Pablo Picasso once said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” If you’ve ever seen Jackass, either the MTV series or the first two movies, then you’ve definitely seen a few acts of destruction, if mostly self-inflicted and in the groin region. So does this mean Johnny Knoxville and his band of giddy morons qualify as artists? Probably, yeah. It doesn’t hurt that their latest movie, Jackass 3D — which opens nationwide tomorrow — was screened earlier this week at the Museum of Modern Art, the very building that also houses a Picasso collection. You could waste a lot of ink writing about the artistry, intended or not, of the Jackass oeuvre. The new movie in particular is brimming with subtext, everything from blistering homosexual tension (has their ever been a group of straight men who wanted to fuck each other as desperately as these guys?) to a bittersweet reflection on growing old.
Despite what you may’ve heard, the 3-D technology isn’t the real show here. Sure, it’s fascinating and revolting to watch poop sprayed at you in three-dimensions. But even more remarkable is how the performers, after over a decade of filmed abuse, have discovered flinching. It’s as if in early middle age, they’ve suddenly developed a pain reflex. Or maybe it’s just the anticipation of pain. They still endure every stunt like champs, but with age and experience, they seem more acutely aware of what’s coming and how much it’s going to hurt. If there’s any lesson in the Jackass movies — and I highly recommend watching them sequentially to really appreciate this point — it’s that we’re all dying a little more every day, and ignorance really is bliss.
I called Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and Bam Margera to talk about their new movie. We ended up talking theology and scrotums, because why wouldn’t we?
Eric Spitznagel: When Jackass first premiered on MTV, there was a warning at the beginning of every episode that all stunts were “performed by professionals.” It seemed hilarious at the time to think you could be a “professional” at putting foreign objects in your ass and enduring testicle abuse. But I guess after all these years, you guys actually are professionals.
Johnny Knoxville: Well, we’re no better at what we do than we ever were. We’ve just been doing it a long time. We still suck.
Bam Margera: The fact that Johnny’s so uncoordinated is what makes it funny. He just falls on his face.
Knoxville: I am the least skilled of anybody in the cast. All I can do is stand in one spot and hold onto whatever they give me.
Steve-O: I was a professional before Jackass ever started. I graduated from Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
They must be very proud.
Steve-O: Not at all. [Laughs.] I’m a proud vegan and whistle blower and animal rights activist. I know that makes me sound like a hypocrite, because in Jackass 3D I get into a pen with a ram that charges into my nuts. I was really conflicted about that.
About which part? The nuts charging or…?
Steve-O: I remember when the movie started, I said, “I don’t want to work with animals. That’s not what I’m about.” But then I did the ram scene anyway, and I justified it in my head, like, “Okay, this is for work. I’ve got to put my own personal beliefs aside.” So I got into the pen and my instincts took over. The ram charged towards my nuts, and I put my hand down to block it. That happened a bunch of times, and as a result, the tendons in my right hand are totally messed up. This was back in February, and we’re now in October and it’s still not healed. I feel like it’s a permanent reminder that I compromised my beliefs.
I wouldn’t feel bad. The ram has PETA on its side. There isn’t an advocacy group for your nuts.
Steve-O: Yeah, right, exactly. PETA is not pulling for my balls at all.
Evel Knievel has the Guinness record for bone fractures at 431. Have any of you come close to beating that number?
Knoxville: Is that true? 431? Wow. We’ve all had our share of injuries, but nothing like that.
Margera: I’m nowhere near that. In the course of doing Jackass and trying skateboard tricks, I’ve broken my left wrist eight times, my right wrist twice, I’ve broken my shoulder and my clavicle, I’ve broken three ribs twice, a broken foot in three different spots at once, and a broken tailbone. But that’s it.
Knoxville: I think Evel’s record will remain intact.
You must have the record in testicle injuries. Have you started to build up a resistance, like calluses of the balls?
Knoxville: It’s just like a dog’s chew toy down there. I broke my penis about three years ago trying to backflip a motorcycle. So that didn’t help it’s appearance. Although it’s pretty cute. I still have to use a catheter twice a day and it’s been three years now.
