There’s one on every playground — the kid who takes the double-dare. You know the type: They eat worms, drink mud or jump off a speeding merry-go-round without a second thought. They do what it takes to be the boldest — sometimes getting hurt, sometimes not, and never caring either way. Peals of laughter and the respect of their awed, grossed-out peers is their prize. The patron saint of these misguided children has arrived, and his name is Johnny Knoxville, In October, he’ll be fronting an MTV show fittingly titled Jackass.
Born P.J. Clapp, this 29-year-old Knoxville (duh), Tennessee, native and former freelance writer achieved cult fame in the skateboarding world a few years ago by testing self-defense weapons (pepper spray, stun gun, Taser) on himself for an article in Big Brother magazine (owned by Larry Flynt). “We resist change and don’t really like new people,” says Brother editor in chief Dave Carnie. “Let me just say that he can’t write worth a fuck. But he sent us that little self-defense tape, and obviously we had to embrace him. You have to have a superior quality of idiocy and assholeness for us to embrace you, and he surpassed all previous levels.”
In the time he wrote for Big Brother, Knoxville’s coup de grâce was shooting himself with a .38 pistol while wearing a Kevlar vest. “I approached a lot of magazines with that idea,” he says with a slight drawl. “They liked it, but they didn’t really want to get involved. At the time I couldn’t afford the vest, and Big Brother was the only magazine that would buy me one.” He began to appear in the Big Brother home-video series — compilations of pro skateboarders doing tricks and random guerrilla-humor skits. Knoxville was hit by a late-model Subaru, swapped his own poop for sausage at a restaurant (and alerted the waitress, of course), wore a strap-on dildo beneath his gym shorts to play pickup basketball, and donned prison coveralls and handcuffs in search of a hacksaw at a hardware store (which got him arrested). His stunts soon became the stuff of legend among skaters. “Unfortunately, I think everyone knows who he is,” Carnie says. “He’s the nutcase in our videos. All of the skaters just want to know if he can skate, but it kind of sucks: Most people outside of skateboarding just want to watch the videos to see this asshole who doesn’t even skate.”
His antics, taped by friends with digital cameras, were amassed on a compilation reel with some help from director Spike Jonze. The tape made its way around Hollywood, in much the same way as the one that put South Park on the map. Knoxville soon found himself in a reported bidding war between MTV and Comedy Central that MTV won. They plan to air the show on the same night of WWF wrestling — the newest addition to their roster. “We got a copy of Johnny’s tape and really didn’t know what to do about it,” says MTV executive producer John Miller. “We weren’t sure if they would tone it down enough to be on television, but they’ve been great to work with. We are putting all sorts of warnings and disclaimers in it. One would hope that people will have common sense.” MTV will allow Spike Jonze, former Big Brother editor Jeff Tremaine and Knoxville to oversee the proceedings. One new segment features Knoxville as a human barbecue. After basting steak in his own juices for fifteen lucky folks, Knoxville attaches the meat to a flame-retardant suit, wraps himself inside and lies on a chain-link fence over a fire. A “failed” stunt saw Knoxville covered in bread, attempting to entice some pigeons. Jackass will also feature the eclectic skills of similarly inclined pro skate- and snowboarders. “Most of these guys are already doing this kind of stuff,” Knoxville says. “They walk around with cameras anyway, to tape skating bits; and I guess in their downtime they need something to do.” Particularly Steve-O — a skater as well as a graduate of the Barnum and Bailey school of clowning. In one Big Brother bit, he does the unthinkable — drinking bong water blacker than a chimney in Victorian England. “He’s another dipshit,” Carnie says. “He sent us a tape, too. And then he kept calling. We don’t even know that guy’s real name. He was really annoying. Both of them — idiots.” Unfortunately for Big Brother, this may only be the beginning.
“I got a stunt tape the other day,” Carnie says. “It was lame — just this guy, lit on fire, running through plywood. But we got one from Nebraska of these kids who got 64 old televisions together in their parents’ basement. They put on these white jumpsuits, wore gas masks and beat the shit out of these TVs. These guys did a good job — they even wrote us a little article. They said they had been listening to too much death metal and doing too many drugs. I like that one.”
