Anyone watching “Jackass Forever,” the fourth entry in a film franchise filled with painful stunts and pranks led by self-flagellating ringleader Johnny Knoxville, would assume that nothing is off the table. On the verge of turning 50, Knoxville hurled himself into a bullring and got knocked out by the animal, which led him to suffer a brain hemorrhage and broken ribs. In another scene, he steps on an oversized treadmill in full marching-band regalia, only to end up slammed into an adjacent building as blood dripped down his face. That time, it was cohort Steve-O who wound up unconscious. Their genitalia took a lot of hits, too, including the latest instance of their infamous “cup test.”
This is all a matter of public record, the centerpiece of the newest chapter in a pileup of gimmicks that stretch back 20 years. But Knoxville hesitates to specify the line he couldn’t cross on his most Paramount-funded excursion. “We did have something on this film that we wanted to do that we weren’t allowed to do because it was going to be a $10 million deductible,” he said in a recent interview over Zoom, then stopped himself. “I really can’t tell you what it was. We may do it one day. But it was a surgery that no one needs.”
He cackled, unleashing the devilish grin that has welcomed viewers to “Jackass” across three MTV seasons and four movies, resulting in the most outrageous blockbuster achievement of the 21st century. To date, the movie antics that Knoxville pioneered with skateboard aficionados Jeff Tremaine and Spike Jonze have grossed over $254 million worldwide, and that doesn’t include the revenue they received from the show or the semi-scripted “Bad Grandpa” spin-off. In historical precedents, the “Jackass” lineage goes back to the earliest days of screen comedy but reduces its formula to crude, visceral terms like nothing that came before.
After all these years, Knoxville evades any attempt to read too much into the substance of the “Jackass” formula, shrugging off the lunacy with an aw-shucks mentality that harks back to his Tennessee roots. Nevertheless, the appeal of “Jackass” extends from a profound tradition of dangerous slapstick art, whether or not Knoxville is willing to admit it.
“It’s entertaining to read the more highbrow takes on ‘Jackass,’” Knoxville said. “People have their interpretations, but it has nothing to do with us or what we do. That’s entirely up to them and I respect their opinions, but once we make the film, it’s out of our hands.”
So let’s get highbrow: “Jackass” wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t represent a profound desire to laugh at other people’s pain, to find catharsis in the very thing that scares us all — the universal fragility of the human body. (Finished in the midst of the pandemic, “Jackass Forever” embodies this spirit even more than its predecessors.) At its center, Knoxville comes across as an experimental performance artist. Even if he’s disinterested in the complex sociological impulses at the core of his work, he’s been forced to contemplate them as a result of his success.
If nothing else, “Jackass” is a study of physical extremes and that has many practical ramifications. A report by Nova Legal Funding found that the “Jackass” team accrued over $25 million in medical bills. Knoxville literally suffers for our sins, which is key to his an unflagging sense of purpose.
“My pain tolerance is probably not that different from other people,” he said. “It’s my give-a-damn tolerance that’s so low. I know we need footage and I’m not very in touch with my body, so it works very well together. The producer inside me always overrides the performer side.”
It’s not a big leap to see the connective tissue between “Jackass” and other forms of exhibitionist pain. In the ’90s, Harmony Korine was hospitalized for an unfinished project called “Fight Harm,” in which he instigated physical showdowns with people on the street for a hidden camera in a quest to “push humor to extreme limits to demonstrate that there’s humor in everything.” At the other end of the spectrum, “Jackass” shares some DNA with Maria Abramovic’s most confrontational gallery work, most notably her “Rhythms” series in the ’70s — a string of performances where she did everything from lying down inside a blazing fire (causing her to pass out) to sticking a knife between her fingers and enduring 20 cuts before doubling back and attempting to repeat the same wounds.
It’s also easy to position “Jackass” within the lineage of silent slapstick, a comparison that Knoxville himself dangled with a house-collapsing stunt in 2006’s “Jackass Number Two” based on Buster Keaton’s iconic moment in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Yet critic Dana Stevens, whose new book “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century” explores the evolution of her subject’s art, pointed out a key distinction with the “Jackass” formula.
“You’d never hear Buster Keaton say ‘ouch,’” Stevens said. “They’re deconstructing the stunt. They’re all about the aftermath, the actual pain and humiliation and the negative consequences. That’s what makes them so post-modern. Knoxville combines the bravado of Keaton with this deliberate amateurishness.”
And a lot of nudity.
Knoxville and his merry band of dopey daredevils wander about in their birthday suits with reckless abandon. One rather innovative bit in “Jackass Forever” involves a game of ping pong with penises sandwiched between clear plastic paddle boards. In an interview with IndieWire, comedian Rachel Wolfson, who joined the “Jackass” stunts in the latest edition as its first female entrant after Knoxville wrote to her on Instagram, described the “body positive” nature of the dick abuse on constant display. “There’s nothing sexual about it,” she said. “It’s purely art and comedy. And I think there’s something comforting to that, to know that what’s happening is so non-threatening, it’s just comical.”
