The whole thing got started with an article Johnny Knoxville pitched to Big Brother Magazine. He was going to wound himself with a tazer, a stun gun, and pepper spray in order to determine which was the most effective weapon. Knoxville's contact at the magazine, editor Jeff Tremaine, convinced him to film what he was doing for the project. This, apparently, is how some stars are born.
Why would a person do something like that? "I don't know," said Knoxville, "It just seemed a pretty funny thing to do at the time." This is the foundational ethic of Knoxville's humor.
He wears a baseball cap, a navy blue jumpsuit, and a scraggly beard (for his next movie role, he claims), and he doesn't seem to care very much about himself or his appearance. Knoxville thinks that growing up with an unusual role model is responsible for his disposition. From an early age, he and his friends were the objects of his father's practical jokes.
"He would send my friends letters from the health department in high school that would have 'VD Clinic' stamped on them, saying they had contracted VD and they have to list their last ten partners, signed Dr. Harlan C. Titmore," Knoxville said.
The spirit of Jackass really hasn't changed at all since Knoxville's garage days. Apart from a few additions in personnel, Knoxville's brainchild, if it can be called that, remains largely intact. He and his entourage began filming skateboarding videos with Big Brother Magazine, and when Tremaine, Knoxville, and MTV joined forces, someone suggested that they give Bam Margera a call.
Margera and his friendsapparently Knoxville's east-coast kindred spiritshad been filming "Camp Kill Yourself," and its sequel, "CKY2K," in western Pennsylvania. They quickly agreed to sign on with the Big Brother troupe, and the unholy union was forged. The first episode of Jackass aired on MTV in October of 2000 and was directed in part by Spike Jonze.
The show was an enormous success. Knoxville and Margera assembled an all-star team of their friends, all of whom were masochistic enough to be a part of the show. Steve-O, Pontius, Rake Yohn, Ryan Dunn, Wee-Man, and Preston Lacy soon became the backbone of Jackass, shaking one another around inside portable toilets, beating up Margera's father, and shooting one another with crossbows. The group seemed to thrive on pain.
"[In] one particularly painful bit, which never got on TV, they put me in a cardboard box the size of a television and they taped it up and pushed me down a flight of concrete stairs and it went airborne and just slammed my back on the ground," Knoxville recalled. "That one was just brutal."
But after 24 overwhelmingly popular episodes had been filmed, the responses of finger-wagging criticsnotably Joseph Liebermanmade it clear that the show had reached its upper limit. Lieberman called the show "potentially dangerous and inciting, particularly to vulnerable children."
"We went as far as we could on television," said Knoxville. "There was really nothing else we could get away with. With the heat coming down from Washington I saw that we weren't going to be able to do the show like we had been in the past, so [I preferred to] quit while [it was] still good and special to people, and we did."
The whole crew packed up the show and decided, some time later, that a movie was the only thing left to do. Jackass: The Movie opens today at theaters everywhere.
In spite of a surprisingly long acting résumé and ambitions of future performances in both comedic and dramatic films, Knoxville does not seem concerned that his movie targets a lowbrow audience. He believes that he can be a part of something serious in the future while letting his juvenile project run its course.
"We released [the movie] on October 25 just in time for Oscar consideration, so I'm expecting quite a few nominations," he joked. In some ways, it seems as though Knoxville hardly considers Jackass to be a movie at all. Instead, it's just an extension of what he did on MTV, or as he puts it, "the exclamation point on the show."
To hear Knoxville tell it, the movie existed to receive an R rating and escape the restrictions of television. But even that rating was insufficient; the movie needed to be edited substantially before it was worthy of anything less than NC-17.
"Nothing had to be taken out," he explained, "But we couldn't linger on things as long, we couldn't linger on holes or shafts or objectionable things as long. We had to get on and get off."
Knoxville doesn't think the critics can fairly come after him. "The movie is R rated, so you have to be an adult or with an adult to get in. In every interview I've been in ever I've said 'don't try this at home.' So we do as much as we can," he said.
Asked whether he thought the stunts would be mimicked anyway, Knoxville responded that he doubted it would be a problem. "There's not a lot of imitable stuff I can't think of anything anyone would want to go out and imitate, aside from young boys around the country coming out of the closet from all the naked men running around touching each other."
Though he tipped his hand a few times with references to nudity and the like, Knoxville, Margera, and the others have kept the stunts they recorded quiet. A few lowlights have been released, however. Apparently one stunt was too offensive even for some members of the group to perform.
"Steve-O was going to do [the stunt] for the movie but eventually he turned it down because his father said that he would disown him if he did it, so Ryan Dunn stepped in and did it," said Knoxville.
He declined to explain what this atrocity might be. "I can't give it away, but you'll never look at toy cars or Ryan Dunn the same way again. We won't be getting any endorsements from Hot Wheels, that's for sure."
The movie will be a departure from the show in degree but not in type. The Jackass crew remained the same for the filming, and they worked under the authority of Tremaine, whose only prior experience as a director came as an ad hoc leader of the TV show when Jonze was away filming his movies. But he was all that Jackass: The Movie needed, largely because he had earned the respect of hisahemactors.
"Being an editor, [Tremaine] is really good at being in charge I mean, I don't think Peter Bogdanovich ever had to deal with a full grown man shitting his pants while filming, so he really had a lot of things being thrown at him. Jeff did a great job."
Even if it was founded on a juvenile idea, Jackass: The Movie amounted, during the filming at least, to everything Knoxville hoped it would be.
"We had so many ideas we couldn't do for TV, and the show ended really abruptly with me quitting," Knoxville said. By giving up on the show while it was at the height of its success, Knoxville left viewers and actors alike with an appetite whetted for more. The movie is an attempt to satiate that appetite, and little else.
"It's everything the show should have been. No plot, no narrative; just one bad idea after another."