The Cultural Gutter

taking the dumb out of fandom

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

The Social Relevance of Jackassery

alex macfadyen
Posted November 18, 2010

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Jackass isn’t as stupid as it seems on the surface. I mean, there’s no question it’s jackassery and that’s the main draw, but it’s also a really interesting cultural project.

When the series premiered on MTV in 2000, it was a lo-tech, low budget show created and produced by a bunch of low income social outcasts, skateboarders and sideshow freaks. It’s changed some with success (and I suspect also too many trips to emerg), but the aesthetic and intention behind Jackass has stayed basically the same, which probably means they’ve resisted pressure to “improve” it away from its gutter roots.

Jackass seems to grow from the same refuse-infused soil as early punk movements. It’s the product of a ragtag group of people written off by society who create their own entertainment and use their bodies in extreme and provocative ways that
force people to think about and confront their own discomfort. In The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise (AK Press Distribution, 1999), Craig O’Hara draws a parallel between Punk and the avant-garde that also plays out in Jackass:

Early Punks (perhaps quite unknowingly) used many of the same revolutionary tactics employed by members of early avant-garde art movements… juxtapositions of seemingly disparate objects and behaviors, intentional provocation of the audience, use of untrained performers, and drastic reorganization (or disorganization) of accepted performance styles and procedures.

Jackass ringmaster Johnny Knoxville insists on not intellectualizing what they do, so it seems a bit at odds to place Jackass in the traditions of the avante garde, postmodernism and performance art, but the shoe does fit. They focus on spectacle and exhibitionism without any justification or pretence of narrative. They use objects and environments in ways they were never intended to be used and mash improbable things together to cause cognitive dissonance. And the idea of excrement as entertainment is almost a joke about post-modern art.

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The cast announce each stunt on camera – “Butt Fireworks,” “ Anaconda Ball
,” “Rent-a-Car Crash-Up Derby,” “Snake Bites Penis Puppet” – with scenes strung together in no obvious order, like a cross between sketch comedy and circus
sideshow. They skidoo in public water features, fly kites from their assholes, glue themselves together, confine themselves in close quarters with alligators and bees, attach rockets to everything, and consume and cover themselves in every bodily fluid and revolting
combination of substances they can think of.

The filming has an amateur, DIY aesthetic that looks like something you could shoot at home, assuming you were enough of a jackass to ignore the disclaimers about how you absolutely should not do so. The ‘professional’ Jackass cast, while unquestionably professional jackasses, come across as just a bunch of crazy guys who are willing to try virtually anything to see what will happen. Like suspending stun guns and cattle prods from string and crawling through them like a gauntlet, or Johnny Knoxville dressing up like Evil Knievel, strapping himself to a Big Red Rocket, and launching it into the air. It resembles a messed up version of Mythbusters, where they ask “what would actually happen if we…”, and test those theories in the real world using themselves as crash test dummies.

The approach to creating the show is collectivist, with everyone, including friends and family, getting involved. Bam Margera’s parents often come home to wild animals loose in their house or a stairwell turned into an indoor ski slope. The stunts regularly bring the crew into the shot or physically affect the camera itself. Crew members handing off the camera to vomit, and indiscriminate pranks, like Wee Man hiding in the cooler and shooting a water gun filled with pee at
whoever opens it, give the audience the sense that they’re seeing behind the scenes. The improvisational feel operates as a sleight of hand disguising the real backstage work of setting up props, maintaining the element of surprise, and cutting through legal red tape.

The fact that the Jackasses have never claimed to be engaged in a social project, performance art, or anything beyond pure entertainment doesn’t mean they haven’t achieved something artistic or socially relevant. Causing social discomfort has questionable value as a reactionary, knee-jerk response, but it can be a political agenda in and of itself. The Jackasses are completely comfortable with all of the strange, disgusting, painful, embarrassing, fascinating things their bodies can do; it’s the discomfort of the onscreen audience that is mocked for the entertainment of viewers.

