Buster Keaton to Jackass: The Evolution of Physical Comedy

When people think about Jackass now they tend to treat it the same way they’d treat any other form of media based around pranks and disturbing the peace (perhaps even more negatively). In fact, most dismiss it as something lowbrow, and it’s rarely talked about in a serious manner. However, I think its humor evolved from the silent era of film based around stunts e.g. the work of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and unquestionably Buster Keaton

Knoxville, the primary force behind the idea, worked his ass off to get Jackass on the air—originally a hit series on MTV for a few years—and after the network chose to limit what he could do the crew left and was headed to the big screen. Television usually comes with its limitations, and even editing couldn’t save the direction Knoxville and the crew seemed to be heading. Together they pushed the envelope and became a total exaggeration of what slapstick comedy originally was—this was self-degradation. Similar to Keaton, Knoxville refused to back down from any stunt no matter how dangerous the situation was. He was an enigma, and seemed to take pleasure in pain, all in the name of entertainment.

Rest assured, this isn’t a proclamation that Johnny Knoxville is the next Buster Keaton, but to think that the act of putting yourself through insane amounts of pain for the entertainment of the audience—even risking your life—didn’t start with any of Keaton’s insane stunts (he performed on his own) is just ludicrous. Most pranks done online, on television, or in film are usually done to embarrass other people, or an attempt to disrupt the mundanity of everyday life (keyword: attempt), but Jackass takes that a step further, and puts all of the embarrassment and the pain on themselves. Although most of the stunts are quite revolting—I mean this in the best way possible—it creates much more of a watchable experience because you aren’t worried about the innocent prankee (because there rarely is one), and the mean-spiritedness is noticeably absent. Stuff like Impractical Jokers, The Eric Andre Show, or any YouTube channel based around pranks only really work in small doses because most things they do feel tacky and crude. And although Eric Andre seems like a practitioner of physical comedy, people tend to enjoy it more when the limits of physical comedy are pushed, especially when it’s primarily directed at the main characters/entertainers. This is why I feel like Jackass is cut from the same cloth of the entertainers from the silent era. Buster Keaton was a master at death-defying stunts (the jump in Three Ages is still insane). He risked his life day in and day out and suffered from countless injuries, but it was in his blood and it was certainly pure entertainment. No others were involved, it was just Keaton wowing audiences with the next thing he’d manage to put himself through. The same goes for Harold Lloyd (not as wild as Keaton but a daredevil nonetheless) and the mastery of Chaplin’s physical comedy. All these things influenced Jackass more than anything in my opinion. 

Nearly every stunt Keaton and Knoxville did seemed to flirt with death. In Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Buster Keaton pulls off a stunt that could have certainly taken his life had he been just inches to the left or right of where he was standing. While being pushed around by a cyclone (in the film) he stops in the street in front of a pretty large house, and the entire wall comes crashing down on top of him. However, he was standing perfectly placed where the front window was and was left unharmed. This was real, and there were no camera tricks. These are the types of stunts the Jackass crew do nearly every film. Whether it’s attempting to do a backflip on a motorcycle with no riding experience on solid ground, walking a tightrope above hungry alligators with raw chicken hanging from their crotch, going head to head with bulls, or being in a ball pit with anacondas (which ended up viciously biting Knoxville), the crew are almost always coming very close to everything going horribly wrong, but like Keaton, their body control, luck, and comedic timing always saves them.

Jackass is never attributed the respect it deserves because of the obscene content—which is pretty understandable I guess—but once you look under the surface, there is truly a sense of creativity put behind all of it. Nearly any of the big stunts in Jackass 3D captivate you while also being totally revolting, and this is truly an accomplishment not many can pull off. The entire crew has absolutely no concern for their well-being, and do some of the craziest and most dangerous stuff I’ve ever seen, all for the sake of entertainment. This is Buster Keaton for a new generation. These are not just silly pranks, this is masochist art that will never be replicated. 


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