In 1992, at a time when skateboarding had all but gone the way of the dodo, a group of outcasts, misfits and weirdos started a magazine. For the next 12 years, Big Brother helped shape street skating counterculture with its crass humor, DIY aesthetic and irreverent tone.
Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine is a breathless look at the magazine’s evolution as told by the people who were there. Director Patrick O’Dell charts its rise from boundary-busting industry outlier to the later years, when publishing czar Larry Flynt welcomed it into his growing oeuvre of cult ephemera. O’Dell also explores how Big Brother’s key figures–Jeff Tremaine, Steve-O, Johnny Knoxville and Wee Man among them—used the magazine’s guiding principles to lay the foundation for the Jackass universe.
We spoke with O’Dell, Tremaine, Steve-O, Wee Man and Tony Hawk on what it was like back then, in the heyday of Big Brother magazine.
Dumb premieres this Saturday on Hulu.
“I jumped on it.”
JEFF TREMAINE (editor, Big Brother, co-creator, Jackass): Hulu actually approached me and asked if I’d be willing to do a documentary about Big Brother. I was like, “If you want to pay for it, I’ll go dig up all the old footage.” And so my first call was to Patrick, because I am a huge fan of Epicly Later’d. I had no idea he was even a fan of Big Brother. We had met a couple times but I didn’t really know him. He was down to do it and it just turned into this.
PATRICK O’DELL (director, Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine): I come from a background of making skate docs. So when the opportunity came about to collaborate on something with Jeff, I jumped on it.
TREMAINE: Earl Parker was someone who needed to be tracked down. He lives in Hollywood and he gets disability. Back in the day, I didn’t realize that he had more serious issues going on. We just thought he was this crazy artistic, weird little dude. But as time goes on, you learn there is more shit going on then you thought.
O’DELL: I loved interviewing Jeff Grosso. He’s a pro skater and he wasn’t even in Big Brother that much but he’s sort of a skater expert. And I really liked interviewing Johnny Knoxville, just being such a fan of his and I had never met him before. And his storytelling was so good. But for most of these guys the magazine was a part of their lives so I think a lot of the reverence was coming from me, or the people who were influenced by it. But for a lot of them—like Johnny Knoxville—some of that was a stepping stone for his success and he looks back on it as a really important time in his life.
STEVE-O (cast member, Jackass): Me and Jason (a.k.a. Wee Man) had been working on something like this for quite some time. We had some version of it as far back as 2008-2009. But then it just fell through. And it pissed me off because they’re not using any of the interview footage from back then. There was one thing I said that I thought was really funny.
O’DELL: I was impressed with Jeff in that he seems to use the same people. Sean Cliver and Dimitry Elyashkevich and this family—It seems that all of the people from Big Brother, or 75 percent of them are still around in Jeff’s life, puttering around the house or office.
TREMAINE: Our magazine was jammed with words. It was seven point helvetica on ten. I can’t read it now. I’d have to put stupid glasses on to read that fucking thing. But I like to think that there was a level of intelligence and creativity that we were really pushing hard into the craftsmanship of it. It was well crafted, but Dumb is a good title for the documentary. We took dumb things and just treated them like art. But it was dumb. What we were doing was dumb. But then hit the paper and it became these real, important things.
“It was a job but it was fun all the time.”
TREMAINE: Steve Rocco, who founded the magazine, gave us endless resources. He paid me a nice salary but also left us alone to create it all. He wanted the different formats. He liked the idea of it never being the same thing and he wanted it to be naughty but we were all about that. Really, we were just stuck in the office together and we lived for it.
O’DELL: I don’t think people knew how influential it was. I was a big fan of it when I was in high school. I was in Columbus, Ohio, reading probably every word on every page for probably 100 issues.
STEVE-O: I became aware of Big Brother around Christmas of 1993. I was just tripping out cause here’s this magazine with bare tits on the cover. I was like “What?” And I flipped through it and on the back page there was a 360 flip and a tailslide and I was like “What!”
TREMAINE: It was a job but it was fun all the time, so it didn’t feel like a job. It just felt like this is our life. I get in at ten and I’m there until 3 a.m. every day. And the little, dumb things would entertain us so much. It was fun to take something so stupid and small and treat it with such respect in the magazine.
STEVE-O: There was a big book in the 80’s for skateboarding. Then America got really lawsuit happy. They were afraid of lawsuits so they tore down all the skate parks. And then skating kind of became more underground, and then quietly, street skateboards emerged. The wheels got super tiny, pants got super big.
