grabs and depressing stabs at wider relevance. Various members of the Jackass cast have been involved with their fair share of spinoff projects of varying quality and success, but Forever is free from the desperate “Like and Subscribe” mantra that fuels so many of their unintentional progeny. It’s just some guys you like getting each other hurt in a way that will hopefully make you laugh.
It’s this fellowship that makes the Jackass franchise worthwhile. Seeing Knoxville embrace a bespectacled Steve-O on the ground in the Forever trailer was pretty much the equivalent of Harrison Ford’s “Chewie, we’re home,” line at the end of the preview for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a sense of companionship that it shares with many of the industries that I listed above. Hearing pro wrestlers talk about their time on the road together, or seeing a respectful hug between mixed martial artists after a bout, reveal that even in professions where pain is the most likely option and competition can be cutthroat, there is still camaraderie.
Jackass didn’t destroy the soul of the nation. It didn’t turn its youthful fanbase into stunt-crazed hooligans, eager to tear through the “don’t try this at home” warnings and skateboard like lemmings off the back deck (though there were definitely a few). Instead, it simply revealed the inclination many of us have to enjoy watching people do unquestionably silly feats, free from any reassuring niceties other than the promise that when these guys were getting hit by a giant hand in their office, they were doing so amongst friends.
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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