10 years after the dawn of a new reality show on MTV, the Jackass guys have gained plenty of fame and notoriety and are about to release their third (?!) feature film, sure to be filled with plenty of their signature shenanigans. With tomorrow's release of 'Jackass 3D,' it's a good a time as any to wonder if this type of comedy is still popular and why.
By the very nature of the question's wording, the assumption is that their brand of humor was funny and popular at one time. That pretty much goes without saying. Jackass as a TV show was a hit seemingly overnight. Controversy over the stunts and condemnation from US Senators only added to the show's popularity and appeal. Whether you found it funny or not, a lot of people certainly did. The show ended it's brief television run in 2002 and capped it off with a feature film, 'Jackass: The Movie.'
Filmed on a production budget of $5 million, the film was number 1 at the box office during it's opening weekend, raking in over $20 million, well on its way to a worldwide gross of almost $80 million. If 'Jackass' on TV was a hit, 'Jackass' on the big screen was a monster, bringing in a huge return for it's producers and distributor. So what is it about 'Jackass' that still connects with audiences? It's the same things audiences have laughed at time and time again: The show takes several different approaches to comedy and cranks them all up to 11.
First up, is the slapstick, physical comedy. In this area at least, Johnny Knoxville and his band of merry men are like the modern day Three Stooges. Only instead of baseball bats and frying pans, they use tasers and ball bearings. Like old Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons have proven, people laugh when someone gets hurt. That's not to say that people wish harm on others, but in the context of the Stooges or the cartoons, the audience knows everyone is OK and they're free to laugh at the hijinks. The Jackass crew gives the audience a similar freedom to laugh by their consent to engage in these potentially painful acts and their clear enjoyment of them. They have the same goofy, cartoonish quality to their stunts as Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Bugs had in their fictional escapades. While Knoxville and the gang are doing things for real, it's their personality and reactions that open it up for laughter.
Next up is the gross-out humor. This is the part of the Jackass shtick that has probably worn out most of its welcome. It seems to be the most reactionary bit of comedy. The TV show ran from 2000-2002, right in the midst of the rise of gross-out humor like 'The Tom Green Show,' 'American Pie,' 'Road Trip' and many more. You can almost see the Jackass boys watching 'Mallrats' and talking about how funny it would be to actually stink-palm someone. It's things like that which lead to a guy pooping in a hose connected to a mask that another guy is wearing, or a guy sticking fireworks up his butt and setting them off. It is also this type of tomfoolery that feels the most dated, as most film and television appears to have moved away from foul bodily fluid gags.
Last, but certainly not least, are good old fashioned pranks. The Jackass team is made up of consummate pranksters, and whether their targets are their family and friends, complete strangers, or each other, you can count on each to one up the last. Pranks remind us of what it was like to be kids, playing around with each other and making jokes. When you hear about movie stars playing pranks on one another on set, it makes them seem more normal and human. While the pranks can sometimes seem a bit mean-spirited, the Jackasses are so goofy and playful about it, that it still comes off cartoonish instead of vindictive.
The second film came out in 2006 and while it didn't make quite as big a return due to a budget twice the size of the first one, it still drew in a worldwide gross of almost $85 million and was again number 1 at the box office on opening weekend. 'Jackass 3D' seems poised to follow in those same footsteps, but with a drop off in overall box office and 4 years in between this new film in the last, will audiences still flock in droves? No other shows were really able to duplicate the success that 'Jackass' and its various spinoffs enjoyed and currently airing shows like 'Web Soup' and 'Tosh.0' have annexed the pain and humiliation from YouTube videos. Are audiences over the gross-out humor that the 'Jackass 3D' trailer promises with footage of Steve-O inside a full port-a-potty being shot into the air? Or will gags like the giant hand high five and the promise of 3D stunts bring in the crowds? I know I'll be at the theater ready to laugh this weekend. Will you?