TREMAINE: Wee Man was stuffing envelopes. He was basically our subscriptions department. He would take the magazines, put them in envelopes, then stack them up and take them to the post office for me.
TONY HAWK (pro skateboarder): I was just starting Birdhouse, doing my own thing. Everything was so experimental, it didn’t feel like we were creating this great revolution. We were just trying to survive in the skating industry. But I was stoked that Rocco put effort and money into doing a magazine. I knew it was going to be off the cuff for sure. Just the fact that there was a magazine that was started then when everything was in decline. Skateboarding was the least popular thing you could do. Only a couple of kids were doing it in school back then, now every kid is doing it. ‘92-’93 were the slowest years since the 80’s.
TREMAINE: I think we thought what we were doing was funny, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think we were aware of any of the influence we were having. That didn’t matter. We were entertaining ourselves and putting it in the magazine.
O’DELL: I looked at it almost like reading a novel, like a western or a book about pirates. I mean, it was pro skaters in a van, and the people at the magazine playing pranks, writing funny stories, picking on each other. And I read it cover to cover thinking someday I’m going to graduate high school or drop out of high school, and going on those sort of adventures too. It shaped me as far as what kind of opportunity there was and what it could mean to go skateboarding.
TREMAINE: I’m no longer in touch with Rocco but I still love him because he gave me that opportunity and encouraged me. He was a great patron. I watched how he ran his company and it was not how you think a company would be run and maybe not how a company should be run but fuck it. He was the boss and encouraged us to be creative, albeit rotten, but creative.
“Oh Fuck, we’re going to be in trouble again.”
TREMAINE: When we got to Flint, it was right when The People vs. Larry Flynt had come out. He was this huge icon, so we thought he was the perfect guy to take over, because the magazine was going to stay crazy. But actually they were trying to make it more legitimate. I guess because we got bigger newsstand distribution and all of a sudden the naughty things jumped out when we got in trouble.
WEE MAN (castmember, Jackass): We interviewed Slayer with Danny Way at Disneyland. Jeff goes “I want to take Slayer to Disneyland,” and we made it happen. Slayer was worried the whole time. They thought shit was about to go down. They always stayed about 5 feet behind everybody. And it was kind of boring but then Lance (Bangs) jumped into the submarine water off the metro rail and uh… The best part was when the cops came they asked Lance “Why are your shoes off?” He took them off because he didn’t want to get them wet.
STEVE-O: Drugs and alcohol were a huge influence in those days. Were they just constantly present? Yeah, absolutely for me. It wasn’t so much the crazy hard drugs that we got into later but I certainly couldn’t stay sober for a day.
HAWK: From my perspective, I was just more of a skater, you know, getting featured once in a while. But they kept me at arm’s length because I was considered like, the whatever, the goodie, you know… the goodie two shoes. But I was always a willing participant. If they wanted me to go do something ridiculous, I would just go do it because I thought they were hilarious and I trusted their instincts.
TREMAINE: We didn’t really have a relationship with Flynt but he was cool. It felt more like being in school a little bit. Obviously we were the bad kids and we had to keep trying to do what we do but we didn’t want them to know what we were doing. And so, when they found out, I was the one who had to go upstairs to all the executives on the 11th floor. I’d have to go up there, get in trouble and come back down. We’d try to tone it down for an issue or two but then it would spike back up.
HAWK: I thought they were hilarious. But just, I mean, the creative direction of Big Brother. Wee Man as an Oompa Loompa walking the streets of New York? That was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
STEVE-O: That was way before Blue Man Group.
TREMAINE: The nudity was all still there. We had this thing called “Mr. Genital Blocker,” that we created to cover all the genitals. One of the benefits of being in Flynt was that skaters loved to visit us because we would just give them stacks of porn.
HAWK: I was just as eager to work with them as Thrasher and Transworld, for sure. In those days Thrasher was a catalogue for San Francisco companies so you were more likely to get coverage in Big Brother. Dave Carnie would just call me with the most ridiculous ideas for the skate shots.
TREMAINE: I’m glad there was a time we were uncensored and did the craziest shit. Would I do it now? No, but I’m a different person. I have kids. But this magazine was made to be the thing you can’t let your parents find. You’re in this club. You get to see the craziest fucking shit. We made it, fuck, no one was telling us no.
“Without Big Brother there is no Jackass.”
O’DELL: Spike Jonze was in Jeff’s class. They went to high school together.
