I ran around with a group of stinky, troublemaking white boys in my youth — the kind that should have had some sort of pithy nickname but didn’t. This was suburban Vegas, so my pickings were slim. There was the Junior Olympian who loved to come over to other kids’ houses but rarely invited us to his. His parents were divorced, which seemed to be a source of shame for him, even though both places were extremely nice and sterile, like a doctor’s office. There was the kid who got cancer, for whom all us boys in class shaved our heads in solidarity, before he became improbably good looking and popular after he went into remission and ditched us, which was fair enough. And then there was Aaron: white, but the only person in our grade who came from a visibly damaged and working-class household and therefore, I thought, someone who could relate to my acute sense of loneliness.
Aaron and I were fast friends, both of us sweetly, pathetically desperate for company. I was an only child, and while Aaron wasn’t he might as well have been. We got along because we didn’t ask many questions about our respective family lives. I didn’t understand half the things his divorced parents argued about, nor did I understand Aaron’s idealized vision of his absent older brother, but I could see how this all affected him and recognized some of the same cracks forming in my own family. We hung out to get away from all of that, as best we could.
So, what do emotionally underdeveloped, suburban boys in the mid-aughts do with their free time? Mainly take turns hurting ourselves trying to re-enact Jackass stunts.
The words “Hi! I’m Johnny Knoxville and welcome to Jackass” still inspire an almost reptilian chemical reaction in my brain. The back of my neck tingles, there’s a phantom odor of shit, and I have the sudden urge to jump in the air. Jackass was, to us, one of those taboo TV shows we assumed we weren’t allowed to watch because there was a lot of cursing and a general comfort with grown-up vices like drinking and smoking. The other stuff — encounters with venomous animals, the broken bones, the gratuitous amounts of piss and vomit, the open wounds — we saw every day (a classmate once found a rattlesnake skin in the middle of the soccer field and spent the entirety of a recess sitting next to it before a teacher came by shrieking because it was actually a used condom).
The thing about Jackass is that, after maybe 20 minutes, you start to become familiar with the human form in a clinical sense, as an interlocking series of limbs and organs that have a limited number of functions and ranges of motion. Excrement comes out of here, puke comes out of here, blood comes out of basically everywhere. Teeth pulled by Lamborghinis pop out of your gums like cork from a champagne bottle. Sharp fish hooks will only pierce through the flesh of your cheek after you apply a certain amount of force. It’s almost mathematical, the ability to clock the way any of these guys are going to splay out when they hit a surface or collapse in when they get their dick kicked.
I don’t remember the first stunt we tried to do after watching the initial Jackass movie. I do remember that, when Aaron and I dared each other to jump from his second-story window onto the street below, neither of us would do it. The ground-level stuff wasn’t much safer. I pushed Aaron, who was sitting on his skateboard with his knees hugged to his chest, down a long hill and into a cluster of trash cans. The momentum he built up near the end unscrewed the front right truck of his board so that when he made contact with the cans, the wheel flew off. Aaron tumbled sideways and made a full rotation in the air before hitting the ground. One Halloween, we reenacted “The Rake Jump” from Jackass 2, where Steve-O steps on the end of a rake and whacks himself in the face. Aaron ducked when it was his turn. I took it straight on the nose and bled onto my shirt, which we then replaced with one of Aaron’s.
What do emotionally underdeveloped, suburban boys in the mid-aughts do with their free time? Mainly take turns hurting ourselves trying to re-enact Jackass stunts.
I still can’t fully explain why we did any of this. “Kids do stupid shit” maybe. Aaron and I were simply following our impulses, testing the limits of what we could get away with. We were bored, sure, but we also felt like the success of the show gave us permission to literally break our legs. Part of the reason we loved Jackass was because we were watching a group of adults who were acting like kids and being rewarded for it. Not only that, but a group of friends. That’s the other thing about Jackass: it is often an exuberant, joyous experience that mimics a good night out with your favorite people. It Heimlichs laughter (and sometimes bile) out of you, no matter how dignified or stoic you try to be. People acting up, people knowing they’re doing something dumb and subsequently getting hurt, is one of the funniest things there is and it can provoke a nice warm feeling in your chest.
