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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 spanning television, film, and more than two decades? It helps if the stunts are extremely clever, imbued with humor, and a palpable vibe of camaraderie — all things that never go out of style and are totally irresistible to millions. That's "Jackass," the creation of a bunch of former skateboarding magazine writers and underground videocassette producers, led by actor Johnny Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine. The show, and its many spinoffs, encouraged an anything goes attitude as the gang risked grievous bodily harm unto themselves and one another in the name of laughs, gasps, and entertainment.

Debuting on MTV in the early 2000s, "Jackass" led to a blockbuster feature film series (including one in 3D, the Oscar-nominated spinoff "Bad Grandpa," and the oddly wistful, would-be send-off "Jackass Forever") that has led to hundreds of unbelievable and unbelievably wild stunts, pranks, public set pieces, and physical traumas for and from Knoxville, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, Steve-O, Ryan Dunn, Ehren McGhehey, Wee Man Acuña, and the rest of the crew. Hi, we're Looper and this is the untold truth of "Jackass."

The show was born out of Johnny Knoxville's inability to land acting work

Johnny Knoxville's real name is Philip John Clapp, Jr. — his stage name is his middle name, plus his Tennessee hometown as revealed in the book "Documentary, Performance and Risk." 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, pitching an article to underground skate magazine Big Brother in which he'd test self-defense equipment (pepper spray, a bulletproof vest, a taser) on himself and then write about the excruciating experience. This idea was what Knoxville called an "evil attempt at imitating" his idol, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

As explained in an oral history shared with Maxim, Big Brother editor Jeff Tremaine struck on the idea to film the whole thing, as he'd just launched a skate video offshoot of the magazine. "Our first video was called 'S***,'" Tremaine told Maxim of a collection that featured future "Jackass" contributors. "We decided to make the second video, called 'Number Two,' and that's when we met Knoxville. He was not a skateboarder, so he had to be even more outrageous to survive."

An Oscar winner helped get the show off the ground

Jeff Tremaine's production of the "Number Two" video led to the creation of "Jackass," which found the director filming Johnny Knoxville and other skate video stalwarts like Bam Margera and Steve-O, performing crazy stunts. Spike Jonze, a lauded music video director, who had previously worked on projects such as Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," 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. 

"We had all these ideas of what a TV show might be," Knoxville told Maxim. "I would be kind of the host, like 'The Daily Show,' and we would have all the guys come on and do stunts." Jonze pointed out that they didn't need to alter their approach whatsoever. "Spike finally said, 'You guys already have the show. The 'Big Brother' videos — that's the show."

The trio met with several networks and outlets, with potential deals coming from two players. "Saturday Night Live" producers offered the collective a weekly pre-taped slot on the show, or even a spot in the cast for Knoxville, according to the Washington Times, while MTV offered a half-hour series. "Johnny was so obviously a TV star, even in that small clip," former MTV entertainment president Brian Graden said of the pitch video. "I thought, 'Who is this guy?'"

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

The amped-up, aggressive, try anything, wild boy persona of "Jackass" star Steve-O was not always an appropriate act for cameras. During the production of the "Jackass" series and early spinoff films, the stunt performer dealt with many personal, health, and legal issues off-screen. According to MTV News, he was arrested on cocaine possession, assault, and vandalism charges, made public appearances under the influence of substances, and was hospitalized for observation at a psychiatric hospital after friends and family feared he'd harm himself.

Steve-O's substance abuse issues weren't exactly a secret among his "Jackass" friends or the public, and Knoxville decided to force his cohort's hand into seeking professional treatment. "We'd all had our eye on Steve-O because he'd gotten to a really bad point in doing all kinds of crazy drugs," Knoxville told "Access Hollywood Live" in 2010. After an email from Steve-O alluding to a possible suicide attempt, Knoxville assembled "10 of our closest friends — big guys — and went to his house and said, 'Steve-O, you know, we're here to take you in to the rehab" or a mental health facility. He refused to go, but Knoxville didn't back down. "I said, 'Steve-O, if you don't go I've instructed the guys to knock you out and then we'll take you.' He's like, 'OK dude, I'll go.'"

Thankfully, this chapter of Steve-O's life had a positive outcome. In March 2021, the "Jackass" star posted a tweet commemorating 13 years of sobriety.

