Time has been kind to the jackasses of Jackass. Not physically, mind you. The life of a masochistic stunt performer is one rife with concussions, broken bones, and lost teeth. By at least one estimate, the physical damage incurred over the course of the franchise sits somewhere in the $20 million area.
But in the two decades since they first hit screens, the Jackass crew has transformed from the scatologically obsessed gang of skate punks who exist in the blurry region between outright trash and a Live Leak video to esteemed members of our pop-cultural pantheon. Jackass has been around long enough that its tricks, while definitely stomach-turning, are no longer offensive but something resembling transgressive art. Also, it’s still very, very funny.
Audiences and critics have been faced with the defecating anus of Jackass long enough to know what they’re getting. But there’s value here, too. For all its gross-out charms, the series is the only place anywhere in popular cinema where you’ll see many of life’s most common and universal experiences—the only piece of mainstream moviemaking that comes close is Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning dump in Nomadland and whatever Jane Campion’s got cooking up for us. At least by Martin Scorsese’s stipulations, this is closer to real cinema than Marvel movies. Everybody poops, after all.
But while Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and friends are still interested in poo-poo and pee-pee, what’s changed is the presentation, which director Jeff Tremaine carefully refined over 20 years. In addition to the clear desire to one-up previous chapters, the movies become more expansive in their editing, focusing on anticipation and reaction as closely as the stunts. The writing, acting, and staging of pranks grow more elaborate, too. As does the will to present something lowbrow and disgusting as something fit for human consumption—something resembling entertainment.
It’s a form that Tremaine and co. fostered and built, the best possible version of an American tradition: Horrific injuries caught on tape. One can find clips of people hurting themselves or eating dog shit anywhere, but the Jackass movies smuggle these unmentionables into multiplexes, where normies must face their vulgar title and imagine its contents. They can even take a gander if they choose.
When Jackass: The Movie first hit theaters in the fall of 2002, it felt like a genuine coup. The TV series from which it spun off premiered two years earlier, a doubling-down on MTV’s part after enduring a decade of parents demanding the heads of Beavis and Butt-Head—who would later guest star in Jackass 3-D. But what could a theatrically released feature film offer that a “too hot for TV” VHS sold on late-night television couldn’t? As The A.V. Club noted at the time, it worked for The Jerry Springer Show.
Aside from the communal experience of watching Jackass: The Movie with a hot crowd on opening weekend, the first film gave us such off-the-cuff moments as Ehren McGhehey eating a piss-soaked snowcone seemingly on a whim. While the series would eventually move beyond this, its first film gives the impression that any idea, no matter how stupid, is at least worth attempting. Many scenes take place across late nights in hotel rooms when premises for Jackass segments emerge simply because the perfect envelope for paper cuts is on hand. Even the film’s only through line—the cameraman sneaking up on cast members and giving them a quick buzz from a hair trimmer—feels like it was born out of a sudden urge to fuck with someone, rather than the result of careful planning.
Shot on the same consumer-grade camcorders preferred by the gang, the movie’s MiniDV graininess is closer to the found-footage horror of The Blair Witch Project than studio comedies of the time. Digital moviemaking was not yet in vogue, but the film’s distorted and ramshackle look is an early example of something the rest of the industry would soon adopt. Beating trends to the punch would become a recurring theme throughout the series.
Jackass: The Movie doesn’t make any bones about a Jackass movie being a silly idea. The film’s central image, the boys riding a gigantic shopping cart, is a perfect metaphor for the film itself: MTV’s Jackass, but bigger. Jackass: Number Two, though, is the first time they set out to make an actual movie. Number Two opens with the boys staging their own running of the bulls across an artificial suburban cul-de-sac. Emerging from a cloud of dust, running at full velocity across the backlot version of Anywhere, U.S.A., they open the Jackass experience to a wider world. The TV show had already stampeded through the real suburbs, when the MTV show turned a generation of middle schoolers into numbers on a chart documenting the rise in shopping-cart-related injuries among boys aged 12 to 14. Jackass: Number Two made its point. Tremaine and Knoxville would re-imagine the series as something more than a longer version of the TV show.
To that end, Number Two is far more cinematic than the lo-fi outbursts of its predecessor. In addition to the Ennio Morricone-soundtracked introduction that evokes Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western epics, and brief whiffs of Knoxville aping Charlie Chaplin, the film concludes with a beautifully staged Busby Berkley musical number and a recreation of Buster Keaton’s collapsing house bit that ends with Knoxville getting walloped by a wrecking ball.
The stunts and pranks, too, require more elaborate staging and acting. But “Terror Taxi” needs only actors, foley work, and props. Dressed as a racist approximation of “Middle Eastern terrorist,” McGhehey attempts to fool an everyday taxi driver into believing he’s driving a would-be terrorist to the airport. Unbeknownst to McGhehey, his disgusting caricature is grosser than he knows. It’s the first part of a prank within a prank. The makeup, which he appears so proud of, includes a beard made of his co-stars’ pubes—one of whom “brought crabs to the party.”
