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Prank channels on YouTube should take a lesson from Jackass

Beginning with Logan and Jake Paul

Jackass: The Movie poster MTV Films/Paramount Pictures

There’s a moment in Jackass: The Movie where its crew of morons runs around the streets of Japan while wearing huge, furry panda costumes. They cause havoc, make people laugh, take pictures with fans and random bystanders, and, unfortunately, destroy a street vendor’s table.

At the time, it was just another feather in the group of pranksters’ caps. It has since become one of their signature bits.

Fifteen years later, controversial YouTuber Logan Paul took a similar approach to his trip to Japan. This time around, the public asshat behavior was punctuated by a problematic use of traditional Japanese garb, causing dangerous traffic conditions, and carrying raw fish into stores before dropping it onto the back of a cab and letting it drive away. Paul’s trip culminated in a visit to Aokighara, also known as the “suicide forest,” where he and his friends came across the body of a man who had recently hanged himself. Paul’s decision to edit the video, upload it to YouTube and use the man’s body as a thumbnail led to heavy criticism, and led YouTube to cancel Paul’s YouTube Red projects.

Obviously, his making light of a suicide was unacceptable. That’s clear. But based on an assortment of videos Paul has uploaded, he and his fellow YouTube and Vine pranksters have made one thing clear: They’re taking the concept of Jackass to a new generation. Or so they think.

The lineage is there. They share the same DNA. But Logan and his younger brother, Jake, another popular YouTuber, lost the plot along the way. They have, for years, on both Vine and YouTube, been attempting to recreate Jackass without truly understanding what made it iconic — and so watchable — in the first place.

At a surface level, it may appear that there’s not much of a difference between what the Pauls do and what Jackass did. They both participate in performing stupid stunts in public for laughs. When physical comedy works, it’s sublime.

So why did it work for Jackass, but not for the Paul brothers? The answer is pretty simple.

The butt of the joke

Jackass’ creators understood that for physical, humiliation-based comedy to work, they had to be the butt of every joke — not the people around them. That isn’t to suggest that Jackass is unassailable. The franchise features an enormous amount of casual homophobia and sexism, occasional racist bits, and ableism, among many other faults.

In the very first episode of Jackass, Johnny Knoxville, the de facto leader of the Jackass troupe, set the stage for what the series would be most famous for. In “Self Defense,” he allowed himself to be tased, hit with a stun gun and attacked with pepper spray. Here was the pretty face of Jackass submitting himself to pain and torture, just for the audience’s pleasure. The show established right away that no one was safe.

Knoxville’s willingness to take on the most painful and dangerous of the Jackass stunts continued for years. There was “Riot Control Test.” There was “Anaconda Ball Pit.” There was “The Invisible Man.” And, of course, there was “Golf Cart Crash.”

That’s why when Knoxville messed with his cohorts — he was easily the biggest prankster of them all — he had the credibility to do it. He could use a variety of contraptions to smack people in the face and get away with it, all because the other people in the cast knew that what goes around comes around.

This was true for every single member of the Jackass crew. For every time Bam Margera messed with his parents, you knew he’d end up having a snake thrown on him or his ass branded. The late Ryan Dunn could convince Steve-O to mess around with alligators, but he’d eventually be the one to shove a Hot Wheels car up his butt and go to the doctor. Payback was the rule, not the exception.

The larger the budget for their shenanigans grew, the more elaborate their stunts became — but they never lost what made them great in the first place. Whether it was getting slammed repeatedly by a charging ram (“maybe we used the wrong instruments” is a hell of a line) or getting blown away by a jet engine (my personal all-time favorite Jackass bit), they were always the ones getting hurt. They always made sure to make themselves look like morons above all else.

Even in stunts that brought the public into the fold, the Jackass boys ensured they they were the ones who came off looking like morons. Their pranks were about breaking down their egos, not being the stars of the show.

The “life” of the party

That key element is what’s missing from the Paul brothers’ videos. They always want to come out on top, to look like the funniest people in the room. Where Jackass knew that everyone lost in the end, the Paul brothers’ only goal is to be the star of the show. Jackass knew that humor comes from humility; the Paul brothers miss that message entirely.

Take Logan’s Tokyo video, for example. As he runs around a busy street while holding a fish and part of an octopus, watch the faces of the people around him. The vast majority of bystanders look unimpressed. His only attempts to get anyone involved with his antics come when he shoves the fish in their faces, asking if they want some fish.

The answer is always, “No.”

He then proceeds to push the fish up against the glass at a Starbucks, and take it into a clothing store. Then he leaves the fish on the back of a stranger’s car. Almost every moment of the vlog involves Paul making a public nuisance of himself, lacking the self-awareness to bring others into the fold.

“I swear, Tokyo is just a giant playground,” he says. “Maybe it’s not. Maybe I should stop ... probably not.”

Another vlog from his trip to Japan finds Logan in Sensō-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in the country. He’s loud, obnoxious and causing havoc. He disregards that it is a holy place, not a backdrop for his buffoonery. Eventually, he’s kicked out.

Logan insists on being the star of the show, but never makes himself the butt of the joke. He causes more harm to those around him than to himself — and that’s the problem.

In a now-deleted video entitled “MY SKI TRIP FAIL,” Logan’s brother Jake wakes his friends up by spraying a fire extinguisher into their room, causing the house to be evacuated due to the fumes.

It’s like the boys looked at Jackass and their only takeaway was, “Act like a total asshole and you’ll get views.” As it turns out, Jackass runs a little deeper.

Lessons learned

I hope the two have learned their lesson after all the uproar surrounding Logan’s trip to Japan. Yes, Logan has apologized. Jake has also addressed the controversy on his channel.

I understand the pressure that comes with keeping channels their size going. They have to upload videos every day. They don’t have the time to come up with and set up stunts quite like the Jackass guys. Hell, they probably don’t have a team behind them coming up with ideas. They’re just shooting their lives, money and all.

In the future, I hope they can take some lessons from the hyper-famous pranksters of years past. I hope they can learn some humility and start allowing themselves to be the butts of the joke. I hope they figure out a way to make compelling content without turning their neighborhoods into a “war zone.”

The boys are undeniably charismatic. They wouldn’t have gotten to where they are if they weren’t. But if they insist on continuing to make the same type of content that made them famous, I hope they can do it the right way.