Jackass: Lowbrow comedy or conceptual art?

Jackass has been called disgusting, irresponsible and a sign of the end of Western civilisation. So, why's the latest of its offerings being shown at the Museum of Modern Art?

• Johnny Knoxville says he never thinks of art when he is writing for the show

Jackass 3D, which arrives in British cinemas at the beginning of next month, marks the improbable tenth anniversary of the MTV phenomenon, part fraternity hazing ritual and part extreme sports stunt. Those who loathe Jackass – which brought the world beer enemas and urine snow cones and thrust its merry band of dolts into reptile lairs and shark-infested waters – have called it disgusting and irresponsible, an incitement to copycat idiocy, if not a sign of the end of Western civilisation. Fans of the franchise, which began as a television series (running from 2000 to 2002) and spawned two earlier feature films (Jackass the Movie in 2002 and Jackass Number Two in 2006), counter that it is comic anarchy at its freest, as cathartically funny as it is monumentally stupid.

But is it art?

Johnny Knoxville, the ringleader of Jackass and one of its three creators (along with Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine), has a categorical answer. "Art is the farthest thing from my mind when I'm writing," Knoxville says. "I really don't intellectualise it."

It's understandable that Knoxville – who in the first episode of Jackass sat in a faeces-filled portable toilet that was flipped upside down – would want to avoid the taint of respectability. The antics of Jackass may or may not be art, but they stand at the confluence of some significant social phenomena and artistic traditions. Emerging from the slacker-daredevil ethos of skate culture, the series and the films updated the ambush comedy of Candid Camera for the age of YouTube exhibitionism. There are also older, more reputable antecedents: silent-era comedy; Dadaism and the Theatre of Cruelty; performance art and body art.

As a matter of fact, Jackass 3D was shown at a members' event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last week. "We love to laugh at the misfortune of others," says Josh Siegel, the MoMA curator who organised the screening (and also included Jackass the Movie in the museum's tribute to Jonze last year). He added that the new film is "merely the climax – or the lowest depths, if you prefer – of a tradition that dates back to 1895, when the Lumiere brothers drenched a poor sap with a garden hose and filmed it."

As much documentary as comedy, Jackass thrives on the prospect and infliction of real pain. "It's unprecedented slapstick in the sense that all the violence is real," says Tremaine, the director of the TV series and the movies. Knoxville has been known to get ideas from the cartoon violence of Looney Tunes (like the Wile E Coyote-style attempt to blast himself across a lake on a big red rocket). "I think sometimes Knoxville gets confused that life isn't a cartoon," Jonze says.

The artistic key to Jackass, if there is one, can be found in Jonze's work. He began his career making skateboarding videos that paid as much attention to wipeouts as successful manoeuvres, and his films (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich) and music videos evince a taste for anarchy and a love of physical movement. But while Knoxville and Tremaine both clam up at the mention of art, Jonze is comfortable riffing on the more high-toned relations of Jackass.

"When we first started, I knew that it was lowbrow comedy," he says, "but I also thought that we were doing conceptual art in some way." Jonze describes his discovery of the performance artist Chris Burden as "revelatory". In Burden's most infamous piece, Shoot, from 1971, Burden arranged for himself to be shot in the left arm with a rifle. Jonze and Knoxville's first collaboration was a video for the skateboarding magazine Big Brother that echoes Shoot. In a backyard "self-defence test," Knoxville assaults himself with pepper spray and a Taser and finally, wearing a bulletproof suit, shoots himself in the chest with a handgun.Performance artists like Paul McCarthy and Vito Acconci were experimenting with bodily waste and fluids long before the Jackass team. There is also a street theatre aspect to Jackass, and the anti-social "acting out" also has much in common with more obviously artistic film provocations like Lars von Trier's The Idiots and Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers. A skit in Jackass Number Two involves the placement of a leech on an eyeball. In case anyone doubted that it was a nod to Un Chien Andalou, the transgressive classic that opens with the close-up slicing of an eyeball, that film's director, Luis Bunuel is thanked in the Jackass credits.

In the early days, Jackass had the feel of a surrealist disruption. "Just the way it was put on TV without any host, without any context," Jonze says. "It has no explanation for being. It just is."

The shift from low-tech video to 3D further erodes what remains of that underground aura, but it cements the place of Jackass in a tradition that the scholar Tom Gunning has called the "cinema of attractions" – a pre-narrative approach to filmmaking emphasising spectacle over story.

For Jonze it was a good match of form and function. "The great thing about doing our movie in 3D is we're not trying to disappear into a narrative," he says.

Tremaine says he appreciates the contradiction of "thinking of the dumbest things we could do with the most expensive cameras ever made". But Knoxville was the last holdout, in part because 3D cameras are bulkier and require an outside crew. "We thought it would affect the way we shoot and the relationships between the guys," he says. He also wanted to avoid gimmickry. "It had to be funny in 2D first," he says. "We didn't want to just do cheap 3D moments, like things jumping out at you."

Some things do leap from the screen in Jackass 3D – swarming bees, a party whistle extending from someone's rear end – but the film mostly sticks to the Jackass formula: genital injury, close encounters with bulls and snakes, fun with body hair and adhesives. The movie's most effective set-ups have a brute simplicity, like a skit titled The High Five, in which unsuspecting dupes are knocked over by a giant swinging hand.

For the first time, Tremaine says, the entire gang was present throughout the shoot. The pleasure of a Jackass skit derives not just from the stunt itself but also from the convulsive laughter that follows it. "We give each other hell, but at the end of the day you can tell we love each other," Knoxville says. "Not that I want to make this sound like a feel-good movie."

Ten years into the enterprise it's hard for a Jackass reunion to avoid nostalgia. Most of the personnel are pushing 40 – as the closing montage emphasises, with a flashback to their younger selves – and some have lived through public travails. (Steve-O's battle with addiction was chronicled in an MTV documentary.) But physical ability isn't much of an issue yet for the aging crew – Knoxville says he was in better shape for this movie than for the other two. "The Three Stooges did it until they were 60," he adds.

But nerve is a bigger factor than endurance. For all its repetitiveness, Jackass 3D offers glimpses of a new source of comedy: the jackass in autumn, not exactly wiser but less reckless, cursed with foreknowledge, haunted by the pain reflex. "The moment before they do something, the pause is just that much longer," Jonze says. "They're really thinking about it, trying to convince themselves (to do it], and that makes it that much more funny."

• Jackass 3D is in cinemas from 5 November.