Performance Artist Steve-O Is A Man Without Fear

Infamous comedian and “Jackass” star Steve-O talks comedy, performance, and smuggling cannabis.
Performance Artist Steve-O Is A Man Without Fear
Courtesy of Steve-O

Like Daredevil or Tom Cruise, Steve-O is a man without fear. The standup comedian, performance artist, and Jackass star has never shied away from pain to score a laugh or good shot solely for his audience’s amusement. Steve-O has shed blood, sweat, and tears to entertain his fanbase. He calls himself an “attention whore”; we call him a dedicated showman. 

The hilarious sense of fearlessness has always been a part of Steve-O’s appeal. On stage when he’s telling jokes, however, the new podcast host isn’t quite as fearless. Standup comedy is, as Steve-O told us when promoting his new special, Gnarly, often terrifying. The comic recently revealed to us that bombing leaves a far deeper scar than a stunt gone wrong. 

I was just watching your conversation with Tommy Lee [on your show, Steve-O’s Wild Ride]. You two go way back, but to this day, do you still hear new wild Mötley Crüe stories from him?

Yeah, for sure. I was over at Tommy’s house before recording that. I did his wife’s podcast, Brittany Furlan’s Worst Firsts. I brought up the controversy over whether [lead singer] Vince Neil was fired or quit, and right out of nowhere, Tommy says, “You know, come to think of it, maybe we did fire him.” [Laughs] It was just the most epic thing. It’s the stuff of legends, the dispute over that. I was like, “Oh my God, dude, that’s one of the hugest statements ever.” What a bro, man. Tommy Lee, he’s always been so cool, man. He’s such a rad dude.

How did the podcast come about? 

I resisted the podcast thing for a long time, man, because I found it so annoying when people would ask me to do their podcast just because everybody’s got one. When I started toying with the idea of having my own podcast, I felt like such a hypocrite, like I was preparing to become what I hated and that the only way I could wrap my head around it was to get an RV and have a studio in the RV, so that I can conveniently bring it to the guests wherever and whenever it’s most convenient for them.

It gave me a cool little kind of an angle on it. That’s why I call the podcast “Wild Ride” because it’s in this absurd motorhome. The whole process of having a podcast has proven to be just so anxiety-inducing, it’s borderline terror; just the pressure I put on myself to try and convince really high-profile, super famous people to do the podcast. It’s just this never-ending source of anxiety.

It’s funny to hear you have anxiety over that considering the extremities in your line of work.

Well, the conversations, they’re fun and I actually enjoy them. It’s just the procuring of the guests, which I find particularly terrorizing and torturous. You make a good point. I have this persona of somebody who’s pretty fearless, but in fact I’m such a sensitive little guy and I’m so overly concerned with what people think of me and so desperate for validation and love. But yeah, that’s going to always be where I’m most gripped by fear.

Were you also fearful when you started doing stand up comedy? 

Initially I sure was, man. So much so. When I first tried it, it was the scariest thing. A guy asked me to do a stunt at a comedy club and I showed up with no plan at all. There’s no crazier stunt than me trying standup, like if I just stood there and tried to make people laugh. I had experiences bombing on stage. It was the most traumatizing shit to bomb at standup comedy.

Is that harder to shake off than a bruise?

Oh, big time. When we get the bruise, or almost any injury, really, the injury in itself is a trophy. It’s some kind of badge, a badge of something that happened. It’s something to be proud of, and I’m proud of my injuries. But bombing, dude? Nah. Way worse.

What made you stick with it?

Here’s how it happened. The first time I walked into the comedy club, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to try standup because I’m terrified.” I had a fair amount of time before it was my turn to get on the stage where I was able to come up with a few things that I would say. I was only on stage for a couple of minutes, probably. I told everybody that I was in the mood for a blowjob, and then I asked the crowd if anybody wanted one. It was my first show.

