The wedgie's pop-culture pull proves irresistible
05:00 AM, Oct 23, 2013
Johnny Knoxville is doing more than just continuing the low-brow Jackass series with its fourth installment, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.
The 42-year-old comedic performer and actor is also keeping the flame alive for a sophomoric film tradition: the wedgie.
Playing 86-year-old Irving Zisman, Knoxville delivers wedgies so profound that they are featured not just in the comedy (opening Friday) itself, but also in the trailer and on promotional posters for the Paramount franchise.
“The wedgie is one of the many things in my repertoire,” says Knoxville. “Simple is funny. Underpants are funny. And it works every time.”
This act of pulling another’s underwear violently upward to inflict irritation and a comically goofy appearance enjoyed its golden era in comedies released during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, says Matt Zaller, host of the show MetacafeUnfiltered at thevideo-sharing site Metacafe.com.
“They were the thing to do to the protagonist-of-the-day mostly nerds in the very common underdog comedies,” says Zaller. “It was an easy way for filmmakers to get a laugh. But we might have over-saturated the market since there was a wedgie in about 50% of the movies.”
In the Cold War world, the wedgie was also a sure way to build up sympathy for the plucky screen heroes in comedies such as 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds and in 1985’s Just One of the Guys. Craig Detweiler, director of Pepperdine University’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, recalls living in Japan in the 1980s and watching the wedgie-mania rise onscreen.
“It’s interesting to think about the wedgie as kind of an extension of Japanese sumo wrestling taken to its logical extreme,” says Detweiler. “It’s an Americanized version of the classic power move.”
The art form morphed. In 1988’s Caddyshack II, legendary hard-guy actor Robert Stack received a pivotal wedgie from Randy Quaid during a round of golf. “That’s my all-time favorite,” says Zaller. “Two adults executing a wedgie, which was really unheard of, juxtaposed on a a really plush golf course.” A gem in an ill-begotten sequel.
But the wedgie screen climax arguably came in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) when dudes Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) gave Death himself a killer “Melvin” (as they called it).
“Anytime you can combine Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with the wedgie, you have elevated it to a sublime art form that will live in pop culture infamy,” says Detweiler.
Screen wedgies declined over the next 20 years, perhaps due to shame over their bullying origins or because high school geeks began to rule the world.
“Revenge of the Nerds has truly been carried out in large-scale ways with the rise of the tech industry,” says Detweiler. “The era of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg domination might be the logical extension of one too many wedgies. They have turned the tables, they have struck back. It’s been one long payback and perhaps the lesson has been learned.”
Wedgies have been creeping back onto the scene in recent years. Jack Black gave his wrestling nemesis a wedgie in 2006’s Nacho Libreand Pamela Anderson inflicted one on Jenny McCarthy in 2003’s Scary Movie 3. Ben Stiller gave himself a humiliating wedgie on the male model runway in 2001’s Zoolander.
But it’s really been the Jackass franchise that reinvigorated the genre, starting with 2002’s Jackass: The Movie. A notable “wedgie bungee” stunt featured performer Chris Raab falling from a tree attached to an elastic pair of underpants.
Knoxville continues the tradition in the Bad Grandpa. He inflicts one on his co-star Jackson Nicoll who was eight when they shot the movie, relying on unscripted hidden camera shots.
“(Jackson) hauled off and kicked me right in the shins as hard as he could, so that was my first line of offense,” says Knoxville. “It was the only thing I can do to him.”
The poster wedgie shot, during which Nicoll wore a special elastic device to allow him to be suspended without pain, was a clear choice.
“It’s a funny idea,” says director Jeff Tremaine. Knoxville (as Zisman) “is carrying a six-pack in one hand. And he has an eight-year-old hanging by his underwear in the other hand.”
It’s the kind of move that could bring the act back into vogue. But as far Knoxville is concerned, it’s just a good gag, no matter how much time has passed.
“It’s a real juvenile thing to do to someone. That’s what makes it funny to me,” he says. “It’s stuff you did when you are 9. But I’m still doing them at 42.”