The veteran reality stuntman, co-creator of the
Jackass media franchise, and self-proclaimed ‘blunt
force trauma guy’ may finally be rea y to stay behind
the camera after suffering serious brain damage
during the filming of Jackass Forever
One can’t help but make the Icarus comparison as the vision of Johnny Knoxville (aka Philip John Clapp) being shot out of a giant cannon wearing wings flashes ac oss the big screen in Jackass Forever, the ninth movie installment in this physical comedy franchise which kicked off in 2002 with Jackass: The Movie, preceded by the MTV series simply titled Jackass. As I watch Knoxville fly th ough the air in superb form, I wonder if even he thinks this may be taking things just a little too far. “When I shot out and I spread my wings like planned, I was so happy, then gravity kicked in. I started going down and turned into a big chicken in flight,” says Knoxville. “But as illie Nelson once said, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it now.’” When asked what he does for a living, Knoxville replies “I work with gravity and Newton’s third law of motion”. Well, technically, but that isn’t quite the whole picture. An American stunt performer, actor, and filmmake , Knoxville started his career in commercials and as an extra in a variety of films. Outside of the infamous Jackass franchise, Knoxville’ filmography includes Men in Black II, A Dirty Shame, Walking Tall, The Dukes of Hazzard, and The Ringer among others. He also voiced Leonardo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Additionally, Knoxville owns his own production company— Dickhouse Productions—and if that weren’t enough, he’s had a notable involvement with World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE) including appearances in their Royal Rumble and SmackDown productions, facing off against Canadian professional wrestler Sami Zayn. Of all of Knoxville’s career highlights, it may seem like his involvement with the WWE could have Inspired his claimto-fame, Jackass, with their common thread of controlled, over-the-top stunt performances. However, Jackass came to be long before Knoxville stepped into the WWE ring. Some speculate that his pre-entertainment industry vocation of being a test dummy for various self-defense weapons could have been the creative spark that ignited the Jackass concept, but that wouldn’t be correct either. In fact, it was Knoxville’s failure to secure his ‘big break’ in Hollywood that prompted him to follow his natural talent for “making a spectacle of himself” [his words].
After years of chasing mainstream success in the entertainment industry, Knoxville, with help from directors Jeff remaine and Spike Jonze, pitched a television series to MTV with the simple concept of a cast of nine carrying out stunts and pranks on each other or the public, and voila, Jackass was born. The show debuted on October 1st of 2000 and the rest is history. Beginning with the television series and culminating with the most recent Jackass addition, Jackass Forever—released in February of 2022, over the years, the stunts and pranks have escalated from the benign—at least by Jackass standards—to the downright dangerous, and even PTSD inducing. “By the end of filming, they’ e [the crew] suffering f om PTSD. You can just tap them on the shoulder, and they’ll go down. They’re in terror.” says Knoxville. Take, for example, the classic escapade from the first Jackas movie, ‘Golf Course Airhorn’. This harmless—and hilarious— prank involved the Jackass crew sounding airhorns just as golfers wound up their backswings, throwing them off balance an sabotaging their endgame, the innocent antics harkening back to the simple pranks of the MTV series. Knoxville and his crew stepped things up in later Jackass film with ‘Super Mighty Glue’, in which the crew got their hands on some extremely potent glue, and then used it to affix their bodi together and then pull them apart [ouch!], and ‘Mousetraps’ in which a member of the crew dressed as a mouse crawled through a field of mouse traps in pursuit of a piece of cheese As for Jackass stunts that Knoxville himself has performed, they have run the gamut. To name a few, there was the renta-car crash up derby, in which Knoxville came close to being crushed, the big red rocket which Knoxville rode hundreds of feet into the sky before it malfunctioned and almost blew him to pieces, and the giant evergreen tree Knoxville climbed to the top of before his crew chopped it down at its base, sending him plummeting to the ground.
