Jeff Tremaine, the eternal instigator, manipulated a ragtag cast of half-assed stuntmen and merry pranksters into televised self-mutilation, accidentally sparking a cultural revolution that led everyone with a camera (and later a cellphone) to believe they, too, could be a star.
Groundbreaking as it was to the mainstream to see a bunch of average Joes fucking themselves up on the small screen armed with nothing more than a handheld camera, the truth was that the Jackass brand of buffoonery was nothing new to the skateboarding world — it had been going on in the pages and videos of the infamous and now-defunct Skateboarding magazine for nearly a decade before Jackass aired in 2000. It was during his tenure as editorial director of Big Brother magazine in the 1990s that Tremaine assembled his own personal Howard Stern-esque wack-pack that would go on to gross over half a billion dollars.
Hulu recently released Dumb, a documentary focusing on the pre-Jackass years of Big Brother, directed by Patrick O’Dell. I caught up with Tremaine, my former Big Brother boss, at his Gorilla Flicks office in Burbank to discuss starting fights, his Ho Chi Minh nickname, nearly killing Johnny Knoxville, his upcoming Mötley Crüe biopic, and of course Big Brother, the nuthouse that started him down one of the craziest roads in television history.
Before creating Jackass you were the art and editorial director of Big Brother, one of the most infamous comedic magazines out there. How would you describe the magazine?
It was reckless, fun and sort of punk. We had a fuck-all attitude and we had great bosses in the early days – Steve Rocco, and then later Larry Flynt – who left us alone and encouraged our antics. Rocco wanted it as wild as could be. He challenged me to make it that way with a wide-open wallet. Creatively speaking, he made sure we had everything we needed. There were no boundaries for anything we wanted to do.
Photo: Spike Jonze, Preston Lacy, Jeff Tremaine, Ehren McGhehey, Steve O and Jason "Wee Man" Acuna / Shutterstock
The new documentary DUMB covers the early years of the magazine extensively, but I’m curious about what some of the highlights were for you personally?
I was in high spirits on the Mardi Gras tour. I remember we walked up to a biker bar and a couple guys were at the front door ready to go in, and right before that group gets in I kicked over a motorcycle and yelled, “Harley down!” My crew were as guilty as me because they’re with me. Any one of them that gets caught is dead. So we had to run for our lives, and that was the kind of tour it was every night. We didn’t even have coverage of half the shit, so it was all drawn in the magazine. The video footage we do have is crazy. One clip we have is in the French Quarter and there’s a cop car and Karma climbs up on it and drops in on the window while Simon Woodstock is pissing all over the car in a crayon suit and Marc McKee is making out with some chick. It was the most random chaos.
Do you feel Big Brother has changed media in general in its elevation of the staff being the characters?
That was not intentional. That just sort of happened. I don’t think of that as very revolutionary. What we were doing was part of what the culture was. It’s original to anyone that wasn’t part of that culture, but for skateboarders Jackass is just a skate video without a lot of skating.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a punch?
We have big mouths and we like to stir it up. I always liked to start bar fights but not participate in them to see what I could get going. You can’t be too drunk when you do that. You have to be just the right amount of drunk because when you get too drunk you get sloppy and you get caught. One night I was at this guy’s house in Hermosa Beach who was having a big party and I was wasted. I’m waiting in a long line for the bathroom and I’m bored to death and I see this gnarly gangster dude sitting on the couch and I walk out of the bathroom line and go start talking to this dude and I say to him, “I know this is going to sound weird but I was standing in the bathroom line and the dude in front of me keeps looking over at you and saying, ‘That dude has dick-sucking lips.’” The guy just gives me this weird look. It turns out that it was his good friend that I had pointed out and he knew that he didn’t say it. But he didn’t confront me about it right there. He had to soak it in and it festered with him for a while, because later I was sitting in the kitchen – I was pretty blacked out – but I remember this dude was right in my face, screaming, “You don’t know who I am!” Next thing I know my friend’s ex-girlfriend is trying to help me up. I’m looking up at all these people that are all concerned. I was like, “Why am I lying on the ground?” Knocked the fuck out.
It’s original to anyone that wasn’t part of that culture, but for skateboarders Jackass is just a skate video without a lot of skating
Where do you think that comes from, you being such an instigator?
My mom tells me stories about being a little kid in preschool and my nickname was Ho Chi Minh, because I did not like peace. I would walk in and just bite somebody or make sure shit got started, even back then. But, Chris, you like to instigate, too.
I like to make things uncomfortable.
You like to instigate.
It’s true. I do.
I like chaos. I have always liked chaos. One time we were at the Beauty Bar on Cahuenga and there was a real feisty Spanish girl that I was talking to, and
I accidently bumped her into this other girl and the other girl started talking shit. First I tried to break it up and then I was like, “Wait a minute. What am I doing?” So I nudged her back into the girl and next thing I know the two girls start fighting and then dudes start swinging and suddenly the whole bar erupts. I took two steps back, stood against the wall, and watched the whole bar clear out
in a full-on, best movie-bar-fight ever. There’s been a few of those. What? You don’t do that?
No, never. You made it through the Jackass years relatively unscathed.
