How Steve-O turned his life 180
On a recent cloudy morning in Syracuse NY, people browsing a certain wing of the six-story Destiny USA mall encountered something odd: A slim, fit, scarred, man with a buzzcut and old tattoos was attempting a handstand on an escalator. Another guy was filming him. “One. Two. Three,” said the guy, and with that the man easily inverted himself onto a moving metal step. He held the pose, but wavered and came down on his feet, then jogged to the bottom and started over again.
People, then more people, stopped to watch. Many took their phones out to film or text or call somebody about who was at the mall. The crowd grew and people young and old lined the railings around the open-floors. One stroller-pushing lady summed it all up. Turning a corner, she slowed to take in the scene, and then reached for her purse.
“Oh my God,” she said. “It’s freakin’ Steve-O!”
So it was. The 42-year-old performer and Jackass alumnus was in Syracuse for a four-night run of his stand-up show at 300-seat venue called the Funny Bone (he sold out every night). Originally famous for doing things no one else would, Steve-O’s fans have seen his great highs and staggering lows. From fame, to arrests, to more arrests, to rehab, to interventions, to sobriety, to veganism and activism and PETA, to becoming something of a one-man social media army, two decades of fans have seen it all, and seem to always want more.
Some thirty-tries later, Steve-O made it to the top, only to crumble on the side of the moving rubber rail and land in a head-first pile as the escalator reached the next floor. With difficulty, he ran back down to his filmer, who took close-ups of the cuts on his hands and ankle. Then he stood on a bench and held up his hands. “All right. Everybody,” he said. “We’re tying to get to a movie and I’ve only got a few minutes. So put your phones on selfie and we’ll knock this out quick.”
People came from all directions and soon everyone had a photo. The filmer edited the short video. Edging back towards the escalator, Steve-O thanked everyone. Then they headed to the multiplex upstairs, where more fans were waiting, phones in hand.
Such was the mob that morning that Steve-O he couldn’t be interviewed until that night at the venue. As a young wordsmith named Zach Martina warmed up the crowd, Steve-O drank lemon water, kicked a hackeysack, and discussed love, sobriety, performing, Bam Margera, and the life of a stand-up comedian.
THE RED BULLETIN: So, why stand-up comedy?
STEVE-O: It’s a good gig, and I’m an attention whore. I’ve had an easier time consistently booking stand-up then developing new TV shows. But I’ve never stopped trying to do everything. It all depends on where your motivation is. For me, I just always had a strong urge to impress people. I wanted to be liked and loved.
You do have a huge fanbase, with 3.7 million subscribers on YouTube and 2.7 on Instagram. But the downside has to be that people always want pictures with you, like earlier today by the escalator.
In that case, I chose to do a stunt in a public spot, and it drew a crowd. And once the crowd was drawn, I felt like I should take photos with everybody. That was my choice. To create a situation like that. But it takes a lot out of you. By the time I got to the movie, I was burned out. But it was really my doing, so it’s all good.
Most people don’t think of you as a comic, but you’ve been at it a while, right?
The first time I tried stand-up was over 10 years ago. Someone asked me to do a stunt at a comedy club and I couldn’t think of anything crazier than trying stand-up, so I made that my stunt. It was terrifying, but I went for it and I got the sense people were rooting for me. I tried it a few more time and kinda bombed, then didn’t go back until 2010. In 2010 I dove in and I’ve been on tour for seven years now.
How much of your act is writing vs. improv?
Almost all of what I do is material. It depends where I’m at in the process. When I taped the comedy special, then I had to start over and do a whole new show. I needed new stuff. So I’d come out on stage and let people give suggestions, and just riff on it like that. After we taped the special but before it aired, I would do half the stuff from the special and go off-script for half. It’s uncomfortable, going out there not having stuff that you know is gonna work. But if you want new material, that works, you kind of have to do that. I tried some stuff last night for the first time. It worked all right.
In some ways, is it scarier to be alone onstage than to hump a whale shark, or backflip off the Mulholland Dam.
Two-show nights are a dread. It’s a lot. Especially with the meet and greet.
[note: Steve-O doesn’t leave a venue until every fan who wants a photo or/and autograph has one. He takes the photos with a hi-res camera and once back at the hotel, puts them on his website, where fans can have them for free.]
You’re involved in the relaunch of the XYZ brand, which ties back to Plan B and the early 90s skate scene in Encinitas. And like a few of the Jackass guys, you have roots in skateboarding right?
Yeah. I started skating when I was 11, and got serious when I was 13. It was a tool to try and seek affection and validation. Any kind of art for me is very much the same. There are a lot of artists who aren’t so insecure, and they just create stuff, but for me it’s very basic. I want to be liked and loved and validated. It’s all the same motivation. Professionally or instinctually, everything I do is for attention and love and validation. That’s characterized most of my life. Sometimes I wonder for how much of that is related to alcohol and addiction. I think there’s certainly overlap there.
You got sober nine years ago, which we won’t go into because it’s so thoroughly and hideously portrayed in your documentary (particularly in the opening scene, where you sound like the devil). This is also around the time you went vegan, right?
I started becoming more conscious of animal rights before getting sober. But then getting sober expedited the process.
Because there’s so many drugs in processed foods?
It’s not that. It’s that nobody goes into rehab on a winning streak. You’re in a place where you’re beat-up, you’re defeated, you’re ashamed. You don’t feel good about yourself. For me making choices based on being more compassionate was something I felt good about. And boy, I needed things to feel good about when I was in rehab. We build self-esteem through esteemable acts, and that was a big reward for me: feeling good about myself more making choices that I believe are worthy. I built self-esteem through that. It’s good to not be a cruel piece of shit. It helps.
Did getting sober back then change anything with the Jackass crew? Your first two movies had a beer sponsor.
No, it was fine. Nothing about those guys was a hindrance to my sobriety, at all.
It seems like you were ahead of the curve. Ryan Dunn died, then Bam Margera had a rehab show, and now Grind TV is reporting that he’s newly sober, skating around Spain.
Bam is not sober at all. He’s skateboarding, and everyone is happy to see that, which is great. He’s doing his best to kind of reel it in and do better, but the thing is, with alcoholism, there’s really no such thing as shades of gray. You’re either loaded or you’re sober. And you can reel it in, you can do a little bit better for a while, but you’re always gonna wind up in the same fuckin’ place, completely off your ass. And maybe Bam isn’t drinking, who knows? But it’s frustrating, because everyone wants Bam to be super healthy and happy, and to see him floundering and fucked up. It sucks.
Could there be a Jackass reunion? Your audience spans a couple generations now.
I wouldn’t say there’s much momentum unfolding from the Jackass audience. We haven’t done anything in a long time. But I’ve certainly kept active and I like the idea of doing silly shit for as long as I can possibly get away with it. If projects take off, I’ll be thrilled. If not, whatever. I’ll live.