Rehab III: The Profile

In which our hero walks the tightrope between guiding the reader and getting the hell out of the way

I assigned myself a profile: A syndicated radio talk-show host named Tom Leykis who was based in L.A. and specialized in hard-core sex talk for men. I thought the show was horrifyingly and fascinatingly mean to women. I knew a lot about the content of the show because I was a listener. In the back of my mind was the idea that my ambivalence might become part of the story, in a semi-serious way. I thought this was a story that might benefit from a certain amount of playfulness.

Rehab III: The Profile

Rehab III: The Profile

There was no difficulty in obtaining the material–it was there for five hours every weekday afternoon, on the radio. Most of Leykis’ past seemed an open book, and he was dying to be profiled by his hometown newspaper (and resentful we had not done so years earlier). What was difficult was answering the question: Why should we do a story about a guy whose routine was so crude that it was hard to find even euphemisms to represent the true tone? Beyond that, how seriously should we take him? Wasn’t this just show biz? If I was going to do the profile, I would have to find a way to clearly communicate the tone of the show. Another moment when the Show-versus-Tell ethos needed to be the guide.

I got some good advice from one of my old high-school pals, Bob Nafius, who, when he read a draft, said two clever things. First, he sent me an e-mail that said: “…this guy is broadcasting from the intersection of Libertine and Libertarian,” which I promptly told him I was going to steal because it was too good (and too accurate) to be ignored. (He granted permission. I owe him a beer.) The second suggestion Bob made was to note that my draft was essentially three chapters, each of which could take a heading–and he was kind enough to suggest the language, which worked precisely. (This is why friends or colleagues are wonderful pre-editors; you can show them anything without feeling vulnerable.)

Here’s how the story ran, with some of my comments mixed in. If there are lessons here, they lie in (1) making sure you understand precisely how you feel about the subject of your profile, because inevitably you are making a statement about who he or she is; (2) making sure you document how your subject fits into a broader context, and (3) knowing when to guide the reader and when to get the hell out of the way and let the subject (particularly a talkative one) talk.

Organizationally, my objectives were to first establish Leykis’ voice so the reader would know just how crude he is, then use my own ambivalence as a vehicle to illustrate there were a number of ways to hate (or love) him, and finally introduce some biographical information. You’ll note the bio comes quite late for a traditional profile, but it was a sacrifice I thought was necessary because the what-he-is sensibility of the story was simply more important than the past-life material.

Here we go:

THE MOUTH OF MISOGNY
By Bob Baker
October 18, 2002

WE START WITH AN ANECDOTE THAT SHOWED THE HUMOR AND ATTITUTDE

I: Is he really saying that?

You don’t usually get congratulated on Tom Leykis’ syndicated radio show unless you’re, say, a caller describing the way you talked your unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend into having an abortion — and then dumped her. Or unless you’re a woman with a lascivious tale to share, like the law clerk who boasts about tripling her pay by engaging in masochistic sex with the partner of another firm. But on this Thursday, in the first seconds of his afternoon program, Leykis sounds so delighted he can scarcely wait for the heavy-metal bumper music to fade.

Praise be, he tells us in a stern, husky voice, for the Washington state Supreme Court, which hours before overturned the conviction of two men who secretly took pictures up women’s skirts in shopping malls. The justices regretfully concluded that the state’s anti-voyeurism law did not apply to acts in public places.

BY THE END OF THIS GRAF I WANT THE READER TO SENSE THE EXTREME NATURE OF THE SHOW, AND I ALSO WANT TO FORESHADOW A POINT THAT WILL BE DEVELOPED LATER–DOES HE REALLY MEAN IT?

Success in talk radio requires the ability to glean insights from small events, and Leykis immediately offers this pair: First, we don’t need laws like that. Second, ladies, if you’re worried about protecting yourselves from other camera-toting creeps: “Buy some … panties and put them on, you sluts!” And we’re off and running with the commanding general in radio’s war for the male demographic. It is an angry, lurid battle in which social critics of all stripes can find moments of fulfillment or hopelessness. Spend a few days listening to Tom Leykis, heard in L.A. from 3 to 7 p.m. on KLSX-FM (97.1), and you may conclude that society has tilted in a manner resembling “Planet of the Apes”: that women have assumed the upper hand, forcing men to fight back grimly and mercilessly or perish. Or you may conclude that, in the interest of ratings, we are all getting our chains jerked by a host who laughs at us behind our backs.

