Upon the advent of the commercial digital camera at the start of the 1990s, the once unattainable concept of ‘celebrity’ began to appear a lot closer to home. The everyday individual could now film themselves and capture their own cinematic stories with friends and family, capturing birthdays, weddings, holidays and sometimes just general hijinks. At the turn of the new millennium, once the broadcasting of such individuals became commonplace, suddenly everyone who owned a camera became their own reality star.
Whilst television studios around the world were searching for ways to capitalise on the boom of reality shows during the early ’00s with the likes of Big Brother, Survivor and Pop Idol, it was the rudimentary efforts of a hodgepodge group of friends that would prove to be the most enormous subversive success. Led by the maniacal behaviour of Johnny Knoxville, inspired by the gonzo-journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, Jackass compiled skateboarders and daredevils from across America under one encompassing identity that comprised delinquents, rebels and genuine personalities.
First aired on MTV in October 2000, the innovative series quickly became a massive sensation, going viral long before the popularity of the internet took hold. Providing a new breed of comedy, Jackass was the first show to truly turn the camera on its subject, becoming one of the very first shows of its kind to make the stars of the show the butt of the joke, instead of the general public. Centred around stunts and skits that tested the group’s pain and endurance, Jackass utilised personal, handheld digital cameras to make themselves the star of the show, birthing the very first reality TV stars.
Reinventing reality TV with a daring prank format built upon a central, integral friendship of the lead cast members, the Jackass crew managed to make something that was strangely both deplorable and wholesome. To many groups of young people worldwide, the camaraderie and nonsense they saw on screen was no different from the daily hijinks they would experience with their own friends.
Only a year later, in July 2001, Jackass was cancelled after 25 episodes, a decision that would merely strengthen the team and encourage them to release Jackass: The Movie in 2002, popularising their pranks to a wider audience. Such created a perfect storm with the burgeoning rise of the video platform Youtube, a space that allowed groups of friends across the world to emulate their success with similar stunts and antics, without the need to send audition tapes to studios.
Rising to popularity at the dawn of Youtube came the likes of Ed Bassmaster, Greg Benson and Rémi Gaillard. They each hopped on the trend of prank videos and popularised the genre on the video hosting site, leading to thousands of copycat channels throughout the remaining decade. Roman Atwood, Vitaly Zdorovetskiy and even Logan Paul would follow, with each new channel gaining tens of millions of subscribers each as the influence of Jackass began to be felt truly.
Whilst the likes of Logan Paul often capitalised on the misery or misfortune of others, such as the infamous time he captured a dead body on film in 2017 and proceeded to mock the victim, Jackass was built on far more wholesome foundations, upholding the importance of friends and family before anything else. Despite this, there’s no doubt that in the contemporary perpetual search for ‘more views’ and ‘more popularity’ the desperation of the likes of Logan Paul to perform ever more outrageous stunts was certainly born out of the innocence of Jackass.
Never in the interest of punching down, the spirit of the Jackass crew was passed on to Sacha Baron Cohen, who utilised a similar technique, albeit under the guise of several characters, to mock politicians, celebrities and more. Under the costume of Ali G, Bruno and Borat, Cohen too made himself the subject of the comedy, constantly turning the camera on himself to expose the absurdity of the many ludicrous situations he would find himself in.
Heralding in a new brand of prank comedy that brought focus onto the new invention of cell phones and social media, the Jackass crew pioneered the viral video with stunts so outrageous friends simply needed to share the content. The difference is, where several Youtube celebrities and even Sacha Baron Cohen himself has stooped to punching down on others, Jackass has endured by staying true to its core principles.
Simply watch the trailer for their latest (and likely last) outing, putting the nostalgia of friends and the importance of comradery, first.