“We were never safe.” The cameramen of Jackass tell all
Hidden cameras, lots of poop, and Jackass 4.
It's been two decades since MTV drove a crutch through the heart of acceptable taste in what would become one of the most notorious comedy shows of all time.
By only its second episode, Jackass was raking in 2.4 million worldwide viewers as Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and Steve-O skateboarded off houses and jumped in poop to their heart’s content. It was every parent's worst nightmare, and rightly so.
As the franchise celebrates its 20th anniversary on October 1, a host of Jackass' crew, production staff, and camera operators have returned to the franchise for one last hoorah to shoot the long-anticipated Jackass 4 after a decade away from the mayhem. With the world in need of a few good laughs in 2020, Inverse sat down with Rick Kosick, Sean Cliver, Dimitry Elyashkevich, and Lance Bangs to go right back to the beginning, and to work out how a band of unlikely magazine staffers ended up creating a comedy classic that would define a generation.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS — "I discovered Steve-O in Albuquerque on a skate trip for DuFFS Shoes," laments Dimitry Elyashkevich, a photographer for provocative skateboarding publication Big Brother, which was at the heart of the series' conception. "He caught wind that we were shooting, so one night he drank some rubbing alcohol, and did a backflip while someone set his hair on fire. Before long, his whole head's scorched and melting. We called an ambulance, and he was still just doing handstands in the driveway, waiting for the ambulance.”
“He was fucking annoying, he followed us around everywhere after that," Elyashkevich concludes. Cliver remembers it just as clearly: “He was very enthusiastic, to the point where we wanted nothing to do with him. We were already over him by that point.”
With "charming Southern gentleman" Johnny Knoxville at its heart, the initial Jackass line-up was completed by "gentle barbarian" Chris Pontius, former Big Brother video star Jason "Wee-Man" Acuña, aspiring actor Preston Lacey, and the West Chester CKY crew, led by Bam Margera and Ryan Dunn.
Completing the Portland faction of the troop was "weird-minded" Dave England and fellow snowboarder Ehren McGhehey, the son of a mortician, who grew up in a conservative religious family that ran a funeral home. The latter was a constant source of bafflement to the crew: “He would constantly question what Jesus would think about the stunts we were doing, or take a pass because he was trying to go to Heaven” recalls Bangs. The cast was put to task, and set upon receiving colonics, swallowing goldfish, and setting themselves on fire, being paid per stunt for their meager troubles.
HOW TO FILM A TV SHOW — The logistics of filming a television show were largely alien to the Big Brother staffers, who had little training outside of shooting skate tours for the magazine.
"None of us knew what we were doing," Kosick says. "We were getting paid like a hundred bucks a day to just run around with our bros."
There were no contracts, no medics, no permits, and at times the crew were left questioning whether it was even legally possible to broadcast what they were filming.
"I don't think I can even convey how not like other productions or shoots it was," adds Bangs, an experienced video director brought in to assist for some of the more high-stakes stunts. "Nobody knew that you couldn't work for 18 hours in a row. There were no meal breaks. And I don't think I ever signed a time card or clocked in or clocked out."
Y2K TECHNO-TROUBLES — In the days before GoPros and iPhones, shooting was far from straightforward. Right up into the first movie, Jackass was largely shot on consumer-level Sony PD-150s, flip-screen Handycams, and “mini DV tapes like the ones you could have bought at Silo,” as Bangs remembers. “When you're in bright daylight on those cameras the sky looks blown out and there's not much detail. It just didn't look great.”
Elyashkevich breaks it down further: “Sometimes for a stunt it would just be like “Ride down there, eat shit, that’s it!”, and then “Oh wait, no, you gotta do it again”.”
"We'd put a camera in place to get a great shot, and it might get destroyed after two takes because a bowling ball hit it," Bangs concludes.
With "run and gun" the shooting tactic, for the most part, blending in with the crowd to "look like an everyday Schmo" often caused problems in itself. “They were the most obtrusive things,” Cliver recalls. The crew would cut holes in backpacks, shoot at waist-height, and wander around on street corners looking “really stiff and awkward.” And things would go wrong at the most inconvenient moments.
