Johnny Knoxville went from cheerful slacker to MTV's hottest new star when he discovered a simple principle: It's not funny until someone gets hurt.
By Erik Hedegaard
Three bullwhips, twenty rolls of bubble wrap, four croquet mallets, two flesh-colored thongs, two pairs of size-sixty pants, one jockstrap and cup, two plastic babies, one briefcase with several thousand volts of built-in shock power, one first-aid kit and one straitjacket are pushed to the side of a Holiday Inn hotel room in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where P.J. Clapp is about to start his working day. These things are the raw materials of his trade. Soon he will transform them into "magic," as he sometimes calls what he does, and soon thereafter this magic will find its way to the public, by way of MTV, on the show Jackass, which is currently among the most popular cable programs in the country, with about 3 million viewers tuning in each Sunday night to watch Clapp, who goes by the name of Johnny Knoxville on TV, and a few other Jackass regulars do what they do best. They swallow goldfish and barf them up; they dive into stinking hills of elephant poo; they strap on electric dog collars and zap themselves silly; they get pummeled by professional boxers named Nigel; they drink sludge-thick bong water; they try to jump the L.A. River on roller skates and mangle their ankles; they listen as a doctor intones, "You've got a lot of healing to do."
At the moment, Clapp is hunched over in a chair, gripping a bottle of water and trying to avoid the question of why, for instance, he would strap on a Kevlar bulletproof vest, buffer the impact zone with a few issues of Hustler and Leg World, and shoot himself with a .38-caliber handgun. He's a friendly, scrappy-looking guy who wears black high-tops, baggy green trousers and a tattered black leather jacket. He's got a twangy-soft Southern accent, messed-up, cowlick-riven hair and blue eyes that sometimes twitch. Occasionally he puffs on an asthma inhaler. Later today, he will get bashed by a croquet mallet. After that, he'll rocket off the side of a hill in a wheelbarrow. And then, in a while, he and his Jackass pals will rent golf carts and go at each other willy-nilly. So all in all, it's pretty clear he's no weenie. But corner him with the question of why he's driven to behavior that often makes his wife furious and his mom sob (and his dad, it must be said, laugh) - it's almost too much for him.
He crosses his legs, uncrosses them. His eyes begin to wander, twitching a little more than usual. He opens his mouth to speak, urps a few syllables, then clams up again. He's sitting there adrift for the longest time, until at last he decides what to say.
"Well, I guess I don't really intellectualize it," he says thickly, and with that he's ambling out the door, moving toward a big Ford van filled with today's props of self-destruction. Later on, he'll maybe end up in the emergency room, maybe in the courthouse, maybe in both. But you can be sure of one thing: By the time the day's over, there will have been very little deep thinking done by Clapp. As Clapp himself sometimes likes to say, "fuck that. Let's get some chili and beer, and then I'll go hump a cow."
Clapp sits in the back of the van, behind his shades, rattling the pages of a newspaper. His recent success on Jackass, which first aired on MTV in October, has led to even more recent successes at getting roles in movies. Already he is co-starring with some pretty big names - Sarah Jessica Parker and Harry Connick Jr. in Life Without Dick, and Tim Allen and Rene Russo in Big Trouble - and getting paid increasingly large amounts to do so: For The Tree, his third movie, which will start shooting in a few weeks, he's reportedly taking home $1 million. He says he doesn't know how long Jackass can last - he plans to bow out earlier rather than later - but for at least another sixteen episodes, the number that MTV has ordered for the coming season, he's totally committed. In November, the Jackass crew went to Florida to shoot segments with the great Steve-O, former Ringling Brothers clown and present champion of any stunt that involves puking, while Jackass satellite crews worked with urban-kayaking specialist Dave England in San Francisco and usually-butt-naked skateboarder Chris Pontius in San Luis Obispo, California. In a few months, the entire gang will gather in New Mexico and travel the state in an RV, no doubt making a mess of things. But for the next few days, Clapp is causing trouble here in the run-down suburban blandscape of West Chester, Pennsylvania, which is home to three of his other Jackass sidekicks, Bam Margera, 21, Ryan Dunn, 21, and Brandon Dicamillo, 25.
