The untold truth of Jackass

Who knew filming yourself and your friends getting hurt on camera doing increasingly dangerous stunts could lead to fame, fortune, and a pop culture franchise? It helps if you're really clever about the stunts. Jackass dominated TV in the early 2000s and has since led to four feature films (including one in 3D, and the Oscar-nominated Bad Grandpa). Here are some things you probably didn't know about the cast, crew, and creation of Jackass.

The show's origins stemmed from Johnny Knoxville's unemployment

Johnny Knoxville's real name is Philip John Clapp, Jr.—his stage name is his middle name, plus his Tennessee hometown. He was an actor before and after Jackass, having studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When he couldn't find acting work, he turned to stunt journalism, inspired by one of his idols, Hunter S. Thompson, to test self defense equipment (pepper spray, a taser, a handgun) on himself and write about it. No mainstream magazine was interested—but underground skate magazine Big Brother was…so long as editor Jeff Tremaine could come along and film it for the magazine's line of videos (which included titles from future Jackasses Chris Pontius and Bam Margera).

An Oscar winner helped get the show off the ground

That video led to the creation of Jackass, which found Tremaine filming Knoxville, Margera, Steve-O, and all the rest performing crazy stunts. Spike Jonze, a lauded music video director (Weezer's "Buddy Holly," Beastie Boys' "Sabotage") in the '90s, had just segued into feature filmmaking with Being John Malkovich. Jonze and Tremaine were friends, owing to Jonze's past as a veteran of skate magazines. The man who would one day win an Academy Award for writing Her helped Knoxville and Tremaine hone the idea of stunt videos into a pitch for a proper TV show.

Every major comedy player wanted it

A bidding war ensued, and MTV just barely beat out Comedy Central for the rights to air the show. Also interested: Saturday Night Live. The venerable NBC late-night show offered Knoxville the chance to do a pre-taped stunt each week, but he preferred doing a half-hour show (and without the restraints of network TV). He'd later host an episode of SNL in 2005.

Knoxville sat out a lot of the first season

Knoxville didn't do many stunts during the first season because while filming an early episode, he sprained his ankle. He tried to jump over the L.A. River on roller skates and didn't quite make it, and was left in an ankle brace and crutches.

The original title was rejected

Jackass was not the first choice for a title. Knoxville had wanted to go with A–holes, but MTV rejected that idea on account of it being too profane. (Or they'd have to censor the title of the show any time it aired or was advertised, and it's hard to build up an audience for a show that would essentially have no name.) So Jackass it was.

But somebody still got sued for the title

In 2002, two years after the show debuted, a man whose legal name was Jack Ass filed a $10 million lawsuit against MTV's corporate parent Viacom for defamation of character and copyright infringement. Mr. Ass claimed that the people behind Jackass had made millions off of his good name, which he'd changed from Bob Craft in 1997 in order to raise awareness about drunk driving. (Because if you drive drunk, says Jack Ass, you're a real jack ass.) Case dismissed.

One cast member was a world video game champion

In 2008, contributor Brandon DiCamillo set a world record for highest score ever recorded in the video game Mortal Kombat. DiCamillo's 10 million mark shattered the previous score of 7 million, and he held the title for more than a year.

MTV refused a number of stunts

MTV frequently censored the show and wouldn't allow certain sketches to air—and they were almost always Steve-O's. Later, they were collected by the network and sold as a DVD called Don't Try This at Home: The Steve-O Video. Among other sketches that didn't air: the rocket skates bit that eventually became part of the first Jackass movie.

Knoxville helped Steve-O get sober in a very unique way

Steve-O discussed his substance abuse troubles with Knoxville on many occasions, but wavered over checking himself into rehab. Knoxville decided to force his hand, showing up unannounced at Steve-O's house along with 10 huge guys. Those guys, Knoxville said, would give Steve-O a beatdown if he didn't go to rehab. He wisely complied, checked into rehab, and successfully stayed sober. Knoxville even banned alcohol from the set of Jackass 3-D to help his friend and collaborator.

People actually died imitating stunts

Despite the warning at the beginning of every episode as well as the subsequent spinoff movies, people repeatedly tried to duplicate or create their own versions of dangerous Jackass-style stunts. On top of multiple stories of horrifying injuries—one 14-year-old boy was reportedly "burned over 65 percent of his body" after imitating the "Human Barbeque" stunt in which Johnny Knoxville laid on a lit grill wearing a flame-retardant suit—there are tragic incidents where people also lost their lives. In 2002, a 15-year-old from Albuquerque died after being thrown from a car and dragged underneath it while practicing what police believed was "a stunt he and a friend had seen on the movie Jackass," according to The Lubbock Avalanche Journal.