Many segments rely on unaware bystanders’ reaction or participation for humor and meaning. Some involve a disruption of social interactions to highlight their hypocrisy or arbitrariness, essentially using the ‘unacceptably’ absurd to point out the ‘acceptably’ absurd. Take skits like “Keep God Out of California,” where Chris Pontius walks around in a devil suit with that written on a sign, telling people god’s been lying about him until an enraged Christian physically assaults him, or “Midget Bar Fight,” where the crowd reaction is the backdrop for Wee Man getting into a bar fight with a gang of other midgets that ends in an influx of midget police and EMTs.

Along with the indulgence of juvenile stupidity, one of Jackass’ basic tenets is that nothing is sacred – social values are not absolute or true, and anything that propriety insists should be concealed is asking to be dragged into the spotlight. You can ignore the reality of bodily excretions, mortality, and the fear of pain and humiliation, but not while you’re watching Jackass.


month’s Guest Star is alex MacFadyen. alex will return next month with more on Jackass.


One Response to “The Social Relevance of Jackassery”

  1. NefariousDrO
    November 18th, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    When I first learned about the show (I haven’t had a TV, much less cable TV for many years, now) I initially had a very negative reaction, thinking it was “low-brow, Juvenile,” and a host of similar things. It seemed somehow exploitative to me at first glance, but I have to admit that you’ve made me question a good many of my own assumptions about social norms and the concept of their work. I expect I’ll be seeing the movie, and probably squirming a great deal while I do.

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  • Of Note Elsewhere

    It’s that time of year again, when the snow get shy and slush falls instead; when the sun seems like a distant memory from when you were a kid; when customers show up at the last minute wanting rare imported titles, like, yesterday. In short, it’s Christmas, the worst best time of the year for shopkeepers. In retail terms, this time of year can be summed up in three words:  busy; harried; frantic. But at least there’s always lots of chocolate around.

    I always like to take this chance to look back at the titles that really stood out for me over the year. Its a very personal list, obviously, and some of it may sound a little familiar. Please feel free to chime in with any suggestions of your own: I’m always on the lookout for new books.


    goblinemperorGoblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

    This one’s not a Romance at all, but a straight-up Fantasy novel. Maia has always known that he is the fourth son of the Emperor, just as he has always known that his father hates him. Not that they’ve ever really met: the only time Maia even saw the Emperor was at his mother’s funeral, after which he was sent away to a distant manor and forgotten. One morning he is awakened with the news that his father and all of his older brothers were killed in an airship accident. Half-goblin, half-elf, and all terrified, Maia is now the Emperor.

    Maia begins his rule unprepared, undereducated, and definitely inexperienced. But although he fears many things, hard work is not one of them, and he is determined to do as good a job as he can. And that determination wins him allies, workers, and even friends.

    It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. In any court fantasy there are factions and intrigues and dangers both obvious and subtle. Goblin Emperor does not lack these things. But it also offers the grace notes of friendship and family, of understanding and acceptance. It’s beautifully-written, complicated without requiring a scorecard and a pen to keep track, and quite possibly my pick for book of the year.


    Burn For Me, Ilona Andrews

    Though the spine says ‘Paranormal Romance’, this title is probably more of an Urban Fantasy, in the sense of where the emphasis lies (e.g.: there isn’t anburnforme HEA ending; the book is at least as much about the magic as it is about the relationship of the two main characters). But really, labels are just a way of generally pointing people in one direction or another: what actually matters is how a book makes you feel. And Ilona Andrews always makes me feel great.

    Nevada Baylor is a private detective hired to bring in a criminal who happens to be a Prime (the highest level of magic user there is) who can turn anything into flames. Her investigation attracts the attention of Connor Rogan, a Prime whom Nevada finds attractive and terrifying in almost equal measure. Working together is necessary but dangerous, and not only on a physical level. Nevada’s not used to relying on anyone but her family; Rogan’s not used to trusting anyone at all. Neither of them has the slightest idea what they’re in for.

    I love Andrews’ work, and Burn For Me is no exception. Like most of Andrews’ work, it’s got a smart, hard-working heroine; a complicated but real family; and increasingly high stakes. I can’t wait to see where she goes with this new series.


