No less an authority than Jerry Lewis wrote, in his underappreciated primer The Total Film-Maker, that the movies began with slapstick. For Lewis, Hollywood started when the Keystone Kops tripped over a well-placed banana peel. Physical comedy remained part of film and TV throughout the 20th century: Buster Keaton's head near-missing a swinging plank; Moe snatching Larry's nose in a pair of pliers; Chevy Chase stumbling over an ersatz Oval Office desk.
In this sense, Jackass extends longstanding traditions into the digital-video age. The new twist here, of course, is that there are no pratfalls or pulled punches. When one of Jackass' endlessly giggling suburban badasses slaps another across the head, that sharp thwack is real. It's funny, as the old saying goes, because it's true.
Shrewdly, the Jackass gang didn't mess with their established formula in the transition to the big screen. Their feature debut plays like a longer episode of the show, with unbleeped obscenities and unfuzzed nudity. (There's more male nakedness here than in all three Porky's combined, and enough jockstraps to fill a year of Honcho.)
The structure is ruthlessly efficient: no plot, no characters, no sets and no downtime—just one sight-gag after another. Some of the best are quick visual one-liners, as when Johnny Knoxville trampolines into a ceiling fan or attaches fireworks onto the heels of his roller skates to create ill-fated, Wile E. Coyote-style "rocket skates" that fuzz, spark, then slam his face onto the pavement.
Others involve elaborate Candid Camera setups that draw unwitting bystanders into the chuckle zone for some classic reaction-shot japes—though more often than not, it's the Jackass crew themselves who bear the brunt of humiliation. One cringingly hilarious sequence involves a matchbox car, a condom, a handful of personal lubricant, and a trip to the doctor's for an emergency X-ray. Even die-hard self-mutilator Steve-O declines to serve as the butt of that particular gag.
However, not all the jokes are purely pain-based. There's a noticeable Spike Jonze pop-surreal touch when the group heads to Japan—mythical land of the easily bewildered—and skateboards down a busy commercial district dressed in grubby panda suits. One of the film's producers, Jonze himself appears in a bit in which he and two other guys blow a chunk of the budget on latex senior-citizen full-body masks and Rascal scooters, then set off through city streets seeking mischief.
MTV would surely love to claim Jackass as a mutant by-product of its Real World franchise, but its roots lie elsewhere. Knoxville began by testing self-defense products on a video for skateboard magazine Big Brother; other participants cut their teeth in the skater-heavy CKY video-prank series. Their self-destructive brand of docu-comedy emerged as a bizarrely elaborate version of a skateboard-video mainstay: slam sections, in which footage of guys fucking up and hitting concrete are anthologized for brutally sympathetic comic relief.
Jackass' appeal draws on another aspect of skate culture: the notion of twentysomething misfits—with no girls in sight—still living the dream of overgrown-teenager class-clown shtick. But Jerry Lewis believed the childish pleasures of getting retarded were not simply at the root of great comedy; schlemiel-ing is also a form of psychological resilience. "I am 9 years old when performing comedy," he wrote. "At that age, hurt is possible, but degradation is seldom possible."