cover_story (2005-33)

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Johnny Knoxville changed when he left Tennessee for L.A. But not as much as you might think

Former South Young High School baseball coach Jim Atkins poses with his daughter Amanda and his most famous player.

Lemoyne and Phil Clapp pose in front of old photos of son P. J. and daughters Lynne and Krisden.

Nick Compton

Johnny Knoxville (left) and Storm (right) hang with friends in Europe.

Storm Taylor, friends with P. J./ Johnny since 1988.

Applause for Clapp

by Mike Gibson

On a recent episode of Late Night With David Letterman , actress Kate Hudson complained that one of the drawbacks of touring with her rock-star husband, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, is that many of the towns she sees on the road are “strange”—“provincial” is probably closer to what she really meant. When pressed for names of offending cities, she came up with only one, that of Knoxville, Tenn. People who go there have to “find their fun,” she said. Whatever that means.

As tempting as it is to dismiss Hudson out of hand, perhaps we should consider that there may be an element of truth in her complaint. Our city’s most famous former citizen, after all, is the defiantly eponymous Johnny Knoxville. And whether he’s enduring taser shocks, luge-ing down steep hills in a decrepit shopping cart, or sipping brown-bagged beers with a GQ reporter on a New York City sidewalk because the Manhattan café patios are just too full, Johnny Knoxville is a man who knows as much about finding his own fun as anyone else alive.

Those instincts have served him pretty well. Coming off a star-making run as co-creator and head instigator on the MTV stunt-comedy reality show Jackass , J.K. is hitting his stride as a legitimate actor, currently starring in the box-office smash Dukes of Hazzard . It’s the first of several movies that will feature Knoxville in the coming months. And he seems to be handling all of it with an appealing mixture of irreverence and humility, a sort of jovial grace that most of his Tinseltown peers would do well to emulate.

But most of us are at best only dimly aware that the man we know as Johnny Knoxville has another side—an alter ego, if you will—namely, that of former Knoxvillian P.J. Clapp. They would seem to be two very different people, Johnny and P.J. The former is an actor, would-be skateboarder, and world-famous stunt maniac. Always fashionably disheveled, he’s stenciled with scads of interesting tattoos, and sometimes drops the names of punk-rock bands like the Germs and The Hives in conversation. He’s hip; urbane; a wellspring of seamy tabloid rumors. His name notwithstanding, he lives in L.A.

The latter, Phillip John (aka P.J.) Clapp, is an ex-high school jock and occasional restaurant dishwasher. A tough kid who once played three quarters of a football game with a broken ankle, he’s polite, clean-cut, and a fan of country music—the real stuff, like Johnny Cash and David Allan Coe. He’s a redneck, according to an old high-school girlfriend—in the very best sense of that word—and also a bit of a romantic. Unlike his doppelganger, P.J. Clapp is wholly a product of Knoxville, Tennessee.

If you picked up this magazine to read about Johnny Knoxville, you might be disappointed, because this story is mostly about P.J. Clapp. Johnny Knoxville isn’t even quoted, not once. (J.K.’s publicist declined Metro Pulse our interview request. )

But the story is also about how P.J. Clapp laid the groundwork for the success of the man named Johnny Knoxville—how P.J., through his transformation, lived out his own fart-lighting, good-ol-boy prankster-hellion concept of the American Dream. And it’s about how, when one peels away the attention-grabbing façades of antic debauchery and shades-wearing thrift-store chic that overlay Johnny Knoxville, he may not be so different from his buddy P.J. after all.

 

At various times, Johnny Knoxville has named Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dave Letterman, Super Dave Osborne, and Candid Camera (among several others) as chief among his comedic influences. But P.J. Clapp’s biggest influence was undoubtedly Phil Clapp—his father, a former tire-shop proprietor. As longtime friend and ex-baseball teammate Alan Frye puts it, “He came by it honest. P.J. was always a cut-up, and it all came from his dad.”

Where Phil Clapp’s outsized instinct for mischief came from isn’t clear. “My own father didn’t have a big sense of humor at all,” the elder Clapp admits. “He had what you might call a… dry wit.”