TREMAINE: We had a ball. He was a crazy kid. If you threw a French fry at him, he was going to flip over all the trays. He was a fun, rowdy dude and I had no idea what the future would lead to. But at 12 or 13 or whatever, he worked at the bike shop that we all wanted to work at. He got that job, and he just had a way. Everyone sees him as this emotional intellectual. I remember before Big Brother, he hired me for a BMX magazine photo shoot and we were going to shoot Matt Hoffman. This is in 1990 and he was driving the Chevy Astro van. It was in cruise control and we were going 80 miles per hour down the five. There was a bike box, I’m in the passenger seat and he’s driving. All of a sudden he flips the seat back and rolls out of the seat and goes and sits in the back of the van. He tells me to hold it, so I’m steering, and I can’t get over. We’re going 80, and L.A. traffic every now and again just stops, so I’ve got to get into the driver’s seat because he’s not coming back. He’s a piece of work.
HAWK: For sure Big Brother and the Big Brother videos were the catalyst for doing something beyond just skateboarding.
TREMAINE: When Johnny went out to shoot himself, we had zero confidence in that bulletproof vest. He might have had a little bit, but I had zero. Originally, I was going to have Dimitry go film it and at the last minute I told him “Knoxville, take the camera and get whoever you want to film it, Dimitry can’t go and he works for me. This is too gnarly. But here is a stack of Barely Legals and Hustlers. Stick those under there cause these are pretty thick.” And if you watch the uncut version, at one point, he’s about to pull the trigger when the porn falls out. He bends down and points the gun in his face while he’s picking up the porn back up. He had about three inches of porn under the vest, at first. After it fell out, I don’t think he put it back in.
O’DELL: When making the documentary, we had to sort of finish with that. Because we can’t have anything after that stunt because it’s going to seem lame. So we had to tier the stunts to build up to that one.
TREMAINE: Johnny Knoxville had a daughter when he pulled that and he thought “How do I do something to support my family?” Most people would think “Oh, I’ll go get a job at the support family,” and he shoots himself to support his family.
STEVE-O: After doing four mess around videos, it was like, “Why don’t we take this to the next level?” I was totally in the dark. I was taking it all seriously and I was just sending in all this footage and then that video came out. I had been working as a clown on cruise ships and I had lost my job so I called up Jeff and I was like “I’ve got this idea. I wanna be on stilts with my costume on fire and a unicyclist riding through all these flames and a skateboarder jumping off a roof and we’re gonna blow fire, it’s gonna be great.” I put it all together. I got my stilts and everything and I flew myself out to California and Jeff waited until I got there and he said, “Okay cool now you’re here, it’s not just for Big Brother, we’re making a pilot for MTV.” He didn’t even tell me until I got out there. And the timing was pretty great for me.
TREMAINE: We were part of skateboarding and that was influencing us. Jackass is just Big Brother. Without Big Brother there is no Jackass, it’s the same thing. So whatever Jackass influenced, that’s what Big Brother influenced, it’s the same fucking thing. I like it because we were probably the rowdiest skateboard magazine that ever will be. I don’t know when these circumstances will ever happen again, where you have a boss who is like “Fuck everybody” and “Here’s money, go do it right!”
STEVE-O: I’d turned 26 and Jeff said “Hey, our pilot got ordered so we’re going to series which means we’re gonna come out to Florida to film you so start writing ideas, but right now I want you to pull together all the video footage you have and send it all in so we can license it and put some of your footage straight on,” so that’s what I did. Probably one week later, I called him up and was like “So what do you guys need me to do?” I wanted a report on what of mine they were gonna license and Jeff told me “Sadly not one clip you sent in cleared the sensors.” And to be fair a lot of the footage was just shitty. But they had certain rules from the beginning, like if you were gonna jump off something it could only be up to a certain height and that was my thing, was jumping off shit that was super high. And they were really touchy about fire.
HAWK: I had heard rumors that they were gonna put together clips from Big Brother videos and CKY stuff and then go and pitch that as a show and I was like “Yeah good luck.” I’m pretty sure I got the pilot through Spike or through Matt Hoffman, but I had it on VHS and I watched it and I was like, it’s the funniest thing that will never happen. There’s no way they’ll ever put that on MTV with all the liability and all the bullshit and you know, just how edgy it was.
STEVE-O: I had no idea what the format was gonna be. Knoxville’s interviewing me and stuff. It was weird but it worked out well.
TREMAINE: Putting Jackass together felt very much like making Big Brother. It was a very easy transition for me. And it’s the same people, essentially, as you can see, it just translated. We’re no longer making magazines and videos. We’re making a TV show and eventually a movie. We became this thing together. But it never felt different. My life doesn’t feel that different.