No, I get caught, but it’s usually not on camera. Those guys will get me. I remember it was toward the end of the first movie in Europe with [Johnny] Knoxville and Bam [Margera] and we were doing press and our big threat to each other was, “I’m going to come on you, dude!” It was a joke. Well, I thought it was a joke but I also knew to not take it too lightly. So we’re partying pretty hard, and one of the days we had to get up at seven in the morning and I get in the back of the minivan and just pass out. I wake up because I feel something hit me in the face and I look up and Bam is just lurking over me jacking off. I thought come hit my face and woke me up but it was a scarf hanging down. I freaked out and punched him in the bare dick. I felt his whole balls mash into my hand. But if that scarf didn’t hit me I would’ve gotten hit. He was speed-stroking, full-on trying to make it happen. After that I was sleep-deprived because I wouldn’t close my eyes.
Are there any other times over the years where you had that kind of fear for someone’s safety?
Yeah, in the early Jackass days we didn’t have an art director or any help. If we wanted to jump the LA River in rollerskates, me and the cameraman would screw the ramp together and just do it and film it. No permits. No nothing. So one time Knoxville went online and bought three riot-control shotgun shells that had little beanbag inserts. It was the earliest version of these things. We get this stuntman who was willing to shoot Johnny. I don’t know where Knoxville found this guy but we’re in his backyard in the Valley and Knoxville is like, “Let’s just do it.” I said, “No, man. It’ll be better if we build it up.”
So I get a watermelon and set it up with a sheet of plywood behind it. The guy shoots the watermelon and it blows right through it but it also blows right through the plywood. And I was like, “That doesn’t seem right.” Knoxville is like, “Fuck it. We’re here. Let’s just do it.” Again, I’m like, “No, man! Hold on.” I grab an even thicker piece of plywood,” and I draw a circle and I tell the guy to shoot it. He shoots at it and misses the circle. It goes like six inches above the circle but rips right through the inch plywood. A big-ass hole. The guy was pretty close to point-blank and he was aiming at the circle. Those things just don’t go where they’re supposed to go. They fly like a Frisbee bullet totally out of control where you won’t hit what you’re aiming for, but if you shoot it into a crowd you will kill somebody. I couldn’t believe they were even selling those things.
But Knoxville is like, “Let’s do it and get out of here.” I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Are you watching what I’m watching? If you want to do it, go ahead, but every one of you cameramen get in the car. We’re getting the fuck out of here. You can shoot him but I’m not going to be here for that shit.” I had to make him walk away from that shit and he was pissed at me for shutting him down. We eventually did it in the movie when they had a better device with more accuracy that wouldn’t go right through you. That tells you everything about Knox — he’s just Evel Knievel-style. Evel would have the wrong gear and show up and see the crowd and know that if he commits to the jump over however many buses that he’s eating shit but, “Goddamnit! The crowd is here, do let’s do this!”
I grew up in the Reagan-era punk-rock scene; a great time for art and music that hasn’t happened since
Since the days of Jackass you’ve been doing a bunch of directing, and for years your name has been tied to the Mötley Crüe biopic based on their autobiography, The Dirt.
I have been attached to this goddamn thing for over four years, but it feels real right now with Netflix and I’m hoping it all works out. My attraction to doing the movie was not because I’m the biggest Mötley Crüe fan, but after I read that book I saw a lot of similarities between them and the Jackass roller-coaster ride, with the crash-and-burn and the drugs and with Mötley Crüe encouraged and expected to be as bad as possible. They were paid a lot of money and what they did was never checked on. The naughtier they were, the more they were loved. They had a free pass and the Jackass guys had the same thing. Steve-O could take a shit on a red carpet and it would be positive news. If Brad Pitt does that it’s a devastating career-ending move for him. But Steve-O just gets more gigs. That takes a toll on the guys because all of a sudden you become a caricature of yourself and you get caught up in trying to one-up yourself and I think that happened to Mötley Crüe, too. You lose track of your moral compass and I feel really connected to this story because of that, more than I am connected to their actual music.
There are so many gems in The Dirt. Was there one that you just instantly visualised on the big screen?
Mötley Crüe meeting Ozzy Osbourne around a hotel pool and they snort ants and Ozzy pees all over the pool and they lick it up. If you’re only surrounded by your team and you’re in a fucking psycho mode like we were on Jackass and during Big Brother…you’re in a bubble and the rules of real life do not apply.
One question I’m always being asked is why don’t you bring the magazine back? Personally, I don’t think it could work in this time of heightened sensitivity, but perhaps I’m wrong in my thinking and now, with our orange president, is it the best time to have such a comedic and antagonistic outlet?
It’s a better time now than it’s been since it died. Big Brother was never a politically correct magazine. We never did anything nice and easy. My one optimistic nugget that I hold close in regards to Trump winning the election is that I grew up in the Reagan-era punk-rock scene; a great time for art and music that hasn’t happened since, in my opinion. So I’m really hoping that Trump really gets under the artists’ skin and they bloom and shock me with some awesome angst-filled music, art, and magazines. Something is going to come out in these next four years so I’ll be entertained through all this. That’s my one glimmer of hope…everything else is fucked.