I’D SPENT A LITTLE TIME WATCHING LEYKIS’ SCREENER AND IT MADE A NICE SNAPSHOT OBSERVATION AS THE OPENING SCENE CONTINUED…

In the control room of Westwood One’s Culver City studio, Leykis’ screener, Dino De Milio, is interrogating callers with the impatience of an air traffic controller and the lasciviousness of a strip club owner. (“How old are you, sweetie?” he asks a female caller. “That’s my favorite age for sex!”) Through a glass panel, De Milio can see Leykis, a gnomish 46-year-old man, standing in front of his mike, wearing shades despite the near darkness, pounding on his opening theme. ” You know what’s great?” Leykis asks sarcastically. “Women want the right to be exhibitionists, but if anybody looks….”

NOW, THE SCENE ESTABLISHED, I COULD MAKE MY STATEMENT (AUGMENTED BY MY FRIEND’S LANGUAGE) ABOUT WHO LEYKIS IS AND WHERE HE FITS IN POPULAR CULTURE. I TRANSITIONED OUT OF THIS GRAF TO ANOTHER EXCHANGE, ILLUSTRATING AN IMPORTANT FACT–HIS LISTNERS TEND TO SOUND LIKE LOSERS.

Tom Leykis broadcasts from the intersection of Libertarian and Libertine. It’s a simple neighborhood with a simple philosophy that has occurred in the gut of just about every American man and, in some cases, made its way to his brain. The show is based on the premise that too many guys have been raised to be wimps in this feminist culture, that women are taking advantage of these men and that women are secretly wishing guys would reassert themselves. Leykis plays the hard-bitten, gender-wars-scarred uncle, hectoring the besieged male recruits: Don’t get them pregnant! Don’t marry them! Don’t date single mothers! Yet no matter how insistent or cranky he gets, the phone lines remained jammed with confessions of weakness and poor judgment:

“You are my religion, Professor,” comes the call another day, “but I have to tell you I’m one of those guys who knocked a girl up….”

“What kind of birth control were you using?” Leykis demands.

“She said she was on the pill….”

“And you believed her. I hope the boys out there are listening! This is the kind of stuff I warn you about!”

FROM THAT EXCHANGE WE DESCRIBE THE ROLE OF THE CALLERS, AND LEYKIS’ CLINICAL APPROACH. THE STORY IS SUPPOSED TO FEEL MORE DETAILED NOW, TAKING YOU DEEPER INTO THE SHOW’S PSYCHE:

Men who in more reasonable times would have been considered normal single guys employing normal trial-and-error approaches to casual sex become, in the Leykis format, political prisoners, victims of a stacked deck in which calculating women get their way at men’s expense.

Leykis tries to break this momentum by offering more clinical tips: No coffee dates or lunch dates — they lead nowhere. “Successfully getting a woman into the sack involves some sort of chemical inducement,” he is fond of proclaiming on a “Leykis 101″ segment he does each Thursday. “Alcohol is the preferred chemical inducement.”

Nor should men waste money on dinner dates, he advises; women will eat and run. Meet them after dinner for a drink. If you are roped into dinner, eat a full meal at home and order a salad in the restaurant (“because what woman would eat more than you?”).

Once Leykis’ listeners have scored, “we do not cuddle, we do not spoon, we do not hug, we do not stay late,” Leykis instructs. “We do not convince women we are in love with them. We do not say I love you — ever, ever, ever. Unless we do.” He pronounces that last word with grave disbelief.

I FELT OBLIGATED TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE SHOW WAS NOT COMPLETELY GRATUITOUS…

Leykis — married four times, thrice-divorced and separated from wife No. 4 for the last two years — is honest enough to describe the show as an act that evolved into a point of view. And he occasionally makes serious feminist-backlash arguments on issues like parental leave, divorce or alimony that create a social edge. He’ll say proudly, in the name of personal responsibility, that he has no children, and that each of the four unplanned pregnancies he caused was terminated.

