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Johnny Knoxville’s Last Rodeo

As he prepares to release his own closing Jackass movie, the stuntman takes stock of a surprisingly long, hilariously painful, and unusually influential career.

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Johnny Knoxville’s Last Rodeo

The other afternoon, Johnny Knoxville came across a relic from his previous buried in a drawer at home. "I found a packet of those things in the home," he explained. "What do you call it? I can not recall what they had been called." He paused, searching for the word.

Eventually, he discovered it. "They're pretty sizable--about the diameter of a No. 2 pencil."

This type of thing now happens to Knoxville--run-ins with all the random detritus of an outstanding career. "You'll find arm casts, matters like that," he said. "Bunch of gauze in this drawer. Arm cast over there." A set of extra-long prop testicles, from his movie Bad Grandpa, are mounted like a work of art in his home office.

The catheters are remnants of this timeback in 2007, he snapped his urethra in a bike stunt gone wrong. "I was not even supposed to do anything," he explained. "I think I just showed up that afternoon and a person kind of threw out that I should try and backflip a bike. I am like,'Oh, yeah, I got that.'" Knoxville couldn't really ride a motorcycle. But he hadn't been famous by saying no to things, so he jumped on the motorcycle without a second thought. "It sounded like it could possibly be some fun--and a few footage," he said. "'Let us give it a whirl. What's the worst that could happen? It is not like I'm going to split my dick or something.'"

The ensuing crash forced Knoxville to survive, for the next 3 decades, the twice-daily self-administration of a catheter. But even in the immediate wake of the crash, he was looking on the bright side. "At the time, I was like,'I can't wait to tell this story,'" he explained. And really, for a long time he's thankfully plucked The Time Johnny Knoxville Broke His Penis out of his record of outrageousness. "Everybody loves a fantastic story," he advised me.

The thing about Knoxville's adventures and mishaps, though, is they render a number of his most vulnerable moments people. "I feel like the harms, I discuss with people," he explained. "BecauseI mean, they sort of occur in a public manner."

He has been offering up his pain in this fashion for 20 decades, ever since he flung himselfhuman-cannonball-style, in the middle ring of the fantastic American pop-cultural circus. Jackass, that the stunts-and-pranks television show that he cocreated and starred on, ran for just three seasons on MTV, but with time it came to occupy a remarkably influential position within our collective consciousness--an unlikely achievement given what the series consisted of. It was also grotesque: They lit firecrackers held in their butts. Plus it was bafflingly, horrifyingly brave: They stood in front of walls while jai alai players whipped oranges at them and confronted with a famously ornery bull called Mr. Mean. Although the series could have been expected to amount to very little, it spawned spin-offs and led to three blockbuster films, bringing wealth and fame to the eccentrics who inhabited the throw. And stranger still, this once seemingly frivolous spectacle that arose from the margins of amusement seemed to forecast in which a huge chunk of our civilization has been headed.

When he started in this line of work, Knoxville paid small attention to growing older. "Half-ass stuntmen don't really think longterm," he explained.

This fall, the fourth of the Jackass films will be published, a project that Knoxville told me will be his final contribution to the franchise. After we talked, he was finishing work on the film, marveling at the absurdity of what he had just put his entire body and feeling fortunate to be vertical. "You can only take so many chances before something irreversible occurs," he explained. "I feel as I have been extremely lucky to take the chances I have taken and still be walking about."

The entire Jackass endeavor has always been driven by Knoxville's obsession with getting what he calls excellent footage, that uncooked stunt substance together with the power to shock audiences and tickle them too. Now, at 50, and with the conclusion of Jackass in view, he has a dearly earned sense of everything that footage added around --and perhaps what it all may have cost. "I know what I signed up for," he said at one stage in our discussions. "I wrote the stunts."

