The Jackass Shark Week Special begins with a warning to not attempt the following stunts at home, the same disclaimer that’s preceded every episode and movie featuring the band of fear-neutered man-children risking bodily harm in the name of shock and laughter. Johnny Knoxville remarks, “Shark Week, the Jackass guys: What could go wrong?” Then, after a smirk and dramatic pause: “What could go right?”
No one, not even rabble-rousing stuntmen who have been at their jackassery for more than 20 years, expected just how wrong things would go.
Seconds into my Zoom with cast member Steve-O about the experience, he turns the camera on his co-star Poopies, showing the gnarly scars on his left wrist and hand, leading up to fingers that are stuck erect after his tendons and two arteries were fully severed when he was bitten by a shark.
In all the hours of celebrity-focused Shark Week programming I’ve watched—this year alone finds the likes of William Shatner, Tiffany Haddish, Ian Ziering, and Tara Reid featured in specials—it is the first time I’ve ever seen someone not just in actual danger, but attacked by a shark.
“I can barely move it,” Poopies says, alternating between a proud smile and a grimace as his arm is propped up like he’s permanently waving hello. “That’s not his jack-off hand, so it’s all good,” Steve-O adds, uncoiling his familiar banshee laugh.
The Jackass and Shark Week collaboration kicks off Discovery’s famous flood of annual summer programming on Sunday night. From the safety of Los Angeles, Knoxville video-chats with his minions at a secret location where they would be performing a series of dangerous shark stunts—branded here as experiments—in the name of cautioning thrill-seeking Instagrammers against mingling with the creatures, dispelling myths about their lethality, and even collecting some science.
Chris Pontius dresses as a matador and dives into the ocean with a red-and-yellow muleta to see if bull sharks will charge prey if they see bright colors. New cast member Jasper bobs in an inner tube over a group of sandbar sharks while holding a bait tool used to measure the force of a shark bite. Steve-O, who famously pierced a fish hook through his cheek and attached himself to a fishing line to act as literal sharkbait in an original Jackass episode, did some grueling cardio before swimming with bull sharks to test if they can smell human sweat.
“If you are trying to do something stupid, then you’re really nailing it,” warned Dr. Craig O’Connell, a shark biologist tasked with protecting the sharks, collecting the data, and leading the fool’s errand of making sure the Jackass boys don’t get killed. Think Mrs. Garrett herding the hijinks of the Facts of Life girls, but if Tootie insisted on throwing chum in the water while Blair was nose-to-nose with a 400-pound shark.
When I ask him this week about his time with the Jackass boys, O’Connell says, “From the start, I was very uncomfortable. But they say that life starts at the end of your comfort zone. And I was definitely at the end of my comfort zone.”
The inevitable catastrophe happens when Poopies attempted a “Jump the Shark” stunt, inspired by the Happy Days episode in which the Fonz waterskis up a ramp and over a shark, spawning a phrase now used to describe when a TV series resorts to desperate, ridiculous measures to generate buzz amidst waning quality.
To execute it, Poopies rides a wakeboard that is towed by a jetski. Bait is tossed in the water to lure Caribbean reef sharks, which can get up to 14 feet, to congregate near the floating ramp he was going to jump over. It takes a few tries for Poopies to successfully ride up the ramp, but the jump isn’t as grand or glorious as expected. He plops into the water—directly into a frenzied, feeding tangle of sharks. Almost immediately, he’s bit.
You see a shock of red blood gush into the water as Poopies wails. Immediately, Shark Week’s emergency protocols are employed. The medic, who happened to be the one driving the jet ski, immediately turns around and dives into the now blood-fogged water to grab Poopies and drag him back to the boat.
“I mean, the level of commitment and bravery on the part of that medic to jump in that fast. It could not have been 10 seconds that that medic was diving into all those sharks,” Steve-O says.
“It was super impressive,” remembers O’Connell. “My wife is an ER doctor and she’s like, ‘I want that medic on your show at all times.’”
Steve-O immediately knew that it was bad. He demonstrates what a normal hand does when you bend it at the wrist, which is hold its shape perpendicularly, like an L. “Poopie’s hand was completely folded,” he says. “It was absolutely folded, like vertical.”
