Jackass the Man

Philip John Clapp should be smiling. He's the star and producer behind Jackass the Movie, one of the hottest films in America right now. In just the past two years Clapp has transformed himself from a struggling Hollywood actor whose career peak was a Bud Ice commercial into Johnny Knoxville, an internationally known cultural icon.

Tell it to someone else.

Seated at a lunchtime table at Preston's, in South Beach's Loews Hotel, the 31-year-old Knoxville is the living embodiment of haggard. Operating on only a few hours of shuteye, he's sporting a scruffy beard, a baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, which do little to mask the effects of an all-night Washington Avenue bar crawl.

"What do I want next?" he repeats aloud, removing his sunglasses to rub his bloodshot eyes. "I wanna get some sleep."

The conversation is taking place the day before Jackass's opening, and the film's executives at MTV Films and Paramount have Knoxville on a grueling promotional schedule, from crack-of-dawn radio appearances to lunch meetings like this one. Not that he's complaining. "It's pretty brutal," he sighs, "but compared to digging a ditch, I'd rather do this."

To be sure, Knoxville's ditch-digging days are long gone. He now reportedly commands a cool one million dollars per film, snagging roles in such blockbusters as Men in Black II because studio executives believe his devoted fans will seek out any feature in which he appears.

And he's instantly recognized in public, whether it's at a chic Los Angeles nightspot, here at Preston's, or inside his favorite Miami Beach haunt, the decidedly gritty Mac's Club Deuce. Still, it's an odd kind of fame. "Girls will throw lit cigarettes at me," he says, shaking his head in wonder. "I've had girls come up to me at the Deuce and say, Oh, I love your show!' Then they haul off and hit me in the mouth."

Pretty bizarre. But then Knoxville's Jackass is a pretty bizarre phenomenon. When it first began airing on MTV in October 2000 as a 30-minute program, Knoxville and his crew of skate-punk pals took both reality programming and gleeful masochism to new levels. The cast included 28-year-old Steve-O, who left the University of Miami after a single semester for the more academically intriguing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College; Bam Margera, 23 years old, a professional skateboarder; and 28-year-old Chris Pontius, usually clad in nothing but a leopard-print thong -- all acting like, well, jackasses.

Episodes would feature these characters flying off their skateboards into walls, shooting each other with stun guns, immersing themselves face-first in tanks of stinging jellyfish, sitting inside a much-used Porta-Potty as it is flipped upside down, and re-creating Cool Hand Luke's hard-boiled-egg-eating contest with predictably messy results. Unsettling? At times. Squirm-inducing? Oh yeah. And also very, very funny.

Jackass quickly became MTV's top-rated show (prior to The Osbournes), but it wasn't just Americans who were tuning in. MTV's various foreign channels began showing a subtitled Jackass and garnering a similar response. "The show is huge in Latin America," says Linda Alexander, MTV Latin America's senior vice president of communications. Alexander is at something of a loss to explain Knoxville's south-of-the-border appeal, but she does know how to utilize his crossover potential. That's the reason Knoxville was a featured presenter at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, held at the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater last month.

But Knoxville's appearance on the awards show wasn't just an enticement for Latin viewers; it also was a draw for the American audiences Alexander hoped would tune into the show's domestic broadcast on MTV proper, looking for the star amid the Spanish-language ceremonies and the unfamiliar bands.

Knoxville himself is loath to deconstruct his worldwide attraction: "It says more about them than it does us." Prodded to elaborate, he shrugs, "All around the world people love to see you get half-naked and wrecked. It's pretty universal. You could show Jackass without dialogue most of the time. If you run into a wall and fall down, people laugh."

As for the so-called Latin music revolution he's been roped into, in his mind it's nothing more than a free trip to Miami. "They told me what award I was presenting, but I wasn't paying attention," he laughs.

