Back in 2010, shortly after Steve-O lit his own head on fire in an Austin, Texas, theater packed with delighted and horrified onlookers—yours truly included—the Jackass star landed at the center of an erotic foursome so legendarily disastrous he wrote it into his raunchy new Showtime comedy special.
“That story happened that night,” he tells me on a recent afternoon, grinning at the memory of one of the many salacious tales he recounts in Steve-O: Guilty As Charged, the hourlong comedy special that hits Vimeo on April 18. “I lit my head on fire while promoting Jackass 3D, and it was at the afterparty where I met that one girl and her two friends.”
I’ll leave all the gory details unspoiled, but suffice to say Steve-O had his hands full that night. As we chat in a booth in the Los Angeles diner where I’ve come to meet the stunt pro, author, circus clown, and now stand-up comedian, moments like the Austin four-way come and go in wry, matter-of-fact flashes.
Even before his Jackass days, that was par for the course. Recalling all the crazy antics he’s pulled off and survived over the years is something Steve-O does often even in his current “normal” life as a sober, if not quite reformed, perennial daredevil.
“I’m an attention whore!” Steve-O frankly admits. “I’ve always been that way. I guess my parents neglected me when I was a baby. Who knows? They’re fine with it. They know it’s true. Johnny Knoxville said something one time. He acknowledged that he’s an attention whore, ‘and Steve-O’s an attention whorehouse.’” Steve-O shrugs, a smile on his face. “I don’t know. I come by it honestly.”
At 41, Steve-O (born Stephen Gilchrist Glover) is probably the most candid celebrity to come out of the Jackass boom that spawned the long-running prank/stunts series, films, and offshoot cottage industry. He’s the one, for example, famous for stapling his testicles to his own thigh, a move he proudly explains with the zest of a scientist excitedly explaining how to split atoms.
“I’m the only guy in the whole wide world who’s known for that! It’s all mine,” Steve-O proudly says of the Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist of stunts. “It started when I was working as a clown on cruise ships. At the end of each week my clown partner and I would write up a report of what we had done. The summer I turned 16, my dad said, ‘You have two choices: You get a summer job, or you learn how to type.’ So I hauled ass to secretary school.”
“So in 1999 on the Royal Caribbean Cruise ships I’d do the typing while my clown buddy sat there. At one point he grabbed an office stapler and whacked his arm with it, leaving a staple in his arm and I was like, ‘That’s SO fucking cool!’”
Naturally, young Steve-O took it to the next level. “One day I asked for a stapler and they came up with a staple gun, and I thought, oh my god. It’s much heavier, you know? But I went for it, and then all of a sudden I was using staple guns. I was always looking for the next craziest thing.”
In searching for the whys of Steve-O’s often painful career of choice, don’t take that willingness to endure injury as Steve-O being on some sort of BDSM tip. “It’s not like I don’t feel pain or anything,” he says. “I certainly don’t enjoy pain, but I’m an attention whore, so it’s worth it.”
As for Steve-O’s old cruise ship clown buddy? Steve-O grins. “That guy’s working as a police officer in West Virginia now.”
Time has changed plenty for that clown, but Steve-O’s on an evolutionary path. Eight years ago he went to rehab after friends like Jackass maestro Johnny Knoxville staged an intervention. Five years ago he started filtering his own life experiences into his comedy shows, which still, of course, include a stunt element like Steve-O being tasered or kicked in the balls onstage.
“I try to hard not to vomit, mostly because I have an esophageal condition causing erosion from acid reflux—I’m sure that all the cocaine and vomiting and smoking and drinking and that did it,” he says. But kids, do try this at home: Even Steve-O is living smarter these days.
“I’m doing my best,” he smiles. “Outside of fake teeth and terrible tattoos and my esophagus condition, I’m in pretty tip-top shape.”
As Steve-O snacks on a vegan veggie and tofu plate, a woman, beaming, approaches to express how much her teenage sons love his work. “I feel like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused,” he laughs as she walks away in search of her Steve-O loving 14-year-old. “I get older, and they just stay the same age.”
Conversation turns to how Steve Glover became “Steve-O,” the wild-boy persona he adopted in college after a few raucous keg parties. “I’d always make myself the center of attention, doing some stupid shit,” he smiles. “People would be drunk and they’d scream, “Steve-OOOOOO!”