Knoxville, who claims he’s far too uncoordinated to skate, has a penchant for pain and poop that’s both nature and nurture, “It’s always been with me,” he says of his talent for taking a hit, “like an old friend. Growing up in the South — that’ll do it for you.” His father, a retired tire salesman, apparently treats each day like it’s April Fools’. “He’s a nut,” Knoxville says. “At his company Christmas parties, he’d stage gunfights between employees, and people would just take off, running for cover. He used to send letters to my friends with some cheap rubber stamp from the local clinic telling them they’d contracted VD and asking for the names of their last ten partners. He’d sign them ‘Harlan C. Titmore.’ A few wives almost left their husbands over it. He’d wake me up in the morning by throwing water on me. He’s always doing stuff. He’s good.”
Young Johnny followed his father’s lead and got off to an early start in the prank business. “I took him everywhere I went because he would do anything my friends and I wanted done,” says his sister Lynne, ten years his senior. “We were at the beach, kinda bored once, when he was about three, and we put him up to tinkling off the balcony on people’s heads. When he was four, my dad taught him to punch every man that came through the door, well, you know where. After the first time, they’d all come in protecting themselves. When I had boyfriends over, Johnny would come downstairs naked and just run around the house until he got tired. He learned it all from my dad — my dad plays jokes on everybody. He’ll go as far as making you a milkshake filled up with Ex-Lax.”
Knoxville, the youngest of three, left home for L.A. just two months after graduating from high school. “I wanted to be an actor,” he says, “but for the first five years I really didn’t do anything about it. I started writing to survive, and I waited tables, tended bar. I umpired Little League for all these Latin kids — that was my greatest job. Their parents were really polite and respectful. Even when I made bad calls, they wouldn’t yell at me.”
Knoxville, who before landing the MTV gig appeared in commercials for Bud Light, Mountain Dew and Taco Bell, will make a big-screen appearance as a hapless vagabond in Big Trouble, with Tim Allen and Janeane Garofalo. “Yep, I play a dimwitted vagrant. It’s tough,” he says. “I want to do more films, but I’ll always do the stunts. I enjoy it.” He’s quite proud of a segment titled “Poop Cocktail,” in which he stands in a ripe port-o-potty while it’s turned upside down by a forklift. “I think it’ll get a nice response from the fans,” he says. “I didn’t mind that one too much. The poo didn’t bother me. I don’t really think about any of this stuff while I’m doing it. It only sinks in when I watch the tape.” And if you were worried, he wasn’t in too much danger. “Number two — standard human feces from a person who is not ill,” says Dr. Warren Licht, assistant chief of medicine at NYU Downtown Hospital, “is not going to cause anybody any illness with short-term exposure. If he swallowed infected feces, he would be infected with something bad. If a person who lived in South or Central America had just left excrement in the toilet, there would be parasites or even worms in the toilet. But overall, if this guy’s eyes are protected and his mouth is closed, and he sticks his head into a healthy stool, then rinses himself, there should be no health risk.”
This type of oneupmanship humor captures the essence of the skate world. It’s also hardly the stuff to put a mother at ease. “My mom saw the self-defense equipment footage,” Knoxville says. “She tried to ground me. I was like, ‘Mom, you’re in Tennessee, how can you ground me?’ I’m 29, and she’s trying to ground me.” Now his mother, Lemoyne, just doesn’t watch. “I saw his self-defense video by accident,” she says. “I cried. It’s hard for any mother to see their son take that kind of abuse. But he was always a character. Real comical.” Knoxville’s wife of five years, Melanie, and their four-year-old daughter, Madison, probably won’t be tuning in much, either. “I don’t even tell my wife when I’m doing stuff, because it makes her really upset. I just take off and do it. She thought she was marrying a writer, you know.”
Knoxville has broken plenty of bones but generally walks away from his stunts with a few sprains (still, don’t try this at home). “I do get scared when we do stuff,” he says. “Most of the time you get scared because you think you’re going to fail. With us, we really have no chance of succeeding, so what’s there to be scared of?” But, like everyone else, the man has his limits. “I wouldn’t do Eddie and the Cruisers III,” he says, “and I might pass on a prison romance or something called, like, The Cock Pit. You know, the cop that arrested me when we did the prison gag at the hardware store told me about the only call she’d gotten that was weirder than what we were doing: It was some guy flying on PCP who had climbed a palm tree, gotten completely naked and slid all the way down. That’s something I wouldn’t do. There’s not enough salve and emollient in the world to fix that.”