It's Not Funny Till Someone Gets Hurt | Feature | Chicago Reader

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It's Not Funny Till Someone Gets Hurt

From "Fear Factor" to "Jackass: The Movie," a fast growing genre celebrates the hot new American pastime: pain.



When Johnny Knoxville made the cover of Rolling Stone last year, he wore a jockstrap over his jeans, his wrists were lashed with rope to a red-and-white target, and there was a large bull's-eye painted on his bare chest. Knoxville, the star of Jackass: The Movie, which pulled in $22.7 million when it opened last weekend, may look like Donny Osmond on a bender, but there's no denying his star power. You just have to see him in action--getting shot in the chest with a 120,000-volt stun gun, say--to know that he's headed for the top. The question is, What kind of shape will he be in when he gets there?

Knoxville, whose real name is P.J. Clapp, has taken a few spills off the ladder of success. In fact, you could argue that he climbed the ladder of success by hurling himself off it. Something between a prankster and a stuntman, Knoxville's the hardest-falling man in show business.

Let's go to the highlights reel. The MTV show Jackass, upon which the movie is based (and which Knoxville pulled the plug on after 24 episodes), always opens with one of those don't-try-this-at-home warnings, but instead of a skull and crossbones, this one features a skull and crutches. On the show Knoxville has endured the following: He's been temporarily blinded with pepper spray. He's been perfumed by a skunk. He's been repeatedly zapped with a 50,000-volt Taser. He's slathered himself with honey and allowed 15,000 bees to swarm over him. He's covered his entire body with meat and allowed German shepherds to sink their teeth into him. He's received a colonic irrigation while wearing a Santa Claus suit. He's been hit by a car. And in what may have been his piece de resistance, he shot himself in the chest with a .38-caliber handgun while wearing a Kevlar suit supplemented with back issues of Hustler and Leg World. The porn mags did their job: he survived.

Knoxville isn't the only jackass on Jackass, just the only one who may have a life after death-defying stunts. A televisual clubhouse with a NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign nailed to the door, Jackass is a celebration of boys-will-be-boys shenanigans, all the things our parents told us not to do. Don't ride a scooter down a steep hill. Don't swallow a goldfish and then barf it back up. Don't stick an earthworm in your nose and pull it out your mouth. Don't dive into a pile of elephant dung. Don't bob for jellyfish. Don't drink bong water. And if I've told you once I've told you a million times, don't staple the letters J-A-C-K-A-S-S to your butt while wearing a jock that appears to be made out of duct tape. Oh, and don't play "nut ball," in which guys sit around in their underwear with targets drawn on their crotches and toss racquetballs at one another's chances of having kids.

What unites these half dozen or so men behaving badly is the infliction of pain--specifically, the infliction of pain upon oneself. Not since Leopold von Sacher-Masoch collected material for his scandalous 19th-century novel Venus in Furs--whence the term "masochism" was coined--have gentlemen derived so much pleasure from abusing and debasing their bodies. And make no mistake about it: Jackass is erotic--homoerotic. Knoxville and his crew spend a lot of time in their underwear, and they seem stuck in the polymorphous I'll-try-anything-once perversity of early puberty. And like most polymorphous perverts, they have no shame--or rather, they're shameless in their willingness to shame themselves.

"The new mantra of reality TV is no shame, no fame," Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs told Entertainment Weekly recently. He was referring not only to such shows as Survivor and Big Brother, where contestants vie for the privilege of humiliating one another before millions of viewers, but also to those like Fear Factor and Spy TV, where they vie for the privilege of humiliating themselves. (The folks on Spy TV don't know they're being humiliated while it's happening, but they do sign the waivers later.) Television has been selling this bar of soap for decades, from You Bet Your Life to I Bet You Will. But the text, if not the subtext, has shifted. In the old shows, suffering was the by-product. (You had to have suffered to be crowned "Queen for a Day.") Today, it's the product. Instead of grace under pressure, audiences now crave disgrace under pressure.

Consider I Bet You Will, which airs weekdays on MTV at 3 PM, just as America's teens and preteens--Madison Avenue's Holy Grail--arrive home after another day of not knowing the answers to any of the test questions. On I Bet You Will, the questions include, "Will you pour corn syrup all over your body and stand in a phone booth filled with flies for 30 minutes?" and, "Will you eat a peanut butter and jellyfish sandwich?" and, "Will you brush your teeth with someone else's sock?" The answer, invariably, is yes. Contes-tants are paid a fee, which they negotiate beforehand with the show's hosts, but the compensation is nominal--the sock girl got $50. Money is clearly not the point. Nor is fame, since none of the contestants get close to Andy Warhol's 15-minute allotment. Would you chew on a piece of dog poo for 20 seconds of airtime?

There's something else going on here, a kind of collective urge--especially among young men--to heap abuse upon ourselves while others watch, or watch while others heap abuse upon themselves. How did we get this way? And why does it hurt so good?