…WHICH ALLOWED ME TO MORE EXPLICITLY CHARACTERIZE ITS MEANNESS. I THOUGHT ONE WAY TO DO THIS WAS TO CONTRAST IT TO SOMEBODY MORE POPULAR–HOWARD STERN. I THOUGHT HARD ABOUT WHAT MADE THE TWO MEN DIFFERENT, AND DECIDED TO FOCUS ON THE WAY THEY LAUGHED. IT WOULD PAY OFF LATER.

Yet the fact that so many of his frustrated male callers take him so literally gives the program a uniquely bitter, even mean, tone that makes it both appealing and appalling. The show has little of the self-deprecating comedic relief of Howard Stern’s equally explicit KLSX morning show, the gold standard of sleaze-talk radio. Stern’s shtick is sexual bantering and the embarrassed giggle; Leykis’ shtick is sexual politics and the evil, got-even-with-her snicker. In the same way Rush Limbaugh demonizes liberals, Leykis lays men’s woes at the feet of “chicks” or “broads” (or, more frequently, another B-word) — and of men’s failure to control them.

THAT DISTINCTION DRAWN, I COULD GO BACK TO THE FAUX-NARRATIVE THAT HAD BEGUN THE STORY WITH THE GOAL OF CONTINUING TO SHOW, NOT TELL:

Hour No. 2 of today’s show is devoted to mocking the notion of female independence as a feminist invention (which will draw many angry female callers). Leykis is trying to explain that men are simply more driven to succeed than women, driven by the need for … chicks.

“We make money to get chicks,” he says, his sentences almost swallowing each other. “Those of us who are really ambitious want more chicks. Better chicks. Hotter chicks. A larger number of chicks. We work hard to get chicks. When I was 14, I got into radio because when I was in high school, I was a geek. Once I was at the radio station answering the request line, chicks would call in, ask me to play a song, and then they’d ask me to come over after the show. ‘I love your voice. Come on over.’ And I would. And then I realized if I got better radio gigs in bigger cities, I’d get better chicks, hotter chicks. And I did. And the more money I make, the better chicks I get.” (Leykis’ most recent “chick” is a 27-year-old Argentine, recently arrived in the U.S., whom he met at the station; she moved into his Hollywood Hills home two months ago.)

AND HERE IS WHERE I DECIDED TO GO FIRST-PERSON, BECAUSE THE WORD “CHICKS” REALLY RESONATED WITH ME. I PLAYED WITH THAT FOR TWO GRAFS, THEN TRIED TO TRANSITION TO MY SEARCH FOR SELF-UNDERSTANDING, IN WHICH I TROTTED OUT FOUR EXPERTS IN GENDER WARS. THIS SECTION WAS TIGHTENED (FOR THE BETTER) WHEN THE OVERALL LENGTH OF THE STORY GOT OUT OF HAND:

II: Am I really listening to this?

Confession: I have listened to this show for years and it bothers me because — well, it’s just not me, a stable, married guy with a teenage daughter. The last time I used the word “chick” was 1973: A female colleague and I wrote essays for our small newspaper on our competing favorites in the nationally televised Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes. It was a tennis match — a stunt — that carried a level of gender tension impossible to imagine today. I defiantly used “chick” in my pro-Riggs essay because, as Frank Sinatra-passé as it sounded even then, I knew it infuriated my colleague, and it felt good to strike back at the upstart feminist movement, to grind it under my heel.

But I was young and stupid. If you’d told me that half a lifetime later, I’d be listening to a 40-something guy on the radio using the word “chick” for essentially the same denigrating purpose — and claiming to make a seven-figure income off it — I would have rolled my eyes. It’s so juvenile. Which is why I’m perplexed/fascinated that the grown-up me is helping to make Leykis the Arbitron-certified king of the male listener in L.A.

