"When I was a clown in the circus, I was backstage peeling off my nose and snorting cocaine." Steve-O on the Jackass stunts too hot for TV, drug addiction and finding sobriety

(Image credit: Press)

Before finding fame with MTV’s OTT stunt show Jackass, Steve-O had already had some wild experiences. He’d lived in five countries, been arrested multiple times, and worked as a clown on a cruise ship. Then, as Jackass evolved from TV hit to worldwide movie franchise, he drank a goldfish and threw it back up. He snorted wasabi. He tightrope-walked over alligators with raw meat in his trousers. 

Since the TV show ruled the world, from 2000-2007, Steve-O’s started looking after himself a bit more. He quit drinking and drugs in 2008, before branching out into the less-taxing worlds of podcasting and YouTube. But he’s still a fucking nutter. 

For his recent run of comedy shows under the banner The Bucket List Tour, he filmed himself jizzing while skydiving and getting anaesthetised on a bike. It may seem mindless but, as Steve-O explains to Hammer, it’s all part of his philosophy of ‘distraction therapy’. After all, whatever problem you’re facing, it can’t be worse than having some staples in your scrotum, right?

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Your recent UK tour was promoted as something of a homecoming, since you were born in London. What was your upbringing like? 

“I was born in Wimbledon, then moved to Brazil when I was six months old. I spoke my first words in Portuguese. Then I moved to Caracas, Venezuela, when I was two years old and spoke Spanish there. I moved to the States when I was four years old, then back to London, then to Canada, and then I stayed in London through all of high school. Maybe you know the reason why I moved around so much: my father was a very successful corporate businessman.” 

Wasn’t he one of the higher-ups at Pepsi? 

“He was the president of Pepsi-Cola in all of Brazil. That’s why we moved to Brazil. He then became a big tobacco CEO and became the president of [American cookie company] Nabisco International. My dad sold soda, which kills people; cigarettes, which kill people; and cookies, which kill people. Ha ha ha! My dad is a mass murderer! He got quite wealthy killing people, but he’s also a genius. 

In 1990, years before the internet [became accessible to the public], I was 16 years old and my dad said I either had to get a summer job or go to secretary school and learn how to type. [He said] ‘I predict that computers are going to become more prevalent in society.’ I didn’t want to work and went to secretary school.” 

How did moving around so much affect your childhood? 

“I don’t think you need to be Sigmund Freud to guess that the lack of attention and supervision from my parents, coupled with always being the new kid at school, made me a little bit of an attention whore.” 

Is that what made you want to go to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College? 

“When I was a teenager, skateboarding brought me to the video camera. That’s what happens: you wanna videotape all your tricks and try to get sponsored. I fell in love with the video camera and then, when I went to [regular] college, I could not bring myself to go to class. I failed and got kicked out of the dorms and – on my way out, knowing I wasn’t that great at skateboarding – I decided I wanted to become this crazy, famous stuntman! I wanted to provide comic relief with outrageous stunts in professional skateboard videos.”

How did you go about getting famous? 

“I got nowhere for three years. I was homeless for three years. Then I moved in with my sister and I was a fucking slob. I ate all her food, her house was a mess. She found out about this clown college and thought it’d be perfect for me. A viable way to get me the fuck out of her house! Ha ha ha! When she told me, what was fascinating about it was that there was no tuition [fee] if you could get in. That’s how clown college worked. They wanted equal opportunity for people to run away with the circus. They didn’t want some barrier for entry and it served as a tax write-off for the circus. I never had any interest in being a circus clown, but I thought it’d make me a bona fide, trained professional and people would take me more seriously.” 

And you graduated, right? 

“Yeah! I did it to legitimise myself as a crazy stuntman.”

 Jackass began airing in 2000 and was a success pretty much instantly. Why do you think there was this appetite for seeing you guys do these dangerous things? 

“There’s some primal thing in our DNA. We have such a survival instinct that we’re programmed to be fascinated by threats to our survival. Just look at all the traffic that is created not by an accident in the road, but simply by people slowing down to get a good look at the carnage. There’s this syndrome of rubbernecking. There’s something in our DNA that compels us to be fascinated by carnage and failure. 

I think that the charm of Jackass is in us being able to not take ourselves too seriously. You can’t be supermacho in Jackass, you have to embrace the fact that you look uncool. That ability to not take ourselves seriously and be OK in compromising situations, I think, is endearing. Lastly, I think there’s something genuinely wholesome in that we invite all of the terrible things we go through but, when it comes to third parties, we’re really respectful.”

Did it still feel wholesome when you stapled your scrotum to your leg onstage? 

“Ha ha! That was something I did for my own side-project, but absolutely! I’ll explain why: the human experience is a real motherfucker. We have one instinct, which is to survive, but we’ve got one guarantee, which is that we won’t survive. No matter how good your life is, it’s gonna get awful – and that’s assuming you have a great life!

