Photo: Emma Prestwich

From the Archives: The Jackass Phenomenon

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Every week, we’ll bring you a gem from the Eyeopener’s archives. This week, a tale from when Pitman Hall was a sketchier and more exciting place.

By Laura Salvas

From The Eyeopener, April 2, 2003

The camcorder sits haphazardly in the middle of the floor, left there amidst a tangled mess of Playstation wires. Its owner, Steve, studies for a calculus exam in his dorm room while his roommates smash beer bottles in the kitchen. About 45 broken bottles lie in a shiny green and brown heap under the kitchen table, and shards of glass dot the living room rug. Why are they doing this? Don’t ask. Their place is decorated in a … creative manner. Their coffee table is a cardboard box with a stolen “lane ends” sign balancing on top. A collage of half-naked women hangs on the wall (it took four Maxim magazines and eight hours to create), and a plastic tree adds greenery (stolen from a pizza parlour at Christmas).

They may not live like Hollywood stars, but these guys are on the forefront of a cinematic revolution. Since moving into their Pitman Hall residence at Ryerson University, the four boys have dragged the camera with them whenever they go out at night, figuring that “something will probably happen.” And something usually does. Kyle, a first-year theatre student, opens his laptop computer to show off some of the six hours of footage he has edited. The intro to one clip, set to Blink 182’s “Anthem Part Two”, starts with a flashy sequence of fist-fights, skateboard accidents, and potentially dangerous stunts. Then the title, Ryeass, jumps onto the screen. The boys are piecing together a “best-of” video to sell to their floormates at the end of the year. In the meantime they’re shooting hours of tape, hoping to capture enough 10 second stunts to please their eager peers.

Videotaping physical feats and practical jokes has become a fad with teenage kids (mostly males) since MTV first aired Jackass, a show that featured men performing dangerous or dirty stunts and cracking jokes. The Jackass movie arrived in theatres late last year, opening at the number one spot and grossing $23 million in its first weekend. The film, recently released on video and DVD, features stunts like human bowling, eating pee snow cones, anal insertion of a toy car, and smashing into statues with golf carts. While Jackass certainly goes to extremes, it is not the first of its kind. The idea of filming people doing stupid things was at the heart of shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos, which first aired in 1990, and as far back as Candid Camera, which originated on radio in 1947. The ability for any kid to go out and do it themselves, however, is a more recent phenomenon, as camcorders and editing software have become more affordable. Today, a decent new video camera can be purchased for around $400, and as cameras become more advanced it has become easier to find cheap used camcorders on the Internet or at pawnshops. Video editing programs for computers are as cheap as $50, or free through file-sharing programs online.

“These kids don’t care about the pain. All that matters is getting their crazy acts on tape.”

The pawnshop is where Devin picked up his first video camera. Growing up in Sydenham, a town just north of Kingston, Devin and his friends struggled to keep themselves entertained. Things changed when a friend purchased CKY2K, the video that was the precursor to Jackass. “That started it all. Not only our filming crazy stuff, but our whole group’s friendship blossomed from it,” says Brandon, a shaggy-haired punk rock bassist, and a high school friend of Devin’s. “We saw it and we were like, Wow, we’ve got to make movies like this’.” So, video camera in hand, they set out to wreak havoc on their unsuspecting farm town. During Communications Technology class they would tell their teacher they were out filming “nature shots”, but would return to class with footage of burning teddy bears, skateboarding tricks, and friends eating pizza from garbage bins. Over time the stunts grew more complex. In one scene, a friend stands on top of Brandon’s car as it drives down a desolate country road. Scared, the friend leaps off the car onto a snow bank, leaving behind a dent in the car’s roof. Devin’s only injury from these video shootings, a hurt ankle, came when he jumped off the roof of his house. “I thought the snow was going to be padded but I just went right through it and hit the ground,” he says. Brandon has cut open his hand on broken glass in one stunt and had his clothes catch fire in another.

Back at Pitman Hall, a cry of pain is heard as Kyle plays back footage of his friend’s latest injury. Duncan has just used a cafeteria tray to toboggan down a 10-foot boulder in the middle of Lake Devo, the skating rink/pond on campus. The engineering student smiles proudly before slipping and smashing his head on the ice, sending his red baseball cap flying. Laughing hysterically, Kyle replays the clip three times in a row. He says he and his friends rarely get injured, and when they do it’s “nothing that you can’t walk off.” These kids don’t care about the pain. All that matters is getting their crazy acts on tape. But Kyle insists that they never endanger others with their stunts. Casualties are only ever inflicted on “one of the team,” says Kyle. “It’s not, Hey, let’s run a shopping cart into some bystanders.” MTV runs a disclaimer at the beginning of Jackass instructing viewers not to try the stunts at home, and news programs have reported many cases of arrest and serious injury, but teenagers still don’t seem to want to play it safe. In some cases kids have gotten severely injured while mimicking stunts they’ve seen on Jackass. In fact, the show was cancelled after three seasons because too many viewers were getting hurt. At least five boys, including a 13-year-old, have set themselves on fire, and a 16-year-old broke both legs trying to jump over a car. In December, a 15-year old from New Mexico died trying to jump from the hood of one moving vehicle to another. In each case, the boys’ friends helped arrange the stunts, which they claimed they saw on Jackass. In most of those cases, the kids were not only injured but also charged with reckless endangerment. A group of young people made millions off their video Bumfights. The film-makers paid homeless people money and alcohol to fight, pull teeth out with pliers, and run head-first into walls. They sold more than 300,000 copies over the Internet at $20 each. They were later charged with assault and conspiracy.

