If you’ve seen the new crisis-in-education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” then you may recall the sequence in which it was explained that, while students in the United States rank low in reading and math compared to almost every other developed country in the world, they rank first in confidence and self-esteem. It’s the one big laugh in the movie and it’s a bitter one.
That’s unfortunate, of course. But to accompany this statistic the filmmakers chose to use Green Day’s song “American Idiot” and play it over shots of people performing “Jackass”-style stunts that involve injury to the participant. In other words, America is turning into a nation of people who just want to bonk each other on the heads with frying pans and skateboard off five-story buildings into kiddie pools. “Jackass” is a symptom of a greater problem.
Except it’s not. “Jackass” is awesome, smarter and better than most people realize. Here’s why:
It’s experimental film
Try making someone you know watch Alain Resnais’s seminal 1960s art-attack “Last Year At Marienbad.” You know what happens in that film? Nothing happens, that’s what. Not that it’s a bad movie, but most people don’t want to watch something if they can’t tell you what the story was about afterward. Which means that the “Jackass” movies, which also have no plot whatsoever, are avant-garde, the most successful, wide-reaching series of experimental art films in history.
It’s part of a great comedy tradition
Before sound, slapstick was all we had in the way of movie comedy. Before Preston Sturges had the means to let his actors volley one-liners into a microphone, “funny” meant the threat of injury and implied violence. Of course, Johnny Knoxville and his crew make good on those threats and promises by delivering actual pain to themselves and each other. So call it Neo-Slapstick or Post-Slapstick or just plain old spinal cord injury, whatever you want. But there’s a reason they’re showing the TV spots for the upcoming “Jackass 3D” during airings of old “Three Stooges” shorts on the American Movie Classics channel.
It makes out-of-it culture snobs lose their minds
There is nothing better than annoying a person of rarefied tastes, someone who thinks they’re too good for this world. You’ve met them. They don’t own a TV. They make a point of carrying around difficult books in public. They can’t stop reminding you that no matter how educated or sophisticated you are, they’re more. And they’re tired of how coarse everyone has become. In other words, they are perfect candidates for a pie in the face. Or a scene of a guy eating a yellow snow cone.
It’ll toughen you up just by watching it
Speaking of the yellow snow cone, my viewing companion for the first movie experienced dry heaves during that moment. That was hilarious. And while I laughed out loud at the double dose of body fluid comedy I was getting, it also benefited my queasy friend, steeling his core for what was to come in “Jackass Number Two.” He didn’t dry heave once during that one, not even at that terrifically sickening part with the horse that I can’t really go into here.
It’s the physics class that’s more fun than physics class
The stunts in these films that require various contraptions to hurl the team members into the air involve a knowledge of basic scientific principles that no one involved seems to care much about. And that’s why the participants wind up crashing into walls head-first. But any high-school physics teacher with a sense of humor could use these failures to force their students to create scenarios that would work properly, provided the plans stay on paper and there’s no “lab” assignment involved.
It’s more effective than a driver’s ed or workplace safety film
Turner Classic Movies has been showing old industrial shorts late at night over the past few months. My favorite is one called “Shake Hands With Danger,” a construction site safety film where guys get their arms fake-torn-off. Every time it happens a country singer starts crooning a song called, yes, “Shake Hands With Danger.” But again, much like old slapstick, it’s obviously not real and won’t convince anyone not to take the risk of seeing how skillfully they can balance a chainsaw on their nose. But when grown men are actually pushing each other off cliffs in Porta Pottys, you see it and think, “Gotta remember never to do that.”
It’s going to right all the wrongs 3-D has created in the world
Sure, yes, “Avatar.” Thank you, James Cameron, for “Avatar.” But everyone else (besides the sick geniuses behind “Piranha 3-D”) should have resisted the urge. Because unless you can create an entirely immersive otherworldly environment with your ticket-price-inflating technology, 3-D’s only function in life is to throw stuff in the audience’s face. So get ready for this movie to throw some stuff you never wanted to see thrown and for Chris Pontius to cross more than a few lines of your personal space.
It’s going to pay for the cast’s extensive health-care needs when they’re older
No one besides really rich people and members of Congress have decent health care anymore so consider your ticket purchase an act of philanthropy. When these guys get older their vertebrae are going to disintegrate and paying good money now to see them repeatedly destroy their bodies is the least we can do to help them when they need entire skeleton replacement surgery in the year 2035. It’s kind of your duty as a citizen.
Dave White is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.