Jackass: An Oral History

For the first time, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the entire crew tell the story of how they all fell together.

ENTERTAINMENT  |  October 26, 2010By Marc Spitz
Responsive image


Before YouTube, Punk’d, and Borat there was Jackass. Hysterical, anarchic, and smarter than it had to be, Jackass made heroes (and a few victims) of poo-obsessed, ball-punching, vomit-spewing knuckleheads. For the first time, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the entire crew tell the story of how they all fell together.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE (cocreator, cast member, writer):
Hello, my name is Johnny Knoxville, and this is the oral history of Jackass. As opposed to an anal history—which would be much longer.

Aspiring actor and writer PJ Clapp moved to Los Angeles from Tennessee after graduating high school in the late ’80s. After a decade of struggle, Clapp, nicknamed Johnny Knoxville, was married and the father of a young daughter.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I was making my living doing commercials for things like ESPN, Mountain Dew, and Bud Light. I was a complete whore because I had a young baby and I needed to make money. I had an idea for an article where I would test different types of self-defense equipment on myself. A few magazines wanted the story, but nobody wanted the liability. Everyone was fine with the pepper spray and the stun gun and the Taser gun. Where it got shady was where I was testing a bulletproof vest—with a .38. The only magazine that would do it was Big Brother.

TONY HAWK (über-skater, guest star): Big Brother was the rawest and funniest magazine out there, beyond just skateboarding. The articles were dense with sarcasm, shock, and vulgarities. Skaters ate it up.

JEFF TREMAINE (cocreator, director, Jackass; editor, Big Brother): One of our first articles was a guide called “How to Kill Yourself.” We had a tiny little staff. Slowly we were collecting people who “got it.” They might not have had the most talent, but they definitely had the larger personalities. Chris Pontius came through that. And I hired “Wee Man” because he worked at the local skate shop and would just come by all the time. He was very unmotivated and a terrible employee.

CHRIS PONTIUS (cast member, writer): In the eighth or ninth issue, I was interviewed in Big Brother, and it was pretty wild. I was nude, and I think I wasn’t even 18, so that was naughty. It was obvious I should write for the magazine. It took in the misfits of the skateboard world.

STEVE-O (cast member, writer): I made it my mission to track those guys down. My attitude was: Nobody needed to like me. They just needed to put me in the magazine.

SPIKE JONZE (cocreator, producer, writer, guest star): In the late ’80s and early ’90s, no one cared about skateboarders. There was no Internet, no other way to communicate, so everyone just made their own videos, and that’s how skateboarding communicated with itself.

JEFF TREMAINE: Our first video was called Shit. Wee Man was on the cover, painted blue, with orange-dyed hair. Shit was pretty well received, so 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.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE:
Jeff persuaded me to film the self-defense piece. I wasn’t an aspiring video guy. The article was my evil attempt at imitating my hero, Hunter S. Thompson.

JEFF TREMAINE:
The guys we had been working with, none of them could really talk to the camera. But Knoxville came back with this footage, and he’s just walking you through, step by step, and you can’t stop watching. Starting with the pepper spray, to the stun gun, and then the Taser gun, and then the bulletproof vest. It was like a snuff video. The cameraman didn’t even want to be there.

GIDEON YAGO (former MTV News correspondent): I remember seeing that video for the first time in 1999 wasted at a friend’s party, which is the way all skate videos are meant to be screened. I think Brian Graden found it the same way.

BRIAN GRADEN (former president of entertainment, MTV Networks): Johnny was so obviously a TV star, even in that small clip. I thought, Who is this guy?

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: We had all these ideas of what a TV show might be. I would be kind of the host, like The Daily Show, and we would have all the guys come on and do stunts. Spike finally said, “You guys already have the show. The Big Brother videos—that’s the show.”

SPIKE JONZE: At the start, when we didn’t know what it was, it could be anything. We thought, “We’ll have 22 minutes on TV every week to do whatever we want. We can do anything. Let’s not underestimate what ‘anything’ is.”

Meanwhile, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, pro skateboarder Bam Margera was filming his family and friends. The videos were distributed under the CKY (Camp Kill Yourself) moniker and, like the Big Brother videos, became cult sensations.

BAM MARGERA (cast member, writer): We’d go to some park or building to skate ledges or Ollie off the stairs. I wasn’t too liked by the police, but I didn’t really have anything to lose. My aunt gave me an ’89 Buick Regal, so whenever anybody said, “Dude, you’re gonna get sued one day doing this,” I’d say, “Yeah, what are they gonna sue me for? My Buick Regal that my aunt gave me? I don’t care.”