Unbeknownst to McGhehey, the taxi driver is actually Super Troopers actor and director Jay Chandrasekhar, and he has his own game: Make McGhehey think he’s going to die. The obvious racist overtones of McGhehey’s brownface act (his stereotypical Middle Eastern accent frequently dips into Apu territory) are mostly defanged by the meta prank being pulled on him, a wildly successful and cathartic joke that provides comeuppance for McGhehey for thinking this thing was worth doing in the first place. It doesn’t absolve the racism, but it’s comforting to know he had some gross pubes in his mouth and the fear of God instilled in him.
“Terror Taxi” would be the new standard, giving Jackass 3-D something to top. Taking everything he learned about staging stunts from movie two, and inspired by the technology of state-of-the-art digital cameras, director Jeff Tremaine staged an ambitious follow-up that actually makes all the poop and big floppy dildos fun to look at. Part of that is the slow-motion photography that still wows, and the gleeful atmosphere that screams “we’re wasting this technology on a game of penis baseball.” But the actual production is a step smarter too. When they get an opportunity to play with a jet engine, they remember to bring a waiter costume.
One of the simplest and most well-executed gags in the movie, “The High Five,” shows how good these guys got at bringing Looney Tunes physical comedy into the real world. It boggles the mind how they convinced McGhehey to carry a tray of soup onto a Jackass set. Whoever pulled that one off deserves a Best Director Oscar, ASAP.
Tremaine was smart to notice the series’ secret weapon: Laughter. Get Knoxville and the late Ryan Dunn laughing at their victims and it will defuse any worry of serious injury or ill will. Just as important as the stunts, the film spends just as much time on the buildup and aftermath. Anticipation and dread play a bigger role here. It’s the first time the guys really ruminate on the fear and anxiety of this work. Everyone seems to have a moment of looking dead in the camera and saying “I’m Steve-O, and this—why do I always have to be Steve-O?”
The fear that haunts every one of their decisions comes from Jackass: Number Two, when we learn Bam Margera’s worst fear is snakes. It becomes Tremaine’s mission to push everyone that far. Whether it’s capturing Bam in a snake dungeon, forcing Dave England to play a game of “Beehive Tetherball,” or forcing the claustrophobic Steve-O to take a ride in the “Poo Cocktail Supreme.” Showing their fear actually adds something the Jackass movies rarely evoked: Stakes. Now that we know these guys don’t want to do this stuff, it makes their decision to do so all the funnier.
The next decade saw one Jackass film, and it’s an outlier. The spin-off Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa is a half-successful experiment by Tremaine and Knoxville to make a narrative movie out of their stunts and pranks. It was largely influential, too, as a progenitor to Knoxville’s Action Point and the Eric André prank movie Bad Trip. But it’s clear that part of the magic is the group. 2022’s Jackass Forever, like Jackass 3-D, pinpoints another trend in mainstream moviemaking: the legacy sequel. Like Scream, The Matrix Resurrections, Ghostbusters Afterlife, and Disney’s Star Wars sequels, Jackass Forever is a chance to see the characters back in costume, except, you know, older. Unlike the others, it’s much easier to age out of a Jackass movie than a Ghostbusters. You simply cannot fake this. But like the more successful legacy sequels, and like Tremaine did with Jackass: Number Two and 3-D, Knoxville and company understand that the charge audiences get from seeing their old friends on-screen relies on them being excited to be around each other again.
The Jackass movies are narratively simple. Given that they have no plot, any thematic resonance relies on the editing. Jackass: The Movie delivered on the promise of an uncensored version of the TV show. Number Two dug into how to make a movie out of Jackass. Jackass 3-D gave us fear. Jackass Forever gives us joy, camaraderie, and reflection. The moments of doubt and dread that ran across Steve-O’s face in preparation for “The Poo Cocktail Supreme”—which he recreates in Forever’s Godzilla-inspired opening—is replaced by a sense of rekindling old bonds. Tremaine fills the film with behind-the-scenes footage of the boys having a good time fucking with each other. There are fewer moments of Knoxville reflexively protecting his groin. It’s the closest Jackass comes to being a full-on hangout movie.
Jackass Forever, whether by design or coincidence, delivers on the torch-passing structure of other legacy sequels, bringing fans that grew up with the franchise into the franchise itself. This series has always worked as a transgressive statement against the rest of what Hollywood is doing at the moment. But it really transcends when incorporating the trends of the times into its narrative, acting as a de facto parody while also doing it better than the other 95% of Hollywood.
Rotten Tomatoes may be a bad judge of most other things, but as one Twitter user points out, the review aggregator’s scores track the evolution of Jackass from “disreputable low culture object to revered comic institution.” While nostalgia and a changing cinematic landscape no doubt play a role in this, so does each successive entry’s growth as a piece of filmmaking. Tremaine and Knoxville got better at making Jackass movies. It would’ve been all too easy for each on to simply be a repetitive remake of what came before. It’s the drive to present a different side of the experience each time, whether it’s focusing on escalation or remaking old stunts with new people.
By being a series that can grow and change, while also continuing to give fans more of the same, the Jackass movies have seen a rewarding reversal in how they’re perceived. The series endures because it gives audiences something totally different: actual reality. The pain on screen isn’t sensationalized or stylized in a way to make the guys look cool. Everyone likes to say they made something “for the fans,” but the Jackass crew actually does. Why else would they keep subjecting themselves to this?
1) Jackass 3-D (2010)
2) Jackass: Number Two (2006)
3) Jackass: The Movie (2002)
4) Jackass Forever (2022)
5) Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa (2013)