That much was clear during the actual awards show. To thunderous applause Knoxville and fellow Jackass members Ryan Dunn and Jason "Wee Man" Acuña strode out to the podium, abandoned their mangled try at reading their Spanish lines off a teleprompter, and simply raised their arms in triumph. The show's emcee then placed a boombox near the microphone and played a phone message from Chilean rockers La Ley, who apologized for being stuck at the Dallas airport and missing the event. Just off-mike, it sounded an awful lot like Dunn muttered into Knoxville's ear: "Why didn't we think of that?"

In any case, Knoxville was willing to be a team player and oblige MTV producers with some promotion, as long as they realized that in a few weeks this whole ride would be over.

"Jackass is done," he says emphatically. "This is it." No more golf-cart bumper cars, no more strapping bundles of bottle rockets to his roller skates for a Wile E. Coyote effect. There will be no Jackass 2. From here on, Knoxville will only be taking movie roles that actually involve -- gasp -- serious acting, such as the forthcoming Grand Theft Parsons, a biopic of the legendary country-rocker Gram Parsons.

"The stuff I've done so far is shit," he freely admits of his parts alongside Will Smith, Tim Allen, and Rene Russo in such major studio efforts as Men in Black II and Big Trouble. "The first two or three films I took, I was just trying to get experience. Now I'm trying to focus on the project."

And his prankster persona? "It's best to stop while people still want to see it, while it's still good," he muses. "Look at the Rolling Stones. People used to talk about them as the greatest rock and roll band ever. If they only would've stopped twenty years ago! Or The Andy Griffith Show -- first they lose Barney, then they lose Andy, and the show's still going on. What's the point?"

For the moment, however, people clearly still want to see it, and that has become the Hollywood business story of the season. Made on a shoestring five-million-dollar budget, Jackass the Movie was number one at the box office its opening weekend. With ticket sales still strong and more than $59 million grossed to date, the film is likely to become one of Paramount's most profitable pictures of the year -- and that's even before video sales kick in. Meanwhile reruns of the television episodes continue to pull in impressive ratings on MTV, and the soundtrack is climbing the charts. Could a Johnny Knoxville action figure be far off?

"MTV knows I'm done," Knoxville insists. He corrects himself, his voice rising with irritation, careful to close any loophole: "They know we're done. At some point they might come back and say, 'Will you do a sequel?' And we'll say No."

That decision thrills Knoxville's wife Melanie, who married him several years before Jackass and who has never sat easily with the show. In fact their six-year-old daughter Madison isn't even allowed to watch certain episodes. "I never tell my wife what I'm doing because she gets worried," Knoxville explains. "I just go off to work, do what I do, and then come home in a cast. Or I call her from the emergency room -- it'd be great if they gave out frequent flier miles there." He begins rattling off a series of concussions, sprains, and fractures the way someone else might recite a grocery list. Still running down his injuries, Knoxville casually adds, "I got stabbed in a fight," but stops short while he gauges the reaction. "That wasn't anything to do with the show," he corrects. "That was a friend's bachelor party." Arching an eyebrow, he deadpans, "It was a really good party."

All this began very simply for the Knoxville, Tennessee native. After moving to Hollywood in 1990, the eighteen-year-old drama-school dropout tried his hand at acting, a Jack Kerouac-inspired stab at the Great American Novel, even a brief attempt at studying Eastern philosophy at community college. It was while reading the newspaper one morning that he discovered his true calling. Police had subdued a particularly unruly criminal with a blast of pepper spray. Knoxville wondered: What exactly did that feel like? And wouldn't the answer make for a great magazine story?

The budding journalist was unable to find an editor who'd bite -- except for Jeff Tremaine, then heading the irreverent skateboarding bible Big Brother. In addition to writing about the pepper-spray experience, Tremaine suggested that Knoxville also videotape his handiwork.

Thus a star was born: Knoxville not only filmed himself receiving a facial blast of Mace, he upped the ante by strapping on a bulletproof vest and having an accomplice shoot him square in the chest with a .38 caliber bullet.

