When things get bad and everything sucks and everyone seems to hate each other, there’s only one thing that can bring us together: a new Jackass movie. With a new installment of Jackass, Jackass Forever, hitting theaters February 4th, almost 20 years since the release of the first Jackass movie, it’s high time to acknowledge Jackass for what it is: the greatest American cultural product of the 21st century.
Every time they release a new movie, some boring critic somewhere inevitably calls Jackass the death of art, the death of cinema, the death of good taste, whatever. Trolling for this reaction is essentially baked into the concept. Taking a longer view, Jackass actually seems much truer to the spirit of what entertainment has traditionally been than our narrow conceptions of a feature film. Minus the skate-bro dialect and styling, how much different is Jackass than Le Petomane, the famous French farter? Jackass would fit right in on Vaudeville, in any medieval court, and on any boardwalk. It’s spectacle, it’s a showcase for a kind of pure, dadaist creativity that could really exist nowhere else, and it’s probably the best of modern slapstick.
Johnny Knoxville is our Buster Keaton. He has the soul of 30s carnival barker and his ability to deliver a perfect one-liner in the midst of death-defying situations rivals that of his greatest contemporary, Sacha Baron Cohen.
On that note, we probably wouldn’t have Borat without Jackass. Before Jackass: The Movie, the movie industry generally assumed that the only way to turn a guerilla comedy TV show into a movie was to insert the star of it into some kind of Billy Madison plot (rather than just doing what Jackass did, which was to just make 90 minutes worth of guerilla comedy). Freddy Got Fingered is a perfect example here, though it’s a credit to Tom Green (who to some extent paved the way for Jackass) that he did his best to destroy the format even as he was embodying it. If you want to know what Borat might’ve looked like before Jackass, look no further than Sacha Cohen’s pre-Borat movie, Ali G Indahouse, which managed to turn Cohen’s subversive, freewheeling interview show into a conventional and mostly sort of lame comedy film.
Jackass is also, if I may say, an enduring portrait of male friendship. You can keep your First Cow, I’ll take Jackass. It’s the only entertainment product that has ever explored the lengths to which dudes will go and the sacrifices they’ll make simply in order to make their friends laugh. This has traditionally been the foundation of the most enduring friendships. No stunt is too gross or too dangerous if it means a good hang. I can think of few more tender moments in cinema than Wee Man catching a soap bubble made of Preston Lacy’s fart on his tongue, or Chris Pontius hitting a ping pong ball with his penis so that Bam Margera can try to catch the ball in his mouth.
The beauty of Jackass is that you get so desensitized to the absolute mayhem of it that you never know what’s going to send you over the edge. The funniest part of a stunt is rarely the stated or even intended goal of the bit. Usually it’s some secondary complication, a totally unforeseen event, or a perfectly executed bit of slapstick the occurs in the midst of it, usually entirely by accident. For me, one moment came about halfway through my rewatch of Jackass Number Two, after Steve-O “buttchugs” a beer and Bam tries to suck it out with a plunger. At this point, Bam yells, “Now you better shit piss, asswipe!”
I still laugh every time I think about it. It even happens to their own cameramen from time to time, “I think we broke Lance,” being a frequent refrain, every time cameraman Lance Bangs is either laughing too hard or too nauseous to carry out his duties.
Anyway, I did my best to structure my love letter to Jackass in the form of an internet-friendly listicle. I considered ranking every single Jackass bit, but that seemed too tedious, and a top 10 seemed insufficient. So I thought we’d celebrate 20 years of Jackass with 20 of their greatest stunts. (Honorable mention to classic recurring bits like Party Boy and Night Monkeys, among many, many others).
20. Riot Control Test, AKA The Ball-Bearing Embassy Mine (Jackass Number Two)
In the first Jackass, Johnny Knoxville shocked the gang (and cemented himself as the leader) by consistently being game for the gnarliest stunts. This one, for which all the other Jackass guys begged off, involved taking a “less lethal” rubber bullet to the abdomen. In part two, the crew returns to the same weapons manufacturer to test a riot control claymore filled with rubber ball bearings meant to disperse protesters outside of embassies.