RYAN DUNN (cast member, writer): The guys out in L.A. took notice of us. They were wondering who these little jerks were in West Chester doing this ridiculous stuff.

BAM MARGERA: I remember when Jeff first called me. He flew me out to L.A., and I played CKY2K for him and Johnny. They just loved it. They were like, “You’d be perfect for 
Jackass.”

Tremaine, Jonze, and Knoxville shopped the Jackass demo footage to various networks. Saturday Night Live offered Knoxville a recurring segment, but the crew decided to go with MTV, which promised to give them more creative control.

VAN TOFFLER (president of MTV Networks): We just knew there were a bunch of knuckleheads out there who had a very high tolerance for stupidity and pain.

BRIAN GRADEN: We got pitched a stunt show every other week, but when I saw their video, it was clear they were taking such a joy from it. It wasn’t a TV exercise; it was what these guys were doing anyway for their own amusement. You couldn’t fake that, and if we could just preserve it, we had a show.

JASON “WEE MAN” ACUÑA (cast member, writer): Personally, I didn’t think it would transfer into mainstream society. I thought this stuff was only funny in the skateboard community.

DAVE ENGLAND (cast member, writer): I was a total naysayer. I said, “I’ll go ahead and work on it with you guys and get it together,” but I thought MTV would put it on, like, Monday night at 3 a.m. once, and that would be that. “No one’s gonna wanna see this crap.”

STEVE-O: Jeff told me to put together all the video footage I had and send it in. A little while later, he told me not a single clip cleared MTV. We weren’t allowed to play with fire, and I was always on fire. We weren’t allowed to jump off stuff higher than a certain height, and I was always on fire and jumping off stuff from too high. So my first thought was, What kind of pussy-ass show is this?

SPIKE JONZE: We weren’t doing anything with permits. We were doing it the way we had done our skate videos, just, you know, a camera, an idea, and a group of friends.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE:
In one of the earliest pranks, I was dressed in an orange jumpsuit with "L.A. County Jail" written on it. I had a pair of cuffs on, and I went into a hardware store. My face was all dirty, and I was out of breath, and I ran back to the saws and the axes and asked anyone if they would help me.

JEFF TREMAINE: He freaked out the employees, and they called the police. Spike and I go out and film Knoxville walking out, and as soon as he does, all these cops roll up and park right in the middle of the street, draw their guns, and yell at him to get on the ground.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I didn’t explain immediately, because I thought, Well, this is footage. In the early days of Jackass, we would just go in anywhere and do pranks like that. Eventually we became smarter and would get a location agreement from a willing store owner first. We’d tip him off and say, “We are coming in to do this prank, but you cannot tell your employees.”

Jackass premiered on MTV in April 2000 and was a runaway hit. The stars went from unknown to extremely famous overnight. A few even became fantasy boyfriend material.

SHANNA ZABLOW (producer): Girls think they’re cute. For me it’s like thinking your own brother’s cute. I think they’re adorable, but I don’t find them attractive. There’s a sense of family between the guys. They all really love each other, and I think girls like that.

JOHN WATERS (movie director, guest star, national treasure):
I’m a big fan of Johnny’s, and I think if I ever were to have a “type,” it would be the Jackass boys.

GIDEON YAGO: The second it got to a mass audience, it blew the fuck up. And I think, to MTV’s credit, the top execs knew enough to just get out of the way and let those guys do their thing.

SPIKE JONZE:
Within a couple of months, Knoxville was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: It was jarring, but it was a lot of fun. And I probably had a little too much fun. I definitely didn’t handle it as well as I could have.

JEFF TREMAINE: Were some people handling success better than others? Yeah, definitely. Steve-O was all about fame. He wanted it so bad, whereas Pontius could give two shits. He didn’t change at all. And Bam was already kind of a little celebrity in his world.

BRIAN GRADEN: Some of them were having a different ride with the fame. Some actors might dream their whole life of being famous, and I think Johnny had ambitions of that nature, but I’m not sure all the other cast members went out and thought, I’ll do this stuff in my real life: I’ll fall off bridges and end up being famous.

BAM MARGERA: Like a light switch, overnight I was the most popular kid in school. It was so fake to me that I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left. Everybody who wouldn’t even give me the time of day—now they want to be my best friend?

Despite a warning that ran before every show, on January 26, 2001, Connecticut teen Eric Lind accidentally set himself on fire while trying to emulate Jackass behavior. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut issued a statement denouncing MTV. Jackass, the improbable pop phenomenon, became a political football.

JEFF TREMAINE: We would always watch something to see if it was too imitable. We still do that to this day.

