Raising a Jackass
Who can say what flicks that crucial switch in your kids? One day your son's launching himself off the living room couch, bamming into the walls, and the next day — okay, not the literal next day — he's wearing a dark blazer with sensible shoes, reading the New York Times over a bowl of Kashi. He realizes there are stakes in the world, things to be taken seriously. He's all grown up.
Thank God for that switch.
But sometimes it doesn't work that way. Sometimes, your son never really stops bamming into walls. He's like a balloon that refuses to burst, no matter how much air gets pumped in. Your son, in fact, decides to take up skateboarding, the sport with more of a Peter Pan complex than any other, the sport that valorizes — and financially rewards — perpetual childhood. And your son gets good. Really good, so that at age 10 he's already sponsored, by 15 he's making money, by 17 he wants to quit school to skateboard full-time (do you let him?), and by his early 20s he's a millionaire.
And now he's on the fast track to Never-Never Land, and what the hell are you supposed to do? Tell him to stop skateboarding? What do you do about that video camera he's always lugging around? Do you confiscate it? Because your son and his buddies, egged on by the lens, have been doing some dangerous stuff. Fourth-grade slapstick, the things they dream about during geometry: What if someone jumped off the top of a moving car into a giant bush? What if someone tobogganed down that hill in the dead of summer? What if we threw this human dummy in front of an onrushing car? Your son follows through on his curiosities, compiling videos he dubs Camp Kill Yourself, or CKY for short.
The switch. You can't find it. He doesn't want to find it. And now Never-Never Land's pushing beyond your son's world and into your own. Next thing you know, he's filming you. You, April Margera, a 48-year-old mother of two. You do not know how to skateboard. You are not “punk.” But there he is, your son — Brandon “Bam” Margera — waking you up at night by setting off fireworks in your bedroom, and taping your reaction. He's digging a giant hole in the yard so he can watch your husband, Phil, fall into it while mowing the lawn. He's releasing a live alligator in your kitchen and filming your resulting screams.
And oh yeah: This craziness is not yours alone. Bam's CKY videos have been so popular that they've landed Bam a major role on a major cable show, and then in a movie called — and just wait until your own mother hears about this — Jackass. Now your life is being broadcast to TVs and theaters across the land. Which is fine, really, just fine … he's your son, you want to support him, blah blah blah.Only now your son has sold MTV on a new show called Viva La Bam. And guess what, April? He's filming the whole damn first season in your house.
And you're his co-star.
You still haven't found that switch.
And today, you could really use it. Today, you're hanging out at the $1.2 million property Bam bought in Pocopson Township near West Chester, the second-season set of the Viva La Bam show. (The third season started airing on October 24th, Sundays at 10 p.m. on MTV.) The house — cavernous, quirky, dark — is great for TV, but it's not so nice to live in, so you've been doing some redecorating: new curtains here, a paisley couch there, in front of the 12 resin skulls mounted over the fireplace.
Suddenly, through the kitchen window, you spy Bam. He's carrying stuff under both arms.
“What the hell's he got?” says your hubby Phil.
What Bam's got is a crossbow. And a bundle of arrows. And a portable target that looks like a giant black-and-white die. And now he's setting up the target on the lawn.
“Did you buy that?” you ask.
“No,” sneers Bam, “I rented it.”
“Isn't that dangerous?”
“That's why I bought it.”
This is the pivotal moment. Should you exert your motherly influence? Or should you just stand quietly as Bam draws the bow and shoots his first arrow, hitting the target's meat?
“Oooooh!” April squeals. “Have you been practicing?”
April Margera used to be a hairdresser. In 27 years, she only missed three days of work. She enjoyed her job. Her husband Phil was a baker at the West Chester Acme. They sent their two kids — Bam, 25, and Jesse, 26, who is the drummer in a rock band called Camp Kill Yourself — to the West Chester public schools. They had family cookouts at the park. They coupon-shopped. They were typical Chester County parents.
And still are, at least superficially. When I visit April and Phil one August morning, she's just baked 40 sticky buns, which are cooling on the counter. April's wearing comfy jeans and a green tank top. Her face is framed by straight, shoulder-length blond hair; she talks with a bubbly sarcasm that makes her seem both youthful and wise. For every 20 words of April's, Phil — chubby cheeks, salt-and-pepper beard — mumbles one. He's the kind of easygoing fat guy people are drawn to, like a mall Santa. They're sweethearts, both of them.
True, lots of parents are sweethearts. But lots of parents don't have a kid like Bam. The fact that the Margeras can keep their cool in the face of Bam's brand of abuse makes them special — Viva La Bam wouldn't work if Bam wasn't so mean and his parents weren't so nice. April's reaction to Bam's crossbow caper is typical. She didn't stop him. Phil didn't, either. They seem like the coolest parents in the world. Everywhere April and Phil go, teens want to hug them. There were even two youngsters at the Mall of America — where tens of thousands of kids showed up to watch Bam give a skateboard demonstration — who begged the Margeras to adopt them. Here's Christine, a 20-year-old girl in Topeka, in a fan letter to Bam:
I think it's so cool of your parents to let you get by with all the things you do to them. Were you this way as a kid too? I know if I ever tried to do what you do my parents would kill me! But then again my parents don't like anything I do … which is why I'm glad I have your show to make me laugh.
