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Wrestling and Jackass: Two Silly Approaches to the Pain of Being Alive

This Sunday, less than a week before the premiere of Jackass Forever, Johnny Knoxville will enter WWE’s Royal Rumble. As a 23 year veteran of the Jackass franchise, in which he has been concussed by a bull, thrown from a motorcycle, and KO’ed by Butterbean himself, entering the Rumble is likely one of the least risky things the 50 year old has done in his career.

Few non-kayfabe celebrities are as suited to the pain of performing professional wrestling as the Jackass cast. Knoxville’s recent coup in throwing Sami Zayn over the ropes a few weeks ago wasn’t the first time he’d entered the ring. Knoxville’s 2008 feud with the Great Khali over the supposed size of Khali’s manhood resulted in a trip out of the stadium on a stretcher for Knoxville. Steve-O and Chris Pontius have also seen some in-ring action, when in 2007, they appeared in a segment in which Umaga had to put the hurt on Steve-O for real, because nobody thought to explain the concept of “selling” to the poor guy. In a YouTube video where Steve and Pontius react to footage of their appearance, Steve-O says that he was never much of a fan of wrestling, but felt like a natural when he stepped in the ring. The fact that he wasn’t a fan doesn’t surprise me, but neither is the fact that he loved it once he got there. While the content of the two franchises is often similar, their philosophies differ in subtle but crucial  ways.

Two TV shows About Men Getting Hurt

Jackass debuted on MTV in 2000, in the midst of WWE’s Attitude Era. While the mainstream popularity of pro wresting at the time may have paved the way for a TV show primarily about men getting hurt, the origins of Jackass were totally unrelated to the world of wrestling.

Jackass arose from the edgy, goofy, white male dominated DIY skate culture of the late 90s. The initial Jackass project was a mix of ideas and cast members from California skate magazine Big Brother and the video series by Pennsylvania-based crew CKY, which was sponsored by the skate brand Landspeed. Jackass takes the actual skating away, for the most part, but the philosophy remains, and the silly, self deprecating spirit of it all is part of what sets the show apart from your Evil Kneivels of yore.

More WWE

There are some striking similarities between skate culture and pro wrestling culture, particularly for the performers. Both pursuits involve an incredible disregard for one’s physical well-being, and a hierarchy mostly based on who is willing to do the most daring stuff for attention. A lot of people watch both to see the athletes attempt to innovate the form to ever more extreme, dangerous, and absurd heights. I think that absurdity is reflected in the winking and sometimes juvenile humor that’s developed within both the skating and wrestling worlds as well, a byproduct of constant flirtation with injury and death. Outside of kayfabe, the trust and collaboration required to put on a wrestling match leads to a camaraderie in wrestling locker rooms that’s reflected in the benignly homoerotic intimacy of the Jackass cast, often played for laughs, but never with that intimacy itself as the butt of the joke.

Skaters vs. Jocks

Within the kayfabe world of wrestling promotions, however, WWE is probably the one that feels least like Jackass, especially back at the time of its premiere. While WWE’s brand of wrestling is about inflicting pain, Jackass is mainly about withstanding it. WWE is about the spectacle of the (primarily male) body, the incredible feats it can accomplish, and the other bodies it can dominate. It’s about muscular dudes putting the hurt on each other.

Johnny Knoxville Sami Zayn WWE

Jackass, on the other hand, is less about the feats of the body and more a showcase of its limitations. Jackass stunts are often acts of submission and humiliation rather than of domination, and the cast’s propensity to show off their less-than-bodybuilder physiques adds to the absurdity. The show turns the traditional expectation of masculine aggression inward, and in doing so reveals its ridiculousness.

The Wrestling-Jackass Singularity

I think in some ways, Jackass was ahead of the curve of what wrestling has become. WWE still doesn’t seem quite suited to them, but I think they’d be a perfect fit in a lot of other modern wrestling contexts. There are now a generation of wrestlers who started in the backyard promotions that sprang up in the early 2000s, in tandem with the rise of Jackass, who cite the boys as an early influence. Lots of promotions these days seem much more aligned with the Jackass approach to pain and to absurdity than WWE has ever been.

Like Jackass, deathmatch wrestling, where a lot of those backyarders ended up, is more about the performer’s ability to withstand pain rather than to inflict it. When Jackass premiered, many of the themes that the show made text were still mostly subtext in the pro-wrestling world — the pleasure of homoeroticism, the ridiculousness of gender performance, the absurdity of pain. In the ensuing years, more performers have been interested in making these elements of wrestling explicit in the way Jackass did. I’m not super enthused about Johnny Knoxville in the Royal Rumble, but I’d be thrilled to see Steve-O have a match with Nick Gage, or to see Chris Pontius unleashed on the DDT roster.

Johnny Knoxville Great Khali

I was a 12 year old girl in the year 2000, and not yet a wrestling fan, but I loved Jackass. At an age when boys were both totally unknowable to me and a subject I was desperate to know everything about, Jackass felt like a passport into a world I didn’t have access to in my real life. But if Jackass was the NSYNC of masculinity, WWE was Slayer —  I remember flipping by Raw on cable in those years and finding the whole spectacle too intense, too aggressive, and too incomprehensibly male centric for me to parse.

My 12-year-old mind would have exploded trying to figure out what the deal with Val Venis was, but skater boys kicking each other in the nuts was just my speed. I think watching Jackass at that age planted the seeds of what eventually blossomed into wrestling fandom in adulthood, and similarly, the success of Jackass seems to have primed the wrestling world to welcome someone like me. I hope we get to see these worlds collide more often in the future, but I hope they’re more entertaining than Jeff Tremaine’s wrestling prank show.

About the Author

Kath Barbadoro

Kath Barbadoro is a stand up comedian, writer, and podcaster based in New York. She is a cofounder of the podcast Wrestlesplania and has a self-imposed restraining order against Tim Thatcher.