TONY HAWK: I think it pushed the limits of what’s appropriate for TV audiences. And because it was daring and edgy, it became conservative America’s call to arms.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE:
We were supposedly the cause of the crumbling of society. That always made us laugh, but when Lieberman got on his high horse, I think in an election year, I took that seriously. And MTV got very, very scared.

VAN TOFFLER: 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. I’ll leave it at that.

PRESTON LACY (cast member, writer):
It was a strange time. My picture was on 20/20. Me in my underwear. All my family saw it, so I wasn’t a big fan of that.

The first idea to be affected by the Lieberman-led backlash was the “Vomlet” sketch, in which Dave England consumes the ingredients for an omelet, then vomits them up into a hot skillet.

DAVE ENGLAND: We turned it in to MTV, and they decided the puke fumes were airborne pathogens. I was pretty bummed, because we nailed it the first time. The first time I fed a bite to Steve-O, and he puked all over my leg. MTV’s insistence was to have everyone except me wear a Hazmat suit.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: Now you have to heat the omelet to this degree, and you have to be in Hazmat suits. At first we were like, “What? Fuck that. We’re not gonna get in Hazmat suits.” It just sucked the funny right out of it.

SPIKE JONZE: MTV got scared, so they pulled back on promoting the show, and it sort of took the steam out of it for us. It wasn’t worth it.

VAN TOFFLER: We were symbolic of authority. They didn’t like us drawing lines, which ultimately led to the demise of the show and their going as far as they could.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I felt that we couldn’t do a watered-down version of the show, so I quit. In hindsight I don’t know how smart a move that was, because who did I think I was? I hadn’t had any action for 10 years in Holly­wood, and suddenly we have a hit show and I quit?

BRIAN GRADEN:
I can’t speak to what their emotional ride was. I can only say from the MTV side, it was a gold asset. We didn’t need to promote the thing, because no matter where you put it, it got a giant rating. But they didn’t want to do it anymore. We pulled out every tool we had to encourage them to keep doing it. Even a giant amount of money didn’t motivate them to do it.

VAN TOFFLER: We’d launched MTV Films, and I was in search of a sketch movie. Then it hit a bunch of us: “Well, we have the franchise, and it’s called Jackass.”

SPIKE JONZE: Then everybody got excited again: It could be rated R!

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: It was like someone took the chains off. Now we could do all the things we couldn’t do on TV.

JOHN WATERS: Johnny broke his penis, you know. And I thought, How’d you break your penis? God, I’ve never heard of that!

Jackass: The Movie debuted at number one on October 25, 2002, grossing nearly $23 million its first weekend. The New York Times has since called it “probably the most successful plotless movie in American film history.” In 2003 MTV aired Jackass spin-offs with Steve-O and Pontius (Wild Boyz) and Margera (Viva La Bam). Next was a sequel, Number Two. It opened at number one in September 2006, and while it packs the laughs from the start, they save the best for the climax: “Terror Taxi,” in which “Danger Ehren” McGhehey, dressed as an Arab suicide bomber, hails a cab, not knowing the driver (actor Jay Chandrasekhar) is in on the joke—or that his own beard is made of pubes. Jay pulls him out at gunpoint and locks him in the trunk.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: Yeah, when we do pranks, we always try to play it as real as possible, because usually what we’re doing is a little over the top. Jay played it wonderfully, and Ehren just bought it hook, line, and sinker.

JEFF TREMAINE: The original idea was, like, “All right, how can we get someone to eat his own pubic hair?” and I think it was Preston then who said, “Well, what if we make a beard out of it? What if we did a bit where we convinced Ehren that we’re gonna dress him up as a terrorist and glue this pubic hair all over his face?”

“DANGER EHREN” MCGHEHEY (cast member, writer): If I can make the world laugh by putting pubes on my face, fuck it. Pube away.

On February 23, 2008, MTV welcomed the Jackass crew back to television for “Jackassworld.com: 24 Hour Takeover,” to promote the crew’s new Web site. Steve-O, whose substance abuse had gotten out of control, was kicked out of MTV’s studios.

BAM MARGERA: Steve-O was pretty much 24/7 out of his mind. He’d wake up to nitrous balloons, then drink a vodka and grapefruit juice, snort a line of Special K and then a line of coke, and then smoke PCP with weed in it. Seriously, anything you can think of, he would do. He was on this path of pure destruction.

JEFF TREMAINE: Steve-O was spinning off his rails. We were starting to lose him to drugs. Alcohol and drugs.

STEVE-O: I felt like the process of using all this opportunity that came with notoriety was immediately causing me to hurt people I loved.