“That's sad,” says April, when I read her the letter. “There are so many of those kids.” But is Christine's situation really what's sad? Or is the sad thing April's astounding permissiveness? Are the Margeras heroes of child-rearing in this age of frightening acronyms Dr. Spock never dreamed of — ADD, CKY, MTV — or just spineless hippies with a punk-ass kid?
Their fellow Pocopson residents must think spineless. Earlier this year, Bam 's neighbors complained about the noise at Castle Bam, and in June the township told Bam to “cease and desist” all filming. (Instead of fighting the ornery Pocopsonites, Bam decided to fly the show — and his parents — over to Europe, where they filmed season four in September and October.)
When you watch something like the CKY3 video, you've got to agree with Bam's neighbors' verdict — especially when you get to that scene of Bam in his parents' bedroom, the scene in which, at 3:23 in the morning, Bam walks up to a sleeping Phil, whips out his own penis, and pees in his dad's face.
Phil wakes up with a start. His eyes bulge. He recoils and grabs Bam's penis, trying to redirect the stream.
“What is it?” says April, groggy but awakened. “What is it? What is it?”
“Did he really?”
“Yeah, it's getting everywhere. Come on.”
“Is that what's wet?” says April.
“Yeah,” says Phil.
“Bam,” says April, “are you kidding me?” She is surprisingly calm.
“That's what I have to do,” says Bam, unapologetically.
Do you send the kid to a psychiatrist? Do you go yourself, to figure out what the hell is wrong with you for accepting this? (“There are times when you think you've completely failed as a mother,” April admits later. “And that was one of 'em.”)
But no, you don't do any of those things, because if you're April Margera, this doesn't feel that unusual. April understands that from the outside, it looks strange. People always ask her how the Margeras became this peculiar TV family. She has written part of the story down, in the introduction to her new cookbook, There's an Alligator in My Kitchen. “No names have been changed,” she writes, “because no one is innocent.”
You might assume Bam spent his formative years at some daycare mill, learning morals and values from Daddy Nintendo. In fact, Phil stayed home for two and a half years to take care of Bam and Jesse when they were toddlers. Okay — so Phil wasn't exactly a taskmaster. Phil grew up with six siblings in a free-for-all household in Chichester; April grew up with stricter parents in Garnet Valley. So with Phil as chaperone, the kids ran wild. He'd roughhouse with Bam and Jesse, picking fights with Bam just as often as Bam whaled on Phil. When Phil would bring the boys out back to paint a picnic table, they'd paint themselves instead, to April's horror.
But April — who, like Phil, was in her mid- 20s when Bam and Jesse were young — had a permissive streak of her own. April and Phil's rearing of Bam seems to be one long Zen exercise in gaining control by giving it up: If you love something, let it skateboard. They saw Bam's talent even at age eight, saw how, when Phil would drive him into Philly to shred LOVE Park, all the older kids would stop and watch. Phil plastered his car with so many skate stickers that everyone in West Chester knew when Phil Margera drove by. And Bam didn't mind that he was the only kid whose dad hung out by the halfpipe. “If Phil was my ride,” he says, smiling, “Phil was my ride.” April and Phil even put halfpipes in the backyard. The Margera house quickly became the hangout for all the neighborhood kids. Says April, “Everybody's like, 'Are you crazy? Somebody 'll sue ya.' Well, let somebody sue me.” When Bam and his buddies got hungry, April cooked huge communal dinners. There was a method to her madness. By becoming Skate Mom, she kept Bam and his friends in close orbit. When Bam quit high school at the end of his junior year, April wasn't happy, but she home-schooled him for a year to make sure he got his GED.
The cameras crept in gradually. When Bam was in middle school, he and his friends started by buying chicken cutlets, which they covered with blood to make them look like flesh. They'd run around the neighborhood with a bulky camcorder, feigning gory deaths. “At the time,” says April, “our neighbors thought we had rounded the bend.”
Bam's first CKY video, released in 1997, caught the eye of the editors of Big Brother, a West Coast skateboard magazine. The Big Brother crew was putting together a like-minded show for MTV called Jackass, and Bam became a cast member. He kept filming his pranks on April and Phil, just like he'd always done, but now they were being watched by millions. By the third season of Jackass, says Phil, the show's producers saw that “fans would scream my name louder and louder, even sometimes louder than a couple of the other guys” on the show. MTV asked if Phil would go on the payroll. Would the Margeras fight the current or go with the flow?
They weren't the first reality-TV parents to be faced with this choice. Canadian comic Tom Green once painted his dad's car's hood with pictures of naked women and called it the “Slut Mobile”; another time, he commissioned a sculpture of his parents having sex and parked it on their front lawn.”I think [the Greens ] were victimized, yeah,” says April. “We look like we were victimized — “Phil cuts her off. “We were victimized in the beginning,” he says, laughing, “but now we've joined in.”