Whatever the case, Phil Clapp’s antics are now the stuff of minor legend, remembered in certain South Knox circles with the mingled obligatory disapproval and ill-suppressed giggling that attend the misdeeds of all great pranksters. His oeuvre of mischief includes scores of Ex-lax milkshakes, plenty of conspicuous public farting, and the frequent, judicious placement of tape recorders at the base of the commode in the restroom of Clapp’s Tire Store.

“There was a guy who worked for me, Big George—we put the tape recorder in there once right when he had to go,” Phil Clapp says. He’s a little guarded at first mention of his old tricks, but he’s the sort of fellow who, once the subject is broached, can scarcely resist reveling in the details.

“He really went to work in that bathroom,” Clapp remembers, a little gleefully. “I never heard anything like it. He got up and started whistling when he finished. Big George was a corker.”

Once, when young Alan Frye spent a few nights at the Clapps’ home, Phil somehow managed to take a picture of Frye’s mother, sleeping, surrounded by a slew of (planted) empty liquor bottles. Much to the teetotaling Mrs. Frye’s chagrin, the photo made the rounds among all their mutual friends. “He told everyone, ‘We were taking care of her son while she was out on a drinking binge,’” Frye remembers. Coincidentally, Frye’s mother happens by the Vol Market convenience store that he operates on Western Avenue while he recalls the incident for a reporter. For an instant, she looks a little peeved. But only a little. It seems that, as is often the case with great pranksters, Phil’s trespasses were quickly forgiven.

It didn’t take long for P.J. to follow in his father’s footsteps. “His dad liked to throw ice water on you while you were dead asleep,” remembers Nick Compton, a boyhood pal who grew up in a home not far from the Clapps. “Then P.J. and I started doing it. We’d invite people over to stay the night, just so we could throw water on them while they slept.”

By the time he was a teenager, P.J. and his father were outright co-conspirators. Their favorite prank involved sending fake health-department letters to friends, the envelopes conspicuously labeled “VD Clinic.”

“He and his dad would be listening, anytime one of P.J.’s friends was talking about how he hooked up with so-and-so girl last night,” recalls Nathan Woodall, another former teammate and childhood friend. “Then they’d send out a letter: ‘Dear Mr. X, So-and-so has venereal disease, and she counts you among her last 10 partners…’” “They took it serious, some of them did,” Phil remembers. “Or at least maybe their mothers did. But the letters never looked real. We always typed them up sort of poorly, then signed them by ‘Dr. Highland C. Titmore.’”

The question of how many of the infamous VD letters were actually perpetrated is obscured in mist and legend. Phil doesn’t seem to think it was all that many, but Compton claims to have received sometimes two or three in a single month. Frye remembers that one such notice caused a neighbor’s wife to threaten divorce, until Phil wisely held forth with a full confession.

 

By most accounts, P.J. Clapp was a klutz, prone to physical misadventure, frequently tripping over his own feet. His earliest attempts at skateboarding ended in a broken ankle at age 10 or so; he wouldn’t pick up a board again until years later. And his high-school football career was likewise cut short when, during a pep rally, he picked up a cheerleader and dropped her on his foot.

Paradoxically, he was also a good athlete, a baseball standout who started as a freshman, played every position and went on to earn All-KIL (Knoxville Interscholastic League) honors as a first baseman. In retrospect, it makes a certain twisted sense, given that he would eventually make a name for himself by undertaking feats that required considerable physical courage, but necessarily resulted in calamity.

“He was pretty slow afoot,” laughs Jim Atkins, Clapp’s baseball and B-team football coach at South Young High School. “I think he played defensive tackle in football, because they don’t have to move around too much. But he was a good baseball player, a player I’d remember, even if he hadn’t made a name for himself the way he did.”

On one particular windy March evening, in a baseball scrimmage against hated rival Doyle High School, P.J. gifted Atkins with one of the most enduring memories of his 500-plus-game coaching career.

Only a few days before, Doyle had drubbed South Young 15-0 in a scrimmage game. With Clapp—the squad’s best pitcher—on the mound for the rematch in the official season opener, South Young fell behind 2-0 with no outs at the bottom of the first inning. 