Kyle says his group’s film making has scored them some noise complaints, but he’s surprised they haven’t faced more trouble. He thinks it’s because his group knows where to draw the line. “We wouldn’t run into a store and break stuff, start throwing things around, graffiti, or break into cars,” Kyle says. “We try to stay away from theft and property damage.” But Brandon and his friends did have a close call with the police last year. They were in a parking lot, tossing each other out of shopping carts. Brandon was towing a cart full of friends behind his van when they saw a police car coming. “We all piled into my van and just sped out of there,” Brandon says, his hands gripping an imaginary steering wheel to illustrate. “Then he comes and flashes his lights … We’re all freaking out in the van, like, Oh, shit! He’s got so much against us!’ Then he comes up and he’s like, ‘You know your lights aren’t on?”

So far, they’ve managed to avoid getting in trouble with either the law or their parents. Devin says his parents accept what he does as long as he doesn’t get hurt, but he still won’t show them the tape of him driving their car without a license. Lane doesn’t show his parents the scenes of drunken parties and hazardous stunts. “My parents have kind of had the wool over their eyes the whole time,” he says. “They probably assumed I was doing something bad with the camera but they’ve never seen anything I’ve filmed.” For Devin and Brandon, the pain and humiliation pays off when they “get reactions from ignorant older people.” In a stunt dubbed Robox 3000, Brandon hides in a restaurant with a video camera. His friend enters with a box on his head and does a five minute robot dance. The camera captures customers and employees ignoring the disturbance until the friend leaves, at which point the people in the restaurant burst into laughter. “The most common reaction is like they’re too good to give a response and they don’t look like they’re paying attention, whereas you just can’t ignore a kid dancing around a small Subway screaming with a box on his head,” Brandon explains. Devin agrees, “The ones who get mad are the middle-aged men who are like, Smarten the hell up! What are you doing?!” “That’s the reaction we love right there,” Brandon says. “Because everybody watches the tape later and is like, Shut up old man, you’re stupid!'”

“There is also an element of peer pressure involved in making the films. If one backs out of a stunt it is a sign of their weakness.”

Showing their masterpieces to others is a big part of the reason video scrapbooking is so appealing. Brandon estimates he has shown his movie Sheer Madness 1 to 100 people. “We can wave it around and say we made a movie,” he says. Brandon is doubtful that any great fame will come from their movies. “I don’t think we’d get fame from our videos. I think we’d more likely get arrested.”There is also an element of peer pressure involved in making the films. If one backs out of a stunt it is a sign of their weakness. “As soon as the camera starts rolling you have to do it, so you just do it once and make sure they get it,” says Devin. But the main reason these teens say they film crazy things is because it’s a lot easier than making a “real” movie. “You can improvise crazy stuff easier than sitting down and trying to get everybody to work with you and write a story line.” Devin and Lane have been working on a more story-oriented movie together for months and it’s still incomplete. “We don’t have the time and patience to plan that shit out,” says Duncan. “We’re all too lazy.” With no hope for fame, the boys are realistic when it comes to their long term goals for the stunt movies. “I think it would be for our own use two years down the road, to look at and be like, Oh my God, what the hell was I doing?’,” says Kyle. In the meantime, Kyle plans to continue filming throughout university, or until someone dies or loses a limb. Devin and Brandon hope to continue forever. “I can see myself being 70 and still doing this every now and then,” Brandon says.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s a residence assistant checking up on a noise complaint, undoubtedly the result of the beer bottle smash-fest. The four pals argue quietly over who should get the door, while hurriedly covering the broken glass with newspaper. They tell the R.A. that they had been moving some things around an hour ago, but no, they have not heard any banging. The R.A. leaves and the boys laugh, relieved. Kyle insists that their antics actually help to keep them out of trouble. “I mean, hey, we’re not doing crack, right?”


  1. Oooh! This is so exciting that my article was brought back from the archives. Good God… did I really write that in 2003? Does that mean I’m old now? I guess so.

    Anyway, thanks, Eyeopener. This was a pleasant discovery.

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