Why did I laugh so hard the other day when he spent an hour on how men should give women backhanded compliments (“Honey, you’re so pretty I don’t even notice the extra weight”) to keep their self-esteem low and their behavior compliant? Were darker forces drawing me to the show? I decided to confer with experts.

Perhaps, one of them got me thinking, I’m enticed by the sly way Leykis performs the kind of sexual harassment that government and workplace rules no longer allow. “Men say, ‘It’s not OK to [harass women] at work, but thank God I can turn on my radio … while I’m hammering a nail,” suggests Ann Simonton, a former fashion model from Northern California who started a media-literacy program two decades ago after she was raped at knifepoint and began thinking about the way the media portray women. Leykis’ popularity, Simonton says, is sad proof “that we live in a sexually repressed culture where sex is only for sale, talked about only as a taboo, rather than there being a healthy dialogue on sexual intimacy.”

Or maybe I listen because I enjoy reverting to the cartoonishly adolescent state that men are assigned in the popular culture. Janet McMullen, an associate professor in the University of North Alabama’s communications department who specializes in media ethics, notes that Hollywood responded to feminism by constructing legitimate roles for women but in the process made men the targets of ridicule. “You look at TV sitcoms and dramas, you listen to the educational community: It’s as though guys are broken in some way,” she said.

Or maybe, more nobly, I listen because Leykis’ dialogue fills a vacuum in so many men’s lives — the lack of intimate conversation with other men. “There’s no place we can go for support,” says Warren Farrell, a San Diego psychologist whose books include “Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say.”

Or maybe I listen because Leykis touches a powerful nerve when he tells men to stop being “nice” — to stand up and demand what we want (including that 60-inch TV). He “has tapped into something that’s very prominent,” says Robert Glover, a Seattle psychotherapist who wrote “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in an attempt to tell men that women are turned off by guys who are too timid to be candid about their sexual desires. Men who act this way ultimately wind up frustrated and angry, Glover says.

Or maybe I listen simply because I love a spectacle — the guys begging for Leykis’ wisdom, the women calling to alternately scream at him or ask him to autograph their breasts at an upcoming listener party. Maybe there’re no more cultural implications here than on Ricki Lake. Maybe, as screener Di Milio puts it, “some people make the mistake of forgetting the very last word; it’s ‘The Tom Leykis Show.‘ ”

NOW WE ENTER THE SECTION OF THE STORY WE FORESHADOWED EARLIER…IS THIS FOR TRUTH OR RATINGS?

III: Oh, I get it — I think

Leykis has a restless intellect that makes it hard for him to stay in character. Over lunch (let him pick the wine, he has a 700-bottle cellar in his house), he can make a convincing defense for the cruel way men often talk about women on the show. Why, he demands, should he be forced to sprinkle a phony veneer of politeness on our angry culture? Why shouldn’t he express his gender’s most visceral feelings?

But a half hour later, he can be just as convincing making the case that the economics of radio demand offensive styles and stunts. Government deregulation of radio sent station prices soaring and meant owners had “to get results to-day. The way you get results to-day is [to say on the air]: ‘Hello, my penis is hanging out, and I don’t know what to do about it, and if somebody could come down to the station, if there’s a policeman within the sound of my voice….’ Then you get the cops down there and it becomes a story in the paper ’cause the papers all fall for it and give you the free advertising — boom; that’s how things are done now.”

THE NEXT TWO SENTENCES WERE CRUCIAL IN PROVIDING THE PERSPECTIVE NECESSARY TO JUDGE LEYKIS–WHICHEVER WAY YOU WANTED TO GO. I DIDN’T NEED TO ATTRIBUTE IT BECAUSE I KNEW ENOUGH ABOUT TALK RADIO TO SAY IT.

The object of talk radio is not to change minds; it is to stay on the air. You ivent or copy a format and, if it works, you ride it until you fall off the horse. For all his male listeners’ deference to “The Professor,” Tom Leykis is first and foremost a radio guy obsessed with the art of drawing and holding a crowd, a guy whose success in a turbulent market is a testament to his wits and love of craft, says L.A. radio historian Don Barrett. “Tom knows everything about every radio station in this country…. This guy just bleeds radio.”

