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Steve-O: Death of a Jackass

November 4, 2010
On Halloween, I ventured over to my local cinema with the Missus and a gentlemen who goes by the Holiday-appropriate moniker Snake Conrad. Seeing Jackass 3D was our goal. What follows isn’t a review of the movie; If you’re looking for that, check out C.M.’s positive take here at TBTS

Yes, I enjoyed the majority of the stunts, most of which were as clever as fans have come to expect from this lot. I laughed at Danger Ehren as he whined his way through some questionable dental practices, and I laughed harder at Bam Margera as he cried through another forced dalliance with a mass of writhing snakes. I marveled at Knoxville’s unrelenting need to be trampled by bulls, and I found myself impressed yet again by Dave England’s ability to projectile-shit creatively and profusely. It must also be noted with a measure of awe that the cast and crew produces a truly prodigious amount of vomit. So much so that my gag reflex was greatly suppressed by the fits of laughter it caused me. When something as disgusting as someone–several someones, in fact–throwing up becomes a cue for your own gale-force guffaws, you know that a certain kind of comedy target has been hit square in the bulls. It’s a transformational moment, no matter how base the context: you’re not responding to the punchline, you’re responding to the response to the punchline.

The idea of me enjoying any of the Jackass material, either the MTV series or the movies, would have been unheard of when the franchise began ten years ago. I dismissed it all as worthless nonsense of the lowest possible kind. Too low-brow for even my bad taste. 

But, I was very wrong about the show and the team that performs both on and off the camera. The level of camaraderie and true regard among all involved became something that made the show as much or more watchable than all the crazy–and often inspired and extremely athletic–stunts, gross-out humor, and shots of Pontius’s penis involved in truly frightening exploits. A pretty hefty book could be written just about the psychological underpinnings of what he puts his member through.

But, all this stuff about friendship and feelings rarely occupies the foreground. It’s mostly at the periphery when someone takes a particularly bad spill or really freaks out, or it’s implied by the way segments are edited. In these serious moments, a member of the gang may inquire while still laughing, but rarely does anyone ask, with real concern, “Are you okay?” until after Tremaine hollers “cut.”

However, the more you watch, the more you understand that these guys truly care about one another, no matter how many times Margera pisses on Dunn or Knoxville kicks Wee Man in the nuts and cackles like a pure lunatic (have you ever noticed that everyone, Tremaine included, keeps at least one hand over the family jewels at all times?).

You get glimpses of it here and there, however small, and much of it’s off-screen, but a kind of love amongst the players *has* to be present in order for this thing to have lasted for a decade. As far as implications are concerned, this regard is strongly suggested by the way the boys never seem to take things too personally or carry lasting grudges. It’s common for animals in the wild to strike out at the nearest thing that causes them pain, and yet never once have I seen anyone lash out at another after being the brunt of a prank or biting it during a stunt. That’s pretty remarkable, even if you attribute it to their shared love for masochism and the attendant adrenaline rush that comes from doing things that could easily kill you.

Of course, Bam gets pretty upset when anyone messes with him on a truly personal level, especially if the prank involves snakes, but he’s the biggest asshole on the show: he doesn’t seem to have a problem with torturing his parents–especially beating on Phil–or punching someone dead in the head after dousing them with water (the “Rocky” segments), but he’ll weep and threaten to walk off the set if you capitalize on his biggest fear. Apparently, he’s never heard “turnabout is fair play.” Or, maybe his biggest weakness is having revealed he has a biggest weakness. I prefer to think he’s simply the only member of the gang to be a privileged prick who acts accordingly. He deserves it when they make him cry, and the rest of the bunch knows it (even though they keep him around for his [parents’] access to water and expensive cars). Yet, as much as I’d like to continue criticizing Margera, doing so is straying me from my point here, even if it’s fun.

After a fateful, misspent afternoon watching Jackass Number Two and laughing my ass off, thanks to Snake Conrad, I realized there was more to this show than punks and stunts, or rather that there was more to the punks and the stunts than initially meets the eye. I previously derided them for being disruptive and cruel to the people who occasionally became unwitting straightmen to their antics, but I could tell that, between charming Knoxville, level-headed Tremaine, and fifteen minutes of fame, most ruffled feathers get smoothed well enough.