“I came out on the mound and said, ‘P.J., it’s not looking too good today. I’m about to take you out,’” Atkins remembers. “He said ‘Coach, you leave me in, and they won’t score another run.’ And he struck out the side. I knew then this boy had some grit about him.”

Clapp pitched the whole game with a sore arm, begging Atkins to leave him in at the end of each successive inning.

“One of the Doyle parents leaned over the rail and asked me, ‘What’s the difference between that last game and today?’” Atkins recalls. “I said, ‘The difference is the young man I have pitching today. He refuses to lose.’ He asked me, ‘When are you gonna take him out?’ I said, ‘I’ll take him out when his arm falls off. He wants this game real bad, and so do I.’”

South Young did win that day, and P.J. kept his promise. The final score was 7-2.

“He was definitely one of the jocks in high school,” says Christy Kern, friend, neighbor, and on-and-off girlfriend from sixth grade until Clapp left town after their senior year in 1989. “I’ve still got old dance pictures of him with a button-down polo, blue jeans and docksides. I don’t want to say ‘rednecks,’ but I guess that’s what we were.”

Even so, Clapp had inclinations that were out of step with those of most of his friends. Compton remembers his love of Jack Kerouac. “He read a lot,” Compton says. “And he wrote a lot of papers in school that, because he was a jock, he really didn’t have to do.”

Maryvillian Storm Taylor met Clapp in the parking lot of Mr. Gatti’s Pizza on Chapman Highway—the favored hang-out for restless South Knoxville youth on weekend nights. “I came outside, and there was this random guy sitting in my car listening to my cassette player,” he says. “I went up and banged on the window, and asked what the ‘bleep’ he was doing. He pulled up my Johnny Cash cassette and said ‘Oh man, I like Johnny Cash, too.’ So we started talking and hanging out.”

Taylor, who now hosts his own television show, Yokel , on the Turner South Network, also remembers that even as a teen, Clapp’s southernness was tempered by an otherness, cultural and stylistic instincts that seemed almost out of place. “At the time, we had an appreciation for moonshine, Cale Yarbrough, and all things country,” Taylor says. “But at the same time, on a Friday night, he’d put on his leather and his Johnny Depp headband, and he’d have that 21 Jump Street look going on. I guess you’d say he was versatile.”

In the main, those Friday nights were given over to typical young man’s pursuits of drinking, fighting and chasing girls, with the latter being P.J.’s strong suit. “With the girls, we’d always send him in first to do the talking, then we’d catch whoever was on the wayside,” Compton remembers. “He’d go into a club and do these crazy dances, Mowing the Lawn and the Sprinkler, and he’d pick up all these girls. He never was shy.”

Fighting was a different story. According to Taylor, he and Clapp sometimes ran with a tough crowd, and scuffles in the restrooms or parking lots of bars on Cumberland Avenue were all part of a night’s work. “P.J. and I wouldn’t start anything, but we’d end up in the middle of it anyway,” he says. “I remember once our friends got in a fight with, like, an entire fraternity house, and our guys were just kicking ass. Then P.J. and I both turn around, and we have this one guy between the two of us.

“We ganged up and threw him in a telephone booth across the street, closed the phone booth and take off, running and laughing like we did something great. He and I were definitely the runts of the fight group. He’ll always say that he only lost two fights, and those were when he slipped and fell while he was running away.”

 

 

No one knows for sure when, exactly, P.J. Clapp determined that his future lay in show business. Compton remembers his first appearance on a public stage, when the two were fourth graders, appearing in a kiddie play at Galbreath Elementary School.“I was Asparagus, and he was Broccoli,” Compton says. “One of our lines was, ‘You can eat me, too.’ We didn’t understand why everyone laughed.”

Surely not the stuff of great thespian inspiration. More likely, says Compton, P.J. caught the performing bug around age 14, when he and a pair of cousins from West Virginia appropriated a video camera and began filming their own Candid Camera-esque gross-out vids. P.J. was the chief on-camera perpetrator, the guy who would approach unsuspecting strangers at Dollywood or the shopping mall, tell them he was shooting TV segments for the Letterman show, then suddenly begin throwing up on cue.