You can’t pee without a catheter?
Knoxville: No, I can piss without it. I just have to keep the scar tissue from constricting down there. It looks like a sock that’s lost it’s elasticity. You know the kind that droop around your ankles? That’s what my penis looks like.
Margera: I think the only one who came out ahead in this movie is Chris (Pontius). He did a skit called “The Helicockter” where he tied a string to his penis and the other end was attached to a remote-control helicopter. It ripped off so hard, he said he gained a few inches.
Is self-mutilation as much fun in middle age as it was when you were young and stupid? Is it ever as good as your first time?
Knoxville: It didn’t feel good then, and it doesn’t feel good now. I don’t really think about it. You know you’re going to get smoked by something and it’s going to hurt. But you’re going to heal and it’s going to be funny, so stop being a little bitch about it and stand there.
Do you ever practice your grimaces in advance?
Knoxville: I’d rather rehearse on film. We’re all about Method acting.
Ah, okay. So you’re from the Lee Strasberg school?
Knoxville: Yeah, yeah, right. Everything you see on screen is real. By doing what we do, there’s naturally going to be a lot of grimacing. And whimpering. And if your name is Bam Margera, maybe a few tears.
Margera: Yeah, I did cry this time. There’s a bit involving me falling into a pit of snakes and that’s probably my worst fear ever.
Evel Knievel once said, “Dying is a part of living and none of us is going to get out of here alive.” Is that pretty much your personal philosophy?
Knoxville: I love Evel Knievel, but I don’t know if that’s how I look at it. We’re just doing stupid stuff to make ourselves laugh.
So you don’t actually want to die?
Knoxville: Hell no. I just want to get good footage.
Margera: There have been times before a stunt when I thought, “This could be bad forever.” Knoxville does this skit in the movie called the Invisible Man, where he paints himself to look exactly like the wall behind him. They release a Spanish bull, hoping that it’ll spot him. And it does. He lands right on his neck, and for a second it looked like it was over for him. But he just had a sore neck for about a month.
How exactly do you explain that? By the law of averages, at least one of you should be dead or paralyzed by now.
Knoxville: I don’t know. I think we’ve got a pretty good spirit going on the set. I think it’s better not to dwell on it too much.
A good spirit? That’s an interesting way to put it. Mother Theresa said suffering brings you closer to God. Have you found that to be true?
Knoxville: Suffering will get you great footage. I don’t know about closer to God. Although there have been times when I’ve suffered to the point where I think I might be about to meet Him.
Steve-O: I wouldn’t have really committed myself to any kind of spiritual lifestyle, I don’t think, if I had not endured great suffering. I think that’s the case with a lot of people. But at the end of the day, I think what brings you closer to God is being in service to others. I think any religion or spiritual way of life will indicate that service to others will lead to a connection with a higher power. [Bursts into laughter.] I love that this is a Jackass interview and I’m talking about this shit.
If God exists, do you think He or She enjoys a good punch-in-the-nuts prank?
Margera: Of course, yeah. If you don’t find humor in that, than you’re dumb. (Pause.) I mean we’re dumb. Not God. We’re the ones getting punched in the balls. He’s just the one enjoying it. He probably wouldn’t enjoy it if it was happening to Him, but He’d probably like to watch us do it to somebody else.
It could also be argued that Jackass is a celebration of atheism.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali said that without a belief in God, “life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely.” Is that maybe what you were trying to express when you put electric muscle stimulators on your taint?
Knoxville: Well… they could compare us to the Indian Ascetics who go through so much torture and pain. I heard about one guy who’s had his arm raised for seven years. That’s gnarly! Not particularly funny, but gnarly.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Margera: Is that true? I had no idea.
It’s true. Is it just a coincidence that you released your movie this month?