That’s where, for better or for worse (but mostly for better), the “O” in “Steve-O” came from. At first, he wrestled with embracing the moniker.
“Did I want to be known as Steve-O, or was that just goofy and not a good idea?” he remembers thinking. “This local radio station had a freak of nature talent contest or something and I signed up and performed in it as ‘Steve-O the Alcoholic Gymnast’—I just got belligerently drunk before everybody’s eyes and did terrible gymnastics.”
“The more I drank, the more the crowd started chanting, ‘Steve-O, Steve-O!’ That was all it took when I heard it,” he laughs. “It occurred to me, man, if I said my name was Steve, nobody would be chanting.”
And once Jackass debuted on MTV and made its motley band of merry pranksters into icons, “Steve-O” was here to stay.
Looking back, he considered the profundity of watching a stunt that’s inherently designed to fail—the folly, bordering on transcendent hope, of watching vicariously as an individual pushes his or her mind and body farther than physical boundaries or good taste would normally allow.
“Body modification has worked its way into a lot of my stunts throughout the years, like when I got my butt cheeks pierced together,” he notes as the Beatles’ “Something In The Way She Moves,” wafts faintly out of the diner speakers. But any acts of self-mutilation he endured for the show weren’t for his own pleasure, he insists.
“There’s definitely something primal about how compelled we are to turn and stare at accidents, or enjoy the misfortune or embarrassment of others,” he muses. “I think what we did as an ensemble is create accidents on purpose and embrace humiliation in a way that’s endearing, because I think we’re able to not take ourselves too seriously.”
That Jackass sentiment, magnified under the glare of political scrutiny, is how Steve-O ended up with a magnificent tattoo of himself giving the thumbs up that covers pretty much his entire back.
“It was a full blown panic mode,” he remembers. “Senator Joe Lieberman was lobbying to stop Jackass, and they thought all it was going to take was just one lawsuit. So MTV started imposing new rules to try to water down what we were doing. Knoxville wasn’t having that. He said, ‘We are NOT going to do a watered down fucking version of it.’”
Knoxville quit the show to send a message to MTV brass, Steve-O says, “but he knew what he was doing. He thought, if they’re worried about little kids copying us and getting hurt, then I want a movie deal. The R rating will shield us from liability.’”
“And, like, Knoxville wanted to be a movie star,” Steve-O laughs. “It was a pretty calculated reaction to the circumstances. When Jeff Tremaine, our director, told me in the movie office, ‘All right, it’s not a TV show anymore—it’s a movie. Everything’s got to be bigger, crazier, don’t submit any half-assed ideas.’ It was a knee-jerk reaction… I said, ‘Oh, yeah? HOW ABOUT IF I GOT MYSELF TATTOOED ON MYSELF—BIGGER THAN MYSELF?’”
“What he liked about it was that it was the worst idea ever,” Steve-O grins. “But I’ve never regretted it for a day in my life.”
Steve-O traced the beginnings of his stunting ambitions to his days as a skater kid trying to get noticed by mags like Big Brother, whose editorial director Jeff Tremaine went on to create Jackass with future Oscar-winning director (and skate video visionary) Spike Jonze.
“I had to figure out some way to stand out,” he says. “I guess in the past I might have said, ‘I couldn’t sing or dance, so I had to figure out something,’ or suggest that I have no talent. But I don’t think that’s true. I think that most things I’ve taken on in my life, that I’ve developed a proficiency for, I’d describe as talent.”
“I’d seek to avoid competition,” he continued between sips of his mint tea. “I wasn’t so good at skateboarding, or exceptional enough to stand out. So I tried to do the things that nobody else in the whole wide world could do so that I could basically be exceptional.”
“As far as that quest I guess I was kind of limited in what I could do to really stand out,” he laughed. “So scrotum-stapling it was.”
Between bites of apple pie a la mode, I point out that Steve-O may be the only person I speak to in my lifetime who can describe the taste of his own shit—yet another colorful story he relates, and quite vividly, on his Showtime comedy special.
“I remember the shoes I was wearing, everything. That was like classic Jackass stuff right there!” he says, munching on his veggies. “Historically I’ve had a notoriously weak stomach—more like a powerful imagination. If I get the idea that something’s gross then I’m quick to vomit. The same powerful imagination that makes me vomit easily is the same that makes me ejaculate prematurely.”
