Since it first hit the airwaves in October of the year 2000, Jackass has been seen by many as the lowest form on entertainment. Too low to even be considered low brow. While there are certainly merits to those accusations, after all this is a series whose entire existence is predicated on grown men doing nothing but hurting themselves, pranking each other and the public and lots of puking. But I’m here to tell anyone who is too snobby to appreciate Jackass that they’re wrong. Not only is it not low brow entertainment, it is in fact art. Not all art is meant to be understood so perhaps you don’t get it and never will but make no mistake, it is art, high art.
There is no singular definition of what constitutes art but it is generally some work that was created with a mixture of creativity and skill that evokes meaning or emotion. Based on that alone, Jackass is art. It certainly takes creativity to come up with the things they do and it might even take at least a little skill. And it certainly evokes emotion in people, usually a mixture of laughter, horror and gross-out. So it’s art and I can stop writing now. I won’t though because I’m not here just to tell you that it’s art, I’m here to tell you that despite being low art on the surface, Jackass has been high art this whole time.
It’s obvious that Jackass evokes emotion in people but what about meaning? Surely a series about a group of man children doing dumb things has no meaning. Well, it does have meaning, even if it’s unintended it evokes meaning and quite a profound one at that. It might not be entirely clear while you’re watching and too busy either laughing, puking, or shaking your head in disapproval but it’s there. Before I go into detail into what that meaning is, I want to examine what makes Jackass work and why it’s endured for so long.
Jackass has maybe the simplest premise of all time. A group of immature men do dumb things. That’s all it is because that’s all they wanted to do. It started when ringleader Johnny Knoxville looking for a job, pitched to a bunch of magazines a piece where he would test out self defense equipment on himself culminating in him shooting himself in the chest while wearing a bullet-proof vest. Naturally no one would hire him to do that, if he had died, they would have essentially paid him to kill himself. Then came Big Brother magazine. Editor-in-Chief of the skateboarding magazine and eventual Jackass director Jeff Tremaine not only hired him to do it, he told Johnny to film it. The video was a success and that was the precursor to Jackass. That video combined with the popularity of skateboarding videos led Tremaine, Knoxville and Tremaine’s good friend, future Oscar winner Spike Jonze to come up with the idea to make Jackass. They got a group of their friends, some from Big Brother and some they just knew, pitched it to MTV and they had a show.
The show lasted for 3 seasons over 2 years with a total of 25 episodes. While it didn’t last that long. It was enormously popular. Knoxville and his gang of misfits were a sensation. The conceit of Jackass, is a mixture of dumb stunts and dumb pranks. There’s no plot, there’s not even a fourth wall. The cast regular speaks to the audience through the camera but they don’t do it as if we are watching from home, they do it as if we are right there with them. It was always more of a documentary than a reality show. It wasn’t following them in their lives as they get into antics. It was just a documentation of their various antics. When the show ended and they took the leap of making a theatrical movie, they didn’t change a thing except now they could do things that they couldn’t get away with on TV. There was now more genitals, bigger budget, but that’s it.
There’s really no structure to Jackass. There’s no rhyme or reason for the way things are ordered and edited together. Perhaps there is but it certainly doesn’t seem like it and that’s part of it’s genius. Jackass is very much an evolution of the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Those two are film legends, their names are forever etched in the history books of comedy and entertainment thanks to the stunts they performed for their comedy films. Knoxville and co. are from the same ilk, they just do it without a plot. They do it because it’s funny. That brings me to the most important element of Jackass. The cast.
Make no mistake, Jackass was a precursor to the current era of social media videos. All those YouTube pranks and Tik Tok challenges exist because of the legacy of Jackass. But there’s a reason that even in the era of YouTube and Tik Tok, where anyone with a camera is filming themselves doing dumb things to hurt themselves or attempted pranks on the general public, that Jackass has endured. Because while they might be attempting to emulate Jackass, they fundamentally misunderstand the core ethos of what makes it work. YouTube pranksters want to laugh at others expense, and Tik Tok challenges exist so people can laugh at you until you’re famous. On Jackass they aren’t laughing at us and we aren’t laughing at them. Everyone is laughing at each other. That’s the magic of Jackass. This is a group of friends who are doing dumb things to one another to make each other laugh and they are inviting us to the hang. The joke is always on them and they are more than happy to laugh about it. Every stunt, every prank is followed not just by our laughter but theirs as well. Rarely does moment go by in any Jackass movie that isn’t accompanied by Knoxville’s iconic cackle and he’s always joined by everyone else. Even when they prank each other, the victim is always laughing as well.