Hollywood is said to be looking for a new action hero. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone haven't flexed much muscle at the box office lately. Bruce Willis hasn't Died Hard in a while. And Mel Gibson seems content to rewrite American history in films like The Patriot and We Were Soldiers. Besides, these guys are all pushing or pulling 50. Where's the dude who can chase down a bad guy without stopping every five minutes to catch his breath? Keanu Reeves? Too Zen. The Rock? Too much a (pint-size) Schwarzenegger clone. Tobey Maguire? A lovely idea that will never get past the Spider-Man sequels. Vin Diesel? The most likely to succeed, I'd say, given his "extreme" turns in last summer's The Fast and the Furious and this summer's XXX. With his turbocharged musculature and blown-carburetor voice, Diesel could become the point man for the action-traction crowd.

But why not Johnny Knoxville? Before Jackass: The Movie he had bit parts in Big Trouble and Men in Black II. Knoxville has the right name--sounds like a race car driver's. He has the looks--handsome but battered. He has the Tennessee twang--like Elvis. And given his medical history, he's guaranteed to put the "traction" back in "action-traction." Ever since Errol Flynn, action heroes have been sending us messages about American manhood, and Knoxville seems peculiarly in tune with where American men have been headed in the last ten years or so. His street cred with the cargo-pants brigade, although it took a dive when he "sold out" to MTV (they're touchy about that kind of thing), is still higher than Vin Diesel's. Heck, most of his crew are members of the cargo-pants brigade. They're into all those "eat my shorts" sports.

Bullfighting, mountain climbing, mountain biking, skiing, surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding, bungee jumping, BASE jumping, motocross--extreme sports have been around for a while. But it wasn't until the 90s that they started defining a whole generation, which is another way of saying they made the cover of Time. What had been a subculture was now part of the main culture. As a group, teens and tweens seem increasingly bored with baseball (it's soooo sloooowww) and football (pads are for pussies). But it isn't just boredom, it's also disgust. Pro sports are so competitive, so commercialized, so associated with your dad, who spends most of his recreational time glued to the TV. Whereas "action sports"--the label preferred by aficionados, who consider "extreme" a marketing tool--require you to leave the couch behind and get out there and flirt with disaster.

Disaster can be a harsh mistress, and most of the X-tremists have the broken bones to prove it. But you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And the omelette, in this case, is a life outside the comfort zone. Growing up in a period of amazing prosperity, with no major wars and no rival superpowers, Generations X, Y, and Z have had to scrounge around for initiation rites. And so why not hurl yourself off a bridge with an elastic cord strapped around your waist? The craziness of the idea is part of its charm. Literal and metaphorical outsiders, thrill seekers wear their scars as badges of dishonor. They're not interested in winning, they're interested in going out in style, "staying core." Hence, the blue hair, the pierced eyebrows, the wool hats, the baggy shorts--the whole nonuniform uniform that marks them as both part of the tribe and part of no tribe, a marching band of rugged individualists.

David Fincher's Fight Club tried to explain these guys to themselves, but they're not into homework assignments, and the movie sputtered at the box office. (It did better overseas.) Fight Club offers the smack of flesh against flesh as a way of feeling something in our narcotized, consumption-driven lives. And, the movie seems to argue, when it comes to body slams, 'tis better to receive than to give. "Hit me again," Edward Norton says to Brad Pitt after their first exchange of blows. "No, you hit me," Pitt replies. Later, as a training exercise, Norton's minions are told to go pick a fight with a perfect stranger and lose. This leads to one of the movie's funniest scenes, when a priest, harassed by a punk who won't take no for an answer, finally hauls back and clobbers the guy.

And make no mistake about it: Fight Club is erotic--homoerotic. You only have to gaze at Pitt's washboard stomach to figure that out. There's also the intimacy of fist fighting, men's traditional way of getting up close and personal. And there are plenty of hugs to go around--Fincher's jab at Iron John and the men's movement. Perhaps the most arresting image in Fight Club is of Norton burying his face in Meat Loaf's massive breasts, a result of steroid abuse that also brought on testicular cancer. Weepy and needy, Meat Loaf's character is supposed to represent the worst-case scenario for American manhood--womanhood. As such, he's akin to the out-of-work lads in The Full Monty, who had to comport themselves like Vegas strippers to put food on the table. Hard times have supposedly left American men "stiffed," to borrow the title of Susan Faludi's book on the subject. As a bumper sticker that was going around for a while put it: Save the Males.

But save them from what? From women? From other men? From their own shadows? Faludi, in Stiffed, mentions the Greatest Generation, the members of which came back from World War II with stiff upper lips and refused to talk to their sons. David Savran, author of Taking It Like a Man, has his own list: women's lib, gay lib, black power, OPEC, Watergate, Viet-nam. In other words, all the familiar scapegoats from the 60s and 70s. The 80s were supposed to have taken care of that. President Reagan, flanked by muscle queens Schwarzenegger and Stallone, made it OK for both America and American men to push their weight around again, but it didn't last long. The economy tanked, factory jobs headed overseas, and Bill Clinton, who'd never met a man he didn't console, brought his touch-me, feel-me approach to the White House. To a country that didn't have much to complain about but felt like complaining anyway, Clinton said what everyone wanted to hear: "I feel your pain."