I started watching the reruns of the show on MTV regularly and I got a sense of the people involved. I started to, well, love the guys after a fashion, and see how they must love and support one another, dudely dudes though they are. I, of course, have been less charitable to self-serving Bam throughout, and I also thought Steve-O to be less redeemable than, say, Pontius, whose Party Boy character went from utterly stupid to uproariously funny in the space of only several viewings of the TV show.

Steve-O: Clean and Sober

Steve-O: Rebirth as a Human Being

But, then something ugly reared its head, most apparently during the “where are they now?” shows and run-up to semi-sequel Jackass 2.5. Steve-O seemed increasingly intoxicated on-screen, especially during the live launch of Jackassworld.com. It had always been clear that some amount of inebriation attended Jackass. Beer bottles would occasionally be seen after the main action of segments ended, and during interviews, the fellas would often be filmed holding opaque cups in their hands. Hell, any fan of the show, however casual, simply assumed that painkillers of several varieties were just par for the course, whether medicinal or recreational in nature. How else would they be able to perform–or recover from-the feats they did?

Steve-O seemed the worse for wear, clearly out of balance in comparison to his mates, and he was increasingly running afoul of the law. His solo stunts, always visceral and heavy-handed, got even less inspired. He seemed dulled, angry, as if he’d lost the boyish charisma that can come from such dare-devilish shenanigans. What had been funny and precocious became sullen and churlish, as if something darker was turning a penchant for giddily avoiding death into an endeavor to secure that fate.

His slurry, scary behavior on the Jackass MTV 24 Hour Takeover worried me, especially given how tight a group he is part of. This guy, no matter how much of a narcissistic jerk, was clearly struggling with chemical and emotional problems. Where were his friends when he needed them? Were they turning a blind eye, enjoying the attention he brought without taking into account how his mood had so obviously changed? After watching the extremely harrowing documentary Steve-O: Demise and Rise, where he is shown in his own home videos engaged in the most frightening, violent drug and alcohol binges while admitting struggles with depression–not to mention his terrible forays into rap–I realized that watching any Jackass product was going to be increasingly difficult for me if his someone didn’t take action to help. 

Thankfully, shortly after this troubling event, Knoxville and others physically removed Steve-O from his home and forced him into rehab in 2008. The short of the story is, although he’s relapsed and attempted suicide (and regrettably joined Dancing With the Stars), he’s been clean for two years now. His friends, most consistently Johnny Knoxville, came through for him.. They let him know he was loved and brought him back from the brink when he most needed it.

So, where does that leave us? It’s November 2010. Jackass 3D is a box-office record-breaking entry in the franchise, if not quite as consistent as Jackass Number Two. Steve-O’s sober, and everyone looks a little older and fatter, except for Knoxville, who looks fitter than everyone else–it should be no shock that he seems to be the most well-adjusted of all while also being the craziest and bravest.

How does Steve-O do in this new era for him? In the movie, he’s thinner than I’ve ever seen him, and his voice is hoarse. In a word, and one I would never expect to use to describe any aspect of the man, he looks and sounds fragile. Like he’s just now awakening to his own mortality, as well as that of others.

During a segment where he paints himself to blend in with a colorful background in a failed attempt to “escape” yet another bull’s potentially crippling attention, Knoxville gets hit hard and then nearly kicked in the head. He’s clearly hurt, and it could have been much worse. The camera pans over to the Jackass boys’ reaction. Many of the faces register some concern amid nervous laughter, but Steve-O, with his brow furrowed and nearly wringing his hands, is clearly worried. After announcing one of his own stunts, where he’s unavoidably going to be hit between the legs by way of a batting practice device, he plaintively asks in his strained voice, “Why do I have to be Steve-O?” It sounds like a question he’s asked before, but finally, ironically, in a much more constructive way.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off him throughout the movie. I constantly assessed his mood, his moves, for any hints of what has befallen or has yet to pass. I have to say that the vulnerable, tentative Steve-O of 2010, at this point, is nothing like the fearless stuntman of segments past. I also have to say that this is something to celebrate. If he stays clean and finds his way to lasting contentedness, there will be no need to lament the death of the jackass we once knew, for in its place will be a true human being, a feeling and caring person, with a lot of potential to entertain us and find fulfillment for himself.

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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink
    November 4, 2010 2:53 pm

    Why go to see Jackass in 3D when you have the aforementioned Snake Conrad already in your presence?

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