Steve-O’s unusual decade and a half in the public eye has garnered enough gawking attention to last a lifetime, between the Jackass fame and the legal run-ins, a struggle with bipolar disorder and lots and lots of drugs and booze. He famously did coke with Mike Tyson, which he wrote about in his 2011 book Professional Idiot: A Memoir, and briefly beefed publicly with Amy Schumer when she joked about the death of Jackass pal Ryan Dunn on a Comedy Central roast. (They later made up in a phone call, he says.)
I ask Steve-O if he has any regrets in life. He skips over the countless times he’s willingly placed his own body in harm’s way and submitted his senses to some of the worst abuses imaginable. Instead, he shakes his fist at the heavens for the late start he’s gotten on his stand-up career.
“I curse my decision to do that now because if I had kept working on that set and developed it, I’d have been doing stand-up consistently now for approaching a decade instead of just five years, and I think that would have made a big difference,” he laments.
“If I could have established myself as more of a multifaceted performer in the heyday of Jackass… I don’t know. I don’t know what would be different now. I feel like I would have been more established as a comedian and further down the track of where I want to be at.”
“People are starting to realize that I’m doing stand-up and it’s not a waste of time,” he continues. “There are a lot of celebrities that have tried their hand at stand-up, and if they sucked they didn’t last very long. There are a lot that I’m fortunate to have survived. A lot of people have died and I’m still around, and that kind of suggests that I do have some sort of purpose.”
“I wanted to be remembered forever. That was my thing. People say, ‘Why do you do all this stupid stuff?’ and I’d say, ‘Because I don’t like work and I don’t like school and I want to be remembered forever.’ I was really hung up on that. I wanted to matter, and I wanted to matter forever. That attitude was helpful in my endeavors; I was fiercely motivated to stand out in a crowd and have some kind of impact, which allowed me to make a living and afforded me some measure of self-esteem. But it was fulfilling for me at that young age.”
Years of hard stunts, harder partying, drugs, more stunts, and lots of women added up. Steve-O’s still doing his share of self-reflecting over his past, and his up and down experiences in life, love, stunts, and sex have naturally bled into his comedy show. They’ve also simultaneously made him into a sort of Tony Robbins figure to the Jackass fans who take inspiration from his candor.
Putting his personal life, his public failures, and his penchant for pushing his physical limits for the sake of his fans on display means his comedy shows aren’t just stand-up routines, but rather more like one-man public speaking tours—albeit ones that still include bits where he gets kicked in the nuts in front of a live audience. So why comedy?
He pauses, mulling it over. “Ultimately, I want to matter,” he says, his gravelly voice serious and composed. “I want to exist. I want to have an impact on people. Everything that I’ve done in my life has been designed to be, like, so outrageous, that it’s put me in a really great position to do stand-up comedy because people already know if I’m going to tell a story, it’s going to be interesting and crazy.”
“I’m hopeful that I’ll figure it out,” he admits. “I’m taking all the therapy super seriously and I really do believe that ultimate happiness for me not only involves separation between me and the character Steve-O, but also figuring out how to be in a healthy relationship.”
And as he’s gotten older and wiser, the new Steve-O is trying to learn from the old Steve-O. “I think it was tied into my whole downward spiral that I could never turn it off,” he says. “This character, this persona. I got so scared of the spotlight leaving me that I really clamored to stay in it. The drugs played into that as well.”
“After getting sober it became clear to me that to be totally identified with the persona of Steve-O is scary,” he adds. “If my happiness is contingent upon my value as a commodity in the entertainment industry, then the future’s bleak. If my self-worth is based on the validation I get from the adoration of millions of people I don’t even know, then that’s again really scary and hollow.”
“Now I have a much bigger task. Now my goal is to find separation between me and that character. To find separation between Steve-O and whoever I am—and more than that, for whoever I am to find fulfillment and validation from within.”
Time and a lot of tough living has given Steve-O nothing but perspective. “Now I’m in my forties and I can’t post a picture without someone commenting, ‘Dude, you got old,’” he chuckles. “It’s like, ‘FUCK.’ I think I’m pretty realistic about it. It just points to what’s important is to find separation from that.”
“I dove into the persona and the business of Steve-O so fully, and now I’m trying to pull out of it and let that be my job, and not my life,” he says, flashing an optimistic smile. “And even that is tricky as fuck.”