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" stunts. On top of multiple stories of horrifying injuries — one 14-year-old boy burned two-thirds of his body (via the Huron Daily Tribune) 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. According to Albuquerque police, the teen was attempting to imitate a stunt from the first "Jackass" movie.

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."

Sen. Joe Lieberman helped bring about the demise of Jackass

After another teenager suffered burns imitating the "Human Barbeque" stunt (according to the New York Times), Joe Lieberman, the junior senator from the boy's home state of Connecticut, publicly called out MTV to get control of its increasingly 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 Entertainment Weekly, calling on the network to cancel or more heavily edit "Jackass," or move it to a late time slot less accessible to young people.

Combined with the threat of lawsuits, the attention from a prominent senator (Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000) was enough for MTV to respond. The network went quiet on "Jackass," and "pulled back on promoting the show," according to producer Spike Jonze in Maxim.

Network intervention quickly shuttered the Jackass TV series

According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Jackass" was the #1 show in MTV history by early 2001, just a few months after its debut. It brought in 2.4 million viewers in the advertiser-coveted 12-to-34-year-old demographic and was the most profitable series the network had ever aired. However, with so many people getting gravely injured imitating the show's stunts, and a senator calling out for action, MTV had little choice but to deal with the "Jackass" controversies in a substantial way. The network assigned a representative of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to keep the show's cast safe and to indirectly prevent anything too dangerous or imitable from getting filmed.

While shooting in Florida, the collective devised a segment called "The Vomelet," in which Dave England ate the makings of an omelet, vomited it into a pan, and then made Steve-O eat that egg barf. "And then MTV sees it, and they're like, 'Well, it doesn't show that it was cooked at a temperature of 160 degrees,'" Tremaine recalled, with Chris Pontius remembering that authorities were concerned the stunt depicted the spread of "blood-borne pathogens." The "Jackass" crew re-filmed the scene according to OSHA requirements, but that, along with the wearing of HAZMAT suits for some bits, robbed the show of its "spontaneity," according to Jeff Tremaine.

That sentiment led Knoxville to quit "Jackass," spelling the end for the series. "He said, 'Hey, I'm not going to do a watered-down version of 'Jackass,'" Steve-O said.

The end of the Jackass show led to the rise of the Jackass movies

Johnny Knoxville technically announced his resignation from "Jackass" in a Tennessee newspaper, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and word quickly got back to MTV, which wasn't ready to let go of its most popular series ever. "Technically, we were still under contract," Knoxville recalled. "And I think Jeff [Tremaine] and Spike [Jonze] came to me and said, 'Why don't we do a movie version?'"

That prospect was first proposed during production on the second season of "Jackass" by MTV Films head David Gale, and he suggested the idea again to Jonze after the abrupt end of the series. Neither time did Tremaine think it was a viable concept. "I didn't believe. It didn't seem like it was possible to turn this stupid little TV show into a movie, but we agreed we'd give it a try," he said. "It didn't make sense until it became 'Just do the TV show, but do it on a crazier level.'"

MTV's movie-making corporate parent Paramount Pictures greenlit the "Jackass" movie but had reservations beyond whether or not a TV show would translate to film success. According to Steve-O, Paramount funded and produced the movie but did so through a fake name or ghost company. "If anybody died, they wouldn't even be affiliated with it," Steve-O said. "And then, once we were done, they 'found out about it' and bought it."

Jackass performers are good at things besides risking their safety

When he was first introduced to the world through "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. 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."

In other notable extracurricular feats, in 2008 "Jackass" contributor Brandon DiCamillo set a world record for highest score ever recorded in the video game "Mortal Kombat." DiCamillo's 10.2 million points mark shattered the previous score of seven million, and he held the title for nearly a year.

Some of them suffered lifelong health effects from the stunts

Injuries are almost a foregone conclusion for any "Jackass" project, and they have been from the start. Johnny Knoxville's stunt participation in Season 1 of the series was limited because he sprained his ankle while filming an early episode, per the Los Angeles Times. He tried to jump over the Los Angeles River on roller skates and didn't quite make it, ultimately requiring the use of crutches. 

Most mishaps didn't result in permanent damage. Knoxville did suffer long-term effects after rupturing his urethra while trying to backflip a motorcycle during MTV's 24-hour "Jackass" marathon special, as he explained to People. 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." "I have to live with all my past injuries," Knoxville acknowledged on a 2022 episode of the "Smartless" podcast (via Mediaite). "I've had like 16 concussions — I'm not very in touch with my body."