The injuries that most certainly ensued after the latter mentioned stunts are undeniable, however, as the Jackass cast’s forthcoming feats proved, viewers had not seen anything yet. Enter the bulls. Bovines have held a special place in Jackass history. There was the bull that was encouraged to charge four men—one of which was Knoxville—riding a teeter-totter. And the bull whose vision was put to the test when challenged to see the camouflage Knoxville as he stood against a painted backdrop, himself painted to blend in—the bull passed the test and not only spotted Knoxville but charged at him aggressively. And finall , the less contrived stunt where a blindfolded Knoxville simply entered an enclosure with an agitated bull and just waited to be pummeled, which he was, severely. Fast forward to Jackass Forever. Suffice it to s , Knoxville has taken things to another level, no bull, and the bodily damage it has caused is proof of that—namely a severe concussion and brain hemorrhage that caused him to lose most of his cognitive abilities for three months. In other terms, he suffe ed a traumatic brain injury (TBI). And what exactly initiated Knoxville’s TBI? You guessed it, a bull. In the most recent rendition of the Jackass staple, Knoxville enters a bullring in full magician garb and performs a magic trick for said bull, who obviously was not in the mood to be entertained. The magic show culminated in Knoxville being charged and rammed by the animal, catapulting him ten feet into the air with one and a half rotations, finally landing him squa ely on his head. “I guess that bull just didn’t like magic.” Knoxville later said. After the calamity, Knoxville lay motionless on the dirt snoring, yes snoring. “My doctor said that was me trying to swallow my tongue,” he says. It’s ironic how even his unconscious bodily response to the trauma played into Jackass’s trademark slapstick humor. All joking aside, this was serious. After about a minute, Knoxville came to, and shortly after, an ambulance shuttled him off to the hospital whe e the damage was accessed.
In the broken bones department, he got off p etty easy—just a broken rib and wrist. But in the days and weeks following the accident, the brain damage caused Knoxville to struggle cognitively and mentally. “My doctor asked me, ‘Are you having trouble concentrating?’ Apparently, I scored 17 out of 100 on a test measuring my cognitive ability. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t edit.” Knoxville says. He also slipped into a depression—a first for him—and had debilitating headaches “My brain was just playing tricks on me. I got really depressed and over-focused on things.” Depression or no, Knoxville faced his TBI treatment headon, in true Jackass form. His team of neurologists and neuropsychologists tackled his symptoms using a combination of psychiatric medication, behavioral therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), all of which are common treatments for the symptoms of TBI. Though TBI Times is not aware of the precise medication Knoxville was prescribed, it is well-published in medical journals that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly referred to as SSRIs, are the most effective antidep essants for people with TBI. Specificall , sertraline and citalopram—commonly known as Zoloft® and Celexa®—may have the fewest side effects an may even improve cognition. That being said, according to an article published in the Mental Health Clinician by Sophie Robert, BPharm, PharmD, BCPP, tricyclic antidepressants such as bupropion and lithium, are best avoided or used cautiously in the treatment of depressive symptoms caused by TBI. Often prescribed as a companion treatment to psychiatric medications, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another goto for helping TBI patients experiencing emotional regulation and mental health issues—both of which CBT is extremely effective at add essing. According to a study conducted by Jennie Ponsford, Ph.D., and published in the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive
tendencies, mood swings, impulsivity, lack of emotion, and difficulty with social interactions e all potential TBI symptoms that can be effectively t eated using CBT. Based on Michael Faraday FRS’s principle of electromagnetic induction, TMS uses low-intensity magnetic pulses to stimulate the nerve cells of the brain which some studies have shown to alleviate the mental health side effects of TBI as well as imp ove cognitive ability. The treatment is performed in a doctor’s office while the patient is fully awake, and each session approximately 20 minutes in length. Though TMS is becoming a popular treatment for TBI, the jury is still out on its actual benefit for TBI patients. As is true with any medical treatment, results may vary, but in Knoxville’s case, his treatment combo did the proverbial trick. In his own words: “It was a really hard recovery from this last injury, but I’m great now. I feel like I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been.” Like many stuntmen and women, Knoxville has effectivel sacrificed his body for his ca eer. He says that his doctors equate his collective trauma to “being involved in a major car crash”— aside from his TBI, the list of injuries he has incurred filmin the Jackass franchise is jaw-dropping and includes a broken collarbone, broken wrists and ribs, sprained ankles, herniated discs, torn tendons, and orbital blowout fractures. So, it isn’t surprising that after decades of extreme physical comedy and an injury list as long as his career—which spans 27 years—Knoxville is finally eady to admit defeat, or at least take a step back just shy of it. “I knew heading into this [the filming of Jackass Fo ever], that it was my last hurrah with big stunts,” says Knoxville. “You can only take so many chances before one forever catches up with you. I realized that and, amazingly, I’m still walking around. I think I’ve pushed my luck far enough.” With the next Jackass movie already in the works—Jackass 4.5— only time will tell if Knoxville stays true to his pledge to stay behind the camera