Killing Yourself to Live

Balls to the Wall With Bam Margera & His Crew

Butterflies . . . turtles. Perhaps a pleasant walk in the woods comes to mind. But say those words to the average MTV-watching, Spin-reading, skateboard-wielding teenager or twentysomething, and he or she may envision a thin, wasted, 28-year-old guy—cigarette in one hand, can of Bud in the other—removing his leopard-print bikini bottoms, grabbing a staple-gun, stretching the skin of his scrotum so that it's flat against his upper thigh, and firing away. There's screaming and blood (and plenty of laughter in the background), but the man in the picture repeats this "move" on the other side, thus creating the beautiful image of—yup, you guessed it—a "butterfly." If that makes you squeamish, you probably wouldn't want to see a "turtle"—a scrotum stretched upward and stapled to a stomach.

The logical question is: Who the fuck would do something like this? And the logical answer is: Only a jackass. Unless you're one of the many who have purchased Steve-O's videos, Don't Try This At Home: The Steve-O Video or Don't Try This At Home: The Career Ender, you've probably only seen him on MTV's Jackass—jumping into a vat of raw sewage, getting his ass cheeks pierced together, or snorting goldfish and earthworms.

If you know who Steve-O is, then you know who Johnny Knoxville is. He's the better-looking guy who turned videotaping himself while testing products such as a bulletproof vest (he shot himself at point-blank range) for the Larry Flynt-owned Big Brother skateboarding magazine into a bidding war between MTV and Comedy Central that resulted in the creation of Jackass, which Knoxville hosted and starred in. And if you know who Johnny Knoxville is, then you probably know about Bam Margera and his crew, who were Jackass regulars.

Since the show's two-year run ended, Knoxville has used his charm, talent, and good looks to launch a Hollywood career, recently appearing in Men in Black II, reportedly getting more movie offers than he can accept, and currently working out a deal with Fox to produce a TV show. Not to mention Jackass: The Movie, which is slated for an October 25 release. You'd think a guy like Knoxville who could find the time to let a bunch of pre-schoolers kick him in the nuts could find five minutes to talk on the phone, but his publicist explains: "You've got to understand, he's got a movie coming out, there's over 100 outlets that want to talk to him, he's only one person, he can only do so much."

It doesn't matter. Johnny Knoxville is likely to get swallowed up by the Hollywood machine and spit out as the new Nicolas Cage or something anyway. And Steve-O might not be around for a while because he was busted in July for performing his "butterfly" act in a Louisiana bar, where, according to MTV News, audience volunteers let bouncers and other volunteers kick them in the 'nads in a test of endurance. Steve-O faced assault and obscenity charges in a court appearance scheduled for this week. But even if he beats that rap (which carries a possible eight-year sentence), do you really think this guy can stay below the law's radar?

The name worth remembering of the Jackass bunch is Bam Margera. He and his Camp Kill Yourself crew may be our best hope for inspired, provocative, cutting-edge entertainment in the near future.

Bam grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a rural Philly suburb where he took to skateboarding and videotaping skits and pranks at an early age. Both came naturally to him, and he was fortunate enough to have parents who understood. (Bam's dad, Phil Margera, a hefty, easygoing guy, became the target of several pranks on Jackass—riding his lawn mower into a camouflaged ditch, and being toilet-plungered in the face while sleeping, to name a couple.) "When he was about 12, we got a VHS camera, and we would always film him skating," recalls Phil Margera. "We would have the relatives come over, and he would put it on, but after about 10 minutes or so, they'd say, 'Oh, that's wonderful,' and they'd go back to doing what they were doing. So Bam thought, 'OK, I'll show five minutes of skating and do three minutes of pranks,' and that caught their attention." However, the footage Bam was showing back then probably didn't involve young men taking shits in plain view on the side of a road while morning traffic rolled by, or jumping off moving cars at high speeds into bushes, or exchanging full-strength punches to the face.

Bam's knack for capturing the absurd on tape evolved as quickly as his skating abilities did. And in what one CKYer calls the "picture-perfect-U.S.A." town of West Chester, it wasn't hard to recruit a group of bored, attention-starved misfits to assist him in his battle against the dull and mundane. "I went to rehab when I was 15—I got all the drugs out of my system really early," says Ryan Dunn, Bam's longtime friend, fellow co-star of Jackass, and a crucial member of the crew that would become Camp Kill Yourself. After his parents moved him from the sticks of Ohio to Buffalo because of his drug problems, they finally settled in West Chester. "I was the new kid," Dunn says, "and my stepsister was a good-looking girl who got along with everybody, my brother was a jock, and I just didn't fit in anywhere. I met Bam, and he was skating, and I wanted to videotape shit and act like an idiot. My life's been boring since I was a kid. I always wanted to act like somebody else. So I figured, why not videotape me acting like somebody else?"

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photo: Greg Miller

Another major player in CKY, Raab Himself, a disheveled, raspy-voiced 23-year-old who looks like a cross between Steven Tyler and Jeff Spicoli, met Bam in junior high. He recalls with fondness Bam's instigative spirit back then, and works himself into a frenzy describing an incident in high school that got him kicked out for several months.

"We got suspended for a day, and everybody had taken a test the day before, so we had to take it in the next room. Bam rips the biggest fart—so loud they heard it next door! So I was like, 'Dude, what if I take a shit on the teacher's desk?' And he was like, 'Dude, there's no way you'll do that!' I figured, if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it out of control—I'm gonna do it in the hallway! So I took a shit in the teacher's coffee cup and I threw it all over the lockers." But he did have some regrets. "My favorite janitor in the whole world, I was so cool with her, she had to clean up my shit, and that fucking sucked!"