Being related to Bam Margera isn't all urine and heartache. There's something in it for April and Phil. Bam did, after all, buy them a house — the one he gutted in Viva La Bam's first season by cramming it with skateboard ramps. (The show later moved to the Pocopson property due to security concerns; the Margeras had been robbed during filming for season one.) And Bam made them stars. Nowadays, April gets to ride in a limo to swank L.A. parties, hanging out with the likes of Jack Black (“So nice”) and Quentin Tarantino (a huge Bam fan). MTV does pay April and Phil for Viva La Bam, a flat per-episode fee (no residuals) that adds up annually to twice what April used to make cutting hair. Not bad.
But it's only fair for MTV to pay them, since they both quit their jobs for the show. April's hair-salon gig interfered with MTV's production schedule; Phil left Acme when kids started showing up in the bakery aisle, peppering him with questions about Bam. Besides, Phil and April insist they're not getting rich. Says April, “When Ozzy [Osbourne, the heavy metal singer with his own MTV reality show] said” — and she starts speaking with a British accent — “'Ah, they're the cheapest boss-tids ev-ah,' you say, 'Yeah, sure, Ozzy.' He was not lyin'.” She adds, “We each got paid $1,200 for Jackass: The Movie.”
“Well,” says Phil, “Bam made out very well.”
“We did it for Bam,” says April.
“We did it for Bam,” says Phil.
That's the thing about being a parent, says April. Once you start supporting your kids, “You can't stop.” You have to find a way to fuel the good and mitigate the bad. Life hands you an alligator in your kitchen? Make that the title of your cookbook. If life hands you a 40-man production crew tramping around on your good carpets, as it has with Viva La Bam, you replace the carpets.
If Jackass was a leaky faucet of inconvenience for April and Phil, then Viva La Bam is an overflowing toilet. They aren't just bit players anymore. After Jackass was forced off the air by the twin terrors of lawsuits and Senator Joe Lieberman, who called the show “dangerous and inciting,” MTV “begged Bam to come up with a show,” says Phil. Execs loved April's alligator-in-the-kitchen freakout, so they encouraged Bam to pitch a show about his family. Bam asked April and Phil how they felt about it — a show premised on a crazy guy who lives with his parents and invites his crazy friends over to break things and make trouble. April and Phil could have said no. Instead, says April, “We said, 'We're up for it, Bam, we trust you.'”
And now Viva La Bam is a hit. Last year, it was the top-rated show in its time slot with teen viewers. The Jackass spirit is still very present. Viva La Bam revels in the same kinds of fourth-grade gags. The difference is scope. Jackass wonders what mischief a fourth-grader could make for free: Let's ram that shopping cart into those bushes. Viva La Bam wonders what mischief a fourth-grader could make if he had a budget: Let's build a professional wrestling ring in the backyard and pay two wrestlers to kick Phil's ass.
What hasn't changed is the element of surprise. For the show to work, April and Phil have to be kept in the dark. All they get is a vague schedule: “Filming, filming, off, travel, travel.” “Filming” could mean a helicopter landing on April's lawn. “Travel” could mean a Winnebago to Mardi Gras.
This can be a pain logistically — April has to rely on her extended family to run errands when she's gone — but by now, she and Phil are old pros at dealing gracefully with uncertainty. In fact, they think the show isn't spontaneous enough. In MTV's world, says Phil, “Everything has to make sense.” Everything has to have a neat, tidy storyline. But the Margeras don't get that. They're constantly pushing MTV to include more looniness, more chaos. April and Phil have been breathing the oxygen of chaos so long that they miss it when it's not there. Anything else seems fraudulent, untrue to their experience.
Because if Bam has taught them anything, it's that life isn't a tidy narrative, just like a family isn't a confederation of solitary minds. When you see Bam peeing on his father, for instance, you're only seeing one isolated moment of a long conversation. “Even though it looks pretty dysfunctional,” says April, “we're actually the ones that are pretty functional.” The truth is that Bam and Phil had been laughing all day about all the tricks Bam had pulled on Phil, and they'd been trying to decide which was the worst, and what sort of stunt would finally send Phil over the edge. April and Phil share not just a bloodline with Bam, but an aesthetic, and why not? When you look at the big picture, Viva La Bam is as much April and Phil's creation as Bam's.
So if you're April Margera, you've got to be pretty happy about one episode in this new third season of Viva La Bam. In the episode, Bam spends a whole day trying to make April fly off the handle. He throws green paint in the pool. April stays cool.
Then, the episode's finale. Bam deprives April of her senses. He makes her wear a blindfold and headphones, through which he plays heavy metal music. He lifts her … somewhere. She's oblivious.
At just the right moment, Bam takes the headphones off, and the blindfold off, and April opens her eyes and sees that she's in a hot-air balloon, thousands of feet above Chester County. Years ago, she embraced the kid Bam was, not the kid she wanted him to be, and this is part of what she's gotten back, this tangible sliver of an intangible payoff — this air, this panorama of light, this excruciating blue. See her suspended, camera in her face, capturing her shock and her joy? See her doing the Margera name proud?