NOW WE EXPAND ON HIS FORMAT CHANGES

His five-year stint on KLSX is his third in L.A. He was first on KFI between 1988 and 1992 as a more conventional liberal talk-show counterpoint to Limbaugh. (After a dispute whose nature he won’t discuss, he was replaced by ex-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.) He worked fill-in shifts in several cities before landing an AM syndication deal in ’94 that brought him back to L.A. When KLSX offered him an afternoon show in 1997, he said, it meant creating a style that would be close to Stern’s young-man, breast-obsessed demographic without appearing to copy him.

“So we had to evolve the show in this new direction,” he said matter-of-factly, “which was grinding loud music, grinding production, and we stepped up the rudeness factor.”

He’s now in about 50 markets, including Seattle, San Francisco and Dallas, with a national base several times less than icons like Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger and Stern. He has the largest afternoon male audience on L.A. radio in every age range except his target demographic — 18 to 44 — where he trails rock and hip-hop stations KPWR and KROQ, according to the latest Arbitron ratings.

THIS DISTINCTION MEANT A LOT TO ME–I HADN’T REALLY CONSIDERED IT AS A LISTENER. I HAD TRIED TO FORESHADOW IT A BIT HIGH UP IN THE STORY BUT IT WAS IMPORTANT TO EXPAND ON IT HERE. AGAIN, HE WAS FAIRLY CANDID ABOUT IT.

Leykis boasts of other survey data that reflect an affluent audience and high-end advertisers. When you point out that his predominantly male callers sound far less successful or confident, he reminds you not to confuse the callers (who are his foils) with his listeners (who make him rich). “Anybody who takes this show really seriously doesn’t get it. The callers are 1% of the audience…. People who make a good living and have high intelligence usually don’t have 45 minutes to stay on hold.”

Ask Leykis if sexual politics is as intellectually satisfying as a show that covers more ground, and he suggests you’ve asked the wrong question. “I never forget I’m in this business to make money. I never had ratings this high. I never made as much money as I do. If I wanna talk politics, I’ll go to a park.” Evil snicker. “I’ll call up Warren Olney one day.”

PARALLELISM (SAME STRUCTURE AS PREVIOUS GRAF) WAS INTENDED TO SMOOTH THE TRANSITION TO THE BIO SECTION. THE READER ALREADY KNOWS (FROM EARLIER LEYKIS QUOTE) THE HE WAS ON THE AIR AT 14, SO IT’S EASY TO REXEAMINE THAT.

Ask how he got on the air at 14 and he tells about being a gifted, bored child who was reading the New York Times in the first grade. About being a ninth-grader living in an isolated Long Island suburb, missing the bustling Bronx neighborhood where he’d grown up, sitting on the stoop with a portable radio, wishing he could jump inside. About winning a contest to be a DJ for an hour on the local radio station, then being asked back.

He tells about hosting a cable-TV public-access-station game show at 16, about trying to get on the air as a student at Fordham University but failing and dropping out after a year and half. About working a series of day jobs, the most pitiful being telemarketing. About getting hired at a variety of low-paying jobs at small radio stations in places like Albany, N.Y., and Stanton, Va., and Miami, spinning records and engaging in chatter and groping for gimmicks to get noticed. About recognizing he’d embarked on a nomadic career that would subvert marriage or stable relationships.

He remembers inventing a male chauvinist character in 1979 who called in, voicing many opinions that riled listeners — opinions that a DJ could voice on the air in that gentler time but that were the first stirrings of Leykis’ KLSX voice.

He remembers discovering how the most audacious opinions could generate buzz. (“I would never serve in the military under any circumstances. I just missed the draft of the Vietnam War, and if we had another war I wouldn’t go. Let somebody else be cannon fodder. Now let’s go to the phones.”) You had to take that extra step. “It wasn’t enough to have lesbian nuns on the show. You had to have them on Good Friday.”

