It’s a few minutes past noon on Friday, Feb. 4, and Johnny Knoxville is just coming down to the lobby of a luxury midtown New York City hotel. This is where he’s been staying during his relentless promotional tour for Jackass Forever, which has taken him everywhere from The Howard Stern Show to WWE’s The Royal Rumble. It’s the big morning for Knoxville, since the movie opened in theaters a few hours earlier; it will eventually top the weekend’s box office with a $23.5 million opening, which exceeded industry expectations. More surprisingly, critics have gushed over it, and the movie has an 85 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“When we first came out with a film several years ago, the critics just murdered us,” says Knoxville. “The second film we posted the negative reviews as part of our promotional campaign! And it’s not like we’ve changed. I think what’s happened is the critics writing now were probably in high school when they saw the first Jackass and liked it. Now they’re the critics. They have a fond memory of us.”
Knoxville, 50, is quite serious when he says that middle age has not changed Jackass. In Jackass Forever, he and his crew literally light their farts on fire, fire hockey pucks at one another’s groins, and watch their old buddy Preston Lacy shit his pants before attempting to re-create a scene from Dirty Dancing. If anything, it’s even more puerile than their older material.
As Knoxville sits down at a corner table in the hotel’s swanky restaurant and orders a coffee, he explains why he decided to resurrect Jackass after a decade-long break; why he still hopes that Bam Margera can rejoin the gang in the future (even though they had to file a restraining order against him while making this movie); why he added in new, younger faces for his chapter; and how Jackass can possibly thrive in the future now that he’s unwilling to risk any more concussions.
This movie has been in the works for years. It must have been strange to wake up this morning and realize this was finally the day people got to see it.
It’s pretty surreal because, God, the world has gone through so much. The movie has been put off a number of times, changed its date a number of times — as all movies have been doing — because the pandemic keeps shifting around. It’s finally out. Fingers crossed that people can go see it in the theaters in a safe manner. People need to laugh right now.
Did you ever think you’d see the day that The New York Times would give you the critics’ seal of approval?
Never! Never ever! Someone sent me that and I was like, “Wow!”
In the earliest days of Jackass, I imagine you weren’t thinking too far ahead and imagining yourself doing this at 50.
No. We still don’t think a year ahead. We just take it as it comes.
The last movie ended with nostalgic scenes from the old days. It felt almost like you were saying goodbye.
Maybe at that moment we were. But I knew I kept getting ideas, so I documented them. I would put Jackass in the subject line of an e-mail and send it to myself. When I got that feeling again in 2018, I compiled all those ideas.
Do you ever fight that instinct? Does part of you think, “I’m past that stuff now, time to move on?”
No. I wanted to do other things. I just didn’t have that Jackass feeling. You have to really, really want to do a Jackass film because so much is on the line. You can’t go into a Jackass film halfway. I can’t make another [one] just because all the other cast members want to, even though I feel a little responsibility for the other cast members. But that’s no way to make a movie. I personally have to really want to.
That pressure must be tough to resist at times.
Luckily, the studio never pressured us. They realized it was such a personal thing to do. Paramount doesn’t pressure us. I know they want another one, but they leave it up to us.
Sometimes I would get an e-mail from the cast, like once a year or every year and a half. Dave England would usually send the e-mail and cc everyone: “What are we doing? We should be doing another one!” Sometimes they were a little more angry, and sometimes they weren’t. I understand. They’re ready to go, and I’m the holdout. I understand their feelings. Again, it’s no way to make a movie if I’m going to cave to pressure.
What were some of your earliest ideas for this movie?
I thought it would be funny to surprise-spring a bear on somebody, which [director Jeff [Tremaine] thought wasn’t going to work since bears are loud. He was like, “How would we do it?” It took a lot of figuring out. And sometimes Jeff comes up with an idea and I’m like, “I don’t know about that. That’s probably not going to be great.” But we both know and trust each other enough to go, “Okay, let’s go ahead and film it anyway.” Sometimes I don’t believe in them, we shoot them, and I realize I was wrong.
Walk me through the process. If you think of the bear gag with the honey and the salmon in someone’s pants, I imagine you have to next think, “Okay, how do we do this so the bear doesn’t kill him?”
Well, we had more logistical thoughts about how to do it — not as many thoughts of, “What do we do if it kills him?” [Laughs] We probably should have had more of those conversations. But that bit went on about five minutes longer than, “We should stop now.” We let it go. Chris Pontius said that one almost went over the line.