Steve-O: Let me tell you how I feel about these pink ribbons. I was watching the NFL last week and all the players were wearing pink and stuff. I don’t think they did anything to educate people about cancer prevention. I don’t think a pink ribbon does anything. What people need to know is that it’s the atrocious diet of Americans that’s responsible for all your cancer, all your heart disease, all your diabetes.
What about the cancer risks of putting fireworks in your rectum?
Steve-O: [Laughs.] Oh my god! I don’t even want to think about it. I’ll tell you, man, my personal lifestyle for the longest time, it’s like I was striving to get cancer. I really was, man. I quit smoking cigarettes over two years ago, but I smoked for 18 years before that. I once laid down on the conveyer belt of the x-ray machine at the airport security checkpoint, which is really bad. That was like some Chernobyl shit.
To be fair, you guys are like spokespeople for early detection. If you had any tumors, a doctor surely would’ve found it by now.
Knoxville: That’s true. We’re in the emergency room a lot. I have a whole slew of doctors. I can count eight in my phone right now. Eight different doctors, all for different parts of my body. I have specialists.
Margera: I’m a regular at a hospital in Pennsylvania. The Riddle Hospital in Media, Pennsylvania. I actually have a thing called Fast Track.
Is that like medical frequent-flyer miles?
Margera: Pretty much, yeah. Whenever I have to go to the emergency room, they take me right away, I don’t have to wait. It’s like, “Oh Bam’s back, what happened now?” I’m on first name basis with them.
So listen, I’m not sure how to broach this subject. There’s a lot of half-naked men in Jackass, and a lot of anal play and nipple torture and testicle touching. Is it possible that Jackass is at least a smidge gay?
Knoxville: I’m offended you just said a smidge!
It’s more than a smidge?
Knoxville: We’re over here sitting on rainbows and you say a smidge.
You’re a gay pride parade waiting to happen?
Knoxville: We’re a gay pride parade that’s happening! And in 3-D!
It’s not just homoerotic tension?
Knoxville: No, man, it’s all about release with us.
Steve-O: We always thought it was funny to force a heterosexual MTV generation to deal with all of our thongs and homoerotic humor. In many ways, all our gay humor has been a humanitarian attack against homophobia. We’ve been trying to rid the world of homophobia for years, and I think gay people really dig it too.
Okay, uh… wow, this was way too easy. I had all of these questions designed to lure you into admitting your subconscious desire to fuck each other. But apparently you’re not suppressing anything.
Knoxville: Suppressing?! Wait till I tell the guys you said suppressing! We’re not suppressing anything! We’re over here sitting on dicks!
Let’s talk about the state of our education system. Out of 30 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. Where do you think we rank in self-inflicted concussions?
Margera: Well, I think we’re pretty high up there. There are a few shows that are similar to ours in England and Finland and Australia and I think India. But we’re pretty high up.
Besides abusing your body and torturing your parents, what are your intellectual pursuits, Bam? Are you a math guy? Do you watch a lot of Discovery channel?
Margera: I like geography. I could tell you the capital of any country if you want.
Really? Can I quiz you?
Margera: Do it, man.
Jesus Christ! After ten years in this cast, you should be borderline brain dead. How did you learn this stuff?
Margera: I’m just on a lot of airplanes and I get bored. So I started looking at the capitals of every country, and one day I figured out that if I just learned twenty more I would know the capital of every country. So I wrote them down on a shoebox and kept looking at it.
Okay, last question. Steve-O, I feel like we need to discuss your porta-potty scene. Is this the performance that will finally get you an Oscar nomination?
Steve-O: I don’t know. The way I feel about Jackass, people have enough problems and enough shit weighing them down, it’s a real honor for me to distract them, even if it’s temporary. Do I think I’ll get an Oscar? No I don’t. But I do think there’s something very noble about making a small sacrifice, or maybe even a significant sacrifice.
Dude, I saw the movie. Your mouth was open. There was a lot of poop. You made a sacrifice.
Steve-O: [Laughs.] Thanks, man. The idea is to improve somebody’s day. That’s how I’ve always viewed my job. I’m a distraction therapist. I make people’s problems go away for just a little bit.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)