To say this was the behavior of a deranged, disturbed child who was desperately in need of some Ritalin and serious counseling would be only half the story. "The whole reason I did that," says Raab Himself, "was because every teacher I had used to say that I'd never make it anywhere, that I'd never do anything with my life, that I was an idiot, a moron. I did it to fuck with them, to get above them." Since then, he's received a bachelor's degree in finance, but his love for public defecation hasn't waned a bit. In the video CKY 3, he gives a stellar performance, downing 18 Ex-Laxes and shitting himself while jogging through a suburban neighborhood wearing nothing but a jockstrap.

But Camp Kill Yourself is more than just a bunch of fucked-up kids releasing testosterone and other bodily elements. It's a performance-art/stunt collective, an acting group, a kick-ass band (known as CKY), and a production company. It's a creative, tight-knit group of friends who have turned doing what they love into a lifestyle. And Bam Margera is their leader—and he's become a wealthy one at that.

Since turning pro as a skater several years ago, Margera has toured with Tony Hawk, landed major sponsorship deals through skateboard and sneaker companies, and teamed up with Johnny Knoxville on Jackass—all of which has earned him more money then he ever imagined. "When Jackass came out, everybody was like, 'What? That kid Bam on Jackasshas a pro board and shoe?' And they just bought all of it," explains the 23-year-old Margera. "I really don't have to worry about money anymore—I'm getting over a million dollars for the Jackass movie." And he's not afraid to spend it: He's purchased a $400,000 home for his parents, as well as a Ferrari, two Audis, and a Hummer for himself.

Bam Margera could become richer and even more famous—at MTV's Video Music Awards in late August, for instance, he and Johnny Knoxville were chosen to present the Best Rap Artist Award to a worldwide audience. They did it, of course, by stapling the envelope to Steve-O's stomach and then ripping it free and announcing, "Eminem!" as Steve-O's stomach bled. (Even the rapper looked a little taken aback.)

But don't assume that Margera will follow in Knoxville's footsteps to Hollywood. "If that's working for him, then good for him," says Bam. "But I don't want to move to California, I really don't want to have anything to do with it." He still lives in West Chester, remains loyal to his friends, and continues to put most of his effort into Camp Kill Yourself. The group has released three videos to date through their CKY label, with a fourth on the way. Bam's brother Jess, who appears regularly in the videos—often getting slapped upside the head or pushed into traffic medians while inside shopping carts—provided some of the exceptional soundtrack music for the videos with his band CKY. As the success of the videos has grown, so has the band's success—which was the intention all along. Recently, they signed a deal with Island Records.

Still not content, Bam and the boys have taken on the new challenge of feature films. Their debut, Haggard (slated for national release sometime this fall), stars the usual suspects, and it's a dark comedy about a guy (based on the true story of a CKY member) who keeps trying to get back together with his ex-girlfriend against the advice of his friends, who all know that she's sleeping with just about every other guy in town. It may not win any awards, but it's not bad either, and it definitely shows promise—the cinematography, acting, and directing seem well above average for a first effort, and the dialogue is sharp and believable.

As with all the other CKY projects, Bam funded this one himself. "I spent every goddamn penny I had on that movie," he says. "I had about $300,000 but I needed another $100,000, so Adio Shoes [one of his sponsors] loaned it to me. But I really wanted to do it, and I didn't want it to be half-assed, so I was willing to spend whatever it took." And like the other projects, it was an all-CKY deal. "He had the chance to have real actors come in and do it," explains cast member Naked Dave (his role is self-explanatory). "But he was like, 'I want my friends to do it, we're going to do this, and we're going to make a good movie out of it.' "

It's this attitude that keeps CKY inspired, loyal to one another, and thriving, and it's what's likely to keep them all in West Chester. Rake Yohn, a frizzy-haired Goliath who could easily be the poster boy for death metal, and who appears both in the CKY videos and in Haggard, explains, "You work with any of the big media companies out in L.A., and it's just a job to them. There's union stuff, they're on the clock, Screen Actors Guild rules, and this and that. With Bam, sometimes we film from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m., and there's no complaints. And talk about guerrilla filmmaking. For parts of the new CKY video, we had to pull up fences to slide a $100,000 camera under—if that's the spot, that's the spot, we're going to film there. There's no getting permits or anything."

Of course, there is a certain amount of risk involved—almost every member has broken a bone or two over the years. But they say it's worth it, and they share a similar attitude. "I'd rather break my arm than have to go deal with some asshole boss from Neiman-Marcus, which is where I used to work," says Brandon Dicamillo, actor and co-writer with Bam for the CKY videos and Haggard. Probably the most naturally gifted actor of the bunch, he too shuns the idea of Hollywood—even the CKY work for MTV was sometimes too corporate for Dicamillo.

"I'd only work for Bam," he says. "When you're out with five of your friends taping, and Bam's brother is the cameraman, it's fun as shit. But when it's dudes you don't know, and some lady's screaming in the background, you're like, 'Who the fuck are these people? I'm out of here, fuck this crap!' And the idea of getting headshots and all that? To me that's just like, get in the back of the line—it's ridiculous."

If anyone's going to be getting in line any time soon, it's going to be the kids rushing out to see the new Jackass movie. But you probably won't catch Bam lounging in a theater, stuffing his face with popcorn, and staring at a screen—that's just not him. "If I can wake up every morning and ollie 15 stairs, I'll take that over everything," he says. "But if I can make another CKY video, get two video parts a year, and make another feature film, that would definitely make me happy, too."

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