Three bullwhips, 20 rolls of bubble wrap, four croquet mallets, two flesh-colored thongs, two pairs of size-60 pants, one jockstrap and cup, two plastic babies, one briefcase with several thousand volts of built-in shock power, one first-aid kit and one straitjacket are pushed to the side of a Holiday Inn hotel room in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where P.J. Clapp is about to start his working day. These things are the raw materials of his trade. Soon he will transform them into “magic,” as he sometimes calls what he does, and soon thereafter this magic will find its way to the public, by way of MTV, on the show Jackass, which is currently among the most popular cable programs in the country, with about three million viewers tuning in each Sunday night to watch Clapp, who goes by the name of Johnny Knoxville on TV, and a few other Jackass regulars do what they do best. They swallow goldfish and barf them up; they dive into stinking hills of elephant poo; they strap on electric dog collars and zap themselves silly; they get pummeled by professional boxers named Nigel; they drink sludge-thick bong water; they try to jump the L.A. River on roller skates and mangle their ankles; they listen as a doctor intones, “You’ve got a lot of healing to do.”
At the moment, Clapp is hunched over in a chair, gripping a bottle of water and trying to avoid the question of why, for instance, he would strap on a Kevlar bulletproof vest, buffer the impact zone with a few issues of Hustler and Leg World, and shoot himself with a .38-caliber handgun. He’s a friendly, scrappy-looking guy who wears black high-tops, baggy green trousers and a tattered black leather jacket. He’s got a twangy-soft Southern accent, messed-up, cowlick-riven hair and blue eyes that sometimes twitch. Occasionally he puffs on an asthma inhaler. Later today, he will get bashed by a croquet mallet. After that, he’ll rocket off the side of a hill in a wheelbarrow. And then, in a while, he and his Jackass pals will rent golf carts and go at each other willy-nilly. So all in all, it’s pretty clear he’s no weenie. But corner him with the question of why he’s driven to behavior that often makes his wife furious and his mom sob (and his dad, it must be said, laugh) – it’s almost too much for him.
He crosses his legs, uncrosses them. His eyes begin to wander, twitching a little more than usual. He opens his mouth to speak, urps a few syllables, then clams up again. He’s sitting there adrift for the longest time, until at last he decides what to say.
“Well, I guess I don’t really intellectualize it,” he says thickly, and with that he’s ambling out the door, moving toward a big Ford van filled with today’s props of self-destruction. Later on, he’ll maybe end up in the emergency room, maybe in the courthouse, maybe in both. But you can be sure of one thing: By the time the day’s over, there will have been very little deep thinking done by Clapp. As Clapp himself sometimes likes to say, “Fuck that. Let’s get some chili and beer, and then I’ll go hump a cow.”
Clapp sits in the back of the van, behind his shades, rattling the pages of a newspaper. His recent success on Jackass, which first aired on MTV in October, has led to even more recent successes at getting roles in movies. Already he is co-starring with some pretty big names – Sarah Jessica Parker and Harry Connick Jr. in Life Without Dick, and Tim Allen and Rene Russo in Big Trouble – and getting paid increasingly large amounts to do so: For The Tree, his third movie, which will start shooting in a few weeks, he’s reportedly taking home $1 million. He says he doesn’t know how long Jackass can last – he plans to bow out earlier rather than later – but for at least another 16 episodes, the number that MTV has ordered for the coming season, he’s totally committed. In November, the Jackass crew went to Florida to shoot segments with the great Steve-O, former Ringling Brothers clown and present champion of any stunt that involves puking, while Jackass satellite crews worked with urban-kayaking specialist Dave England in San Francisco and usually-butt-naked skateboarder Chris Pontius in San Luis Obispo, California. In a few months, the entire gang will gather in New Mexico and travel the state in an RV, no doubt making a mess of things. But for the next few days, Clapp is causing trouble here in the run-down suburban blandscape of West Chester, Pennsylvania, which is home to three of his other Jackass sidekicks, Bam Margera, 21, Ryan Dunn, 21, and Brandon Dicamillo, 25.
When the van pulls up to the Margera house, which lies across the street from a sewage-treatment plant, Clapp steps out, takes a deep breath of the slightly foul air, grins, says, “I love it!” and heads for the porch. Inside, there’s Ryan, Brandon and Bam, as well as Bam’s brother Jess, Jackass executive producer and co-creator Jeff Tremaine, Jackass line producer Michelle Klepper, cameramen Mike Ballard and Knate Gwaltney (who is also Clapp’s cousin), and, of course, Mom and Dad Margera – nice, warm and welcoming April, a hairdresser, and bearded, big-bellied Phil, who bakes pies for the local Acme supermarket. It’s a large gang stuffed into a small living room. Half of them are about to play polo on BMX bikes; they’re getting dressed in riding boots, jodhpurs and polo helmets, manfully flicking their riding crops. The other half stands around chuckling. Then the conversation turns to what can and cannot be shown of a Jackass nature on MTV.