Not all the bits were violent, but self-ridicule was key. In one segment Knoxville visits a gym with a strategically placed dildo creating a pup tent in his sweatpants. A hidden camera captures the awkward reactions of those working out around him. The more Knoxville tries to make eye contact, asking for a spotter as he hefts his weights above his bulging pants, the more panicked the rest of the gym becomes. Sophomoric? Perhaps. But very, very funny.

Commercially released by Big Brother, these videotaped gags quickly became underground faves. Tremaine's high school buddy Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich as well as countless buzz-generating music videos for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim, and Daft Punk, signed on as co-producer for a television version. A bidding war ensued and MTV was the victor.

Jackass didn't remain an underground sensation for long. By early 2001, its heightened profile brought with it controversy. Several copycat incidents grabbed headlines, in particular those of two teens who attempted to mimic Knoxville's "human barbecue" stunt, and suffered second- and third-degree burns in the process.

"It was made clear that the performer of the stunt was wearing a flame-retardant suit, that the stunt was dangerous, and that it should not be tried at home," MTV president Van Toffler said at the time. In the segment, Knoxville donned a "burn suit" commonly used in action films, tied on a pile of steaks, and then had himself rotisseried over a flaming pit. Nearly half the episode was given over to a stern-faced professional stuntman who warned how truly dangerous the act was.

None of this swayed Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a frequent critic of Hollywood's moral compass. In a public letter to MTV parent company Viacom, Lieberman accused the network of gross irresponsibility in not "informing viewers that the performer of the stunt was wearing protective clothing." The senator insisted that MTV either substantially alter or "cancel this exploitative and degrading show."

Despite its move to a later broadcast time, and the addition of extensive warnings after each commercial break, Jackass's youthful insouciance began to falter. A contrite-looking Knoxville opened one episode being solemnly interviewed by MTV News's Kurt Loder. He delivered a heartfelt plea to viewers that they not attempt anything they were about to see.

"We just lost all our momentum," Knoxville says of this period. "The way Washington came down on us, we weren't going to be able to do the show like we had been doing." He pauses, apparently still bothered by the memory, and then concludes sharply: "I quit. I was done." MTV only learned that Jackass's 25th episode was its last by reading Knoxville's frustrated comments in a Tennessee newspaper.

That would seem to have been the end of the Jackass story. But three months later Knoxville's phone rang. "Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine called me about doing a 90-minute version of the show -- just one nutty idea after another," he relates, growing visibly animated as he recounts the moment. "We'd get an R rating. It was wide open! The energy was so high because we could do whatever we wanted! It was PG-13 for TV, but this would be real R."

The project was approved with this sly comment from MTV Films senior vice president David Gale: "We're all going to hell."

Knoxville recalls a preproduction session in which he and his cohorts learned about the digital videocameras they would use to shoot the movie. "Oh, that poor bastard giving us a tutorial on working the cameras," he remembers. "We're sitting around the room punching each other, flicking each other's ears, giving each other wedgies. He just real forlornly said, 'All my life I've wanted to make a film, and you guys are making a film.' It was great! He was so bummed they gave the cameras to idiots."

Or at least idiot savants. "The film looks just as shitty as the TV show," Knoxville continues, "but the cast and crew all have a certain spirit. We're like a band that can't play our instruments well, but we mean it. We make mistakes, but we mean it."

The howls of protest over Jackass's leap from MTV to the big screen aren't coming from lawmakers this time. Instead it's the film critics and cultural pundits who are agonizing over Knoxville's box-office success. The Los Angeles Times's Manohla Dargis conceded the movie was often "embarrassingly funny," but added that "it's unclear why anyone would shell out money to watch a bunch of guys run around in their underwear puking up their guts and, in one explicitly visible instance, soiling their underwear." Moreover Dargis tut-tutted the film's inherent chauvinistic infantilism: "Did I mention that you don't see any women doing this sort of thing?"

A.O. Scott in the New York Times took a similar tack, comparing Jackass to "a documentary version of Fight Club, shorn of social insight, intellectual pretension, and cinematic interest." Yet he still had to admit that it provoked "a spasm of revulsion that mutates into shocked, involuntary laughter ... I assume no responsibility for what happens if you see this film, especially if you have a good time."