People have all kinds of problems and stresses, and I can assure you that, for someone with any one of these problems, in that moment when they’re confronted with video footage of me stapling my ballsack to my leg, their problems are not an issue. I don’t purport to solve anyone’s problems, but I can make them go away temporarily. It’s why I’ve dubbed my profession as ‘distraction therapy’.” 

Where did the ballsack-stapling idea come from? 

“It was when I was working as a clown on cruise ships [in 1999]. We had to write up weekly reports and I was the only clown that had typing skills [because of that summer spent in secretary school]. It was me and this other clown in the office, and he’s just sitting there with idle hands and I’m typing away. [Out of boredom,] he grabs a stapler off the desk and then he opens it up and goes ‘WHACK!’ He whacks his arm with the stapler and, sure enough, he’s got the staple in his arm. I’m just like, ‘Dude! That was awesome!’” 

But how did it escalate to ballsacks?! 

“We got paid in cash every two weeks, and we made $625 per week. So we got more than $1,000 every two weeks. The very next payday, I asked this clown for permission to steal his idea and he was super-cool with it. I started a bit called The Thousand Dollar Man, where I whacked staples into dollar bills across my arms and my chest. Then, when we were filming the Jackass series, I said, ‘Let me staple some shit to my body.’ That’s when we stapled the letters of Jackass across my butt cheeks.

“When I started touring the next year, I had the females in the audience throw their bras and panties onstage so I could staple them to myself. I got drunk enough and had done enough cocaine one night where I thought, ‘If I can use a staple gun, I’ll staple my ballsack to my leg.’” 

It was 2008 when you got sober, wasn’t it? 

“Yeah. March 10, 2008.” 

When did you realise the drinking and drugs really needed to stop? 

“It was evident that I had a problem way before Jackass. When I was a clown in the circus, I was backstage peeling off my nose and snorting cocaine. I’d go through a whole weekend of shows and not sleep for, like, three days in a row. I had a problem with drugs and alcohol and I was perfectly resigned to just dying: living a life and dying a death of active drug addiction and alcoholism. 

I thought I was a lost cause, a write-off. It just so happened that [Jackass co-creator and fellow stunt performer] Johnny Knoxville and some of the people in our Jackass world staged an intervention. They locked me up in a psychiatric ward, and I was locked up long enough and exposed to the right kind of message that I realised, ‘Wow, I have to do something.’ I’ve been sober ever since.”


(Image credit: Steve-O/Press)

Have you ever filmed anything so insane that it couldn’t be shown? 

“Yeah, there’s a good little bucket of ‘too hot for Jackass’ things that never saw the light of day. It’s interesting, my Bucket List Tour is multimedia. When the doors open, people walk into the theatre and there’s a screen, so I thought, ‘Why not make a pre-show [reel]?’ The pre-show starts with a video of what Jackass could not show.” 

What kind of stuff do you show? 

“A lot of people know that [Johnny] Knoxville did the self-defence thing [in the Jackass pilot, he gets pepper-sprayed, tasered and shot with a stun gun]. A lot of people don’t know that it ended with him shooting himself in the chest with a .38-calibre handgun to test out a bulletproof vest.” 

How did that go? 

“The gun went fucking flying! He wanted someone else to shoot him but nobody would, because they thought they might kill him. So he shot himself holding the gun backwards, which he thought was even scarier. I think that the kickback of the gun flying so far took some heat off the bullet. There was another one, before Jackass, where Knoxville goes, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville, and I’m about to get hit by a car real soon.’ Sure enough, a car comes tearing through the frame and takes him out!”

Didn’t you also film some brand-new stunts for the tour? 

“Yep! I’m going back to my roots and lashing out at social media’s community guidelines, which I’m so fucking fed up with that I went, ‘I’m gonna push it further than ever! This is stuff that couldn’t even have happened for Jackass!’ “There’s one [clip] with a medical professional in disguise, administering stolen anaesthesia drugs into my vein while I’m riding a bicycle. I loved that so much that I got another medical professional in disguise to put a four-inch needle into my spine and inject drugs into my spinal cavity, which rendered me paralysed while I was in a full sprint through a field. The closer of the show is called Skyjacking, which is where I ejaculate as I fall out of an aeroplane, butt naked, with another man strapped to my back.” 

What kind of person were you during the Jackass heyday? 

“I was inhibited by my alcoholism and drug addiction. I used drugs and alcohol to soothe what was really a discomfort in my own skin. I would characterise the early Jackass stuff as me being palpably uncomfortable in my own skin and trying to mask that in any way I could. Over the course of time, and particularly in sobriety, I’m not masking anything. I’ve found my voice and my confidence.”

How do you feel about yourself in 2023? 

“I’ll end on this: I’m profoundly grateful for my alcoholism and addiction issues, because addiction is the only disease where, when you treat it, you become a better version of yourself. Any other disease, the best you can hope for is to be as healthy as you were before. At the risk of sounding like a douchebag, I’m running circles around every younger version of myself, and that’s great. I owe that to my recovery.”

Matt Mills

Louder’s resident Cult Of Luna obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.