In Hulu’s “Reboot,” a meta comedy from “Modern Family” creator Steven Levitan, Johnny Knoxville plays edgy stand-up comedian Clay Barber. After multiple stints in jail, he gets the chance to reprise his role in a wholesome family sitcom after, yes, Hulu, decides to reboot it 20 years later.
Unlike Clay, Knoxville is “very good” at dubbing lines and is — at least according to his co-star Keegan-Michael Key — “an absolute gentleman.” But the 51-year-old actor and stuntman admits that there’s “more than a little” of himself in his character. Both were branded as bad boys and lived fast lifestyles in the public eye. Eventually, Knoxville had to cool off, and in the cleverly named “Reboot,” Clay works to turn his life around and stay sober.
Speaking about his own journey, Knoxville tells Variety, “I had to slow down. I was running hot. You’re a fool if you live like you did when you were 30 at 50. If you have the same ideas you had at 30 when you’re 50, you’re not growing as a person.
“Sometimes I still have one too many… And you know what? That’s fine!” Knoxville adds, leaning back with laughter. “It’s fine, Mom! Just every now and then.”
In a sit-down with Variety, Knoxville discusses his journey to “Reboot,” his relationship with friend and former co-star Bam Margera and why 2022’s “Jackass Forever” might not be the end of the beloved physical comedy franchise.
What was it about playing Clay that appealed to you?
He’s a pretty colorful character… a lot of demons. And he’s doing the best that he can. He’s not always gonna do it the best way, but he’s trying to hold it together. You kind of like that guy.
What does “Reboot” get right about Hollywood?
I have a kind of perverted view of Hollywood because I’m kind of in the business and kind of not. “Jackass” and [the 2013 spinoff] “Bad Grandpa” are made unlike any other films in Hollywood.
But certainly you’ve had experiences with network execs and navigating the politics of showbiz.
Sure. And there are some execs with good notes. They’re more rare [laughs] than a lot of these execs who are in these positions for a year or two and then get switched around. But “Reboot” really nailed the personalities of the characters and actors… the writers’ room on the show is one of my favorite parts. I would watch a whole show on the writers. Horrible things come out of [co-star] Rose Abdoo’s mouth — she’s so funny. You just have two different generations that grew up with two different senses of humor and what you could say then and what you can’t say now. That’s real.
Both “Reboot” and “Jackass Forever” feature a group of people coming back years later to the project they are famous for, but the people, and the culture at large, have changed. What about “Jackass” needed to be modernized, and what needed to stay the same?
We’re older now. Is it gonna look sweaty doing what we do at our age? We all felt we needed to bring on some younger people to do it with us. And who knows how that will look? So we had a two-day test in December 2019 where we not only tested the younger cast — we were testing ourselves. After two or three hours of shooting, we all knew it felt great. We didn’t need to see the footage. Some people took a little longer to settle in, but that’s how things go. The old guys thought, “Wait, are we getting replaced?” No, we’re just drawing the circle a little wider. It’s one big family.
“Jackass Forever” was a hit with the box office and with critics. Why do you think it resonated?
“Jackass” is a lot of things, but mostly it’s honest. And I think people appreciate that. All the pranks are real. The pain is real. The love amongst the guys is real. The fear on the set is real. We have truth on our side.
Also, the critics who write about “Jackass” now were in middle school or high school when the first one came out. And now they’re in positions of power. They grew up with us. Back when “Jackass” first came out, people hadn’t seen anything like it before. So I don’t blame them for all the bad reviews.
The film was posited as the franchise’s final installment. But given its reception, do you see a path forward for more “Jackass”?
We never said whether it was or wasn’t [the final film]. That got written somewhere and people ran with it. If we did continue, we would lean on the younger cast more and the old guys would take a little step back but still be a part of it. I would have to step back because my neurologist said I can’t have any more concussions.
Is it true that you had other stunts planned but had to call them off after your medical scare with the bull scene?
Yeah, I had three or four big stunts planned. I don’t want to say what they were, but they were on the same level as the bull. Even if I had gotten through the bull, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the others. One of them would have taken me out.
Was that the scariest moment you’ve had on set?
I don’t think so. It’s one of the most serious things I’ve experienced. Of course, I have fear. But that’s more like two or three days out of a big stunt. When it’s time to shoot, I just want to go right now. I’ll be sitting in my car listening to music. When they’re ready to go, they call me in and I go. I think the bull stunt was scarier for other people who saw it. I was out for more than a minute, but for me personally, it wasn’t scary. I go to a different place when I’m doing those things.
What helps you get ready for a big stunt?
I sit in my car and listen to music. When we’re ready to go, they call me.
What type of music gets you pumped up?
My cousin, Roger Alan Wade. Townes Van Zandt. Mostly sad songs get me going.
In an energetic way?
In an “I want to run into a brick wall” way. I don’t know why.
In 2001, after a Connecticut teenager burned himself attempting a stunt, Al Gore’s runningmate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, made an example out of the “Jackass” TV series and tried to get MTV to cancel it. How did you process being blamed for something entirely out of your control?
It didn’t feel like it was really about us. It felt like Lieberman wanted to be tough on Hollywood in his campaign, which is not really having a position on anything. With all the problems in the world, you’re going to go after Hollywood? And specifically us. It’s like, take a real stand on some other issue. But it’s an easy issue to take a stand on. There were some [amateur stunt accidents] that the press deemed “copycat incidents.” We don’t like kids getting hurt. We always said, “Don’t try this at home.”
I got a letter about 10 years ago from one of the kids Lieberman built his campaign around. The kid wrote that he was a big fan and that what they were doing had nothing to do with us. Words got put in their mouth. He said, “We weren’t imitating ‘Jackass.’ We were just screwing around and got burnt.” They were brought in [by Lieberman] as a puppet. And he couldn’t have been sweeter in his letter. I just hate that he got hurt. Whether it was us, or just them screwing around, I don’t like to hear those stories.
You had a very public falling out with your friend and “Jackass” co-star Bam Margera, who sued you and Paramount for wrongful termination from “Jackass Forever” and then later dropped the lawsuit. There’s been news of Margera struggling to stay in rehab, and fans are concerned about his well-being. Have you spoken to him recently, and do you see a path forward for the two of you?
I haven’t spoken to Bam in about a year and a half, give or take six months. [“Jackass” director] Jeff Tremaine, Steve-O and I had a face-to-face meeting with Bam and his wife, trying to figure out how to get him help. Then we had a Zoom as a group not long after that, and that was the last time I talked to him. It boils down to: I love Bam. I know that a lot has happened. I just want him to get well for himself and his family. I love the guy, and I want him to get well and stay well.
Do you think there would ever be space for him to enter back into the “Jackass” world?
I think that would be a discussion. I only want him to get better. That’s the first step. He has to take that step and maintain that step, because everything else is just gravy. “Jackass” is not important when you’re talking about someone’s life.
What do you see as the legacy of “Jackass”?
I never even think about it unless someone asks me about it in an interview. That’s not for me to answer. It belongs to everybody now. However you perceive “Jackass” is fine by me. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
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