His father was 19 when his very own mind turned white, therefore Knoxville was prepared. And for nearly 20 decades, he kept up a faithful coloring regimen that lasted until the pandemic hit. When Knoxville requested his wife to give his hair a buzz, he wasn't completely surprised by what it revealed. "I knew I was gray under there," he told me. Knoxville and I had been sitting at a booth in L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel. "But I didn't know how gray."

The truth, as Knoxville's more than 3 million Instagram followers learned soon after his wife finished up, was: very gray. However, appealingly so! On the world he seemed like an attractive older-man variant of Johnny Knoxville, avatar of eternal childhood. To himself he looked a bit more like...himself. "I really liked it," he said.

Always trim, Knoxville is even slimmer in person than you recall him. The punk-inflected uniform he has been wearing for two decades--Dickies, red Chuck Taylors, vintage tee--has the charming effect of underscoring his advancing age. For all the torture he had exposed his body over time, he advised me between bites of a burger, he feels pretty good these days:"After all, I walked right into this interview on my own and I am eating like a big boy. I am fairly happy."

When he began in the line of work that would make him famous, Knoxville paid small attention to growing older. "Half-ass stuntmen do not really think longterm," he said. Shattered bones, dented teeth, trashed ankles, and a litany of additional medical hassles were left handed. In some way, they were sort of the stage --trophies amassed in the pursuit of fantastic footage. Knoxville's longtime colleague Steve-O said to me that he heard that Knoxville"was unable to make left turns in a car" after taking a bad fall during a stunt stunt. In fact, Knoxville told me, this particular aftereffect traces back to the filming of the initial Jackass film, in 2002, when he had been knocked out by the almost 400-pound fighter Butterbean. "I got vertigo then, along with the concussion," Knoxville said. "So when I'd drive around corners, then I'd just begin to get the spins." I inquired if he ceased driving. "No, I simply drove diminished," he advised me. "They gave me a medicine to correct it eventually."

For the Jackass group, the injuries got worse with time. "Filming Jackass at this age is much the same as it ever had been, with two significant gaps," Steve-O said. "Our bones split substantially easier. Plus it takes less to knock us entirely unconscious. Plus more time to wake up."

For all those reasons, along with the four concussions he endured while shooting 2018's Action Point, Knoxville never thought a fourth Jackass movie was at the cards. "I understood my stunt profession was winding down after that film," he explained.

Nevertheless, various cast members could now and then email the remainder of the squad lobbying to allow them all to get back into their oversized shopping cart. Each time, Knoxville resisted. "I did not feel it. I didn't feel the need or the desire," he explained. "It is a real psychological thing."

There were bodily concerns also. "I can not manage to have any more concussions," he had concluded. "I can not put my loved that."

Knoxville wasn't alone. "I frankly thought the boat had long since sailed, and I was kind of fine with this," Steve-O said. "Every movie that we ever made was that the fucking last one. And not just the previous one, however, declared as the previous one."

However, ever since 2010's Jackass 3D wrapped, Knoxville had been quietly turning thoughts within his head, jotting down brief descriptions of stunt theories and hammering himself the notes together with"Jackass 4 thought" in the topic line. Eventually he felt himself getting the itch and asked his assistant to compile those ideas to a document. "It was thick," he remembered. "Ten years' worth of ideas--such as, 40, 50 pages of thoughts." Knoxville met with Jeff Tremaine, a cocreator of the Jackass franchise and the director of the prior movies, and told him that he was finally ready for one more go.

Tremaine, though, had his own worries. He told me he wondered,"How are people going to accept it? Like, do folks want to see a bunch of mid sized dudes kick each other in the dicks?" Steve-O had graver reservations. "I thought going into Jackass 4, after everything we have been through, and what we've built, all it takes is one stupid fucking accident to only erase it. Just turn it all into a drawback. To be like,'Oh, these fucking dumb assholes. He said. "But we went ahead and fucking did it."