In Maxim's oral history of the show, both creator Jeff Tremaine and then-MTV President Van Toffler addressed the copycat problem. "We would always watch something to see if it was too imitable," said Tremaine. "We still do that to this day." Toffler stressed the safety precautions taken by the network, adding, "We took tons of precautions on set. We had safety people there all the time. We never wanted anyone to get hurt. It's really sad and unfortunate when stuff like that happens. I'll leave it at that."

Sen. Joe Lieberman basically killed the show

After a Connecticut teen also suffered burns imitating the "Human Barbeque" stunt, state senator Joe Lieberman started publicly calling for MTV to get control of its controversial stunt show. "It is irresponsible for MTV to air these kinds of stunts on a program clearly popular with young teens. I recognize the program is rated for adults and comes with general disclaimers, but there are some things that are so potentially dangerous and inciting, particularly to vulnerable children, that they should not be put on TV," he said in a statement according to EW.

Combined with a growing list of lawsuits, the attention from a senator was apparently enough for MTV to start tightening the screws on the crazy crew. "We were symbolic of authority. They didn't like us drawing lines, which ultimately led to the demise of the show and their going as far as they could," Van Toffler told Maxim. Johnny Knoxville agreed, saying that MTV's new restrictions were creating "a watered-down version of the show," so he quit. The end of the show, however, paved the way for the much raunchier, R-rated films, which broke box office records, and made stars out of almost everyone in them.

Steve-O is a trained circus performer

When he was first introduced to the world by Jackass, Steve-O seemed like a guy who lived on a couch in someone's trailer who you could pay small amounts of money to do practically anything. And while at points in his life that was possibly true, Steve-O actually has a formal education—if you can call it such a thing—as a circus performer.

"I was a professional before Jackass ever started. I graduated from Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College," he told Vanity Fair. Although in a Reddit AMA, one of Steve-O's classmates from "college" doubted any of that education applied to his Jackass antics.

"Jackass, and Steve-O, in no way reflects anything learned at clown college… well, that's not being fair," mused the old acquaintance. "I think Steve-O probably took away many things and learned a lot which is a layer within what he currently does. I have a feeling he learned a lot about timing and reactions at clown college. And, anyone that leaves clown college is funnier than when they went in. I can't see much else that Steve-O does that reflects anything about clown college, though."

Some of them suffered lifelong health effects from his stunts

While it wasn't unusual at all for these knuckleheads to hurt themselves, most of their injuries weren't permanent. Unfortunately for Steve-O, whose stunts often involved him bringing up his lunch, this wasn't the case. In his Reddit AMA, he said he contracted something called Barrett's Esophagus, which he described as "a pre-cancerous condition in my throat/esophagus for which I blame all of my vomiting, drug abuse, and generally s***ty living in years past." And he isn't the only one with lasting damage.

Johnny Knoxville also suffered long-term effects after famously rupturing his urethra while trying to backflip a motorcycle during a stunt for MTV's 24-hour Jackass marathon special. Part of his healing process involved him cathetering himself twice a day for three years with a tube the size of a number two pencil, just "to keep the scar tissue from constricting down there," he told Vanity Fair. He also described his unfortunate appendage as "a dog's chew-toy" and "like a sock that's lost its elasticity." He elaborated, "You know the kind that droop around your ankles? That's what my penis looks like." Yep, we get it, Knoxville. Please stop describing it.

Bam Margera tried to get Mike Tyson to bite off his ear

Technically Bam Margera could also be lumped in with Knoxville and Steve-O as far as Jackass crew members who have permanent scars—Remember, he did once sear his buttocks with a brand in the shape of a penis—but he was willing to go even further. In an interview with IGN, Margera said that while sipping red wine on a plane, he came up with the idea to have Mike Tyson bite off his ear, which he was willing to do because of how much "street cred" he'd have. Amazingly, the production company for the films actually contacted the former heavyweight champ and asked him if he would do it; as Margera recalled, "Paramount contacted Mike Tyson and he got offended and he said no." It's a pretty amazing scenario when Mike Tyson comes through as the voice of reason.