    Saving The CEO, Jenny Holiday

    Jack Winter is a real estate mogul who structures his life with rules. One of the big rules? Don’t sleep with the staff: personal and professional lives are to be kept separate. That was never a problem until Jack met Cassie.

    By night, Cassie James is a bartender at Jack’s favourite restaurant. By day, she’s a math-loving numbers expert. With a crooked CFO on one hand and a multi-million dollar deal on the other, Jack really needs one of those. And since she’s technically not an employee — more of an independent contractor — the inflammatory attraction they feel for one another isn’t an issue. But what starts as something temporary  turns into something more, and neither Cassie nor Jack can stop breaking rules.

    I got a huge kick out of this fast, sexy read. Bonus: it’s set in Toronto! Let’s hear it for familiar landmarks.


    threeweeksThree Weeks With Lady X, Eloisa James

    This hit a few of my weaknesses right in the “aw, yeah!” spot: epistolary novels, successful renovations, and finding out what happened to a minor character when he grew up. We met Thorn Dautry as a child, in James’ earlier book A Duke Of Her Own. He was the eldest of the Duke of Villier’s illegitimate children. At that time he was tough, smart, good with his younger siblings, and not overmuch inclined to trust any member of the upper class, let alone his aristocratic father.

    Almost twenty years later, Thorn is still tough, smart and good with kids, though he’s much closer to his father than before. Having made his fortune, Thorn next acquires a country home. Enter Lady Xenobia India, who helps make his new property habitable.

    Part of the story is told in the notes Thorn and India send one another as she turns a disaster of a house into a showpiece. The rest happens when they’re together, and it’s all a great deal of fun. They strike sparks off one another from the moment they meet, and neither of them knows what to do about it. Thorn and Xenobia both had non-traditional childhoods, and their past influences their present in ways both obvious and invisible.


    Silence For The Dead, Simone St. James

    I wrote an entire column about this book, so all I’ll say here is that right now, at the end of the year, it still stands out as one of my top picks. I loved the interlocking relationships in the books. Kitty and Jack; Kitty and the other patients; Jack and all the residents of Portis House –the book explores all the ways in which the characters move and are moved by one another, with a truly disturbing ghost as a catalyst. I’m looking forward to see what St. James will do next.


    Girls At The Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine

    I wrote about Girls previously too: it’s another book for which my admiration just keeps growing. I like to read about families, about the connections which shape us; about the way those things can be a foundation or a prison, or even both at the same time, and Valentine delivers. Her prose was so delicious, and the characters so real in their strengths and their frailties that I still can’t recommend this book enough.


    Honourable Mention

    A Bollywood Affair, Sonali Devbollywoodaffair

    I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend, and loved the thirty-odd pages I managed read before I managed to lose it on the subway. Dammit!  I’ve ordered it again, but it won’t arrive until after this column airs. But I wanted to mention it because it was interesting and funny and different.

    It’s the store of Mili, who was married when she was four and hasn’t seen her husband since. That marriage has granted her amazing freedoms; she has even left India to study in America. There she meets Samir, a Bollywood director known for his success both on and off screen. Despite themselves, they fall for one another. Even though Mili doesn’t know that Samir is her ‘husband’s brother, there to get her to sign the divorce papers…

    Gah! Nothing more frustrating that losing a good book before you’re finished with it. But, well, that gives me something to look forward to in the new year. May you find the same. Here’s wishing you a wonderful holiday season, and remember: only morons drink and drive.



    Chris Szego is signing off.


    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims interviews Ed Brubaker about his work on Batman, Gotham Central and Catwoman. “When I look back at [Catwoman], I’m so proud of the first 25 issues of that book, when I felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. I probably should’ve left when Cameron Stewart left instead of sticking around. That’s one of those things I look back at and think “Ah, I had a perfect run up until then!” (Incidentally, Comics Editor Carol’s first piece for the Gutter was about Brubaker’s first 25 issues of Catwoman).


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    The Smithsonian Magazine has a gallery of US spy satellite launches. “Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, [National Reconnaissance Office] follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.”


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    Neill Cameron has re-imagined the characters of Parks & Recreation as members of Starfleet. (Via @neillcameron)


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