Is it possible to love a man who -- for no reason other than to see how much it hurts -- lets someone administer paper cuts with the edge of a manila envelope to the webs between his fingers and toes?
The answer is yes, absolutely, but don't answer yet: He also wants a paper cut to the corner of his mouth.
The world happens to need jackasses, so long as it can understand the very fine line between a jackass and the far more common ass. Jackasses, practicing the age-old art of public tomfoolery, have a way of stumbling into genius territory. (Someone had to put monkeys on rockets.)
Asses, on the other hand, are obsessed with exclusivity and ego. They're snobs. They haze and torment out of a disturbing notion that they are cooler or funnier than anybody else. They insist on getting credit for their work -- unless the cops show up. (Unlike jackasses, an ass will always run from the cops.) Asses get morning radio shows, or elected to office. They join fraternities in college. They lack the purity of a true jackass, who reports to no one.
By ponying up $36 million so far in really gross box office receipts to see "Jackass: The Movie" (seven times what it cost to make), Americans may be indicating a deft understanding about the difference between ass and jackass. There's an acknowledgment here of the power of the adolescent boy within all men (and women), while refusing the usual assy trappings of jocks, politicians, bullies and class clowns.
Clucks from safe-parenting groups and the more conservative op-ed Cassandras aside, moviegoers are affirming the "Jackass" spirit, saying that is possible to love a man who will get into a stinking portable toilet and have it turned upside down while he's inside it just to see what happens.
And not doing it to become famous.
Fame has been a surprise byproduct for the jackasses of "Jackass," who must now contend with the fact that the fun is over. The lead jackass, Johnny Knoxville, a 31-year-old actor/writer and husband/father actually named P.J. Clapp, told reporters last week that he's arrived at the end of the road for "Jackass," which ran for 20 episodes on MTV (and was the network's highest-rated show until "The Osbournes" came along), until the network's lawyers got nervous about kids replicating the stunts on the show. The movie, as of now, will be the gang's swan song.
The problem with fame and jackasses is that if everyone loves a jackass and wants more from him, he cannot deliver. He suffers from what's known as demand-resistance (an inability to perform when you know you are adored).
What if he snorted lines of wasabi at a sushi bar? Lighted and fired a pop-bottle rocket from his rear? (Then, a second time, attached the firework to his friend's penis? Then did it a third time just 'cuz?) Stripped down to a Chippendale's bow tie and thong in a stereo shop and freak-danced against the midsections of startled sales clerks? Flipped a golf cart repeatedly and landed on his head? Drank from a gallon milk jug until huge, wonderful pillars of upchucked chocolate milk soared from his maw? What if he coaxed a toy Matchbox car into himself (the back way) and visited the emergency room for X-rays, just to see what the nurse and doctor would do?
Is it possible to love a man with so much tendency to abuse his bottom?
America does. "Jackass: The Movie" has been lambasted as the end of civilization, but you get the sense that it exhausts critics more than it offends them: "As much as I laughed throughout the movie, I cannot mount a cogent defense of the film as entertainment, or even performance art," managed a stymied movie reviewer, Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald. "Jackass" is gloriously critic-proof, a triumph of blessed stupidity.
When was the last time theater ushers got so intimately involved in audience warnings? "Some of the scenes in there are kind of graphic," a Knoxville, Tenn., theater employee named Jonathan Bentley told the local newspaper last week. He's cleaned up at least three pools of audience vomit, induced by such scenes as a guy eating a urine snow cone and another who defecates into a hardware store's display toilet. "If you are eating something during the movie, it might tend to upset your stomach." (Sure enough, the Seattle Times film critic confessed that he left 10 minutes before "Jackass: The Movie" was over; he got woozy.)
Pop-culture smarties have given "Jackass" short shrift, assuming the worst. Their shrugs emanate from the easy "boys will be boys" theory, or the P.T. Barnum school of what people will pay to see. Others mutter at it and say "frat boys."
Ah, but these are the opposite of frat boys. Look closely at the origins of "Jackass": These guys come purely from the skateboarding and punk rock aesthetic.