My experience was that the crowd was excited to see me, they knew who I was, they were all there to have a good time. And then they laughed at that joke. I just felt they were rooting for me, that was the sense that I got. Before I left the building that night, I scheduled my return, and I prepared for my return. I sat down and I wrote jokes. I wrote out a whole act. When I went to go perform it, it went reasonably well. In my mind that meant, “Okay, I did it. I wrote those jokes, I did that act, that’s done. I’m never going to repeat it.” This is my biggest regret, like the biggest regret ever, is that I didn’t just keep going back with that act and hone it, fucking improve it, polish it, add to it. 

I scheduled another return and this time I just felt confident that I was good at it, and I thought I had figured it out. And that’s when I bombed, when I got on stage with no material and just tried to fucking wing it. It was traumatizing. Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you have enough material that you know you can pull yourself out of a bad situation. Then it’s far less scary.

Right, you can rely on an old favorite.

For sure. It’s easier to try new material that may or may not work if you know you got something in your back pocket then you can bail yourself out of a crisis with.

For your special, Gnarly, how long did you spend crafting those stories and performing them before filming? 

I put it together in real time just by doing it. The way that worked was I taped my first comedy special in November of 2015. The very next week I was in a comedy club. I had the luxury of having my entire set that I just taped for the special to fall back on, like, “All right. I’m going to try a bunch of new stuff and then I’m going to kick into this comfortable hour that I just taped now.” I felt like I have until the special actually comes out to exploit that old material while tinkering around with this stuff. It got to a point where I’d be doing half the new act and half the old act. I would just generally sort of dispense with the older stuff as I filled in the new act. I’m glad I did it that way.

At one point when I was putting together this act, I thought, “Fuck, all this shit on camera.” Then what I did, and this is the biggest thing that helped me with performing standup more than anything, and I’m so embarrassed to admit this, but I think it’s actually pretty common that standup comedians will go out of their way to avoid watching footage of their sets. For me, it was just super uncomfortable to watch footage of my standup performances. I avoided doing that like the plague, and that was to my own detriment. It was a terrible habit.

However, once I decided that I was going to cut in the footage of the stories I was telling to illustrate them, that forced me to study the footage when I was editing it all together. It was physically impossible for me to not watch the performances while doing that. It forced me to study my standup and there were just things that jumped out at me that made me so uncomfortable, so I found myself just addressing them. There’s no benefit to not playing back your performances. It’s just some fucking dumb head-in-the-sand dodo shit, and I’m so glad I forced myself out of that bad habit. Once I started editing it, once I started putting it all together myself and studying that footage, I think that improved my standup more than anything.

You’re very honest on and off stage about your life. It’s infectious and inspiring to see. 

Hey man, I appreciate it, dude. I’m an attention whore, really. Whatever it takes to engage with people and to get people to engage with me. I mean, it’s really absurd the lengths that I’ll go to exist. I just want to be in someone’s consciousness while I’m here.

Is that just some primal desire?

It’s very primal, man. There’s no question about that in my mind that it stems from our inherent mortality, the human experience being this catch-22, where we have just one instinct, which is to survive and one guarantee, which is we won’t. So it’s just like, “What the fuck? Is our human existence some kind of fucking prank?” It’s such a cruel joke. Like, “I don’t want to die, I know it’s going to happen. How the fuck is this okay?” 

I think that if we have a real purpose here, it’s to wrap our head around our mortality. Some people do that by turning to religion because they want to be comforted by the idea that everything’s going to be okay once they die. Other people turn to reproduction because they have children who will carry on their legacy. Then there’s this fucking asshole caveman scrawling on the wall because he’s like, “You know, I’m going to be dead but these fucking stick figures I’m drawing will still be around,” and that’s me. I turned to the video camera as a way of stuffing my message in the bottle.

Well put. Did you ever use cannabis to ease the physical pain following any stunt?

I don’t know that I ever took any kind of a drug for pain. I mean, in sobriety, I’ve gotten through everything with Tylenol and Advil. I’m certainly taking that for pain. For the most part, I just got fucked up to get fucked up. I’m happy to talk about cannabis.

Did you ever have any positive experiences on it? 

I don’t know. It’s my belief that anybody who says marijuana is not addictive is wrong. I think they’re so fucking wrong. In the special I tell the story about how I deliberately internationally smuggled marijuana by swallowing a condom. We filmed four episodes of a show called Wildboyz, where every episode was a different country. Whenever that show brought me into the Eastern hemisphere of the world, I would be fucking terrified that I wouldn’t be able to find weed.

