In the movie Idiocracy, a sci-fi satire in which the U.S. has spent 500 years indulging its most moronic tendencies, the most popular thing on television is a show called Ow! My Balls!, which consists solely of a man suffering increasingly grievous forms of testicular injury as its audience brainlessly guffaws. The closest thing our not-quite-idiocratic world has developed to this dim vision of the future is the Jackass series, which, with the release of the new movie Jackass Forever, can claim to have been laying waste to its stars-slash-victims’ bodies for the entirety of the 21st century. Every fan will have their favorite stunt, but if there’s one that condenses Jackass to its essence, it’s “Tee Ball,” from 2010’s Jackass 3D. The setup is so simple it takes longer to describe than it does to watch, but essentially it involves core Jackass troupe members Steve-O and Ryan Dunn arranging themselves so that the former, dressed only in a pair of white briefs, stands stock still while the latter takes a baseball bat and hits a ball on a rotating metal arm which has been set up precisely so that it will hit the former square in the nuts. Dunn takes a swing, connects squarely, and what happens is exactly what you’d think would happen. Ow, his balls.
The highfalutin way of explaining Jackass’ appeal is that it hearkens back to the earliest days of moving images, what film historian Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” In essence, the earliest moviegoers went not to lose themselves in a story but simply to see the thing on the screen (or, even before that, through single-viewer machines like Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope), presented with a minimum of embellishment. In 1895, New York was scandalized by a stage play called The Widow Jones, which ended with a lusty kiss between its male and female leads. “The Kiss,” produced by Edison’s studio, simply plucks that kiss out of context and presents it as an 18-second standalone experience—all the lust, without having to wait through two full acts of theater. The Jackass movies are essentially a string of such attractions laid end to end, as the performers announce the ill-advised thing they’re about to do—get in the ring with a herd of buffalo, bungee-jump inside a porta-potty filled with shit—and then do it. When Jackass Forever informs us that a naked Steve-O is going to tape a queen bee to his penis and let a hive full of angry apians swarm his junk, that’s what happens. The only variable is how long it will take before Steve-O loses his cool, and how many stingers will wind up lodged in his scrotum.*
Dicks play an outsize role in the Jackass cosmos. The first movie is barely a minute old when we’re treated to a shot of Chris Pontius’ swollen American flag G-string, and there’s a running “party boy” gag in the movie where he approaches an unsuspecting person on the street, rips off his clothes, and starts gyrating like a stripper. Frontal nudity increases exponentially in each of its three sequels, to the degree that Jackass Forever opens with a sequence in which a city is laid waste by a lopsided Godzilla with giant, bulbous feet, which is revealed in short order to be Pontius’ cock and balls painted an inviting forest green. Later in the movie, Pontius squishes his penis between pieces of plexiglass until it’s almost flat, and chief Jackass instigator Johnny Knoxville uses the glass-and-dick sandwich to play paddle ball. Colleagues who’ve seen the new movie with unsuspecting audiences have overheard complaints that it contains “too many buttholes and dicks,” but having seen it with a group of superfans who’d devoted an entire afternoon to screening all four movies in quick succession—and at no less august a venue than the Museum of the Moving Image—I can confirm that they ate it up.
The Occam’s-razor explanation of why the Jackass crew, which has been overwhelmingly composed of heterosexual white cis men, are so fixated on each other’s bathing suit areas might be that they’re sublimating their queer desires. (One article about Jackass 3D asked, “Has there ever been a group of straight men who wanted to fuck each other as desperately as these guys?”) When the gang sticks a toy car up Dunn’s ass at the climax of the first movie, his cringing discomfort reassures us that it’s the first time anything like that has been up there, and he’s definitely not enjoying it. The series’s makers have insisted the gags are meant to send up gay panic rather than embody it—Steve-O called it “a humanitarian attack on homophobia”—and cameos by gay icons like Rip Taylor and John Waters underline the idea that this is just a group of friends who happen to be straight, rather than one dead-set on proving it. But it’s hard to entirely dismiss the feeling that it’s a product of a culture that teaches men the only appropriate way to touch another man’s penis is with your fist. (Audiences, of course, are free to make their own meaning, and to look at Knoxville and co.’s frequently near-nude bodies for any reason they please.)
Watching the Jackass bros repeatedly brutalize themselves in search of a laugh, I was repeatedly put in mind of silent film comedy, and that was before Number Two recreated the iconic Buster Keaton stunt in which the front of a house falls on top of him and he passes magically unscathed through a narrow window. But as Slate’s Dana Stevens points out in her new book on Keaton, the essence of his comedy, and the vaudeville routines that preceded it, is that he always emerged unscathed. No matter how many times his father picked him up and hurled him bodily offstage, he would bound back from the wings without so much as a scratch. In Jackass, the scathing is the point. The disclaimers that bookend each movie warn viewers not to attempt any of the stunts performed by these “professionals,” but the Jackass gang don’t look like pros so much as foolhardy amateurs with a bottomless tolerance for pain. On the rare occasion when a stunt goes off without a hitch—assuming its sole purpose is not to inflict injury in the first place—it’s often banished to the closing credits, because the main attraction isn’t watching people flawlessly execute a daredevil maneuver but seeing them get beat to shit.
The structure of a Jackass gag doesn’t just involve a setup and a payoff but its aftermath: the drawn-out moans of pain mixed with incredulous laughter, the serial vomiting that sometimes spreads from the cast to the camera crew, and, on the rare occasion when things go too far even for Jackass, a heartfelt, “Sorry, dude.” Watching people beat the crap out of themselves may be what makes Jackass tick, but we’re always reminded that they’re doing it to crack each other up. It’s a love letter written in bodily fluids, built around the most vulnerable part of the male anatomy, and testing just how much it can take.
Correction, Feb. 6, 2022: This article originally misidentified the person who has his penis covered with bees in Jackass Forever. It is Steve-O, not Ehren McGhehey.