February 16, 2022
TEN YEARS AGO, I got thrown through a wall in a shopping cart at an artist-run space in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a histrionic (and injurious) opener to a half-hour set wherein I restaged stunts from Jackass—the slapstick media franchise that debuted in 2000 as a television series on MTV—alongside visually similar works of early performance art by Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Marina Abramović, and Vito Acconci. Between such actions as permitting alarmingly zealous attendees to wax my chest and getting shot with a toy gun, I quoted from Julia Kristeva’s foundational 1980 treatise on grossness, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, proselytizing to a gallery audience that the transcendent trauma-comedy of Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and Bam Margera was a metatext as culturally significant as anything curated into Performa.
I wasn’t the only believer. Two years prior, Jackass 3D (2010), the brand’s third blockbuster film, had screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. That year, someone told me that to understand how such varied audiences derived pleasure from Jackass, I needed to read Linda Williams’s “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” (1991), which accessibly unpacked sensation and spectacle in the three “body genres”: pornography, horror, and melodrama. Genitals, screams, and tears: Jackass had all three. Clearly, this all meant something.
By the late 2010s, waxing philosophical about Jackass was haute discourse. In 2017, Screen Slate published The Jackass Reader, a zine of cheekily insightful essays exploring the dick-demolishing empire’s legacy. The following year, writers Charlie Markbreiter and Alex Iadarola delivered a winking workshop on white impotence, heteronormative paradoxes, and self-destruction in Jackass, incorporating critical architectures from scholars Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman. Markbreiter introduced me to a 2007 critique in the Journal of Gender Studies by Sean Brayton, who framed Jackass’s ambiguity as “perhaps intentionally incomprehensible” satire, burlesque amid a broader moment of “white male backlash.” More recently, film critic and programmer Ed Halter, writing in the New Yorker, proposed that Knoxville & Co. occasionally achieved authentic gay camp.
The intelligentsia hasn’t unequivocally loved Jackass, but they’ve ordained it consequential. My perpetually self-effacing, Midwestern inner-adolescent delighted at such heady validation. Meanwhile, ringleader Knoxville has repeatedly (and perhaps cannily) declined to intellectualize his output.
Jackass Forever (2022), the franchise’s fourth film, has now received near-universal acclaim. This makes sense because it’s fucking funny. What’s curious, though, is the spectrum of rationale arguing why its comedy—which has barely evolved—warrants popular praise. To some, Forever constitutes a noble response to the fading cultural relevance of straight, white men. Simultaneously, somehow, it’s also a confirmation that Knoxville’s not a pussy. Forever, which ostensibly passes the torture to millennial newcomers Rachel Wolfson, the first woman cast member, and Jasper Dolphin and Eric Manaka, the first Black cast members, is laudable for its inclusivity. But actually, its Gen-X veterans are antiwoke. It proves that dudes rock. It is an unlikely addition to New Queer Cinema.
What confounding convergences.
In its earliest episodes on MTV, Jackass was bewilderingly contextless; There was no host, no narrator or commentators, no explanation. In The Jackass Reader, filmmaker Patrick Dahl posed a chewy question: Where, exactly, does Jackass take place? What began in suburban Pennsylvania parking lots with Margera’s uncouth CKY videos later expanded to palatial estates, film production studios and back offices, international locales, and varied bodies of water. Partly due to Covid restrictions, Knoxville, director Jeff Tremaine, and producer Spike Jonze set Forever in an even more amorphous, almost region-less space. While it’s vaguely twenty-first-century American, it is otherwise atemporal and apolitical, a minimalist landscape without election cycles, climate change, militarized police, medical debt, or eternal culture war. Few bits happen in public. Were it not for the original cast members’ age, or the masked crew, it would be difficult to place any of Forever’s stunts on a sociocultural timeline.
This aspecificity offers audiences a blank projection screen, a moving-image Rorschach test upon which to project whatever politics help them rationalize laughing at such bluntly sophomoric content. Because in America, every consumptive decision involves a moral performance. Your bespoke, idiosyncratic politics are correct. You like Jackass. Ergo, Jackass’s politics are correct. With no institutions left to trust, it tracks that people hurl moral import upon a franchise that’s been around for much of their lives.
I understand the impulse, having been desperate myself to see this formative media property pronounced profound, thereby substantiating my politics, sense of humor, and powers of discernment. I have needed Jackass to have subtext. But I’ve been thinking a lot about an exegesis from Brayton’s 2007 article: “[Jackass’s] promiscuous adoption of multiple masculinities at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality forestalls the emergence of any textual coherence much less political solidarity.”
That slippery incoherence is elemental to Jackass. I don’t think that Jackass Forever is, formally speaking, the strongest of the films. Big-budget revamping of scrappier salad days stunts generally flops. When the first MTV episode cold-opened with camcorder footage of an unknown Knoxville discharged from a rickety cannon, it hit harder than Forever’s higher-flying, hi-def “Flight of Icarus.” Similarly, big boys Preston Lacy and Zach Holmes hoisting Wee Man in “Triple Wedgie” conjures a cringe, but it’s less chafing than “Bungee Wedgie,” Raab Himself’s disturbingly casual tree branch tumble of 2002. Nostalgia grabs aside, Jackass Forever’s seamless self-containment and hallowed ambiguity have freed me from the compulsion to intellectualize such beguiling stupidity. Acceptance is tranquility. After twenty-two years, I’m Knox-pilled. Is Jackass culturally significant? Absolutely, possibly even sublime. But I don’t need it to mean anything.
— Sean J Patrick Carney
Jackass Forever is currently playing in US theaters.