SHANNA ZABLOW: It was a blurry line, because part of Jackass is partying. We like to go out and get wasted and have a good time. And that line got blurry with Steve-O. It was part of his persona, and what he got paid to do is be that crazy wasted guy. But he crossed the line, and it wasn’t fun anymore. It got really dark and scary.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE:
He was honestly getting pretty close to death. We would have to sit him down and say, “You’ve got to cool it.” We had to have a talk with him for putting a hit out on one of the guys who works at Jackassworld. I was like, “Steve-O, you’ve got to quit putting hits out. Please stop that.” Steve-O wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he was off his nutter then. Most of the time that fell on deaf ears, until the last time, when we took him to the psych ward.

JEFF TREMAINE: We went over and didn’t negotiate with him at all. I didn’t think it was going to work, but we had to at least get him to the hospital. I never fully believed he’d want to get sober. His heroes were all crash-and-burn, like Mötley Crüe. He worshiped them when they were at their worst and disrespected them for getting sober.

STEVE-O: Everyone involved in Jackass has had to put up with me being a real burden, a super-annoying guy, and it’s a blessing for me to be able to work with everybody and not be that guy anymore.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I’m completely blown away by how well he’s doing now—so honestly proud of him and how healthy he is and how he’s helping other people get sober. He’s a strong motherfucker.

BAM MARGERA: It’s actually funny, because he totally does the whole 12-step thing, and one of them is apologizing for all the shit-talking you’ve been doing. He came up on the set and went, “Hey, bro, if I ever talked any shit about you, if you feel bad rabout it, you can totally kick me in the nuts or punch me in the face, ’cause I totally deserve it.” I broke his nose. So I guess that handles that. All is forgiven.

As with the Jaws franchisebefore it, the third Jackass film would be in 3D. This was in 2008, i.e., a pre-Avatar universe.

RYAN DUNN:
When Tremaine called me and said he was thinking about doing another movie and told me he was doing it in 3D, I was apprehensive. I was wary of the idea, just picturing the old red-and-blue glasses and stuff. But once I started seeing the footage, I was blown away.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: It’s like giving chimpanzees a bunch of expensive equipment.

SPIKE JONZE: The funny stuff was that much funnier. The gross stuff was that much grosser.

BAM MARGERA:
It’s the first time anybody has put a movie out that’s 3D that isn’t, like, Avatar or Clash of the Titans. Instead, you’re going to see my dick sneaking up on Chris Pontius while he’s sleeping, and then all of a sudden you’ll see a yellow piss stream coming out of the screen, and you’ll realize it’s my dick pissing on Pontius.

SHANNA ZABLOW: There’s one bit in the new movie called “The Sweatsuit Cocktail.” Preston walks on a StairMaster and starts to sweat. He’s wearing one of those outfits athletes wear to build up sweat. Then Steve-O takes the sweat and drinks it and throws up. Puking still gets me every time. Poo I’ve gotten used to, especially after all these years.

JEFF TREMAINE:
It’s not hard to imagine us going on. Other than the fact that I’ve got to keep the guys alive.

DAVE ENGLAND: Obviously injuries catch up to us, but as far as our creativity and our spirit, they’re strong. I’m not just saying that because I want you to go to the movie. I want you to go there and get 3D shit on your face.

VAN TOFFLER:
Jackass is so much more than a succession of stunts. You couldn’t explain the female appeal of Jackass if it were. It is about a bunch of guys getting off on each other.

RYAN DUNN:
Yeah, you can consider us a gang. We don’t have jackets or anything, but we’ll be family forever.

CHRIS PONTIUS: With everything we’ve done, we’ve all said, “This is the last time,” and something always happens. We get bored and want something adventurous. But I honestly don’t think we’ll do Jackass when we’re 50.

JASON “WEE MAN” ACUÑA:
I think we’ll be like the Rolling Stones, doing it until we’re in our 60s.

BAM MARGERA: If you’re on the set, you’re gonna get messed with, whether you’re cast or crew. I feel so unsafe. Full-blown paranoia. If you’re tired, you can’t even sleep, because you’ll definitely get stun-gunned or peed on. I’m sure I’ll be in a wheelchair by the time I’m 40, if I even make it there.

JOHN WATERS: You know, when I retire I want to go to the Jackass nursing home. That’s where I want to retire.

JEFF TREMAINE: Do I see myself doing it at 70? No, not at all. But that’s not to say I won’t be. We never thought we’d be doing it this long.

JOHNNY KNOXVILLE: I got in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life for this movie. I blew my back out over the years and it was really giving me problems, so I was exercising to get my back better. It’s like wrapping a present for Christmas. You wrap it real nice and neat, and then Christmas morning you just tear the hell out of it.