About halfway through our meal, Knoxville piped up. "Hello, sir!" He shouted over my shoulder, sounding like the youthful Johnny Knoxville who welcomed viewers to every episode of Jackass--which is to say, like a carnival barker after a weeklong bender. "Good to see you! Wow! Man, how are you?"

I swung around to discover he was talking to the actor John C. Reilly, seated alongside us on the terrace. His huge hat sat beside him. After both had exchanged pleasantries and caught up a bit, Knoxville explained he had gotten to understand Reilly from the'90s, through Knoxville's then neighbor Heather Graham. Thinking back to those days appeared to animate him.

He had come to Los Angeles from Tennessee after high school with little more than the company sense that he ought to become renowned. Freshly arrived, he fell in with a neighborhood of striving young celebrities, all gunning for first victories, still unsure of what those successes would look like or lead to. He began writing for magazines--not the glossies however scuzzier fare. One was Bikini; another was Big Brother, an infamously anarchic skateboarding mag. "Composing gave me confidence as a person," he said. "It was just like, I don't have to just worry about trying to create it. I can do this and feel satisfied and engaged." Loosened up, he began booking commercials.

Nevertheless, it was the writing work that switched him on and allowed him to provide for his newborn daughter. (The vest test required him to shoot himself with a pistol.) Jeff Tremaine, the editor, assigned the story and suggested that he also videotape his efforts.

Knoxville survived and the magazine published a couple of videos that included his stunts. The tapes made their way about Hollywood, and Knoxville, Tremaine, along with their manager friend Spike Jonze revealed a variation to MTV, in which executives said they wanted to build a show around this type of thing. Jonze was amazed. "[It was] an absurd idea that somebody was going to give us money to do this," he informed me in an email.

What followed, Knoxville nevertheless can't really believe. "Everything happened so quickly --I do not understand how," Knoxville said. "We had been on the atmosphere, and evaluations exploded, and I'm on the cover of Rolling Stone. It only happened in a minute."

I cannot describe how powerfully it reordered my sense of what was amusing; nor can I express how quickly it permeated the basic grammar of my friendships. The first stunt that grabbed my attention, I told Knoxville, was a comparatively simple one: Nutball, in which participants strip to their panties, sit with their legs splayed, and take turns lobbing a racquetball in one another's crotches. Should you flinched, you dropped. If you did not flinch, you wonbut also, you dropped.

He howled, momentarily flooded with nostalgia. "Me and my buddy Kevin Scruggs made that up when we were 10 in my parents' living space "

In so many ways, Jackass was more than this: the type of shit boys do to make each other laugh, extended into 22 minutes. His costars were a rowdy group of fuckups: both skaters and stunt actors and one huge man and one Wee Man and, at Steve-O, one Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College graduate with an easy gag reflex. They seemed to really love one another--but to only be able to prove that love through increasingly baroque types of torture.

What they constructed was possibly the most effective show in the history of television: Bits were more than a moment or two long, and some of the strongest topped out at 15 minutes. It had been wall-to-wall mayhem.

It had been easy at the time to spell out Jackass as lowest-common-denominator amusement, a weak nadir at TV's race to the bottom. With time, however, it became clear that the series was operating at the intersection of a number of historical American traditions. Knoxville's outlaw influences were present also. Spike Jonze explained he and Tremaine and Knoxville hadn't discussed how the stunts might be introduced on the series, so Knoxville improvised what could become a signature opening to each segment. "Only later, I remember listening to Johnny Cash Live, and hearing Johnny Cash state,'Hi, I'm Johnny Cash and this really is"Folsom Prison Blues,"' and a lightbulb went off.

Jackass disclosed that the nature of fame was changing in early-aughts America--that you could become famous by doing whatever it took to maintain an audience's interest.