This is one of those stunts that I would definitely describe more as “shocking” or “crazy” than funny (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but for me the beauty of this one isn’t that it’s so insane (even though it is), it’s the fact that while Bam and Ryan Dunn are wearing full face shields, Johnny Knoxville is just covering his face with his hand. Jackass doesn’t get enough credit for being subtle.
19. The Dollhouse Poop (Jackass Number Two)
There’s a recurring bit in Top Secret (1984) where an establishing shot will open on an object in the foreground, then pull back to reveal that it isn’t in the foreground at all, it’s actually just huge. I don’t know why I find perspective humor so funny, but Jackass flipped the script by having Dave England take a man-sized dump in a doll-sized bathroom. Dave England is a former professional snowboarder, but in Jackass became the go-to guy for poop related stunts. Jackass is a great reminder that you can be anything if you set your mind to it.
18. The Dildo Gun (Jackass 3D)
Being complicated isn’t a prerequisite for a great Jackass bit. In fact, some of the best ones are pretty simple. By the time of Jackass 3D, Johnny Knoxville was pushing 40, Steve-O was sober, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that the boys would no longer be able to heal as quickly from throwing themselves down stairs and getting shot with less-than-lethal anti-personnel mines and whatnot. They cleverly compensated for this deficit with better production values, more creative sets, high-speed slow-motion camera work. Firing a dildo into a glass of milk in super slow motion perhaps isn’t the greatest showcase for physical comedy but it is mesmerizing, and the sets were inspired. Also the apple on the head with the dick hitting the face is a classic Jackass misdirect.
17. The Swamp Chute (Jackass Number Two)
Strapping a parachute to Wee Man and having him open it behind a fan boat engine seems like a pretty one-note joke on paper, but the visual comedy of watching him skip across the water gets me every time.
16. The Toro-Totter
It’s not easy to cement yourself as the “craziest one” in a crew that includes Steve-O and Bam Margera, but Johnny Knoxville still manages to do it every time there’s a bull involved. This bit would’ve played just as well in the silent film era.
15. (tie) Snake Vs. Dick Puppet (Jackass Number Two)/Dick Vs. Bottle Rocket (Jackass The Movie)
Most groups of guys have that one friend who gets naked so often that his dick and balls become mundane, as normal to gaze upon as their nose or their forehead. So it is Chris Pontius has become Jackass‘s go-to guy for dick-related stunts, thanks to a nice-sized, not too ugly penis.
Plenty of dudes have lit farts or done the old “hey, do you guys know what time it is?” while wrapping their dicks around their wrists like a watch, but Jackass is brilliant at taking that kind of fairly-common dude humor just one step further. Attaching a bottle rocket to Chris Pontius’s dick with a string, or dressing it like a mouse and sticking it in a snake cage = pure genius.
Labeling the hole Pontius puts his dick through is also a perfect example of the kind of comedic flourish that puts Jackass head and shoulders above the competition. Johnny Knoxville is not only our Buster Keaton, Jackass is our Busby Berkeley musical. Which I guess makes Chris Pontius is Busby Berkeley starlet, if she seemed really, really stoned all the time.
14. Jacking off Sea Cucumbers (Jackass The Movie)
Sea cucumbers are penis-shaped creatures who expel their white, ropy innards when agitated, so you can probably imagine what happened when the Jackass guys discovered them. The best thing they did with this bit was to frame it around the wildlife expert explaining sea cucumbers to the camera. “I made the mistake of showing this to the boys, and…”
It’s a tenet of Jackass that sometimes the funniest part of a bit is the person who doesn’t think it’s funny.