Twenty years ago, before there were skateboarding parks in suburbs, there were jackasses. They were the only kids -- only citizens -- who spent any significant, cultural time in America's downtowns (before the Barnes & Nobles and ESPN Zones of urban renewal came along), looking for stairs and walls and abandoned municipal plazas upon which to stunt skate. The cast members of "Jackass" are all affiliated with the skateboard circuit or Big Brother, a magazine about skateboarding. Their showbiz lives began on local-access cable TV; their skits are littered with background music gleaned from punk classics -- MC5, the Cramps, the Ramones. The theme song to "Jackass" is the opening riff of "Corona" by the Minutemen.
What we are witnessing here, like the tropical cicadas that crawl up only every 17 years or so, is the final fruit of punk rock America. If you've ever had a punk band crash for a night in your apartment, you know what absolute gentlemen they can be, counter to everything that may have happened earlier onstage.
Jackasses come at us meaning no harm, but there is an underlying, wondrously anarchic vibe here. They want to mess stuff up, because stuff should be messed up.
To examine the "Jackass" oeuvre is to understand the brotherhood of man at play, with a certain level of affection for one another: Though the cast members are all white, they seem to transcend race. They are also just slightly homoerotically fixated on one another's genitalia, enough to have transcended old ideas about machismo, sexuality, gender or physical limits. One jackass is corpulently fat; another is a dwarf who comfortably calls himself Wee-Man. (Women infrequently got a chance to hold their own on the "Jackass" TV show, submitting to egg-eating contests and the like; one broke her back riding a mattress down a ski slope.)
Beyond Johnny Knoxville's celebrity, the other jackasses impart lessons of acceptance. Were it not for Mr. and Mrs. Osbourne, it would be hard to find a better example of modern parenting on television than that of Phil and April Margera of West Chester, Pa., who have unwittingly played no small role in "Jackass": The Margeras' son, a 23-year-old skateboarding star named Bam Margera, who apparently still lives at home, is continually playing jackass pranks on his folks. "I feel," he announces to the video camera, "like kicking my dad's ass all day today."
And so he does, leaping upon his slumbering, hirsute paterfamilias and whaling on him, and attaching a toilet plunger to his face, and digging a hole in the yard into which Phil drives a lawn mower, or attacking Phil while he sits upon the toilet and reads the newspaper.
Phil and April Margera always manage to get past any rage at their jackass offspring. Even in pain, Phil cannot suppress his laughter and delight in his son. Phil has said, in interviews, that he thinks the jackasses the nicest boys in the world (his other son plays in a punk band called Camp Kill Yourself). It might surprise child psychologists (or not) that Bam Margera didn't drink any alcohol until he was 21.
When April Margera learned that Bam's chief "Jackass" sidekick, Ryan Dunn, was going to duct-tape his orifices shut and jump into a vat of raw sewage at the local treatment plant, she asked why.
"Because he's [expletiving] brave, that's why," Bam replied.
"Brave? I don't know about that," April mused, but underlying her concern was a kind of approval and a mother's love.
The rest of the world is far less approving of "Jackass." Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has railed against it. Sheriffs o'er the land have blamed any number of teen high jinks on the show's bad influence. In Houma, La., "Jackass" cast member Stephen Glover (far better known to the world as Steve-O) was arrested in August on felony obscenity and second-degree battery charges for a performance in which he allegedly (and God knows what compels us to type "allegedly" here) stapled his scrotum to his thigh, and presided over a stunt in which a bar patron was knocked unconscious.
The trial's been put off until December, but no matter the outcome, put your money on the jackasses in the bigger picture. For they've tapped into something deep and meaningful in all that pointlessness: cultural revolt. Even as they (and MTV's lawyers) implore us to not try these stunts at home, we cannot help but feel as we laugh that they've made a nation of jackasses out of us all, and it feels inclusive, decadent and true.
Late in "Jackass: The Movie," Knoxville and his merry men have their finest moment, hiding in the shrubs of a golf course and blowing an air horn at golfers just as they're in upswing.
The golfers, standing in for Establishment America (as golf always has), react much as you would expect golfers to do. One man throws his club at Knoxville, then turns around and decides to knock a golf ball toward his cackling tormentors. Naturally, just as he's about to swing as hard as he can, they air-horn him again.
All that vomit is worth it, when the jackasses stick it to the Man.