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How I learned to stop wincing and appreciate Jackass

The truest, purest feast of fools.

A man in a tuxedo is flying through the air upside down, having been flipped over by a bull in a ring.
Jackass has returned.
Paramount Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I’m Alissa Wilkinson, and this is Jackassathon.

Every Jackass stunt begins this way, an introduction to a deceptively simple task, and here was mine: Having never seen a Jackass movie, I agree to attend a nine-hour extravaganza to right the wrong. Jackass: The Movie (2002) and Jackass Number Two (2006) would screen, in glorious 35mm, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Jackass 3D (2010) would follow, in actual 3D. And then Jackass Forever would premiere, one night before its four-times-delayed theatrical release. The whole thing would be followed by a chat with head Jackasses Johnny Knoxville, who stars in the series as a kind of semi-benevolent rubber-jointed Joker, and Spike Jonze, who’s produced them all while simultaneously winning acclaim and sometimes Oscars for movies like Her, Where the Wild Things Are, and Adaptation. A banner day, a gauntlet, the kind of stunt that made my friends say things like “Oh, buddy” and “Wow.”

So on Thursday at 1 pm, fortified only by a shot of tequila and a quick snack hurriedly located between my subway stop and the museum, clad in an extra-strength mask and some comfy pants, I jacked in. Time to party.

To be alive in the world is to know the basic gist of the Jackass saga, even if it was just so you knew you didn’t want to see it. It’s right there in the name. A bunch of dudes named things like Chris and Bam and, in Jackass Forever, “Poopies” engage in truly loony activities ring-led by Knoxville that threaten life and limb. And we laugh. And so do they. No plot. No thesis. No point to make.

A shirtless white man in sunglasses yells as a small alligator clamps directly onto his left nipple.
Johnny Knoxville getting bit by a baby alligator, on purpose, in Jackass: The Movie.
Paramount/Everett Collection

But a lot of people have wanted to see it. The first film, based on the group’s short-lived but wildly popular MTV show, was shot for $5 million, then turned around and made almost $80 million at the global box office. It starts with the cast rolling down a hill in an enormous shopping cart, then getting chunks of what looks like cement shot at them from cannons before they crash into a fruit stand. The second film, with its titular scatological wink, pulled in $85 million. Jackass 3D made $171 million worldwide. As others have noted, the Jackass franchise has extended surprisingly long tendrils into American entertainment, from the internet’s ability to make anyone a star to its harnessing of cinematic innovation toward outrageously and insistently lowbrow ends.

There’s a taxonomy of Jackass-ery, as one might discover while watching them all straight through. There are pranks, like rigging up an enormous hand to thwack your buddy unawares or tricking him into, I don’t know, getting into a limo filled with bees. There are stunts, like Knoxville’s many attempts to drive vehicles of various sorts off of ramps and into places those vehicles should not go. And then there’s just nothing-good-can-come-of-this dares: Will you jam your fist into this bear trap? Will you bungee out of this tree tethered only by your tighty-whities in pursuit of a truly wicked wedgie? Will you drink this cup of horse semen? Meanwhile, someone is seemingly always vomiting off or on camera, and the rest of the crew is laughing. It’s not like slapstick, exactly, because people really do get hurt. It’s just that they get over it and go back for more.

Mostly, it feels like being trapped at a bachelor party weekend with a bunch of good-natured 11-year-olds, which I do not mean in a bad way. The Jackass guys give off a distinct whiff, psychically but probably also literally, of a gaggle of boys in the throes of puberty who have never been so much as looked at by a girl. Left to the bliss of their own, uninhibited company, they are fascinated by the fact that they have penises, but only to figure out what weird things they can do with and to them. They slam into walls for fun; they find farts and tricks involving butts and fire hilarious; their moms are always saying, “But I just don’t understand why you would do that,” and in answer they merely shrug. There’s no reason to poop in a display toilet in a hardware store, except that — as Knoxville says a time or two — it just seemed really funny at the time.

A bunch of guys in safety goggles jump and yell as things explode around them.
The cast of Jackass 3D in an exploding room at the end of the film.
Paramount Pictures

Of course, in Jackass: The Movie, almost all the guys are in their 20s. That was 20 years ago. So the films are documentaries about what happens when that impulse is given free but largely harmless rein, extended far into adulthood and filmed by the subjects. (The crew don’t often participate in the stunts, but they have to get mighty close to them, with occasional vomitous consequences.) Over the years there have been sobering changes — one conspicuously missing cast member in Jackass Forever is Ryan Dunn, who died in a car crash in 2011 — but for the most part, watching all four in a row is a feast of genial idiocy that documents whose body changed with fame and who got another tattoo and when they all start to go gray. It’s not unlike binge-watching the Seven Up documentary series.

I knew what I was getting myself into. As one character asks another in Jackass 3D, “What did you think was going to happen?”

What did happen: Yeah, okay, I left with a raging headache and some bright spots in my peripheral vision, and the feeling of being hungover even though that one tequila was it for the day.

But having been stewed in Jackass’s juices all day, watching guys superglue themselves to one another and then scream as they’re ripped apart, I pondered just what, in a cosmic sense, I was watching.

