Posted: 06/25/2003


Jackass: The Movie


by Del Harvey

I’ve finally found a way to express why this film is so funny, thanks to a short conversation with Hank and Sharyn Yuloff.

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Several months ago I was browsing through the video aisles when I realized there was one film I had not seen and which none of our writers had reviewed. Although highly touted by even the most unlikely of sources, I chose never to watch the film, holding high my banner of self-righteous pride in what I believed to be the most supreme good taste.

Still, as I stood there, looking over the offerings, I told myself that I had no right to judge without giving the thing a chance. And so, along with a copy of a popular Chinese film starring Chow-Yun Fat, I picked up a copy of Jackass and strolled to the checkout counter.

Instead of the feared “You’re renting that?” comment, I was regaled with resounding support from the two video store clerks; one of each sex. Amused, I reminded myself that they were both in their early twenties, if that old. Full of smug assuredness that I would be hitting the eject button after a good fifteen minutes of, “Well, I tried,” I carried my rentals home.

All I can say is, after watching the film that evening, I was glad that I had several more nights in which to re-watch the film. I popped it into the slot, pressed Play, and within five minutes realized I was laughing harder than I had laughed in a film in a very, very long time.

Recently, I was having dinner with Hank and his lovely wife when we embarked on a conversation about comedy films. They asked if I was the person who had suggested they watch the original The In-Laws before going to see the recent remake with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. I proudly admitted to this fact, and they immediately pounced upon me, asking why I would suggest they watch such an awful film? Shocked, I could not answer at first. They struggled to sit through it and, even though they did not admit it, I don’t believe they watched it to the very end.

At the time, I could not understand how these two avid filmgoers could have missed out on what is largely considered a comedy classic of the Seventies. Of course, they had never seen the film when it first came out, but that could not matter. It is full of classic sketches and superbly silly characters; a leap ahead for its time and popular with the crowd and the critics alike. How could this be?

And then I realized that most comedies aren’t really all that funny. Sure, they’ve got laughs, and funny people in them, but how much laugh do you get per film? And, after thinking about it, I could only come up with two films where the volume of laughs exceeded most comedy films.

To begin with, most comedies are not strictly comedies, which is another tidbit of information which most folks don’t realize. A lot of comedies are either romantic comedies or musical comedies. When Harry Met Sally or The Blues Brothers, to cite two recent examples. Yes, This Is Spinal Tap is also a musical comedy, but it is also a parody. Yet another variety heard from. See how much has to go into the film before they get to the ‘comedy’ part?

So, what’s my point? My point is that these are films which require structure in order for the film’s humor to work really well. You have to provide some basic story, introduce a bunch of characters, and put them into a situation which becomes funny for the unbelievable twists and turns and situations they are placed in. What you end up with is about 15 minutes of laughs out of a 90 minute film.

Oh, you disagree? Rent any popular comedy, get out your watch, and begin calculating the laughs in a cold, analytical style. “Who would do such a thing!” you say? A writer. A comedy writer. Did you think it was easy? It’s work, and it involves structure. And I am lecturing you, but there’s a reason. Most comedy films don’t offer all that much comedy because they have to involve you in their story: American Pie, Dumb and Dumber, Stripes, Men In Black, Groundhog Day, Bowfinger, Water Boy, and so on and so on.

Okay, now that I’m numbing you with all of this, let’s get back to the two films I came up with that gave more laughs per minute than any other, kind of like more meat per pound. Dig? And, this is where I want you to write in and tell me, “Nuh-uhh! There was…” and then I want to hear your suggested film. And then I want you to sit down with that film and calculate the total minutes of laughter in the film. If you get 20, you’re lucky. The Naked Gun might be one of these, but it was directed by the same guys who did one of the two films I propose as having more laughs per volume, and it’s a parody.

Being a parody is a great comedic structure because you’re presenting archetypical characters. You look at the person dressed in a suit in a situation and your mind registers some similar image from memory. The writer’s job is two-thirds done. Airplane is a parody and one of the first and best comedies from Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams. It is full of one-liners and sight gags—also known as ‘Vaudeville’—and has more laughs per volume than almost any other film. There are any number of short bits which come easily to mind: the perverse pilot who keeps asking Tommy if he likes gladiator movies; the hyper control tower supervisor who’s out of control and whose drug dependencies are out of control; or even the silly, one-off sight gag of an inflatable “Otto Pilot.”

Jackass is even funnier. It is all just short bits of slapstick and absurdity. It is kids being kids and doing the most ridiculous stuff and being funny. No wonder teenagers look at the television show which spawned the film and imitate some of its life-threatening stunts: who doesn’t want to be funny? And there is something for everyone here to laugh at. And even the characters who perform these outrageous feats of silliness emerge by the end of the film and every viewer has their favorite.

I’m quite sure that all of my neighbors thought I had been attacked by some of Joker’s laughing gas as I sat in my living room laughing my sorry ass off as the skits unwound on my TV screen. Preposterous, incredible, astoundingly dumb. That is exactly what a lot of these bits are. But they are mostly funny as Hell. A few are painful, but many are just plain damned funny. And there is a universal funny to some of them. I’ve talked with other middle-aged folk at the video store (Yeah, I’m over 30—so what?) who cited the skit with two guys dressed up as old men as being the funniest thing they’ve seen in a very long time. It’s like taking Tim Conway’s “old man” character from The Carol Burnett Show and putting him into a real life situation, then being as outlandish as possible and videotaping the entire thing.

So, there you have it. The dreamchild of director Spike Jonze and actor Johnny Knoxville, Jackass is a collection of real-TV site gags, performance art in public places, skit comedy performed on a life’s stage, with resoundingly humorous results. None of that messy story stuff to get in the way; just pure comedy. It’s nothing new: it’s really a cross between Vaudeville and Allen Funt’s Candid Camera TV show. If you are as embarrassed as most people about renting the film, then hide it under a copy of The Hours or As Good As It Gets. But either way, watch the film and then let me know if it isn’t all that.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He is a devout Bears fan, a lover of Grant Park in any season, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.

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