Not long after, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy, sneaking into an amateur night at a local comedy club, with Compton in tow. Those aspirations ended abruptly, when a bouncer accosted the youngsters, and a minor brouhaha ensued, during which Compton reportedly decked the bouncer.

His senior year, Clapp went for and won the lead Danny Zuko in a school production of Grease . The play went well; P.J. was a stand-out. By the end of the school year, Clapp had set himself on moving to L.A. “He had some scholarship offers in baseball, but he already knew what he was going to do,” says Atkins. “He took me aside and said, ‘Coach, I’m gonna go to Hollywood and be a star.’ I said, ‘P.J., there are millions like you who want the same thing and never make it.’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m gonna make it.’ And here we sit.”

“He called and told me right before he was leaving,” Woodall says. “I actually thought he might end up as a sports broadcaster rather than in an acting career. I could see him being an offbeat sort of broadcaster, like the kind of thing they do on ESPN.”

After graduation, Clapp said his goodbyes. For Kern, his close friend and on-and-off sweetheart, he composed an elaborate homemade music video—P.J. tooling around the city in his red Mustang, lip-syncing to sentimental Top-40 hits, with a careful interspersing of TV and movie clips. “He gave it to me wrapped in his football jersey,” she remembers. “He knew by then he wasn’t coming back.”

Later that summer, Phil and P.J. loaded up a car and headed for California. Phil flew home; P.J. stayed. He came home for about two months in the fall, to regroup and save extra money. By the end of the holidays, he was gone again, this time for good.

 

Phil Clapp remembers that his son’s early years in L.A. were difficult; he spent most of his time going to auditions, most of them fruitless, while scraping by with jobs in Chinese restaurants, or umpiring Little League baseball games. He enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, but dropped out after only a few weeks.

“That didn’t bother him too much,” Compton remembers. “He would always brag that Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman had been kicked out of there, too.”

But slowly, his career picked up steam. He landed some movie stand-in gigs, and then a few commercials—ads for Dentyne Ice chewing gum, Moutain Dew, and Coors—and then a handful of background parts in television shows. “He was in the background of scenes in Beverly Hills 90210 a few times,” Compton remembers. “He’d call his friends back home, all excited, and say, ‘Be sure to watch for me tonight.’”

In the meantime, Clapp began exploring the back alleys of Left Coast culture and celebrity, making friends among the California skateboarding community, and picking up assignments for the offbeat Bikini magazine. His articles generally involved Hunter S. Thompson-esque misadventure—including one on how to enjoy a weekend in Vegas without any cash.

He sought work from Jeff Tremaine, editor of Big Brother, a sort of gonzo-style skateboarding magazine. And when Tremaine was assembling footage for a Big Brother video series, Clapp conceived a segment wherein he would test a handful of progressively more deadly self-defense weapons—pepper spray, a stun gun, a taser, and finally, a hammerless .38 revolver—with himself as the guinea pig (donning a Kevlar vest before taking a hit with the .38.)

The 1999 Big Brother videos Boob and Number Two saw Johnny Knoxville make his onscreen debut, in the aforementioned self-defense segment, as well as another where he runs his skateboard in front of a moving Subaru. “You can tell he has almost no idea what he’s doing on a board,” Taylor says. “He does a little body lift over the bumper, then hits the glass and rolls over the top, drops like a sack of potatoes. It’s just brutal to watch him.”

The videos were an underground sensation, and garnered attention from mainstream outlets, including Comedy Central and MTV. Eventually, Tremaine, Knoxville, and an old friend of Tremaine’s, music video director Spike Jonze, pitched the idea that became the stunt-comedy television hit Jackass to MTV.

Back in Knoxville, P.J.’s old friends would gather for parties in honor of the Jackas s television premiere. “We laughed hysterically,” Compton remembers. “We were in awe for 30 minutes.” In perhaps the most memorable moment of the inaugural episode, Johnny Knoxville locks himself in a full porta-john, which his Jackass compatriots then proceed to treat like a martini shaker. Compton believes the stunt was probably sparked by an instance, years before, at a baseball game, when Phil Clapp trapped Compton’s father in a porta-potty.

Says Woodall: “We laughed, because it was typical of what we might expect him to be doing—jokes, pranks stunts. Sometimes we’d even see things we’d seen him do before.”