Steve-O's whose frequent food-and-vomit-oriented bits helped lead to the development of a medical condition. In his Reddit AMA, he revealed he'd contracted 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."

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 — literally, as he's the guy who had his buttocks seared with a cattle brand made into the shape of the male organ on an episode of the MTV series. And yet, the now-former "Jackass" star was willing to go even farther for the sake of entertainment. 

In a 2010 interview with IGN, Margera said that while sipping red wine on a plane, he came up with what he called one "of the stupidest things ever." Boxer "Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear — maybe I can get him and say 'I'm Bam Margera and today Mike Tyson's gonna bite my f***ing ear off.'" Producers double-checked to make sure Margera wasn't kidding, and then actually got in touch with the former heavyweight champ and asked if he would do it. "Paramount contacted Mike Tyson and he got offended and he said no."

Who is and isn't in the fourth Jackass movie

The "Jackass" movies, which are an extension of the show but on a "crazier level," according to co-creator Jeff Tremaine in The Hollywood Reporter, were quite successful after all. Each installment made more than the last, with "Jackass: The Movie" earning $64.2 million in North America, "Jackass Number Two" grossing $72.7, and "Jackass 3D" clearing $117 million. Even the spinoff, "Bad Grandpa," topped $100 million, per Box Office Mojo.

The market for a fifth "Jackass" film was thus considerably strong, even as long as a decade after the release of "Jackass 3D." Moves toward "Jackass Forever" began in 2018, when Johnny Knoxville told Entertainment Weekly the film was "possible," but that he wanted "to bring in some new younger guys — just to bring some fresh blood into it." The film got made and Knoxville followed through on his wish to utilize new talent. He told GQ's "Actually Me" series that "Jackass Forever" would feature six new cast members. These new faces include Zach Holmes of MTV's "Too Stupid to Die," Rachel Wolfson, and Jasper Dolphin, rapper and cast member of the Jeff Tremaine-produced "Loiter Squad."

A few big stars don't appear in "Jackass Forever," their hopes and news reports to the contrary. Shaquille O'Neal publicly stated his desire to box Knoxville in the film, but that didn't come to fruition. And Knoxville told "The Howard Stern Show" that esteemed, two-time Academy Award-nominated, 85-year-old actor Bruce Dern got in touch with producers about appearing in the movie. Unfortunately, "Jackass Forever" had already wrapped filming.

Why Bam Margera won't be in Jackass Forever

Apart from Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O, the biggest breakout star of the "Jackass" universe is Bam Margera, skateboarder and star of multiple MTV reality shows including "Viva la Bam" and "Bam's Unholy Union." "Jackass Forever" marks the first big-screen entry in the franchise in which Margera does not appear.

According to Variety, Margera, who has struggled with substance abuse issues, claims that "Jackass" leaders Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, and Spike Jonze strong-armed him into signing a "wellness agreement," agreeing to stay off drugs during the production of the next "Jackass" film. After submitting to frequent drug and alcohol tests, Margera was fired for violating the agreement after he tested positive for Adderall. Citing his prescription for that medication, Margera sued over what he alleged to be a wrongful termination. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the lawsuit was still pending at the time of the release of the fourth "Jackass" movie in 2022, which Margera reportedly tried to delay with his legal actions, according to Deadline.

The Jackass crew is getting too old for this

When the whole "Jackass" endeavor began in the early 2000s, its enduring cast was mostly in their twenties. More than two decades on, they're all approaching or reached middle age or beyond, and their bodies aren't resilient as they once were. "Our bones break significantly easier. And it takes less to knock us completely unconscious. Plus longer to wake up," Steve-O told GQ.

Two days into filming "Jackass Forever" in 2020, according to Bam Margera (via HotNewHipHop), Steve-O and Johnny Knoxville were hospitalized after a mishap involving a treadmill and brass instruments. According to CheatSheet, Steve-O also busted his shoulder and lost his eyebrows in a wax-based bit, Aaron Homoki burned a hand, and Dave England got a tooth knocked out. Knoxville told "The Howard Stern Show" that he suffered "the worst hit" of his career while shooting a bullfighting sequence. He endured a concussion, broken wrist, broken ribs, and a brain hemorrhage. "My cognitive abilities were in steep decline after that hit," he said.

All things considered, "Jackass Forever" is likely the last "Jackass" film. "I can't afford to have any more concussions," Knoxville told GQ. "I can't put my family through that."