13. Terror Taxi (Jackass Number Two)
Another tenet of Jackass is that the best way to save a bad bit, or to subvert a prank that seems a little too cruel is to turn it against the prankster. The most basic example of this is in “The Gong,” when Rick Kosick (I think?) sneaks up behind a napping guy and holds up the gong. Johnny Knoxville just hits him in the nuts instead. This three second gif might be the purest distillation of Jackass.
Jackass Number Two, released in 2006 in the midst of aughts terror paranoia, applied this same framework to a bit about terrorism. They led Danger Ehren to believe he was going to play a high-larious fake terrorist in a pretend suicide bomber skit (quite obviously a really bad idea!) only to glue actual pubes to his face, lock him in the trunk of a car, and make him believe he was about to get murdered. You could probably write a whole thesis on how this bit subverts the tropes of War On Terror-era propaganda, but that’s maybe giving it a little too much credit. I tend to think it was more just a great way to play a really f*cked up prank and have it still be funny because maybe the prankee kind of deserved it? Brilliant in either case.
12. The Ram Jam (Jackass 3D)
Watching Johnny Knoxville risk death against a raging bull is always impossibly compelling, but how many times can you tempt fate? Having Steve-O and Ryan Dunn try to play trumpets and tubas for an angry ram is a nice way to reduce the danger while maintaining the magic. The ram is sort of “angry killing machine” in miniature, which makes it funnier. And of course not that miniature, that dude still looks like he could snap a femur.
11. Duck Hunting (Jackass 3D)
Through the course of its existence, Jackass has seen a gradual evolution from death defying stunts to inventive sight gags. Duck Hunting is a nice illustration of later-stage Jackass brilliance, in that it’s a wonderful sight gag and is greatly improved by high speed cameras, to the point that you don’t really miss the pathological insanity of
earlier Jackass. Heck, I would probably even try this one, not that it doesn’t still look like it would hurt like shit.
10. Electric Avenue (Jackass 3D)
Watching Jackass bits evolve from getting hit with a taser to this elaborately choreographed and meticulously filmed sight gag is like seeing a Wright Brothers’ kite become a supersonic fighter jet before your eyes.
9. The Butt Chug (Jackass Number Two)
Steve-O almost certainly isn’t the first drunk idiot to stick a beer funnel in his ass, but it’s the spontaneity of this bit, the genuine camaraderie, and the unintended consequences that make it so sublime. That combination is the essence of Jackass. The butt chug itself is only sort of funny, but the genuine glee of everyone involved makes it a little funnier, and then Bam yelling “now you better shit piss, asswipe” really sent me over the edge. (Also great: “look at him, he’s peeing like a girl!”).
The moment when the gang realizes that shoving a plunger in Steve-O’s ass to get the beer back out has actually worked is nothing short of magical.
8. Beehive Tetherball (Jackass 3D)
(*Dave England Shrieking*)
Dave England could’ve had a great career in horror films, no one can communicate sheer agony and physical pain quite like he can.
7. Manfishing (Jackass Number Two)
I’ve grown to appreciate sight gag Jackass probably more than death-defying stunt Jackass, but few could deny that Steve-O jamming a fish hook through his cheek and then jumping into a shark-infested ocean is next level. No, it’s not the funniest Jackass stunt I’ve ever seen, but come on, he almost got his leg taken off by a Mako.
6. The Fart Mask (Jackass Number Two)
This is one of those Jackass stunts that we all want to pretend is too gross and too crude and therefore we cannot in good conscience sanction it, but in practice it has hidden comedic layers and makes me shriek every time. (Yes, I should probably note that I tend to laugh when I am uncomfortable.) This wouldn’t have been funny if Steve-O hadn’t puked inside his own astronaut helmet almost immediately, which turns out to be a better sight gag than the original stunt, and then the tertiary joke of pulling out to reveal that Preston has actually pooped in the funnel leads to a barf-o-rama-esque finale in which it now appears that everyone else in the room is also going to puke. That poor, poor hotel maid. I hope they left them a thousand dollar tip.