What Jackass isn’t is mean. With a couple of (mostly early) exceptions, it’s not the kind of humor that leans on misogyny or racism to be funny. And it isn’t trying to expose anyone for their foolishness who isn’t already exuberantly engaged in being foolish on purpose. When pranks involve people outside the group — the owner of a rental car agency, a man on the street horrified at the actions of Knoxville costumed as a “bad grandpa,” a sushi chef trying to ignore the guy taking wasabi lines up the nose across the counter from him — it’s they who are the reasonable ones, and the Jackasses who are just being idiots. We presume (and sometimes confirm) that they smoothed it all over after they got the shot. In this way, the movies feel different from the aims and goals of an adjacent property, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, which is working in a different and satirical register (more similar perhaps is the largely improvised Bad Trip, starring Forever addition Eric Andre). There’s no satire to Jackass. It is, proudly and unabashedly, itself.

That said, there’s still a reason for its existence, and that reason is not merely giant box office returns. Somewhere in the middle of Jackass Number Two, probably when cast member Steve-O was getting a fish hook stuck through his cheek so he could swim with sharks and then get reeled in by his buddy, I started thinking about the medieval Feast of Fools.

Three people in mime costumes and Johnny Knoxville watch as one of the mimes puckers up at a snake.
There are new cast members this time, too, who have to dress up like mimes and maybe kiss a snake?
Paramount Pictures

We don’t know a whole lot about the Feast of Fools, but the general outlines have stuck: Around the turn of the year, participants in the feast, often clergy, would appoint some kind of leader for the day — a fake bishop, a fake pope. They’d flip the clergy hierarchy, and low-ranking clergy would perform a mass that mocked the higher-ranked. It was (understandably) controversial, and the practice had all but died out by the 16th century. But it was a moment of catharsis, a way to let off steam and then let life kind of return to normal.

I found myself thinking about the fools of the feast, not because they’re a perfect analogue, but because the whole reason to watch Jackass is to participate in the mayhem. Everyone is temporarily given their Chaos Muppet hall pass; everyone is in on the joke. And what is the joke? That there are all these things you’re not supposed to do in life — slingshot yourself on a skateboard across a blow-up pool, fart into a funnel connected to your friend’s helmet, pogo-stick your buddy’s crotch, squash your genitalia flat — that most of us, frankly, would never even want to do, and never will. In the Jackass world, the rules get turned from “thou shalt nots” to “thou absolutely musts,” if just for a couple of hours.

So the dream remains, and the Jackasses get up and just do it for us. If you’ve seen a Jackass movie in a theater (and honestly, that is the One True Place for watching it), then you know that at least 50 percent of the sound effects come from the crowd. (By Jackass 3D, my whole room of fellow ’thoners was groaning merely at the appearance of a tube of superglue.) A bunch of the audience are almost certainly, like me, the kind of people who won’t even hover our fingers within a couple inches of an electrical socket, but the kind of cleansing relief of watching the weirdly pure goofballs onscreen tase one another lets us return to our own lives of seat belts and fully cooked, unregurgitated food a little lighter.

Three guys in weird clothes stand in front of a pool. You can see two enormous hands behind them.
Machine Gun Kelly, Johnny Knoxville, and Steve-O in Jackass Forever.
Sean Cliver/Paramount Pictures

That they’ve caught it on tape reinforces the fool’s impulse. They are definitely doing this for themselves. But they’re doing it for us — documenting it not to simply observe human behavior but to provoke our own, to remind us that no matter how many degrees we’ve earned or how finely tuned our comedy sense is, there is something basely funny about a blindfolded guy getting kicked in the nuts by a donkey.

A whole generation of kids, probably particularly the masculine variety, learned what funny was from Jackass and went on to replicate it in their mall parking lots and dorm rooms. Jackass Forever is the first of the films to add new cast, because Knoxville and his pals are hovering around 50 these days and a lot more brittle; the new members are delighted to be in the movie we used to watch! And who can blame them? They have taken on a high, low calling: to be the fools who prostrate themselves across a pile of mousetraps or take an enormous belly flop for the camera, for us.

But whether you envy the guys onscreen or want to shake them a little, if you find yourself settled into the Jackass groove, it’s pretty hard to resist. The obvious affection between all of the guys, who beat on each other, yell at each other, and then hug it out and do it all over again. The excitement of watching guys who you know probably walked away from the stunt on their own power but also are taking it on the chin without any typical stuntman precautions. The eye-bugging realization that they are really going to go there this time; the upping of the ante; the matryoshka-style stunts where you think it’s going to be one prank and then it’s a whole bigger, badder prank. The impulse to do it, and to watch, is in its way a proudly, baldly, loopy celebration of these weird, smelly, gross, hilarious bodies we all have and the world we let them roam around in.

I stumbled into the night after Jackass Forever with aching cheeks from laughing, a sore derriere from sitting, and a little bit of gratitude to inhabit a planet with people who don’t mind being fools on purpose. Will I attempt the stunt again? Absolutely not. Did I have a blast? You bet.

Jackass Forever is playing in theaters.