So when we fly to Thailand, when we flew to Russia, Indonesia, Africa—any of these places that I wasn’t confident that I would be able to find weed—what I did before leaving, and I didn’t even bother filming it, was to grind up weed and put it in condoms and swallow it so then when I got to the destination, I would shit it out, and rip up open the condom, and smoke it. Smuggling fucking drugs to shit them out and smoke fucking shit, that’s not the behavior of somebody who’s not addicted to something.

What about when you were a teenager? 

I fucking loved it, man. I smoked for the first time living in England. It was all about crumbling hash into tobacco and rolling up the spliffs. All that shit was great. Of course, as soon I started smoking pot, my grades went into freefall. The consequences were really pretty immediate. I was getting drunk all the time, and I then started getting arrested and hospitalized and failing. It wasn’t good for me, but then again, I had this disposition for addiction. Where I look at it now, I don’t have any kind of a view on marijuana, like it’s bad or anything. I think that as a sober person, as a guy in recovery, I view marijuana and other drugs very much in the way a diabetic person would view sugar, you know? I’m not mad at sugar. I just can’t have it.

There are those people who get very agitated or even angry when they’re off cannabis. 

Dude, I was the worst. We were in Indonesia for longer than our supplies could last, and I became a very angry person.

They don’t mess around on cannabis there.

In Singapore, they have the death penalty for smugglers, and I routinely smuggled shit through Singapore. It was because we were going through there that I was smuggling it because I knew I’d have a problem finding it.

Do you think Jackass had any influence on, let’s say, the entertainment of pain online? With Youtube, Twitter, TikTok, and all these major social media platforms—pain sells. 

I don’t really know much about the TikTok thing, but I know that somebody told me, the guys who started YouTube who went on to sell it to Google—the actual creators of YouTube—I heard attributed their inspiration for YouTube to Jackass. I’ve heard that they were even more specific saying that when Jackass came out, there was a real surge in kids, in people in general, getting video cameras and starting to film stuff. There was no way for them to disseminate that footage. So, YouTube was, I suppose, a Jackass copycat. Now, I don’t know. I reserve the right to have been lied to. Maybe I got the story wrong. So I’m only relaying something that was told to me. I would hate to have the people who started YouTube say, “No, that’s not true and fuck Steve-O.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Back in your Jackass days, did all of you guys ever think of yourselves as performance artists?

Absolutely. I never once in my life, I don’t think, would have shied away from calling it performance art. I think our vernaculars are slightly different. We just call it “getting footage,” but it’s the same thing [Laughs].

The SeaWorld protest footage in Gnarly is great. 

Thank you, man. I got to say, in my rearview, I’m least proud of that. It was some bullshit. Just the fact that so many of the city’s resources were wasted. I’m really not proud of that fact. I deserved every bit of the trouble I got in. I’ll say that, I think that as far as being a dumb way to protest SeaWorld, it was at least equally effective as it was dumb.

[Laughs] Was there any positive effect? There were more people talking more about SeaWorld after that happened, I recall.

There was distinctly a major Blackfish movement with a lot of momentum and it just so happened that shortly after my stunt, there was some real movement and legislation. I forget what it was, but they banned the reproduction, or there’s no more breeding of orcas allowed. It was a lot of significant legal landmark decisions. I’d love to take credit, but I think that the wheels were in motion to that.

Well, despite or whatever the outcome, the footage is great.

That is what matters, that the footage was great. Drone shots were epic. That was actually how the idea came about, because I had just purchased my first drone. My buddy learned how to fly it. It left me wanting to do a cool drone shot. My experience indicated that for a drone shot to really kick ass, you’ve got to be all the way up in the sky. I just looked up to the sky and the only thing I saw that really could get me up there was cranes. I thought, “Well, fuck, I’ll just get a cool drone shot of me climbing up some gnarly, big, tall crane.” But that’s only really half of an idea. How do I make that notable? How do I give it a beginning, a middle and an end? 

I was like, “I’ll fucking bring an inflatable whale.”

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