The categories of responses from critics with the release of yet another Jackass film and in the face of its massive, record-breaking box office intake have been to dismiss it entirely, make some hyperbolic rant about the fall of Western civilization, or celebrate Jackass 3-D not as a movie, but as a social ritual — or, perhaps more accurately, as an anti-social ritual. Consider me in the latter camp.
Jackass doesn’t only take the role of social ritual in terms of being popular entertainment; it isn’t merely the most transparent of gimmicks (as the 3-D makes clear) or the most unapologetic brand of cinema in the long-prevailing, prevailingly false idea of cinema-as-escapism-and-nothing-else. The function of Jackass is instead to provide what has been long-standing need within Western cultures: the need of a temporary and safe space in which to transcend and reject social hierarchies and order, a space in which to revel in unacceptable behavior.
Russian literary theorist Mikhail M. Bakhtin popularized the notion of such a space in his canonical text Rebelais and His World, about the work of French Renaissance writer François Rebelais and his detailed accounts of medieval carnivals whose rituals of obscenity, base humor, parody, and absurd role-play scenarios allowed for a temporary liminal space in which people could collectively engage in disruptions of cultural norms and reversals of traditional social roles.
Bakhtin identifies Rebelais’ work as grotesque realism, a conceit characterized by an engagement with abstraction and human degradation (typically through a preoccupation with human anatomy and scatology (a big word for poop jokes) concerned with the grotesque body, which ultimately functions as a means of challenging and collapsing conventions accepted in a society as normal.
Jackass as Carnivalesque of the Infantile
It goes without saying that Jackass continually fascinates itself with the lowest common denominator of human behavior, but exactly what this means is another issue entirely.
One fascinating aspect of the franchise is how literally infantile the behavior depicted is. I don’t mean “infantile” in the casual rhetorical sense as a denotation of immaturity, but rather in the most disturbing associations of the term. The source of comedy in Jackass is a comedy of the puerile. The humor and comaraderie is prepubescent and, thus asexual (women on the rare occasion exist on the very fringes of Jackass if at all, the only regular female presence being the maternal figure of April Margera), exemplified most often in their fascination with their penises (frequently Pontius’ penis) not as a sexual appendage, but as absurd comic device that, when not being attached to mini helicopters or fireworks, only achieves a biological function in urination.
And it is these nascent biological functions that the comedy of Jackass has been so preoccupied if not obsessed with throughout its existence: the infantile experience of shit, piss, fear, pain, and confusion.
Whether snorting wasabi or super-gluing oneself to their friend, the grotesque bodies (aka, cast) of Jackass routinely take part in ritual of irreverence towards the human body’s supposedly “intended” and “natural” functions, thus illuminating the establishing cultural determinations of a man’s relationship to his body. Who is to say that one should not feed pigs through squeezing an apple in between one’s ass cheeks, or that one cannot attempt to live peaceably with a ram while playing tuba, or that one should not use human sweat as a recyclable and replenishing resource rather than waste its potential in the threads of a gym towel?
Sure, the television show and each of the films feature sequences in which Jackassery forces itself upon the outside world, bringing strangers in as unwilling participants: e.g., when a cast member defecates in a pre-functional toilet in a toilet store, or the epic little person fight/arrest/ambulance rescue of the most recent film. Operating as heirs to Marcel Duchamp (there’s a good reason Jackass 3-D premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, and it is here that the toilet incident becomes particularly prescient), such episodes reveal the franchise as one of the most aggressively deconstructive acts upon the closest thing this country has to a bourgeois culture by placing the absurd within the realm of the perceptively “normal.”
But these more “prank”-styled events don’t comprise most of the scenarios of Jackass. Most of Jackass takes place in private spaces between the cast members themselves, typically secluded open areas or in homes. And it is in these spaces that the most egregious of events of the series take place, not for the unwilling spectatorship of some Random Joe, but voluntarily between themselves as simultaneous audience and participant.
Social norms are not only collapsed or challenged, but eviscerated in the engagement of a ritual spectacle of penises and poop. Like the medieval carnival where peasants could act as kings and monks could become bingers, the private-space-based episodes of Jackass are where irreverence and obscenity run wild in an aggressive liberation of the id made possible only by an oddly nostalgic reduction of the male human being to his former nascent self (the end credits, after all, feature a song in which the cast screams together, “Memories take me back there”…but “memories” of infanthood?).
And it is the sense of community that is important here too, for the appeal of Jackass is not in variety of nameless bodies being pummeled or punished, but in the collective “dude” experience and the return of familiar personalities.
The Finality of the Carnival
But in the end, as it always occurs with the carnivalesque, nothing has ultimately changed: peasants go back to being peasants, monks return to their monasteries, and social norms become reinstated. The brief engagement with scatology and irreverence have essentially served not to transcend rigid social boundaries, but to provide a brief fling with social transgression, ultimately reinstating the delineations they attempted to dismantle. Because wasabi is disclosed as being bad to snort, or exercise sweat exhibited as unrecommended for consumption, Jackass allows socially acceptable cultural role-play to be comfortably reinstated by showing us the horrors of the alternative – that is, engaging and entertaining acts of sophomoric irreverence, but only enjoyable because its experience is limited and we are distanced safely from it in our stadium seats.
The cast of Jackass act as both jesters and social mediators, sacrificing their bodies and remaining dignity for our brief, but absolutely necessary, shared escape while remaining in the comfortable “normal” social space of the movie theater. In the end, it’s inevitable that Jackass made so much money, because it serves a specific need (beyond escapism, beyond entertainment) that other films can’t.
It’s not a contradiction to say that something so silly and stupid is also incredibly important, but we don’t typically think of it as such because, as Bakhtin once said, “Laughter and its forms represent the least scrutinized sphere of the people’s creation.”