"Hey, you're sitting in Steve-O's seat," the man next to me said as I took the place indicated by a publicist at last night's New York premiere of Jackass 3D. The movie's co-star was onstage, regaling the crowd with self-punishing anecdotes ("Oh, why'd I have to be Steve-O?"). And as a Jackass virgin, who had somehow missed the MTV stunt show and the first two feature films, I wasn't aware of what Steve-O often wound up sitting in. I found out in the movie's climax, when he is catapulted into the air while sitting on a portable toilet, its considerable refuse showering him as gravity returns him to earth. I wouldn't want to sit in Steve-O's seat.
But millions of fans would or at least want to watch him and the half-dozen or so other regular cast members endure, in fact enjoy, literal s___storms of calculated abuse, pranks and humiliation. Impresario-star Johnny Knoxville also includes pee-storms (the guys get doused in urine rain, seemingly filmed from a urethra-cam) and puke-storms (videographer Lance Bangs is particularly susceptible to vomiting after watching a gross-out prank). If the human body can exude a liquid or solid, these guys will play with it. In one of the more imaginative bits, the hefty Preston Gacy works up a myriad of sweat exercising on a stationary bike while encased in a plastic bag, and the perspiration is collected and consumed as a cocktail.
The Jackass franchise emerged from the fondness of '90s skateboarders for dignity-defying crashes in playgrounds and suburban industrial parks. The movement also speaks to a long tradition of movie maso-comedy, from the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton in silent-picture days to the sublimely self-destructive stunts of Jackie Chan. But the film that Jackass 3D called to my mind especially during scenes highlighting the phallic contortions of Chris Pontius was Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Kirby Dick's 1997 documentary on the performance artist and cystic-fibrosis survivor (until his death at 45) who would nail his penis to a board and sing his own version of a Mary Poppins song: "Supermasochistic Bob has cystic fibrosis/ He should've died when he was young, but he was too precocious.../ A lifetime of infection and his lungs all filled with phlegm/ The CS would have killed him if it weren't for S&M/ Hum-diddle-iddle-iddle I'm gonna die, Hum-diddle-iddle-iddle I'm gonna die...."
Knoxville and the gang have none of Flanagan's artistic or ironic ambitions. Their shenanigans are a hymn to infantilism, to the fascination that babies, and some older males, have for their own waste products. The tendency is manifest everywhere on Comedy Central (a network that lost the original Jackass bidding war to MTV). It appears incessantly in the Tosh.0 videos and often on the higher-IQ shows; just last night, The Colbert Report featured a closeup of an excreting goat. Jackass' unbeatable parlay is mixing this poo fixation with the male love of second-hand violence. Remember that early episode of The Simpsons in which Homer rented a video of Football's Greatest Injuries and, when distracted, moaned, "Awww, you made me miss Joe Thiesmann!"? Jackass is an hour and a half of quarterback-crunching mayhem. The difference is that Knoxville's nudniks volunteer for the slaughter.
All the ingenuity of the movie directed by Jeff Tremaine with second-unit help from executive producer Spike Jonze is invested in creating the bits. Except for an occasional costume flourish, like the powder-blue prom tuxedo Knoxville wears as he steers a jet ski into a garden hedge, the film is basic docu-primitivism. So are the "performances." No masters of the bon mot, the Jackasses emerge from a "Lamborghini Tooth Pull" or a short, painful game of "Beehive Tetherball" with groans and sheepish curses. Veterans of the series tell me that much of the new movie offers mere variations on what's gone before. Jackass 3D's one true, if predictable, innovation is in the virtual spraying of its goggles-wearing audience with effluence, notably in Steve-O's big Porta-Potty deluge. A pity the scene wasn't in Smell-O-Vision.
On Tosh.0, Daniel Tosh detoxifies the sadism of watching video carnage with an adorable brashness; he makes malevolence angelic. Similarly, Knoxville and his team bring a defiant cheerfulness to their venture; the gang's idiocy is both self-aware and somehow innocent. Their gags have the anachronistic simplicity of pre-CGI stunts, when daredevils risked their lives to make an audience go "Wow!" Like those reckless, anonymous heroes, the Jackasses stand in front of charging rams, bulls and buffaloes or in back of a donkey, trying to pin its tail all for your movie pleasure, and their… well, I don't care to delve too deeply into the motives of the Knoxvillians. That would be like my checking, as the lights came up at the end of last night's screening, to see what was on Steve's seat.