The Jackass Effect

Why I watch the evil spawn of Candid Camera that punk'd our culture.

By Steve Burgess 2 Jun 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Bastard offspring of Candid Camera are everywhere. The basic idea of capturing the rude and embarrassing for viewer amusement lives on in the guise of America's Funniest Home Videos and similar fare. But more importantly it has mutated into related forms--the entire reality genre might be said to have sprung from the loins of Alan Funt. Shows like Fear Factor certainly rely on the same sort of discomfort for their kick. Among these programs, one stands out. There is nothing to match the franchise called Jackass.

Whatever its parentage, Jackass must surely represent a watershed moment in pop culture. It began as a series of skateboarder stunts and became an MTV series. Then came the movie and even a live tour which has managed to re-trace the original Jackass path: outrageous acts that end up on TV, in this case the evening news. When the "concert" tour arrived in Montreal, pumped-up fans took to the streets afterwards to damage themselves and property, just like their heroes. News viewers who had never heard of Jackass stars like Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O were suddenly confronted with the latest evidence of Western civilization's rapid decline.

As an MTV show, Jackass was inaccessible for Canadians at first. But Jackass: The Movie changed all that, becoming a surprise box office smash last year. I was a latecomer to the phenomenon, eventually picking up the DVD out of curiosity. And how very curious it was. Love it or hate it--I did both--viewers of Jackass: The Movie will at least see something horrifyingly unique.

Interactive vomiting

Jackass revolves around a small guerilla group of misfits who perform public stunts on camera. Many of the stunts have a scatological bent and some of them appear suicidal. Public property is sometimes damaged and soiled, public sensibilities are usually trampled. But rarely does anyone suffer as much as the Jackass group itself.

Right off the bat the movie declares its balls-to-the-wall style at a car rental lot. Two of the group rent a compact with many friendly assurances of safe driving. Immediately upon driving the vehicle off the lot they paint a number three on the side and take it to a demolition derby. Days later the mashed--nay, almost composted car must be hauled back on a trailer. "Sorry," the driver says to the stunned staff. "I hit a dog."

And then just when you think these guys are anarchic comic geniuses comes a scene that convinces you the absolute bottom has been reached, literally. A planned stunt that will involve one group member taking a dump in a plumbing shop's display toilet--hardly Swiftean satire to begin with--goes even wrong-er when the guy voids himself prematurely in his own pants. Then pulls them down, whereupon one camera records the sight of another cameraman suddenly throwing up. And that's it, you think. The absolute nadir of show business, now available on video and DVD.

Actually, a cameraman will spontaneously vomit once more before the movie ends. For some viewers, that may be an interactive feature. Jackass frequently taps into the lowest possible comedic instincts, and for that reason is easily dismissible. Rather see Tom Hanks smooching Meg Ryan, or some guy turning his jeans into a pair of denim Depends? Not a difficult choice for most.

Why I watch

The thing is, Jackass: The Movie is weirdly compelling. There is no plot to the film, but there is an ethos. After awhile a certain dark mood asserts itself as you see the internal culture of this little band. They are like a goofy Al Qaida, willing to sacrifice themselves for a misguided principle. In this case, the principle is "anything goes."

Check out the segment called "Off-Road Tattoo." Steve-O--the troupe member who boasts the widest array of tattoos, none more impressive than the giant, winking portrait of himself etched on his back with the slogan "Steve-O Rocks!"--is getting a new tattoo. It's a happy face. Or it would be, were it not for the fact that he and the tattoo artist are in the back of a jeep that is jack-hammering over a washboard gravel road. The results prove unsatisfactory, painful, and permanent.

A running gag involves one group member sneaking up behind another with an electric clipper and shaving a divot out of his scalp. The victim grumbles and plots revenge. Apparently you can't really complain about that kind of assault--it's the Jackass code. Since group leader Johnny Knoxville reportedly suffers from chronic post-concussion syndrome as the result of his dangerous Jackass activities, it would be bad form to bitch about something as minor as a scalp divot. That determined professional masochism is what made Jackass: The Movie so haunting, at least for me.

Jackasses all around

Others will be haunted by different aspects of the Jackass phenomenon, such as what it all means. When the riots broke out in Montreal it was clear that many Jackass fans were not interested in viewing the show objectively. They just wanted to be fellow jackasses. Mom's perennial question--"If your friend jumped off a bridge would you do it too?"--has been answered by crowds of morons torching cars and smacking each other silly.

Maybe it's foolish to look at Jackass as anything other than a triumph of low culture and cheap thrills. But grant it this, at least: long after most current popular entertainments have faded into well-deserved obscurity, Jackass will stand out. Whether it's as the occasionally brilliant, occasionally disturbing apotheosis of the Candid Camera genre, or simply as evidence of how low we modern Romans could go, Jackass will be remembered.

Steve Burgess, when not writing for Maclean's and others, reviews the screen, small and sometimes big, for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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