What makes Jackass special isn’t the dumb things the do. Anybody can do that. Maybe not everyone can do it while being consistently funny (after all not many people can get knocked out by Butterbean and still come up with the perfect comedic delivery of Johnny Knoxville’s “Is Butterbean okay?” whilst clearly concussed) but anyone can do it. What makes Jackass special is the comradery. This is a group of friends who love and care for each other. They do what they do because they want to have a good time with their friends and make each laugh. Making us laugh is simply a by product of that. That’s what elevates Jackass above any copycats. Yes the things the do are funny but it’s funny because they all find it funny, even when they’re in pain, and they’ve invited us to hang out with them.
Some of the funniest moments in Jackass aren’t even the stunts or the pranks, it’s the moments in between. The moments where it really comes through that these are just friends having a good time messing with one another. In their magnum opus Jackass Number Two, there’s a prank where they have a professional card thrower tossing cards at Wee Man’s butt but unbeknownst to Wee Man he’s sitting on an electric stool. It’s a funny enough prank but the funniest part and one of the funniest parts of the film is afterwards, when Wee Man thinks he figured it out. He claims that there’s a machine doing it, a card throwing machine. The entire crew is cackling at the fact that he’s almost on to them but ever so slightly, ridiculously wrong. In the greatest 3D movie ever made, Jackass 3D, there’s a stunt where they launch each other into a pool with a giant slingshot. There’s a subtle moment during the stunt where Bam is pulling the bungie cord back and Johnny just causally walks up to him and ever so slightly pushes him causing the bungie cord to fling him back and fall n his face. Every laughs, even Bam. That moment is a perfect distillation of Jackass. The stunts are secondary to making their friends laugh and the documentary nature of it and lack of a fourth wall means that for that 90 minutes, we feel like we’re part of the group. When Knoxville says “Welcome to Jackass” he isn’t simply welcoming us to the movie, he’s welcoming us into the crew for the duration of the film.
That brings me back to the meaning that is embedded in Jackass. It’s a meaning that they most likely didn’t intend to be there but that’s how most art goes. Jackass is about healthy male friendships and masculinity. This is a group of men who love each other and are perfectly comfortable being naked around each other and being vulnerable around each other. For as much puke is often involved, there’s nothing toxic about Jackass. Through thick and thin, these men support each other. Yes, they’re doing dumb things to each other but the affection they have for another comes through on screen every time. They don’t judge each other, they’re just there to laugh and have a good time with their best friends. They wouldn’t be doing half the things they did if they weren’t surrounded by people they trusted with their lives to make sure they were okay. Their friendship is a bond so close that they have no problem handling each other’s genitals.
Rarely will you see a depiction of friendship as pure as that of Jackass. They are essentially Fight Club but wholesome and Knoxville is Tyler Durden if he wasn’t toxically masculine. He just wants to have the best time possible with his friends. The theme song to Friends is famous for the line “I’ll be there for you” and I think that’s more true of the Jackass crew than any other group of friends we’ve seen in film or television. They care for one another deeply. They are there, ready to take care of each other if something goes wrong. There is no shame nor judgement at all. Just a shared affection. They love each other, that’s why they’re willing to do what they do in order to show each other a good time. That friendship shines through always. That’s why we laugh, because it’s pure. After all, who doesn’t love to laugh with their friends while doing dumb things. That’s what Jackass is. It isn’t simply toilet humor and half-assed stunts. It’s a group friends having the time of their lives with each other and they’ve invited us to join. That’s why Jackass has endured for so long. No matter who you are, or where you come from, whether you’re watching it at home with your friends, or in a theater with strangers, when you watch Jackass, you and everyone watching is a a part of the same group of friends, laughing right along with them as they get hit in the nuts. That is art.