Tremaine, who directed each of the “Jackass” movies, said that Knoxville often references stunts from Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, and Roadrunner cartoons while dreaming up new bits. “His confidence has always been really high,” Tremaine said. “But we’ve gotten better about about developing the idea to make sure it’s going to work more than we used to.”
He added that they’ve learned to think through the essence of a gag from start to finish. “It’s controlled chaos,” he said. “Every scene has to have a little story. When they don’t meet that criteria, they usually fail.” Like Knoxville, Tremaine was reticent to read into it beyond that. “I try not to psychoanalyze too much,” Tremaine said. “We just go instinctively with what we find funny. I always try to tell the guys not to outdo what we did before. It’s not a healthy way to approach things. Everyone starts to stress out. Make it funny and then it’ll sort itself out.”
Knoxville and his cohorts have been so enmeshed in “Jackass” for the bulk of their careers that little else has panned out. The semi-scripted “Bad Grandpa” movie, which found Knoxville in old-man makeup at the center of a surprisingly poignant family road trip, required far more preparation. “It took a lot out of us,” Tremaine said. “You’re telling a story with people who don’t know what’s going on. That’s the hardest kind of movie to make.”
Knoxville, a struggling actor until “Jackass” took off, never really found his footing in other material. The exception is 2004’s zany “A Dirty Shame,” John Waters’ 2004 comedy (his last completed feature) in which the actor played a hedonistic shaman. Waters, who made his own appearance in a stunt for “Jackass 2.5,” referred to Knoxville as “Moe Howard meets Le Pétomane,” referring to the famed French flatulist.
“Johnny’s bad taste is never vulgar and always witty,” Waters said. “He’s doing the same kind of stuff I was doing. I always said to Johnny that if he had been around for ‘Pink Flamingos,’ I would’ve had him eat shit instead of Divine.”
Waters added that Knoxville’s everyman quality was key to his middle-America appeal. “He has the cutest audience — insane blue-collar people who just want to laugh,” Waters said. In 2008, Knoxville tried to get Waters back to work as the star of his next comedy, “Fruitcake,” but the filmmaker has yet to make another movie.
“He’s doing so well with his art and his speaking engagements and his books,” Knoxville said of Waters. “I really hope I can get him to do another film.”
In the meantime, Knoxville’s other acting credits have been a mixed bag: “The Dukes of Hazzard” was a notorious dud in 2005, and although he’s a fun caricature alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kim Jee Woon’s 2013 “The Last Stand,” there’s not much to it.
“I think he’d be better in a straight drama,” Waters said. “I’m surprised the characters he’s played in other movies have been similar to his ‘Jackass’ character. He’s a very good actor.”
But Knoxville works best when operating on his own terms and the slow-burn development process doesn’t sit well. “I don’t like to wait around,” he said. “It’s like, today, I’m in the ring with the bull. Might as well hurry up and shoot. I just want to get it over with.”
The paradox of the material is the unbridled joy at the center of each disturbing hangout session, the laughter and backslapping that happens after almost every bit. “We’re mean to each other, but we’re not mean to other people,” Knoxville said. “I think all that speaks to the public.”
There’s also the sense of punk-rock defiance and the hard living that comes with it. “Jackass Forever” is dedicated to Ryan Dunn, the “Jackass” performer who was killed in a car accident in 2011. Bam Margera has a fleeting appearance, but was fired for substance abuse. Since then, Tremaine filed a restraining order against him, Margera filed a wrongful termination suit, and nobody involved in the production is allowed to discuss the pending litigation.
All that messiness is baked into the subtext of a movie about sophomoric middle-aged men raging against the dying of the light. “I did have trepidation,” Tremaine said. “Is it going to be funny with a bunch of middle-aged guys kicking each other in the dicks?” Jonze insisted on a test shoot, which proved to be amusing enough to answer Tremaine’s question. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, I guess it really is time to do this,’” he said.
Knoxville began “Jackass Forever” last year with dyed black hair, but production shut down after seven days; during lockdown, he gave up. His grey makeover is a constant reminder of the mortality in play. “The world’s been going through hell, you know?” Knoxville said. “When we started filming again, it felt like a real release. Even if what we’re doing is abnormal, it felt like getting to normal. I hope the movie is a laugh everyone needs.”
It’s a laugh that echoes across generations. In addition to Eric Andre and Wolfson, “Jackass Forever” includes a number of new faces who look all too eager to be a part of the series they grew up on. (Machine Gun Kelly, who appears alongside Steve-O for a stunt involving a giant hand and stationary bikes, shows off his Jackass tattoo.) But Knoxville said he doesn’t imagine any future for “Jackass” that doesn’t involve him and members of his original team. “Paramount can’t do that, and they wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I don’t think that’d be a win for anybody.”
There’s already a “Jackass 4.5” in the bag with additional footage, and it may not be the last word. “We could make another one, or we could not,” Knoxville said. However, the father of three has made it clear throughout his press tour that the bullring bit convinced him to take a step back. “I would like to stay behind the camera as much as possible,” he said.
But where’s the fun in that? “I’m lousy at not getting in on the action,” he said, “but I’ll do my best.”
A Paramount Pictures release, “Jackass Forever” will be released in theaters on Friday, February 4.