You must have to bring in an insurance company at some point to approve these things.
Jeff and I leave that to people smarter than us. That’s not my job to worry about the insurance. That’s for [producer] Sean [Cliver] and the studio. They take care of all that. They leave us to do what we do good.
Some people will probably be surprised by the amount of male nudity in this one.
[Huge, roaring laugh]
That’s not new for Jackass, but you really upped it this time.
There’s so much male nudity in it. There’s so many funny full-frontal ideas that we had to take to [the upcoming Jackass outtakes movie] 4.5, because you can only have so much cock in a movie.
At a certain point, it’s going to get you an NC-17.
Jeff and I would have conversations like, “We have shot too many cock bits this week. No more cock for a while.” There’s a tipping point where you’re like, “It’s over. I’ve seen enough cocks.” And then three or four days later we’d be like, “It’s probably funnier if his cock is out.”
With the whole movie, we have to have the right amount of pranks, the right amount of stunts — the right amount of cock, of course — the right amount of grossness, and we have to feather things in at the right time. Pacing and tone is very important to our films. You can’t have too many gross things back to back, or too many big stunts back to back. You need a breather sometimes.
It’s one thing to see lots of dick, but another to see lots of dick in extreme distress. People around me were screaming in the audience.
We don’t pull the cock out unless it’s for a reason. The MPAA blessed us by giving us an R rating. I feel a lot of MPAA regimes in the past wouldn’t have. This one was wonderful.
If you put 1,000 bees on a dick or crush one with a pogo stick, it’s fine. If someone were to do anything remotely sexual with it, it’s an instant NC-17.
Luckily the cock in our movie isn’t the least bit sexual. They are mere props. And I think Chris Pontius deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for being naked.
The opening scene where his dick is a Godzilla-like monster attacking a city … it took me a few seconds to realize what I was looking at.
In early screenings, people weren’t sure if it was real or if it was a dildo or something. We felt we needed to show Pontius to let everyone know it was real. I think we earned the respect of everyone where they know what we do is real. But in the opening and the close, they can be shot in a cinematic way that’s not like the rest of the film. So we had to let people know.
Tell me about bringing in the new people.
We thought that we needed to bring in some fresh blood because it might look weird if it’s just the old guys doing it again. I think we thought, correctly, that we got the perfect new cast, and they added so much energy. We had more bodies to throw around. We just reached out mostly to people we knew. Eric Manaka is someone Pontius and I did a movie with in South Africa. Jasper Dolphin was on Loiter Squad. Zach Holmes shot with Steve-O on something. His Instagram is zackass.
There were only two we didn’t know. Sean [“Poopies”] McInerney was suggested by our longtime producer. He was magic. He’s heaven-sent. And Rachel Wolfson, I was just a fan of her Instagram. I thought she was really smart and funny. We Zoomed with Poopies, and we called in Rachel to meet her. She’s fantastic.
How do you prepare somebody for the first day as a member of your squad?
It’s trial by fire. Spike [Jonze] was adamant that we needed to do a test — not only with the cast, but with us. We needed to see how it felt since it had been so long since we shot, and we’re older. How is it going to look? Within the first hour of shooting, it looked and felt great, and we knew we were going to do a film.
If the test didn’t go good, we would have just said, “Thank you, Paramount. This was a bad idea. We tried.” But it didn’t turn out that way.
If you started Jackass now, it wouldn’t be just a bunch of white dudes. The new cast feels a lot more 2022.
Jackass formed really organically. It was people from Big Brother magazine and Bam’s group from the East Coast. We could have done a better job about incorporating more people, but we didn’t. It is 2022. We’re lucky to have the cast we we have now.
Do you feel that you almost need to up your game since anyone in their basement with a Taser gun now can make a crazy stunt video and find an audience for it on TikTok or Youtube?
Honestly, I feel that stuff has nothing to do with us. It doesn’t go into any of our thought processes of what we need to do. It just naturally happens that what we felt was funny a few years ago, we’ve already done. And so the line slides and the bar either goes up or down, depending on how you look at it. [Laughs] Everyone is competitive. If someone gets a great bit, they feel that they now need to get a better bit. That healthy competition — that perverted, healthy competition [laughs] — is responsible for what you see on the screen.