In the middle of it all, of course, was Knoxville, handsome and chatty and willing to both suffer and inflict enormous indignities. "He had been the first one from all people who was able to communicate his ideas to the camera," Tremaine informed me. "I believe that the fact he is the least fucking coordinated man ever is exactly what makes his stunts so astonishing," he explained. "So many of us grew up on a skateboard, kind of creating a natural instinct for falling down. Knoxville does not have any of that, so when Knoxville drops down, it is like, it's devastating." (To be fair, Knoxville is very elastic, which he thinks helps him compensate for a confessed lack of coordination. Later, while conducting a Zoom telephone from his office chair, he'd pull his left leg behind his head to show.)

However, Knoxville brought something else into the series, Steve-O said--a kind of unimpeachable courage. "There's nothing else about the cast who's ever going to roll the dice with their own life such as this," he explained. It is so counterintuitive. ... You've got your main man not just not with a stunt double, but not only doing his own things, but putting himself in the most reckless jeopardy that you can. It is just so fucking backward, you understand?"

The star happened to be better at accepting the abuse than his psycho castmates basically guaranteed the show's success. It might have been hard for it to not make television history.

Instantly Jackass became a cultural lightning rod. Senator Joe Lieberman called for MTV to change or cancel the series, citing a spate of teenagers that suffered injuries after copying notable stunts. In accordance with Tremaine, the network responded. For example, he states, MTV stuck the crew with an OSHA representative, who, on a single shoot, insisted a cast member's"puke omelet"--the recipe involves vomiting the components of stated omelet to a frying pan--be cooked to a safe temperature. Frustrated, Knoxville stopped under a year following the first period had aired. "It just made it impossible to proceed," he said.

They had managed to film only 24 episodes along with a special, but MTV recycled the material endlessly. ("For ten decades," Knoxville said.) Despite its brevity, the show was able to graze, or even forecast, lots of emerging cultural tendencies. It helped accelerate MTV's shift to reality-based content. Hollywood began to throw cash at movies --Old School, Measure Brothers, The Hangover--about stunted, self-thwarting guys. Platforms such as YouTube, Vine, and TikTok, that might assemble billion-dollar businesses atop clips of people doing stupid things, were years off.

Knoxville told his therapist he wasn't interested in exploring the portion of him that wanted to do stunts. "I know that needs looking at," he said. "But I did not wish to break the device "

But perhaps the most fascinating thing Jackass disclosed was that the nature of fame was shifting in early-aughts America. When Kim Kardashian was hardly out of high school, men such as Knoxville and Steve-O and Bam Margera and Chris Pontius were proving that you could become famous by doing whatever it took to hold an audience's interest. Steve-O and Pontius acquired their own show, Wildboyz, that a nature-inflected take on Jackass. Margera got one too, focusing on his attempts to terrorize his suburban-Pennsylvania friends. All had come with their fame honestly--by accepting as much abuse as they could gut and trusting people liked it.

And people really, really liked it. After departing MTV, Knoxville, Tremaine, and Jonze reconvened the crew for a film. It pulled in nearly $80 million. To do it, Knoxville says, they covered it stunt . "We needed some silly bit," Knoxville recounted. "I think that it was, like, Pontius was likely to dress like the devil and manage snakes in one of the Pentecostal churches. Plus it was going to be, for example, $5 million to insure. We're like,'Okay, we are not doing this piece!' You hear that we are going to be number one, and it is simply absurd.

In 2006, Jackass Number Two made nearly $85 million. From 2010, when Jackass 3D over doubled that figure, the Jackass-ification of pop culture was more or less complete. If the money shifted the guys, they didn't show it. "I remember one time I went to his office," explained Jimmy Kimmel, one of Knoxville's good pals. "It had been Knoxville and Spike Jonze and a producer. And they all had black eyes. I of course wondered why they had black eyesand they clarified that they had to take their lot ID photos--the little card which gets you on the production lot--they wanted to be sure they had black eyes to get their own pictures. They punched each other in the facearea. For an ID! This isn't part of the movie or the show. This is just three crazy men and women."

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