Johnny Knoxville on the art of pranking and adjusting to life after stunts

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Johnny Knoxville is no stranger to head injuries. In the decades since he rose to fame as the daredevil ringleader of “Jackass,” he has had more than a dozen concussions — that he knows of. But his most recent one was different.

Now, by doctor’s orders, he has to get creative to chase that adrenaline fix through safer means. His latest attempt is with his “Jackass Forever” co-star Eric Andre and Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe on their new series, “The Prank Panel,” which premieres Sunday on ABC.

Doing work tame enough to be on network television has been a major, but necessary, lifestyle adjustment for the 52-year-old thrill-seeking stuntman.

He suffered serious brain injuries after getting rammed by a bull for the fourth and final “Jackass” film, which was released in 2022. That led to nearly a year of depression and mental health struggles — a turn of events that made him permanently swear off those kinds of stunts despite his love of doing them.

“I think I got a little addicted to it, to the point where, you know, I scrambled my brains,” he said. “I can do little stunts where if I, you know, break a hand or an ankle or whatever, no one cares about that. I just can’t — no more concussions for me.”

Knoxville isn’t quite sure what it is about stunts that is so gratifying — is it the attention people give him or the thrill of pulling it off?

“It’s complicated,” he said, pensively. “Being with everyone, all my friends around and, you know, it’s just a real moment. But don’t make me start romanticizing it.”

So, for now, “The Prank Panel” will have to suffice. It’s a kind of spoof on reality competition shows, where people come on and pitch ideas for pranks to the three hosts. If either Knoxville, Andre or Sidibe — billed on the series as the “world’s greatest pranksters” — is convinced of the idea’s merits, the hopeful prankster will get money, resources and help from their sponsor to execute the caper on an unsuspecting victim.

Knoxville, shown in the trailer hitting Andre between the legs, said he was pleasantly surprised when his attempts to push boundaries on the network show were met with purportedly little resistance.

“I didn’t worry about me being more buttoned up. They can beep my words and cut around when I’m really naughty. But I was just more concerned about what we could get away with on ABC,” he recalled. “In hindsight, we got away with a lot more than I thought we were able to.”

The show even signed off on a prank that resulted in Knoxville being sued by a handyman who said he was subjected to a “terrifying ordeal” after being hired for a job listed on TaskRabbit. Knoxville’s publicist interjected when he was asked to elaborate but not before he jokingly asked, “Which lawsuit?”

The art of the prank can take on many forms and objectives. There are some who have garnered recognition for their social or political commentary — à la Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” — or there are pranks that are meant to make the victim its champion: Think the recent cult series “Jury Duty,” which sought to construct a hero’s journey for the one being tricked.

But as Knoxville refined his theory of pranking over the years — a vital component of the “Jackass” franchise — his intentions crystalized into a simple aspiration: He just wants to be shocking.

“I like to confuse more than anything else. I don’t want to make someone look stupid,” he explained. “I just want to create a really bizarre situation where they’re like, ‘What is happening?’”

That approach has made him and the rest of the “Jackass” stars immune, in a lot of ways, to the complaints that some comedians have expressed about political correctness or cancel culture.

“Some might find it distasteful, and some may find it over the line, but it’s not like anything that is going to truly upset anyone,” he said. “But I know in other areas of comedy it’s a little dicier these days.”

In addition to realizing he has to restrain himself with stunts and physical comedy, Knoxville said his experience with having a long-term brain injury has also made him aware of the importance of mental health more broadly, something he is candid about with the hopes that it will help others.

“Having gone through it, it opens your eyes,” he said. “For anyone out there suffering from depression or intrusive thoughts, just know that your brain is literally playing tricks on you. And if you seek the help of a psychiatrist, doctors, you can turn it around.”

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