Most of America’s introduction to Steve-O—whose real name is Stephen Glover—happened 20 years ago this week, when he was introduced as a member of MTV’s Jackass crew. A trained circus performer, Steve-O was renowned for being the wildest of the already pretty wild bunch. He was the guy who’d put a fish hook through his face, tattoo his own face across his whole back, or immerse himself in what was essentially a cocktail shaker of human waste in a bit called “Poo Cocktail.” He was seemingly the collective’s loosest cannon, known for his frequent nudity (even on red carpets) and raspy amiability.
Even after the series stopped airing on MTV, Steve-O continued to put himself through endless stunts on tour with Jackass, testing his mettle alongside Chris Pontius on the wildlife-centric Jackass spin-off series Wildboyz. He went on Love Island in the U.K., where he only lasted a day, had a heart scare, and went off the rails while doing numerous radio appearances. During Jackass’ 24 hour MTV takeover in 2008, castmates grew so concerned for his welfare that they encouraged him to check into a psychiatric hospital. There, Steve-O finally realized that his years of abusing drugs and alcohol wasn’t just a fun party trick, and shortly thereafter he got sober and decided to become a vegan.
Since then, Steve-O has been forging his own path, doing stand-up comedy and garnering a massive fanbase on social media. (His YouTube channel has 5.5 million subscribers.) He hosts his podcast, Steve-O’s Wild Ride, from inside his customized Sprinter RV, and has been doing more acting, including a spot in the new movie Guest House starring Pauly Shore. He recently released his latest comedy special, Gnarly, and recently promoted it by taping himself to a billboard in Los Angeles for several hours.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Jackass’ debut on October 1, 2000, The A.V. Club talked to Steve-O about what he remembers about the public’s reception to the show, why he thinks we’re all a bunch of rubberneckers, and why he thinks Gnarly is some of his best work yet.
The A.V. Club: Jackass first premiered 20 years ago this October, so congratulations on your showbiz anniversary. After 20 years working with the group, do you have thoughts about why humans love to see people fall down? Is there any special insight you’ve garnered?
Steve-O: Wow. Well, there’s the rubbernecking syndrome where people are compelled to slow down and look at carnage. I think that’s actually a big part of it. The whole slowing down to look at an accident is something inherently human.
I think it’s really compelling to watch men get hurt and fall. Not women. The reason for that, I think, is all about hormones. Women are estrogen-driven, and can be sort of caregivers. They tend to nurture, so we don’t want to see women get hurt.
Men are tough providers. They want to be macho. Just to see a man fail when he’s sort of geared to be macho, that’s okay. I think that’s why we love to see men fall down.
AVC: Does it seem like you’ve been in the public eye for 20 years?
S: Any time a great amount of time passes, you can look at it as how quickly it went by or how fucking slow it felt. I got to have both perspectives on it. There’s been so much change. There’s been so much evolution. The fact that I even have a career 20 years later is mind boggling to me. The fact that I’m even thriving this far down the line… I can’t believe it.
It’s just a matter of perspective. Whether I look at it as a long time or a short time, it’s just about how long you’ve known people.
AVC: You’ve diversified your career more in recent years. You’re acting. You have a new comedy special. You’re doing YouTube videos. How have you decided the next natural steps for your career along the way?
S: I remember in 2013, I had very little going on. Johnny Knoxville was making Bad Grandpa, which, to me, felt like a Jackass movie without the Jackass guys. I was like, “Oh, man. Now I’m one of the other guys in the Jackson 5. I got Timberlaked over here.”
At around the same time, there was this other job that I had hosting a TV show and I was replaced as the host. So two jobs that I thought that I had, I lost. I had a comedy tour going, but not a lot of people wanted to take Steve-O seriously as a touring standup comedian. So it was a dark time.
I remember a guy reaching out to ask about managing me. I walked into his office and he said, “Dude, it’s all about digital space. You’ve got to have a YouTube channel. You got to have a podcast. You’ve got to be doing these things.” I just kind of computed what he was saying, and it sounded to me like he wanted me to create a great deal of content and I didn’t hear him saying he was going to do anything himself. So I walked out of his office very open-minded to taking him up on the suggestion that I do those things alone.
Of course, at that time, it was pretty depressing to think that I had been in No. 1 box office movies and now I’m going to upload YouTube videos. It felt like such a depressing demotion, but thank God I just did it. That’s that’s how the world is now.
At that point, I didn’t even know how to edit video yet. A buddy of mine taught me how to do it. But that’s what marked the turning point. Once I learned how to work with the editing software and shoot in my apartment, then I took the power to do things into my own hands, rather than relying on others to do things for me. I swore that once I was able to create my own content, then there would be no limits. I wasn’t waiting for anybody to pick me or frame up the shot. And it’s been great.