5. The Jet Engine (Jackass 3D)
This is such a great stunt in that it is simultaneously: a silly idea (to recreate the old Maxwell ad), a wonderful sight gag, and slightly terrifying in execution. You laugh, then you gasp, then you laugh again. The football they toss into the jet’s exhaust looks like it’s going about 300 miles an hour and appears to end up in a different county. Which doesn’t stop Johnny Knoxville from dressing like an old-timey leatherhead and taking one directly to the chest. Magnificent.
4. The High Five (Jackass 3D)
The old “mechanical boxing glove fist” gag has been around at least since I was a kid, and probably dates back to the inception of film. This hand slap gag from Jackass 3D is a straightforward variation on that, though it’s another great example that simply messing with the scale of the props in a prank can add an exponential degree of comedy. “What my sketch presuppose is… what if hand big?”
Adding hot soup to the bit is a stroke of pure genius, setting up one Jackass‘s all-time great lines, “I can’t believe he fell for the soup!”
This gag is perfectly planned, and yet, as with all the greatest Jackass stunts, there’s an element to it that couldn’t be planned. The way Bam Margera’s feet tilt straight backwards like he’s a falling tree makes me indescribably happy.
3. Department Store Boxing (Jackass Number Two)
This one goes from silly to terrifying in a hurry, thanks to Eric “Butterbean” Esch punching Johnny Knoxville into another dimension in the middle of a “swap meet location deep in the valley.” It was a remix of a bit that Knoxville had originally done on the show with director Jeff Tremaine, but for the movie they flew out Butterbean from Alabama, apparently in economy class (keep in mind Butterbean’s official weight in his final boxing match was 425 pounds). Knoxville’s instruction to Butterbean was reportedly to “go game speed.”
Butterbean famously smashed Knoxville’s face, knocking him out cold, though in fairness it’s hard to say whether it was the fist, the sharp corner of the counter he hit on the way down, or the concrete floor he landed on that caused the unconsciousness. It was mostly too scary to be funny, but Johnny Knoxville saves the entire bit by asking, immediately upon waking up, “Is Butterbean okay?”
Such is the power of a well-placed Dad Joke. I don’t know that it can cure a TBI but it can sure make it feel okay to laugh at one.
2. The Rental Car Crash-Up Derby (Jackass: The Movie)
I admit, I didn’t initially remember this bit as well as I did Department Store Boxing, but after rewatching all three movies for this piece I’m convinced that Rental Car Crash-Up Derby is one of the greatest things they ever did. Conceptually it’s already a winner, cathartically exercising the anxiety one is bound to feel every time one signs all the papers and makes all the inherent promises it requires to rent a car. All of which boil down to, “Now, you’re gonna drive real safe, right?”
“Yes, of course, I pinky promise to be the most careful driver there ever was.”
Of course, it’s Knoxville’s general knack for dopey silent film comedy that makes the whole thing sing, starting with the way he arrives to the rental agency seemingly dressed like his idea of “serious adult business traveler,” complete with newsboy cap and orthopedic-looking glasses, perfectly evoking three kids stacked on each other’s shoulders underneath a trenchcoat. His one-liners are all sublime, starting with “We’ll take good care of ‘er,” continuing through “Yeah I hit a dog,” and finishing off with Knoxville’s insistence that he couldn’t be held accountable for the car’s repair costs because he was drunk when he signed the paperwork declining the insurance.
1. Golf Course Air Horn (Jackass: The Movie)
Yes, my favorite Jackass bit is one that’s neither stunt nor sight gag nor even particularly creative. It simply combines golfers, air horns, and Orlando, Florida, all leading up to arguably the greatest exchange in Jackass history:
I’m sorry, I’ve got bursitis.
You’ve got bursitis. So that means you gotta play with a horn?
I’ll give you something to play with, pal.
This man turned out to be the perfect Knoxville foil, matching his one-liners with his own, even while furious. It’s perfect.