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"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

johnny rocket thumb.jpg

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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