Not everyone was instantly taken with P.J.’s new show, however. Disregarding her son’s warnings, Lemoyne Clapp, a genteel homemaker and regular churchgoer, advised all of her friends to tune in to the first episode.

“She liked to have gone under the bed and not come out,” Phil Clapp laughs. “He told her, ‘Don’t tell people to watch it.’ She found out pretty quick why.”

 

That was five years ago. Today, Johnny Knoxville is a bona fide Hollywood A-lister, a fashionably grizzled veteran of more than a dozen feature films ( Big Trouble , Deuces Wild , and the big-screen version of Jackass , to name but a few) whose star is still on the rise. P.J. Clapp, on the other hand, doesn’t get mentioned too much anymore, except by family and close friends. To those who don’t know any better, it might look like P.J. has gone away.

“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I played ball with Johnny,’ or ‘I used to go out with Johnny,’” Phil Clapp says. “I think to myself, ‘No you didn’t.’ If they had, they’d call him P.J.”

In many ways, Johnny Knoxville is a decidedly different animal from the baseball-happy high school kid who preceded him. But not all of the differences are as glaring as they might seem; in fact, most of the colorful idiosyncracies that have led J.K. to being a Star of the Moment are rooted in soil somewhere South of the Henley Street Bridge.

P.J. Clapp never had any tattoos, for instance, while Johnny Knoxville has several of them now. But his most recognized piece of skin art—the one of former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks on his left biceps, subject of many an interview question—is in actuality an appropriately bizarre tribute to a boyhood idol, and to the days when he and Nick Compton used to don boxing gloves and spar, much to the detriment of the furniture in Phil and Lemoyne’s living room. “We’d always make fun of him, because Leon Spinks wasn’t the brightest guy,” Compton remembers. “But we were big boxing fans, and Spinks was his favorite fighter.”

And P.J. Clapp probably wouldn’t have any use for much of Johnny Knoxville’s CD collection, either—certainly not the hipster stuff he mentions in magazine interviews, like Turbo Negro and Sweden’s Eilert Pilarm and the Germs. But underneath it all, Knoxville still fesses up to an abiding love for George Jones and Johnny Cash—the latter so much so that he recently purchased the late singer’s run-down 19th century cabin here in Tennessee.

In the meantime, P.J.’s parents say they get pretty fair treatment from their “new” son, Johnny; they received a Daytona Beach condo as a Christmas present two years ago, and a brand-new Caddy for Christmas ’04. Johnny Knoxville has also taken a lead in helping P.J.’s uncle Roger Alan Wade, a country-music singer and songwriter, release his first record as a solo artist. And whenever Johnny Knoxville flies into town, he always visits P.J.’s old friends and favorite haunts, like Alan Frye’s Vol Market and Eddie’s Auto Parts on Walker Blvd. “The (Knoxville) Dukes of Hazzard premiere was like a high-school class reunion,” says Kern. Rumor has it that J.K. purchased close to 70 of the high-priced premiere tickets for friends of P.J. Clapp, many of whom were afforded red carpet treatment at the July 23 affair.

Cynics will say that none of the above means very much; that even snooty celebrities can love their mothers. And maybe the cynics are right. Maybe Johnny Knoxville is but a leering caricature of the appealing and wholesome youth that was once P.J. Clapp; maybe he’s just another swell-headed Hollywood megalomaniac who kicks puppies and curses at the help when no one else is around.

But somehow we doubt that, because there’s something about the Knoxville persona that seems as pleasantly rough-hewn and unassuming as the city that is his namesake. “He enjoys every second of his life now, but it hasn’t affected him a bit,” Taylor says. “I knew it the first time I visited him in California, after he got famous. He opened the door to his house, said ‘How the hell are you?’ Then he, walked around to the back, took a piss on the lawn, and says, ‘There’s the pool; I’ve gotta go eat breakfast.’ Success hasn’t touched him a bit.”

Never mind what they said on Letterman; the most engaging star in Tinseltown today is this man named for our own scruffy little city. And if Johnny’s Knoxville is “strange,” then maybe strange isn’t such a bad place to be.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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