AVC: You mentioned that, at one point, not a lot of people wanted to see Steve-O the Jackass guy do stand-up. How have you decided what audiences want to see from you, or what they’ll give you a chance to do? As in, “Maybe I shouldn’t do Shakespeare, but I can do a podcast.”
S: Getting into stand-up comedy was something that just sort of happened by accident at first, but then I recognized it as something that I wanted to pursue. And I’ve done that. Now, 10 years into it, it’s proven to be a legitimate career. I’m consistently touring, and I feel really good about that. I kept going. Over the years of me performing standup comedy, it’s evolved to become this multimedia thing which has married all of my worlds into one. Now I’m telling stories as a standup comedian that are illustrated by video footage, and it just brings it all together into this special thing. I’ve found my place in comedy with that, and I really think that Gnarly is totally original.
I make that point because if I were to have been motivated to do what people were responding to, talent-wise, I would have ruled that one out. So you can’t do things based on what people are responding to. Not all the time, at least. Nobody was responding to my stand-up. Nobody was rooting for me. But I just went for it, and I’m really grateful that I did.
As far as all the social media stuff, when you put stuff up on YouTube, you want to make sure that you’re giving yourself a shot at doing well with it. You want to make videos people are going to respond to. There are always failures, but I keep going and going.
I resisted starting my own podcast for a long time because I felt everybody has a podcast. Like, “What? We don’t need another broadcast.” But again, that’s the way the world is evolving, so I jumped on the bandwagon. It was something I super did not want to do, and now I’m doing it and I super-enjoy it.
AVC: Prior to COVID, you guys were working on the fourth Jackass movie. Where do you see Jackass going in the future? Is there a point where you’ll say, “It’s not fun to see a 60-year-old guy take a fall,” or will it be funny because we’ll all be 50 or 60 then too?
S: I mean, it’s a very good question. I was personally very surprised that Jackass four came up. I thought that ship had sailed, and I didn’t really mind either way because I had created enough momentum on my own that I was gonna be okay without another Jackass installment. As far as me doing super physical crazy stuff, I never stopped. So it was sort of natural for me because I have been active the whole time doing stuff like that.
Once the Jackass deals were done, though, and we all showed up to shoot, it was like we had never stopped. There was chemistry and it felt like we were right back where we started again. It felt great.
Of course, with that said, the obvious elephant in the room is that a lot of the guys—myself included—are in the back half of our 40s and a couple of them are even 50, which… what the fuck? So I think rather than pretend that’s not going on, it’s been a deliberate choice to take it head-on. I like all of our goofy little intros, and we just address it. We play with it everywhere and have fun with it.
I did feel that our ages were a concern, like at which point does it get creepy? When is it not funny to watch anymore? But [Johnny] Knoxville feels strongly that the older you are, the funnier it is. I don’t know what the truth is, but it seems to be working very well for now.
AVC: When Jackass was on MTV, you guys got a lot of shit for…
S: … Copycat kids.
AVC: Exactly. Has time and distance made your more sympathetic to people being upset with their kids trying what they saw on TV, or is it still like “Those kids should have known better”?
S: When Jackass started 20 years ago, there was no YouTube, so we could be arguably vilified legitimately. [Meaning Jackass was the only place where kids were seeing these stunts—Ed.] We were a bad influence. Kids were distinctly copying us and they were showing up in hospitals all over the place. So, yeah, the outrage was on some level justified back then.
But now everybody’s got a video camera in their pocket. There’s YouTube. There’s so much of this all around us that I don’t think that there’s a legitimate finger to point at us for being really a bad thing anymore. Sure, we might have played a role in getting the ball in motion, but back when it was happening, I was indignant. I said, “I’ve worked hard to become a professional, and it’s not Tony Hawk’s fault every time a kid falls off a skateboard.”
AVC: In some sense, you guys were influencers, who we now celebrate. You were being your authentic selves, and you became famous.
S: There’s no question that we were and remain just a bunch of attention whores competing for screen time on a franchise called Jackass. We were just attention whores and now it seems like everybody’s an attention whore.
I do know that with social media, the digital revolution has really opened up celebrity to every gradient. Every shade of green between unknown and super famous is now filled in to where everybody’s sort of jockeying for clout and all the influence that they can get. It’s just a world of attention seekers and I got in there on the early end of it, I guess. I’m not complaining about that at all. I relate. I’m in no position to wag my finger at it. I just think it’s really interesting.