But joy wasn’t the only bonding experience Aaron and I were looking for. Not long after our shenanigans veered towards bone-breaking territory, I started to notice a darker motivation for our antics. In a weird way, Jackass became an indicator for me about what road we were going down. Aaron was depressed and reluctantly medicated. I wasn’t medicated. I didn’t think mental illness had anything to do with me or my family. The pranks we’d pull, always after school, never during, were all-consuming in a way I found addictive. It was only in between our stunts that we’d share anything vulnerable or intimate with each other and even then, the adrenaline made it so our attention was on the bit, not on what we were saying. I began to wonder if the physical pain was an occasional consequence of pursuing a laugh, or if the pain was the entire point.
If you paid attention to what happened to the Jackass crew off-screen, you saw how trauma of all kinds led to or exacerbated personal problems in their lives. Addiction, depression, suicide. Ryan Dunn and a production assistant died in a DUI car crash in 2011. Steve-O kicked a long-standing habit. Bam Margera is still wrestling with his. Par for the course some might say, but I thought we were there to have fun. I thought we were watching a bunch of dudes being reckless and cracking their ribs to make each other double over with guffaws and howls. Maybe that’s what it had been at the beginning. Somewhere along the way, it got a little dark for the crew. But it always seemed like they were there to help each other out of it. More than the glory of accomplishing an insanely ill-advised stunt, I wanted to know someone who cared about me was going to rush to my side to make sure I was okay.
Still, Jackass stopped being funny or cool for Aaron. His single favorite bit ended up being the really racist one, “The Terror Taxi,” where Danger Ehren poses as a terrorist with a beard made from shaved pubes. Aaron’s attention shifted after that. He cultivated a new crew of friends, none of whom I knew well and whose names escaped me even as I met them. They were odd, in that socially stilted yet socially permissible way, like a lot of white suburban rascals who are raised to believe the world owes them something.
More than nostalgia or vanity, the boys return to encourage giving into simpler pleasures.
A few years after Aaron and I met as boys talking about Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, I left. I was his oldest friend and when everyone else had had their fun, I was the one who usually stayed the night. But I had stopped agreeing with him on almost everything. I didn’t hate my parents, didn’t see any of the injuries we hid from them as payback. I didn’t want to join the Army so I could see what it was like to be allowed to kill someone. I wanted a friend. Wasn’t that why we took to Jackass in the first place?
A lot of people find Jackass to be mean-spirited bullshit and some of it is. It probably shouldn’t still be around, if only because most of the cast, by dint of their recklessness, should be dead ten times over. But ultimately, Jackass is about resilience. The resilience of the human body after falling five stories or being bitten by an anaconda, yes, but the resilience of memory, too. I still fondly remember evenings sitting on a dusty sofa crying laughing while Steve-O buttchugs a full bottle of beer. I laughed just as hard watching that bit again last year. I’m grateful for the artifacts from my childhood that still manage to mean something.
“Twenty years later and we’re still doing the same stupid shit,” Knoxville quips before his buddy gets punched in the groin by the hardest-hitting heavyweight in the UFC. The fourth Jackass movie, long delayed and now finally released in all its balls-out, gross-out glory, plays on this line a lot, the way people do and don’t change over the years, though that’s not the movie’s reason for being. More than nostalgia or vanity, the boys return to encourage giving into simpler pleasures, the most rudimentary of comedic acts, physical danger and obnoxiousness as a laughter delivery system. Throughout, a new crop of faces join in, younger and far more diverse than the franchise has ever been, though not in a way that reads as hollow or cynical. Mostly, it serves as a reminder that everyone is united in their capacity to do stupid shit and enjoy it. It made me wish I could be watching the movie with a group of people who never really grew apart.
The last I heard, Aaron had set his dad’s porch on fire in high school, which seems a little apocryphal to me. It’s cheesy but I hope he sees Jackass Forever. I hope a lot of people do. It’s nice to laugh, to remember that sometimes people come out of things okay.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.