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Before They Were ‘Jackass,’ They Were My Suburb’s Local Dirtbags

Growing up in the suburban shadow of Bam Margera — a bored, skinny Pennsylvania skater kid hurting himself and his friends for laughs

I saw him at the Exton Mall, right around 2000, because I was a dirtbag and he was a dirtbag, and during the early aughts, dirtbags walked around the mall — even those that were among the most famous men in America. 

Jackass star Bam Margera and I are both from Chester County, Pennsylvania, at the time a fairly affluent town of about 18,000 people, where luxurious colonial mansions line half of the borough’s streets, and the main drag is paved in bricks that are centuries old. There’s a college there, too, West Chester University, that technically makes it a college town, but the “college town” vibe only exists in two to three blocks of bars in its center. The rest is painfully boring and drab, the beauty of its Revolutionary War era architecture largely washed out by modern outdoor malls filled with casual chain restaurants and Sharper Image-type specialty stores. 

Hence, the Exton Mall was one of the most exciting places in town, a collection of the best the area had to offer all under one air-conditioned roof. Margera would always arrive there in his signature red Ferrari, while I drove a shitty Nissan Sentra that smelled like Camel Lights and spilled Cutty Sark. He was probably 20 or 21 then, but his fame began when he was a teenager, filming stunts and skits with his friends that would later air on MTV when Jackass premiered. The most iconic and emblematic of the show — where a group of punk and skate guys hurt each other for laughs — was also the simplest: Margera and his friends in a grocery store parking lot, launching each other in shopping carts into walls, over curbs, down hills. 

But first, it was skating. That was how he met all the people who would eventually make him a star. His parents, April and Phil (who would later become famous on his Viva La Bam MTV reality show post-Jackass), poured what little money they had into his skateboarding career so that he could compete around the country. He was great, too. We skated because he did, and because maybe we’d bump into him at Fairman’s Skate Shop or at FDR Skatepark. Even this felt somewhat insider-y, as skate culture hadn’t been co-opted by the major fashion houses yet.

The connections he made while skating meant that his original skate and stunt VHS, CKY (short for Camp Kill Yourself), made it into the hands of Jeff Tremaine, one of the executive producers of the Jackass franchise. Camp Kill Yourself was a crew of guys who were easy to find, because that was the point; these were pioneers of the self-monetization movement, who figured out that being cool and interesting was its own commodity. There were more who hung around, but the core group was Margera, Brandon Dicamillo, Rake Yohn, Chris Raab and the late Ryan Dunn. Bam’s brother, Jess Margera, was an original member who participated less often when his own band, also named CKY, became successful enough to start a touring schedule. Their song “96 Quite Bitter Beings” was a staple in the skateboarding community at the time, and was included in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 — Margera’s first video game appearance.

West Chester — the college town that celebrated when a Buca di Beppo arrived to disrupt the casual dining scene — was cool, all thanks to the skinny skater who modeled his style off of his father’s favorite artist, Elvis, and his Jackass skits off of his favorite show, The Three Stooges. The world was smaller then. Dot-com 1.0 was in its dying days, and the internet was far from the intimidating behemoth it’s become, where everyone feels like they’re right on top of each other no matter where they live. The outside world was an esoteric concept. It still felt like you could have a secret or find something novel. 

It was cool to cruise around town while getting stoned and listening to HIM, the Finnish band that obviously only us in West Chester had heard of because of Margera, the band’s biggest superfan and seemingly the primary driver for its popularity stateside. The paper covers of our textbooks were covered in Heartagrams, the band’s trademark pentagram/heart symbol, and we blasted Razorblade Romance on shitty Panasonic stereos in our basements, fighting over who got to play the next session on THPS3.

Even outside of West Chester, Jackass was a certified phenomenon, drawing so much attention and copycat attempts that the show’s producers had to put a disclaimer at the beginning and end of each episode to stop fans from sending in their own stunt VHS tapes. Everyone wanted to be like Johnny Knoxville and Margera. Everyone wanted to be famous for existing stupidly. We felt lucky to be close enough to one of them that we might end up included by accident, like when friends went to party at Castle Bam and happened to stay long enough to watch him build a slide — just for fun, because he had money and nothing else to do — off the side of the house for an episode of his reality show, sliding down for a few seconds of glorious semi-fame.

An important contextual piece for understanding CKY’s success and the meteoric rise of Jackass was the suburban malaise that dominated pop culture toward the late 1990s and early aughts. American Beauty, a shallow film about how the suburbs sure are lame, man, was a Best Picture winner. Ben Folds was charting with an album of ironic piano pop about rocking those same suburbs, like Father John Misty if he drove a minivan. And despite the fact that it’s aged poorly, it resonated because it was true: Living in the suburbs in the early aughts was awful. Chain restaurants had hour-long waits on weekday nights, the closest museums were an hour or more away and you spent most of your time driving a shitty car from one parentless house to another, with each trip an exponentially increasing risk of an underage drinking citation, a DUI or worse.

