Steve-O from Jackass has a new comedy special out and, at first, I had reservations. (For the record, you can stream it from his website, starting July 30th, no middle man necessary).
Steve-O appears live onstage from Denver, with a tasteful part in his hair and clad in a snuggly red flannel, discussing the tribulations of his mid-aughts life (like getting arrested atop a giant crane and trying to puke up a giant condom filled with pot that he was choking on, all while high on drugs), mixing period footage of each incident with bad puns and the occasional special guest, like “Danger” Ehren McGehey — who lets Steve-O shave off his pubes and glue them to his face like a mustache, a la Jackass 3D. “I hope there’s no crabs in it this time, ha ha ha,” says McGehey, gamely spitting out freshly shaved pubes. Yeah, Jackass, remember that?
I’ll be honest, at first, it made me sad.
Aside from sucking the spontaneity and mischief out of bits I once (and still, actually) love, it was a bit like watching Curly from the Three Stooges try to be Johnny Carson. It’s not so much that I begrudged Steve-O the attempt at “artistic growth,” it’s just that I always found Jackass a lot funnier than Jerry Seinfeld. I wondered if the amazing video bits (like Steve-O painting bicycle shorts on his naked body and riding around LA crashing on sidewalks) needed the dad-like detachment of Steve-O’s stage persona. “Wasn’t that crazy? Wow.” It was stressful, like watching a friend try to deliver a mild-cute best man speech where you feel acutely aware of every audience reaction.
My own reaction, I think, wasn’t so much “why isn’t the clown dancing?” In fact, it was sort of the opposite. It takes a lot to be universally recognized as “the crazy one” in the Jackass gang — it’s like being “the party guy” in Motley Crüe. I firmly believe that Jackass is one of the enduring cultural products of the aughts, capturing perfectly the chaotic id, hedo-nihilism, and casual homoeroticism of the suburban American male. It’s also just plain funny, at any age, in any language. I watched Jackass 3D recently with family, and even ten years later everyone from the kids to the grandparents spent most of it doubled over laughing.
Yet Steve-O’s stunts always had a darker edge to them. They seemed to come from a person who wasn’t just wild and creative, but clearly self-destructive and desperate to be loved — in a way that was both endearing and slightly painful. It was so transparent that Jackass essentially played it up and made it part of the bits. Which is to say, Steve-O makes me feel the way he probably makes a lot of people feel: I just want Steve-O to be okay.
Everyone has a friend, a brother, a cousin, like Steve-O — that guy who everyone loves but deep down doesn’t believe it and seems to work a little too hard for everyone’s affection, usually at his own expense. And when I watch Steve-O swallow a sh*t-covered condom filled with Chris Pontius’s semen onstage to the sound of a paying, braying crowd in his new special, it’s hard to know whether I’m supporting his sobriety or enabling him.
On my first attempt at Gnarly, I had to turn it off after about 15 minutes. My fianceé and I had both gnawed our fingernails down to the nubs and were alternating between holding our breath and turning away from the screen — too intense to watch before bed. Something about Steve-O presenting footage of his own past mental breakdowns with a cheesy smile and a pocket full of puns like the host of American Funniest Videos was weirdly more nervewracking than watching him jam a fish hook through his cheek and jump into a shark-infested ocean. Is vicarious embarrassment somehow worse than vicarious death?
When I went back to it a day later I started to appreciate it more. Further along in Gnarly, Steve-O discusses his sobriety (since 2008) and his intervention at the hands of Johnny Knoxville. Little by little, it started to feel less like he was trying to relive his past exploits than trying to learn from them. Or maybe I just needed to hear that Steve-O is okay before I could fully process old videos of him torturing his neighbor while gakked out of his mind. It helped to stop thinking of it as a “comedy” special, even if that’s what Steve-O calls it. It’s more like a one-man show, or an extended AA share. “Comedy” doesn’t feel quite right (and honestly the rehashed Danger Ehren pube mustache was probably still a bad idea). At one point Mike Tyson even shows up (during footage of the Charlie Sheen Roast) as our collective id, trying to talk Steve-O out of a bit: “I don’t want to hurt you, Steve-O.”
Knowing I didn’t have to laugh with stage Steve-O so much as go on the emotional journey with him made all the difference. Which isn’t to say that the footage gets any less insane. It’s made up largely of things Steve-O couldn’t put on YouTube — so, nudity, gore, drugs. And it’s much easier to enjoy once it sounds like Steve-O has maybe gained some self-knowledge over the years, even if he’s still weirdly compelled to light himself on fire and eat his own scabs.
What can we say, that’s just Steve-O being Steve-O. And what a glorious, bizarre, weirdly endearing thing that is. I suppose it’s not that I didn’t want to watch Steve-O hurt himself, I just wanted to know he was doing it for the right reasons.