I Just Watched All The Jackass Movies For The First Time And Dudes Rock

As I sat down to watch "Jackass Forever," I realized too late that the hot dog I'd just scarfed down may have been a mistake. These movies are, after all, known for making participants and audience members alike lose their lunch. Would I be able to hang with the best of them, or would I end up hurling like Lance the cinematographer? Luckily, my first big-screen "Jackass" experience went off without a hitch or a hiccup. In fact, by the time I left the theater 96 minutes later, my only worry was when I'd ever find another movie to make me feel this great again.

Getting into "Jackass" was never part of my plan. As a kid, my older brother had the anarchic MTV show on DVD, and I remember watching scenes of Nutball and of Steve-O swallowing a goldfish, wondering "why?" the whole time. Parts of the show appealed to me, and I had (and still have) a raging crush on Johnny Knoxville, but at the time I mostly filed "Jackass" away on the list of dude-oriented things that didn't make sense to me.

Then, nearly two decades later, something funny happened: I saw the "Jackass Forever" trailer 20 times. Thanks to pandemic-era delays, the trailer for the franchise's fourth film seemed to play before every movie I watched in theaters for the better part of year, wearing me down until I began to think it in itself might be a work of art. I'm not sure if it was the wistful Johnny Cash song or the earnest central question — "When was the last time you got together with old friends to laugh your asses off?" — but before I knew it, I was deeply ingratiated to "Jackass." I decided I had to see "Jackass Forever," and the instant I finished it, I knew I needed to see the rest of the films. Like a marching band hitting a treadmill, I suddenly found myself falling hard and fast for "Jackass."

The series would be nothing without its Jackasses

Here's what I recently found out: "Jackass" rocks. Even the most positive praise for the prank and stunt-heavy films still describes them as "stupid," but I really don't think they are. These movies are precisely designed to push the limits of cinema, of good taste, and of the human body. They pull equally from the works of John Waters, Buster Keaton, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Sometimes they feel like demented sitcoms, like when Chris Pontius makes an exasperated face like something out of "I Love Lucy" as Ehren McGhehey fusses about laying on a bed of nails. Often, they serve as genuine homages to great movies, as in the truly dazzling Busby Berkeley-inspired finale to "Jackass Number Two."

These films would be nothing without their cast, a group of benevolent pain freaks whose greatest achievement in life seems to have been finding one another. The obvious ringleader is Johnny Knoxville, the much-concussed performer who spent most of the 2000s dressed like a black-haired Brad Pitt in a random sailor hat. In another life, Knoxville could be a cult leader; he can talk his friends into almost anything, and can't help laughing like a devil while they shake in fear. When it comes his turn to take a beating — as it always does, because these guys have somehow built an egalitarian prank utopia where everyone gets their due — he miraculously stays standing through stunts that could have killed him.

Every member of the "Jackass" crew is utterly fascinating, from ever-anxious McGhehey, who is frequently subjected to the most traumatizing stunts, to Pontius, a good-natured dude who seems curiously determined to invent new and increasingly unnerving ways to ruin his penis with each movie. There's also Bam Margera, a moody, prickly presence in the first three films, who was fired from "Jackass Forever" after reportedly breaking a drug-related wellness agreement. The latest film also introduces new, younger members of the group who fit in with ease, including the first woman Jackass, Rachel Wolfson.

Steve-O's greatest stunt is making sobriety cool

As the movies chug along over the course of two decades, they turn into a sort of unorthodox character study, like a perverse, post-modern alternative to Michael Apted's "Up" documentary series. If we look at "Jackass" this way, Steve-O is by far the most rewarding figure to study. In the first film, he frets about what his dad would think if he shoved a toy car up his rectum for a joke, reaching his own limits within the group's playful push against the status quo. It's the only time he ever seems to doubt his body's abilities, and his own line in the sand clearly annoys him. By "Jackass Number Two" he's overcome his one hang-up, putting everything from fireworks to keg tubes up there when he's not too busy pulling a leech from his eye or shoving a fish hook clean through his cheek. If Knoxville is the probable head injury guy and Pontius is the naked guy, Steve-O is the series' all-around yes man.