One early stunt, 'The Poo Poo Platter,' remains vivid in Kosick’s mind: "We were shooting in a diner where Knoxville had ordered breakfast, and then taken off the sausage and put poop on there instead so he could send it back saying ‘There's something wrong with my food.’ I had this weird contraption on my backpack, and my glasses have the camera, and for some reason, it didn't record. It's the most insane, heated battle in that restaurant, and I walked out so stressed. And I didn't get any of it. We had to shoot it multiple times because of the fuck-ups. With multiple poops."
In the version of the skit that aired, Knoxville and Kosick were caught brown-handed in a Thai restaurant after the proprietor realized they were trying to hide a camera in a rolled-up newspaper.
HEALTH & SAFETY — Technical issues weren't the only challenge faced while shooting Jackass. With pranks and shenanigans central to the series' appeal, the crew had to be prepared for anything.
"Operating was usually done with one camera in your right hand, and then your left hand down covering your nuts," recalls Bangs. "And if you lost that composure, you would get hit or kicked quickly to remind you not to be so disrespectful."
"You were never safe,” adds Dimitry. “Never."
Even guests to the set were at risk. One of the funniest memories, in Bangs’ mind, involved a men's culture magazine reporter arriving in Florida, only to wind up with a U-shaped bike lock attached to him.
"It was a great visual," he recalls. "Watching him trying to continue working and writing with a bike lock around his neck in a way that was going to make it hard to get back on an airplane when he was done."
PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE — Knoxville, the crew unanimously agree, was the most persistent threat. "He was always looking to hit you in the nuts with an apple or an orange, or whatever he had in his hand," says Cliver. "And peeing on each other also became a big thing."
“He would barricade his hotel room door in case someone got the keys, and build traps and have tasers and cattle prods all within arms reach, no matter where he was in the room,” continues Bangs. “You have to wonder what are the new things he's had time to think up over the last decade now that we're back shooting Jackass 4. It's just accumulative."
Seeking revenge was pointless: "It just adds fuel to the fire," claims Cliver. Though Elyashkevich does recall forcing Dave England to jump off a horse running at full speed over and over again after he was "really naughty" one time, and also counts watching groups of kids kicking Knoxville in the balls for ‘The Cup Test’ as a series highlight.
In Kosick’s view, chief instigator Knoxville would get his comeuppance through the grisly injuries he sustained over the years, with a tear of his urethra being the worst of them all. "When someone says hold on to the handlebars and don't let go, it means don't let go," he concludes. "And he never listened."
But the constant sense of danger, in Bangs’ mind, was part of what made the show so good. "I think everyone benefits from being adrenalized. Part of why the show had so much energy and fervor was because everyone was operating in fight or flight mode all the time." Cliver has similarly fond memories: “It was just non-stop fun, getting more and more ridiculous. Like, suddenly we're out shooting with Brad Pitt for the TV show, and just hanging out. It was crazy."
FRIENDS REUNITED — With the Jackass team reuniting this year the crew remains adamant that the energy remains the same on Jackass 4. "Some of the guys are pushing 50, but no one's really grown up," says Elyashkevich. "No one knows exactly what they're doing, still, and that's part of the charm."
"We only shot seven days before we got shut down because of the coronavirus, but I tell you, by the seventh day, all cylinders were firing hard,” adds Kosick. “I think we're coming across some of the funniest stuff we've ever made."
And while Bangs agrees that the camaraderie has been top-notch, he's less enthusiastic about attempting it again in another ten years' time. "It wouldn't be funny to watch Dave England blowing out his knee at 60," he opines. But for the rest of the crew, the options remain open. "I can do this for a while still, as long as I'm behind the camera," says Cliver. "There's more than one way to paint the canvas," adds Kosick.
But it's Elyashkevich that offers the most hopeful solution to those keeping their fingers crossed for further installments: "I've got some kids who are more than happy to hurt old Knoxville. So, who knows?"