Jackass and its links to Early Flimic Mischief Gags – Joe Mendenhall

The mischief gag which Gunnings discusses and which was popular in early cinema lives again today in the form of the comic group Jackass. This is extremely evident in Jackass’ “The High Five” scene, which occurs in their third feature film. The two steps that Gunnings define as necessary to the mischief gag are present, “first, a preparatory action is taken with a very precise aim in view…. The second phase of the action is the result and effect of this preparatory phase.”[1] In “The High Five”, we are presented with some loose preparatory action, i.e. Johnny Knoxville introducing us to the High Five, what Gunnings would describe as a “mischief device”[2]. Knoxville cocks the device, and the preparatory stage is over. Tension is then built by the unsuspecting victim walking slowly towards Knoxville and his device. The second stage begins when Knoxville releases the mischief device and the victim is caught.

The third iteration of the gag in this clip, where the victim is Bam Margera, also contains interesting links to early film gags. Notable is the use of flour in conjunction with the mischief device. This not only adds another layer to the gag, but relates to the use of flour or other items to the rascal uses to dirty the victim as Gunnings discusses. In fact, we can see that the structure of these gags is almost identical, “All of the scenes of dirtied victims and delighted rascals involve the setting up of a device and a brief temporal delay between the preparatory action and it’s risible results.” [3]

The modern Jackass gag clearly follows the same pattern as early film gags, however there are some differences between them, perhaps having to do with societal taste. The Jackass gags are not only more violent than early mischief gags, but feature real violence, with real people, and real consequences. After a long history of staged mischief gags, Jackass and it’s compatriots up the stakes.

[1] Gunnings, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. Los Angeles: AFI/ Routledge, 1995. Pg. 90.

[2] Gunnings, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. Los Angeles: AFI/ Routledge, 1995. Pg. 98

[3] Gunnings, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. Los Angeles: AFI/ Routledge, 1995. Pg. 91.

One comment

  1. Do you think the more extreme gags and pranks that we would show today would receive similar laughs back in the silent era? Also do you think Johnny Knoxville and gangs hysteria when the gag occurs adds to the entire hilarity of the situation? What about the fact that they have to add something to gag each time (soup, flour); do these additions make the gag more funny or do they maintain the momentum of the original gag?Are they necessary additions?

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