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick dispensed with any ambivalence, calling it the worst movie of the year, a label exceeded only by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who termed Jackass "the worst movie ever." In a heated "open letter" to the industry his publication serves, Bart sounded a gross-out call to arms, warning that "the ratings board is going to feel the heat. The studios will buckle. Worst of all, the audiences out there may get turned off." Harkening back to the comedic golden age of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, he couldn't help but note that "from a technical standpoint, [Jackass] would embarrass even a freshman at film school."

Obviously Bart didn't take the time to quiz any actual film students. At Wesleyan University, recently deemed the nation's "hot show-biz alma mater" by Vanity Fair, the reaction to Jackass has been far from negative. "The very mention of the name Jackass reduces my students to giggles," reports Wesleyan assistant film professor Lisa Dombrowski. And yes, several of these budding auteurs have already embarked on their own Jackass-inspired film projects. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times' Dargis may need to re-evaluate her feminist critique.

"The film's opening weekend, I had more women who saw Jackass than men," Dombrowski says. "Part of the appeal is definitely Johnny Knoxville. He's very attractive -- if you happen to go for that Lower East Side hipster look. But there's also something exhilarating about watching people completely let loose of all their inhibitions, disregarding pain, fear, embarrassment, revulsion -- being willing to do anything. That's true whether you're male or female. You can get downright giddy watching these people in Jackass, even if you think it's really stupid."

For parents of Wesleyan students, perhaps wondering just what kind of film education their $37,000 annual tuition payment is buying, Dombrowski sounds a note of reassurance. "Jackass is the type of movie that's easy to dismiss," she explains. "You just say it's stupid, it's gross, there's no plot, it doesn't contribute anything to society. But the question you then have to ask is: So where's the appeal coming from? Why do I find this so funny? What makes it comedic? These are the same type of questions that we ask of comedies by Sturges or Chaplin."

Back at the Beach's Loews Hotel, Knoxville's gaze turns in the direction of nearby Ocean Drive. That street has been the site of several of Jackass's more inspired stunts, particularly one in which Knoxville played an absent-minded father. Loading up his SUV with luggage, he would temporarily place his infant child (a doll) -- buckled inside a car seat -- on the SUV's roof. Then, preoccupied, he'd slowly drive away. A hidden camera would capture startled diners at Ocean Drive's sidewalk cafés, jumping up from their tables and racing after Knoxville, screaming in alarm for him to stop. Cruel? Yes. And hysterical to watch.

"We try not to make asses out of people," Knoxville explains, cracking himself up at the memory. "Ninety-eight percent of the time we want the joke to be on us -- but the baby on top of the car was so funny we had to do it."

There's just something about Miami that brings out this spirit, as with the bit in which Knoxville would bait a fishing line with a dollar bill, cast it in front of the Miami Art Museum, and then let the film roll as passersby made a mad dash for the money. He'd begin reeling the bill in, and sure enough the mark would chase it down Flagler Street every time -- until he came face-to-face with Knoxville, doubled over with laughter.

So was this a Chaplin-esque comment on the nature of art and money? Knoxville rolls his eyes: "I don't intellectualize what we do, why we do it, or how people perceive it." He smirks and wags a finger, chiding, "That's your job. From the first episode, we just wanted to make ourselves laugh, and that's the way we ended it."

Besides, there's a more pressing matter before him. He holds up his right hand, staring in disbelief at the bright blue circle jaggedly tattooed there. The logo is that of the late-Seventies punk outfit the Germs, the result of last night's whiskey-soaked visit to a South Beach tattoo parlor. It's not that he doesn't love the Germs -- self-mutilating, drug-overdosing singer and all. It's just that the uneven circle looks more like a jailhouse tat than the work of a professional. "This was a pretty good idea, huh?" Knoxville cringes, flexing his fingers. He gently touches the circle and grins: "Oh well, there's no going back now."


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