HERE COMES THE ENDING. I WANTED HIM TO GO OUT WITH SOMETHING AS TASTELESS AS THE LEAD ANECDOTE, SO I USED AN ASIDE HE’D MADE AT LUNCH, WHEN HE WAS LAUGHING WITH HIS P.R. MAN ABOUT A REMARK HE’D MADE ON THE AIR RECENTLY. IN THE PROCESS I PLAYED WITH “CHICK” AGAIN:

He says he never thought he’d have this kind of success or longevity in L.A. And it sounds positively heartwarming until he mentions why he won’t be going to his 30th high school reunion, even though he’d figure to be a magnet for all the, uh, chicks who turned him down when he was a geek.

“I said this on the air: ‘I wouldn’t touch any of you women with a 10-foot pole,’ ” he says, ” ‘And you know why? Because I can now afford your daughters.’ ” Evil snicker.

RECOMMENDED READING: The New York Times often sets its celebrity portraits around lunch, or another event to create narrative drive. Watch what happened when Alessandra Stanley invited the star of the low-rent/stoopid TV show and film “Jackass” to meet for lunch in a sophisticated restaurant. One delicious, nuanced surprise after another followed. The ending, in particular, slayed me.

The maître d’hôtel at La Grenouille was expressionless as he scanned Johnny Knoxville’s scuffed leather jacket and baggy maintenance-man slacks. “Peut-être celui-ci,” Armel Gren murmured, coaxing a navy blazer over his guest. With a polka-dotted ascot, arranged to conceal sweater holes, the star of “Jackass the Movie” was fit to enter the dim, hushed, crimson-and-gold dining room of one of the finest and stuffiest restaurants in New York.

J’Accasse the Lunch.

It was painful to watch.

Mr. Knoxville sipped a 1999 Baron’arques. He folded his napkin on his lap. He chose the correct fork.

He murmured “merci,” after the waiter, in black tie, recited the menu du jour to him in French. He took a polite bite of the house specialty cuisses de grenouille and did not spit out his escargots or gargle his ris de veau.

The much-concussed 31-year-old drama-school dropout, who was knocked unconscious by a 320-pound professional boxer named Butterbean in one segment of the movie and strapped rockets to his roller skates in another, prefers Flannery O’Connor to Hemingway (“too macho”).

When asked about Amsterdam, he described the Van Gogh Museum, not the legal marijuana bars. “Pot makes me dizzy,” he confided. In Paris, he prefers the Rodin Museum.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” and “A Face in the Crowd,” a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg and starring Andy Griffith and Lee Remick, are two of his favorite films.

He apologized for being late and confessed he jumped out of his limousine and ran nine blocks to avoid being any later.

In short, Mr. Knoxville was as rowdy, moronic and revolting as Ronald Colman.

Rated R, “Jackass the Movie” is a snuff film with a Hollywood ending: young men torture themselves and one another for fun, but nobody dies or is seriously injured. (Though one of the more repellent moments was a closeup of Mr. Knoxville’s bloody scalp getting stitches after he was knocked out by Butterbean.)

Few in the industry were surprised when it was No. 1 at the box office its opening weekend; the film met expectations again this past weekend, dropping to No. 4, but earning an estimated 13.1 millon. “It’s holding up pretty well against some stiff competition,” said Paul Dergarabedian, chairman of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles-based company that monitors the box office.

Mr. Knoxville’s shamefully bookish side has been a closely held secret. Midway through the meal, a middle-aged gentleman at the next table, taking furtive advantage of his elegant companion’s retreat to the ladies’ room, leaned over and said how much he and his nephews had enjoyed “Jackass.” Mr. Knoxville looked pleased and grateful. When the man said he had seen it in Albany, Mr. Knoxville nodded appreciatively and tossed out a name that sounded like Jimmy Fallon.

Asked to explain that “Saturday Night Live” comedian’s link to Albany, Mr. Knoxville looked down and diffidently explained he had actually said “Billy Phelan,” a principal character from the novelist William Kennedy’s Albany cycle.

The first hint that this Jackass star is not quite the foolhardy dimwit he seemed when he allowed a baby alligator to bite him on the nipple came half an hour before the interview at La Grenouille.

An MTV executive called to make a last-minute change for the lunch. “He wants someone with him,” Carole Robinson explained apologetically. “It’s a comfort thing.”