Jackass and, particularly for us, Bam Margera represented a direct manifestation of our desire to destroy ourselves in the face of boredom — to allow ourselves to be consumed by pain instead of succumb to being numb and lame like our parents. In the absence of culture, we find elaborate ways to hurt our friends for entertainment, and we laugh in the way Nietzsche described laughter, as an expression of suffering. And also because it is very funny when a man is forced into a barrel and thrown down a waterfall in Iceland.

As the original influencers, the Jackass cast were men of the people. So, you’d see them at Jitters, the sports bar with the coffee bar name, or Kildare’s, or some other college bar on Gay Street and you’d call your friends on whatever model of shitty brick Nokia phone you had, hoping they weren’t too fucked up to drive over and drink in proximity to Rake Yohn or Raab Himself. “What do you say if someone just asks you, like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna knock a house over tomorrow. Wanna come over and drink and watch it?’” says one friend who used to hang around a few of the guys. “You say, ‘Yeah.’ I mean, why wouldn’t I want to watch that?”

“Everyone was very hospitable and accommodating,” says Brandon Novak, a professional skater and member of the CKY crew. “It was basically a nonstop fucking party. The drugs were plentiful. The women were accessible.” If you knew the right people, you’d end up partying at the sprawling Margera estate with the Used, 30 Seconds to Mars or Knoxville and Jessica Simpson. You had to bring your own booze to the refurbished colonial barn, as Margera never supplied the alcohol, just the venue. When the sun came up, the slow march toward the softest surface available began, stepping over bodies like the end of a Civil War reenactment.

Of course, none of this is the same today. The internet has made it apparent that every place in America now has a skate shop and skatepark and that HIM has sold millions of records. In short, none of it was ever really our little secret. More heartbreaking still, Ryan Dunn flipped his Porsche at the same exit from Route 322 that I used to veer off to visit a girl who liked basketball players and stolen liquor. Dunn was perhaps the most beloved member of the Camp Kill Yourself crew — the wildest but sweetest — so it’s comforting to pretend that his death was a surprise instead of an inevitability

Margera is still around, but he’s a shell of his former self. He’s been in and out of rehab ever since Dunn died, the pain of losing his best friend and the burnout of his fame coinciding for a needlessly cruel and abrupt fall from grace. There had always been tensions within the crew that rose and fell, primarily the byproduct of a lifestyle with no brakes. But Dunn’s passing was the inflection point, with most of Camp Kill Yourself going in different directions afterward. Nearly all of them got sober. Novak is in recovery and offers help to others seeking treatment, telling his story so that people can see that if he can do it, anyone can. (To that end, he even offers up his phone number here: 610-635-9092.) Meanwhile, Castle Bam has been transformed into a skatepark and an Airbnb. 

“At the time, we didn’t really think of it as addiction,” says C.J. Shumard, a behind-the-scenes member of the crew who still works with Novak. “It was just a nonstop party. Bam did club appearances for 30 days straight and drank for a month. When he was done, he was like, ‘I don’t feel too good,’ and he told his doctor he was going to stop. His doctor told him like, ‘No, if you stop, you’ll die,’ and he gave him a regimen of alcohol per day to wean him off. I think it was like a 12 pack per day. We kept busting his balls about it; we didn’t take it seriously.”

Jackass 4 is apparently arriving in 2021, though it’s unclear who from the original East Coast crew will be involved. I’m excited by the news, but I can’t help but wonder whether a new Jackass film adds anything to the world at this point. Again, the internet has made living everywhere basically the same, with the only difference being the climate and the vernacular used for in-person conversations. Not to mention, the pathways to fame, formerly reserved for VHS tapes submitted to producers and crossed fingers, are endless. A million Margeras are a click away on TikTok and YouTube, but they’re washed out and indistinguishable around the edges, like an overexposed negative. 

In fact, one of them is in my own home. Because among my daughter’s favorite things is to cook dinner for me, but to do so as if she’s showing her “followers” how to make whatever dish it is. I think she got it from one of the cupcake channels she watches on YouTube when a nice dinner at a restaurant has gone sideways and we’ve handed her our phones in the hope of salvaging the rest of the evening. She scolds me if I don’t address her followers as I’m doing something even as innocuous as getting the salt out of the cabinet. Every moment of our life is a viral video.

Im Bam Margera, I think to myself. And this is CKY2K.