Pain is a necessary part of life, a signal that the body is in danger. But, alone among the species, homo sapiens has found other uses for it as well. Christianity, for instance, is virtually founded on pain--the pain Jesus Christ willingly endured on the cross. Over the centuries, Christ's crucifixion has inspired countless adherents to roll around in thornbushes, lock themselves in heavy chains, immerse themselves in freezing water, and literally whip themselves into a frenzy. The point was to express one's devotion to God or expiate one's sins or not be led into temptation. But especially among some of the Christian martyrs, suffering sometimes seemed to take on a life of its own. Saint Sebastian, whose famous arrow-pierced pose Johnny Knoxville aped on that Rolling Stone cover, endured unimaginable pain and suffering, but he's always depicted gazing lustfully upward in the general direction of heaven. Nearer, my God, to thee.

And nearer, by God, to you and me. For make no mistake about it: Paintings of Saint Sebastian are erotic, part of Christianity's great contribution to the art of S and M. The conjoining of pain and pleasure got the theoretical once-over from the budding psychiatric profession in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Krafft-Ebing thought sadism and masochism were perversions. Freud thought they were basic instincts that, in some people, spun out of control. And later theorists have suggested that it's the world that can spin out of control, leaving people more likely to gratify themselves by inflicting or enduring pain. The 60s and 70s may have been such a time in this country. Certainly the art world was registering a tectonic shift, as traditional painting and sculpture gave way to so-called body art. Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "body of work," these artists make Johnny Knoxville look like a wimp.

Take Stelarc, real name Stelios Arcardiou. Interested in transcending his body's evolutionary limitations, the Greek-born artist performed "suspension events," like the time he pierced his back with 18 fish hooks, attached 18 rings and, via a pulley system, floated over East 11th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C. Better yet, take Chris Burden, who did various things to his body as a way of capturing a jaded art world's attention. In Doorway to Heaven (1976) he pushed two wires into his chest. In Through the Night Softly (1973) he crawled naked through broken glass. And in Shoot (1975), which Johnny Knoxville may or may not have heard about, he had himself shot in the arm. His description of this last work reads like the wall documentation in a museum show: "At 7:45 PM I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about 15 feet from me." No mention of a Kevlar suit, or even a Hustler armband.

Body art coalesced in East Village clubs like Limbo Lounge and Wow Cafe, then was superseded by punk rock, which fed on the same anti-art-world, anti-art, anti-everything sentiments. But like Freud's return of the repressed, body modification would come bubbling back to the surface in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Today, we live in a carnival midway of tattoos and piercings and pumped-up pecs and overstuffed breasts and chiseled chins and vacuumed thighs. And what was once a religious act and then an artistic gesture is now a branch of the entertainment industry--"Circus of the Scars," to quote the title of a book by Tim Cridland, aka Zamora the Torture King. With their tongues piercing their cheeks, freak-and-geek troupes like the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and the Know-Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow are introducing a whole new generation to the fine arts of fire-breathing and sword swallowing.

A little farther off the beaten path, you get performers like Jim Rose, who eats lightbulbs, pounds nails up his nose, and allows others to use him as a dartboard. (Rose is credited with "reinventing the sideshow for the Lollapalooza generation.") And you get the Amazing Mr. Lifto, who uses chains to dangle a concrete block from his pierced nipples. And you get Zamora, who, among other things, swallows rope and then extracts it from a hole he cuts in his stomach. The thing is, all this is taking place not at the fairgrounds on the edge of town, but in bars and clubs and rock festivals--and on TV. In the past there was a clear distinction made between the circus and the circus sideshow. Mr. and Mrs. Grundy didn't drop in to chat with the Tattooed Man and the Bearded Lady. Today, via television shows like Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Guinness World Records Primetime, the Tattooed Man and the Bearded Lady drop in to chat with the Grundys.

Some social critics argue that we now live in a carnival culture--Michael Jackson, Jerry Springer, gross-outs, splatter fests, shock jocks, cyber porn. Conservative critics tend to hold their noses while condemning the current state of affairs. Liberal critics wade into the cesspool and worry about what it means for society. And radical critics, like Mark Dery, author of a brilliant collection of essays titled The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, do a swan dive into the swirling tide pools of our grave new world, looking for signs of new life.

For the past ten years or so, pain has been the central principle of that life. In The Culture of Pain, David Morris suggests that we're in the middle of a pain epidemic. What used to be considered a symptom is now considered a sickness, and dozens of pain clinics have sprung up all over the country to treat what Morris calls "the defining illness of our...self-absorbed era."

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that Johnny Knoxville can draw a crowd by turning himself into the "Human Pinata" and letting a group of schoolkids beat the holy crap out of him with baseball bats? The so-called War on Terrorism may change everything, of course. We may finally have found someone to pound on other than ourselves. In the meantime, this--along with military skirmishes--is what a lonely superpower does to entertain itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ben Zo.

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