She relented after it was pointed out that Mr. Knoxville had not needed a publicist at his side when he was shot in the stomach at close range with a beanbag bullet, a form of ammunition used by the police for crowd control.

On talk shows Mr. Knoxville jokes self-deprecatingly about his many injuries (five concussions in the last few years), his drinking bouts and his Dogpatch upbringing. His mother taught Sunday school, and he inherited his taste for juvenile pranks from his father, a tire salesman. He got straight A’s until high school, moved to Los Angeles and dropped out of the Pasadena School of Dramatic Arts after six weeks.

He does not mention as readily that he studied Oriental philosophy at a community college. Asked why, he mumbled apologetically, “I really liked Jack Kerouac’s `The Dharma Bums.’ ” He also took a course called Great Women Through History. (He quit when it turned out the reading list did not attract great-looking women.)

Off camera, Mr. Knoxville has Southern manners. Even in Hollywood he addresses Sherry Lansing, the chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, as “Mrs. Lansing,” and strangers as sir or ma’am.

Born Philip John Clapp (he took his stage name from his hometown, Knoxville, Tenn.), he is married to a designer, lives in the Hollywood Hills and has a 6-year-old daughter, who has seen only the tamest snippets of her father’s oeuvre.

His movie is based on an MTV reality show that ran from October 2000 to August 2001. Before the show, Mr. Knoxville was a would-be actor writing for “Big Brother,” a Los Angeles skateboard magazine. He and other magazine staffers and friends amused themselves by doing disgusting or reckless “what if” stunts. (Mr. Knoxville donned a bulletproof vest and let himself be shot by a .38-caliber gun.) The magazine’s editor, Jeff Tremaine, who directed the film, sold the television pilot to MTV with help from a high school friend, the filmmaker Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), one of the film’s producers. “Jackass” was an instant hit with MTV viewers, the cable network’s highest-rated show until “The Osbournes.” But it was canceled because of criticism after several minors injured themselves while copying the stunts. “Lieberman,” Mr. Knoxville said with a shrug, referring to Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, who publicly criticized the show. “Washington came down on MTV, and they came down on us,” he said.

The movie is advertised as containing “stuff you’d never see on TV,” but Mr. Knoxville said that neither Paramount nor MTV gave its makers any trouble. The film lives up to most teenage expectations. Steve-O snorts wasabi until he vomits. Ehren McGehey urinates on a snow cone and eats it until he vomits. Ryan Dunn does a stunt that is best left undescribed, but involves a toy car, petroleum jelly and a bewildered X-ray technician.

Yet in the film Mr. Knoxville and the rest of his good-natured if reckless troupe are surprisingly appealing – a sadomasochistic-slacker-skateboarder version of “The Monkees.” That, and Mr. Knoxville’s good looks, may help explain why 34 percent of the opening-weekend audience was female.

Even the critics have not been 100 percent hostile. A. O. Scott of The New York Times described “Jackass the Movie” as a “documentary version of `Fight Club,’ shorn of social insight, intellectual pretension and cinematic interest.” But he also noted, “Occasionally, there is a flicker of `Candid Camera’-style conceptual inventiveness.”

Mr. Knoxville said that pleased him. “The worse the reviews, the better for our demographic,” he said. “But for us it was kind of nice.”

He said that he had no desire to do a sequel, and is already sporting a scraggly goatee for his next role in an independent film, “Grand Theft Parsons.” He plays Phil Kaufman, the gonzo road manager of the 1960′s rock star Gram Parsons.

Charming and easygoing throughout the lunch, Mr. Knoxville did not seem to mind even when he almost choked on a tiny frog bone. Challenged to send the dish back, Mr. Knoxville quailed. “Oh God, no,” he begged, glancing at the elderly French waiter who removed his uneaten portion with stony hauteur.

The waiter returned with a menu, and Mr. Knoxville flinched. But he was not being asked to select something he liked better. “May I have your autograph – for my son?” the waiter asked. Mr. Knoxville complied, looking as stunned as if he had just been hit in the stomach by a beanbag bullet.

Next: Billy Graham’s “last” crusade: Feature-writing on a daily deadline