Steve-O famously got sober in 2009, yet somehow he's since maintained and even improved upon his role as the group's most daring, body-baring member. His early stunts convey a total disregard for his own flesh and bones, one that reads like both a craving for attention and a barely disguised death wish. Now, he's still up for anything, but he doesn't go vacant when he puts himself into situations no one else in the world would ever say yes to. He's wholly present, a funny and well-adjusted weirdo proving it's possible to grow up, take care of yourself, and still be a Jackass. As someone who plans to stay sober for the rest of my life, I feel lucky that a guy like Steve-O is out there, proving once and for all that being sober doesn't mean being boring. Steve-O's genuinely inspiring real-life character arc shows that if you put your mind to it, you can treat your body like a temple and a funhouse.

The franchise is transgressive and limitless

"Jackass" pushes the envelope in a dozen different ways, nearly all of which feel like a net good for the world. The franchise isn't without its faults, especially when it turns random bystanders into unwilling participants, but that's a tactic the group has all but retired by now. They don't punch down — they just punch each other. For the most part, the series is a work of unadulterated creativity. The best entries in the series — which, in my opinion, are "Jackass Number Two" and "Jackass Forever" — are utterly inspired in their arrangement and execution, perfectly crafted by director Jeff Tremaine to elicit maximum laughs and groans. The "Jackass" films are limitless in a way that makes most every other outrageous moment in on-screen history feel utterly restrained.

Oftentimes, it's the smallest bits in the franchise that endear me the most, like when the guys turn into full-fledged fart scientists to try to engineer a flatulent stunt, or when Knoxville straps on roller skates and dances through a herd of buffalo just to make the old Roger Miller song a reality. Other times, the statements are more obvious, like when the guys dress up as soldiers for "Jackass 2.5" in a "Patton" homage that ends with them baring their asses to the camera. As with all things traditional, "Jackass" frequently gives heteronormativity the middle finger. As the series progresses, flinging dildos every which way as it does, it's clear that the gang embraces their unlikely place in the queer film canon.

It might seem silly to get this deep about a series that's built on stunts with names like "Poo Cocktail Supreme," but even the descents into gross-out humor are transgressive. The films demystify bodies in a very concrete way, reminding us that poop and puke and blood and sweat are parts of everyday life. Danger, too. It's strange how easy it is to get used to the primal, impulse-driven "Jackass" world, and how odd it is to go back into the stuffy real one, where boundaries are everywhere, and everyone pretends they'll never get hurt.

Oh no: I'm really, really into Jackass now

"Jackass" may have started as a series of reckless stunts, but over the past two decades it's grown into an unorthodox, endlessly entertaining saga about finding your people. Luckily, at some point along the way, Knoxville, Steve-o, Wee Man, and their friends turned out to be our people as well. It sounds contradictory when the stunts on screen have nearly killed the performers more than once, but something about "Jackass Forever" makes it feel like a safe place to land.

Maybe it's seeing grown men shamelessly act out what author Leigh Cowart calls "feeling bad to feel better" (their book on masochism, "Hurts So Good" mentions "Jackass" in its opening pages). Maybe it's the beauty of seeing the "Jackass" crew pick each other up off the floor after knocking each other down — though perhaps clinging to one another a little tighter after losing original cast member Ryan Dunn in 2011. It could be witnessing the delightfully organized chaos of a movie set where tasers and electric razors seem to be handed out in place of OSHA pamphlets. Or maybe it's the fact that the group clearly never wants these hijinks to end, but knows they can any time — as evidenced by the movies' often-sincere end credits, accompanied by songs like Weezer's "Memories" and the "La Cage Aux Folles" standard "The Best of Times."

Something about "Jackass" is addictive. After witnessing Dave England's poop volcano and a pig eating an apple from Preston Lacy's ass in "Jackass 3D," I thought I was finally ready to tap out of the franchise for a while. Yet this ridiculous obsession chose me, and even after finishing the series, I still find myself drifting over to YouTube every day to learn more about Knoxville's torn urethra, Steve-o's tattoos, and new member Poopies' shark bite.

I'm not the only one who can't seem to quit. During the press tour for the new movie, the team has been hesitant to call it their last, and when an interviewer recently asked who was most likely to retire first, they were met with dead silence. These Jackasses seem destined to keep chasing the high together forever, gunning full throttle through life one joyful stunt at a time. I want them to be safe, but I freely admit I'll also watch whatever else they choose to do next. It's just like the song says: "The best of times is now. As for tomorrow, well, who knows?"