What you see on the show and in the movies are: real friends having fun. Even when you’re really fucking with someone, it never feels even remotely dark. You always feel that camaraderie. That’s such an important element of Jackass.
That’s everything. We have stunts and absurd pranks and things that you’ve never seen before, but it’s the friendship that makes it special. There’s other people out there doings pranks and stunts. Maybe not exactly like us, but we’ve been together for over 20 years, cast and crew. Our friendships have not only endured, they’ve gotten stronger since we’ve been through so much offscreen and onscreen. I mean, we’ve nearly died onscreen.
“[We’d] have conversations like, ‘We have shot too many cock bits this week.’ And then days later, we’d be like, ‘It’s probably funnier if his cock is out.’”
Can you talk about what Jeff Tremaine brings to the mix? I feel like he’s the unsung hero of the ensemble.
He really gets the best out of a bit. Sometimes when we’re filming, I’ll go up to him and be like, “It feels like we’ve got it.” He’ll go, “No. We need one more. We don’t have it.” And they’re going through a lot of pain, and I’m Mama Bear. As the mother, I’m like, “It feels like we got it.” But Jeff is like, “Nope, we don’t got it.” And he’s always right. To push people to that point is a huge part of what makes Jackass special. And he writes a lot of ideas. The whole thing wouldn’t work out without him. Trust me. A new director would be rejected. I’m not doing it without Jeff.
Did you have any days on set where you felt like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon? “I’m too old for this shit.”
I was too old when I started. I was almost 30 when I started. Age has never been a concern for me. Maybe I should have thought about it more.
Did your family ever worry? Did they say to you, “We don’t want you coming home in a body cast?”
Sure. I understand. No one in my family likes the stunts. They all like the finished product, but filming is very stressful for them because we’re doing things that no one has ever tried before. We don’t know how it’s going to end. You don’t know what’s going to happen … I mean, I kind of know what’s going to happen when I get in the ring with a bull. But the bull could camp out on me.
Describe what it feels like to walk into that bull ring, knowing what’s very likely to happen?
I would say a few days outside of it, I’m my most nervous. But as it gets closer, all that nervous energy goes into an excitement of, “Let’s go now. I want to do it right now.” You want to get it over with, but also I just psyche myself up to where I can’t wait to do it. I can overcome my fear. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure. But it’s good for footage.
Do you recall being hit?
I recall being hit, and I recall spinning in the air. Then they had to send me footage in the hospital of what happened afterwards since there was no recollection. I didn’t remember being in the ring. I just remembered standing outside the ambulance. They were asking me things like, “Who is the president?” and I got them wrong. I thought Obama was president. I guess I was hoping Obama was president. That one scrambled my brains for a while.
How did you family feel about that one? Did they say, “You asshole. Don’t do that again?”
They were concerned. They weren’t angry, but they were more scared and concerned. No one yelled at me.
Do you think that was the last big hit you’re going to take?
My neurologist told me that that’s the last of my concussions. It had to be. I’ve had about 16.
Do you worry about that long-term? That’s like being an NFL player.
Well, Troy Aikman retired after seven.… yeah. I think about it. I can’t focus on it. What’s done is done. I try to do things to keep my brain nimble, reading or writing or something creative to keep my neurons firing.
Do you feel any of the injuries in the morning these days when you get out of bed?
Sure. My back, my knee … but I’ve done this to myself. There are zero complaints. I don’t really tell anyone if I’m hurting. I’m not allowed to bellyache, nor do I want to. Why? It’s not anyone else’s fault. I just accepted it. Luckily, I’m not very in touch with my body, so I can just let things slide.
You mentioned Jackass 4.5. That’s going to Netflix?
Yeah. I believe that’s going to come out on Netflix. It’s strong. You know we have a strong movie when 4.5 is strong. So many great things got kicked out of Jackass Forever just because maybe they were similar to something else we had in the film, or we had too many pranks on the cast, or too many things like this. Any number of reasons can kick something into 4.5. Also, it’s great since you can breakdown a scene and do interviews and get a little underneath the hood of a stunt or a prank. And there’s more [Compston] Darkshark [Wilson] in that one. He’s amazing! He’s the funniest guy!
Especially when you duct-tape him into a chair and put a tarantula in his helmet.
Yeah. And he’s strong. When he just ripped through the duct tape — that’s extremely hard to do. Then he was in a fear lock and he just grabbed ahold of me and the animal trainer. There was nothing we could do to let go. We just had to let him work through. He didn’t even know where he was in those moments. He’s terrified of heights [as well], and we took him skydiving. That’s in 4.5.
