During this never ending pandemic, many have found comfort in films and television. For some it was reruns of sitcoms like The Office or Friends. For others it was childhood favorites like The Princess Diaries or Victorious. For me, my comfort food during this pandemic has been the Jackass films. I don’t say this ironically either and I am not alone in this with many expressing genuine nostalgia and excitement when it was announced that Jackass 4 will be released in September of this year. With the excitement this news brought and the fact that Jackass has gone on to become such a household name, this raises the question: is there art in the stupidity of Jackass?
Jackass has become associated with stupidity and jackass-like behavior as the title suggests, it still remains nostalgic for many people and has become a pop culture landmark for 2000s culture. Jackass, originally being part of the skateboard magazine, Big Brother, before getting picked up by MTV in the year 2000, was Youtube before Youtube. The magazine produced vhs tapes of the stunts that were sold in skate shops, where audiences would watch people perform cheap and stupid stunts. It was the same effect as watching Youtube compilation videos but with the added bonus that it was typically a recurring cast of characters like Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and others. There were also the added bonuses of a better budget once MTV picked it up and the sheer guts of it’s cast.
The Jackass stunts, from putting fireworks onto a shopping cart to playing tetherball with a beehive, were the type of teenaged stupidity that comes from suburban boredom. That boredom where your small town doesn’t have much to offer except for a shopping outlet and run down Blockbuster so the teenage boys decide to make their own dangerous fun, typically being stunts that can be found in an episode of Jackass that warrants the “don’t try this at home” disclaimer. With so many of the stunts in Jackass so closely following the stunts teenage boys have the means of performing, like glueing your hand to your friend’s chest hair and giving yourself papercuts in the webs of your toes, Jackass is arguably the most accurate representation of that small town boredom, where you perform “life or death” stunts with your friends to entertain each other and feel alive.
While the Jackass series and movies are considered lowbrow, lowbrow is still an art movement. The Lowbrow movement arguably started in the nineteen sixties during the rise of underground comix, graffiti art, and punk rock. They focussed on the crude, the vulgar, and anything that was rebellious towards the law thus mainly appealing to teenagers, stoners, and everyone in between. This was also seen in the films at the time such as the works of John Waters, the king of filth himself. This idea of lowbrow art also was on the rise in the nineties with series like Beevis and Butthead, the independent film movement, and skateboard culture hitting the mainstream. This was seen all throughout the skateboarding magazine Big Brother, from satirical articles to poop jokes, and this transcended into the Jackass series, where one stunt involved painting someone’s butt to look like a volcano thus their poop looked like a volcanic eruption (*chef’s kiss*). Jackass is as lowbrow as it can get, with many often joking at the time that Jackass was definite proof that each generation was getting dumber and dumber, but there is nothing inherently wrong with lowbrow. Lowbrow art is even often associated with more positive feelings of joy and a carefree nature, two emotions that we can often lose track of the older we get.
The debate between lowbrow and highbrow art can often be one in terms of class, with people associating highbrow art with expensive broadway plays and galleries and lowbrow art to those that are more accessible to the mainstream like television series. Jackass was always attributed to the lower working class lowbrow, heck even the theme song is just the strings of a country song. This is obviously an elitist way of thinking though and simply isn’t true. Spike Jonze, the director of such highly acclaimed films like Being John Malcovich and Her, produces all the Jackass projects even appearing in many stunts. The idea of an Academy Award winning director who is typically associated with high quality films being part of a bunch of guys who live for toilet humor breaks down the very binary between highbrow and lowbrow, showing that the two can exist together in harmony. To say that highbrow is only for the elite is to say that only the elite feel profound existential feelings while to say lowbrow is only for the “poor and dumb” as the stereotype often goes is just mean and forgets that everyone likes to have a little rule breaking fun.
What even is the appeal of gross out lowbrow art? Oftentimes it can be in that disturbing “I can’t look away” factor, where you cringe in your seat but want to see where this all goes. Sometimes it is because you are living vicariously, where you know you would never put yourself in these situations but are morbidly curious to live through them. In the case of me during quarantine, I felt a weird comfort with watching a group of friends laughing at one another and living as if it was their last day. That alone could be a reason to see the lowbrow as art, it may be stupid and idiotic at times, but it finds comfort and fun for the audience. It isn’t philosophical and it won’t change the world, but it reminds us that it is fully okay if we stop worrying every once and a while and having some fun, even if that fun involves something you should definitely not try at home. So, if you feel like shutting your brain off and laughing like you’re back in your high school days of being stupid, don’t feel embarrassed about putting on a Jackass movie, your mental health may even thank you.
The ‘Jackass’ film collection is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.