When the van pulls up to the Margera house, which lies across the street from a sewage-treatment plant, Clapp steps out, takes a deep breath of the slightly foul air, grins, says, "I love it!" and heads for the porch. Inside, there's Ryan, Brandon and Bam, as well as Bam's brother Jess, Jackass executive producer and co-creator Jeff Tremaine, Jackass line producer Michelle Klepper, cameramen Mike Ballard and Knate Gwaltney (who is also Clapp's cousin), and, of course, Mom and Dad Margera - nice, warm and welcoming April, a hairdresser, and bearded, big-bellied Phil, who bakes pies for the local Acme supermarket. It's a large gang stuffed into a small living room. Half of them are about to play polo on BMX bikes; they're getting dressed in riding boots, jodhpurs and polo helmets, manfully flicking their riding crops. The other half stands around chuckling. Then the conversation turns to what can and cannot be shown of a Jackass nature on MTV.
"The thing MTV wants us to stay away from," says Clapp, "is imitatable behavior - obviously, they don't want anyone to get hurt - and what they call spreadable cheeks."
"The balls, the pubic hair, none of that can show," says Tremaine.
"If you show an ass," says Clapp, "you've got to cover it."
"Wait a minute," says Bam, frowning. "Then how are you going to work that Raab Himself thing?" Raab Himself, which is the only name he goes by, is another of the local Jackass group. "Yeah, last Sunday morning, he was naked right here in the middle of the street, with just white shoes on, reading a newspaper and taking a crap. Oh, man, it was so funny. In high school, the superintendent of schools kicked him out 'cause I dared him to shit on a locker, and he did. And now, four years later, here comes that same guy driving by, and there's Raab Himself, crapping."
"It was awful!" says April Margera, laughing.
"You just see a brown blur," says Bam.
"Well, yeah," says Clapp. "Actually, that might be one for the 'Too Hot for MTV' video."
Just then, big Phil Margera walks through, heading for the kitchen. Clapp watches him go. Phil's on Jackass, too, albeit half-willingly. In one episode, he's in bed sleeping, his belly hanging out, until in the wee hours Bam sneaks in, uncovers a hidden amp, plugs in his guitar and starts thrashing on top of him, while drowsy April looks on. The great thing about Phil is that he never loses his temper, not even when Bam de-pants him in the middle of a West Chester Christmas parade. "He's such a gentle, sweet guy," says Clapp. And it's clear that Bam genuinely loves his old man and looks after him.
At today's polo match, for example, Phil will be the referee, and he's struggling into a tiny striped ref's shirt. Bam appraises the look. "Too embarrassing," he says.
"What do you mean?" says Phil.
"What do you mean, 'What do I mean?' I mean, you can't rock it in that. That gut can't hang out like that."
"Should he put a T-shirt on underneath?" asks April.
"Well, put something on underneath, because that's haggard," says Bam.
Clapp himself thinks the haggard look would play very well on TV. But he doesn't press it on Bam and his pop, and so off they all go to a field on the outskirts of town, to get on their BMX bikes and bash the heck out of each other with croquet mallets. At one point, Bam yells at his dad, "That's bullshit. You're favoring the white team. I saw it, you saw it. I don't give a fuck if I hang out in the penalty box - if you keep favoring the white, I'm going to fuck you up." He hawks a loogie in his dad's direction, then pounds on him with his fists. And Phil just takes it in stride.
Afterward, walking across the field, Clapp says, "My dad's name is Phil, too, and he was always pulling pranks on me when I was growing up. When I was seven or eight, he would get a hot dog and microwave it for ten seconds, get it lukewarm and flaccid, and run it through my lips when I was sleeping. I'd wake up and he'd be, like, zipping up his pants. I'd be, 'What're you doing?' And he'd explode with laughter. He's his own biggest fan. It's great. He's amazing. His personality is huge." He pauses and then says, mirthfully, "My old man."