I know you’ve talked about the Bam situation a lot over the past few weeks. But watching all that play out on TMZ during the filming of the movie must have been a huge distraction, and very emotionally draining.
It’s very sad and draining, but at the end of the day, we all love Bam so much and want him to get well. We hope he’ll make that decision to do that. I miss him. We all miss him. We all wanted him to be in this movie wall-to-wall, and that’s not how it worked out, and that’s very disappointing. But fingers crossed that he can turn his life around. We’re always there for him.
Are you willing to make a definitive statement that this is the last Jackass movie, or is the door open a crack?
We make each one like it’s last, but we could make another one, sure. Will we? I don’t know. But we definitely could. There’s so many great ideas we never even got to film. I’ve been writing for 10 years, and everyone else turned in ideas. There’s definitely enough creative material lying around.
If you did another one, would you take fewer hits?
I think I would have to. I can’t take any more concussions. I’d probably try to sit behind the camera with Jeff and let some other people take over. But as Jeff has said, I’m terrible about sitting behind the camera and letting someone else take over. But that would be my goal.
I didn’t remember being in the ring, just standing outside the ambulance. They were asking, ‘Who is the president? and, I [answered] Obama. I guess I was hoping Obama was president.
This is a very dumb and dorky analogy, so forgive me for it, but: I sort of felt like I was watching the world’s weirdest Star Trek movie during Jackass Forever. You’re Captain Kirk …
William Shit-ner [laughs].
Yep. And you need to put a crew together for a new mission, mixing old guys with new ensigns. There’s a bunch of dangerous away missions, and the captain wisely stays out of the fray during most of them, but when it comes time to fight the central villain, like Khan or the bull, the duty falls to the captain. He always has to take the hardest blow.
In our film, Khan always wins! [Laughs] As Pontius said, it was a one-sided brawl. But someone could argue that maybe I won because of the footage, the film won. But bulls are undefeated. They are like the Internet. They are undefeated.
I really loved the scene with the snakes where nobody was allowed to make any sounds.
We thought it would be funny to do something to someone and they can’t make a peep. All we do normally is scream and yell. Then we sat around and tried to think of the most terrible things we could think of to achieve that. That’s what we came up with that. It was our best bet of what would be funny.
That one worked out really well. Just to hear the audience groan … when they see Steve-O’s guillotine skateboard, you get a nervous groan from the audience. But then they see him put his shins under it, everyone freaks out. The anticipation … it’s like the paper cuts from the first movie.
Speaking of Steve-O, it’s been great to watch his growth as a person. He went through some hard times wit his various addiction issues, but he came out of stronger.
He has completely turned his life around. People say I’m brave, but that’s true bravery. He has to face that dragon every day. He faces it and conquers it every day. No only conquers it, but he’s flourishing so much with his stand-up and what he does on YouTube and his merchandising. [Moves his mouth near the recorder] Go to Steveo.com. If he was here right now, that’s what he would say. I love him so much. I’m blown away by him.
What are your future plans?
Jeff and I are cooking up a couple things, also there’s a couple documentaries I’m trying to make. I started a show for Hulu called Reboot. It’s a Steve Levitan project. We start shooting that in March. Personally, I’m so appreciative to be on the other side of filming. I’m still walking, still talking. You have those thoughts at the end of filming: “I’m still walking. This is great.”
Decades from now, if your obituary headline is “Jackass Star Johnny Knoxville,” would you care that this may be the thing you’re most remembered for?
No. It’s special. It’s a special thing created by me and my friends. I’d be honored if that’s what I’m remembered for. It is probably what I’ll be remembered for. There’s a lot of other things I want to do, and that I’ve done. But of course I’d like to get my documentaries in there too. They’ll be mentioned. And being a father is my favorite thing. But Jackass is right up there?
If your kids want to do this some day …
No. No. No. That’s not happening. I have two daughters and they don’t want to do that. My one daughter is 26, very intelligent, a book editor, and working in film. My son is wired like my father, so I’m sure it’s in the back of his mind — but it’s going to stay in the back of his mind. He’s going to school. Maybe he’ll pitch for the Atlanta Braves one day. He’s really got a strong arm. I’ll stand by my children no matter what they want to do. Except for Jackass. I won’t stand for that.
From Rolling Stone US