The rescue footage is intense. Workers are shouting for medic bags, tourniquets, and 911 calls. Poopies is swiftly moved to a speedboat to take him to a dock where a van is waiting for the 20-minute drive to the hospital. “That was the worst drive of my life,” Poopies says.
When the speedboat pulled away and the chaos died down, both Steve-O and O’Connell remember everyone splintering off and just sitting with their heads in their hands in disbelief that the worst-case scenario had actually happened. As he was driven away, Poopies spotted Steve-O on the deck and shouted his name. “I love you, Poops!” Steve-O shouted back. “I love you, too,” he yelled. And then, addressing one of the producers, “Jeff, what the fuck? I better get a bonus for this.”
As expertly and efficiently as the crew handled things on the scene, it wasn’t as smooth once Poopies arrived at the hospital. “I get to the hospital, and they’re all on lunch break and stuff,” he says. “I’m like, dude, I just got bit by a shark. You know, they’re on island time over there.”
Production arranged for him to sign himself out and be transported to a medevac plane, at which point it was just a matter of waiting for government clearance to take off. (Everyone we spoke to was asked to keep the locations of where all of this happened a secret.)
“We knew there was danger. There’s no question about that,” Poopies reflects. “But we didn’t know I was gonna get bit. I mean, it’s a blessing in disguise. I got bit, but it’s the best episode that Shark Week’s ever had.” At this point he yelps a loud, painful “Yow!” Steve-O had accidentally nicked his injured hand while they were talking. “Some physical therapy right there,” he winces.
As Steve-O tells it, there might have been a chance that it wasn’t the best episode of Shark Week, or even an episode at all. He remembers one of the producers worrying that the incident was going to shut down all of Shark Week.
“I said, the only tragedy in this situation is if that footage gets buried. Across the board, as it relates to Jackass, the more severe the consequences, then the better the footage. Now, of course nobody wanted anybody to get bit and we were all visibly shocked and super bummed that it happened. But once it did happen, I mean, you got to give Poopies his glory.”
O’Connell thinks that the cautionary-tale aspect of what happened holds value, especially at a time when a thirst for social media likes and viral status has sparked a concerning uptick in people engaging in dangerous behavior in order to capture shocking photos or videos with sharks.
When the shark jump stunt was filmed, it was dusk, when sharks are in hunt mode. It’s when they’re frenzying and feeding. He warned the guys that then was the worst time to attempt the trick. “They almost used that as more motivation to do it,” he says. But it was a sobering moment. They learned what not to do, and the extreme repercussions when you ignore that. “Don’t mess with nature, right? Nature will mess with you right back.”
They actually did collect data, he also maintains, though clearly through methods he would never use again. And, even though Poopies got bit, the single bite helped dispel a misconception.
“The media loves to call sharks ‘maneaters,’ like, ‘Oh, these sharks are out there killing people,’ which isn’t the case,” O’Connell says. There were about 20 Caribbean reef sharks where they were filming throughout the day. If they were truly maneaters, he says that Poopies would have been bit multiple times, not just once by a confused shark. “I think that is a very good thing for sharks, because it shows that we’re not on their menu whatsoever.”
That may be true, but Steve-O still marvels that it was nearly him who was on the menu—or at least who would have been accidentally bitten due to stupid human behavior.
He was supposed to film a dunk tank stunt that got pushed in the schedule for that shark jump. In it, he would have sat in a recreation of the carnival game over sharks that had been lured with bait. In lieu of pitching balls at the target that would plunge him into the water if hit, they were going to throw meat. It would have replicated the same circumstances at the same time of day that contributed to Poopies’ disaster.
“My comfort level about doing that, in hindsight, was so wrongheaded,” he says.
He cautions his next thought with the disclaimer that it doesn’t justify anything that happened, but he remembers before shooting having an existential moment wondering why they were doing this, especially having survived so many close encounters over the years. But then he thought, “Another big part of me wants a cool new scar.” And this interview, he points out, began with displaying that cool new scar.
“I’m not stoked that this happened. Nobody is. Nobody wants something bad to happen, but in our world, when something bad happens, you wear it as a badge of honor.”
A badge of honor that is now certainly one of the more dramatic Shark Week specials in recent memory. “We laughed. We cried,” Steve-O says.
You almost died, I point out. He laughs: “We laughed. We cried. We almost died. You need to make that the article headline.”