The Tao of Wee Man

PUBLISHED: February 14, 2022

Some of the earliest hours of my life have been spent with Jason Acuña. The pattern of our days was established at our first meeting: I would contrive to arrive before him to whatever sunrise activity Acuña, better known as Wee Man, had planned for us, and he would already be there, shouting a greeting in his psyched-up Southern California drawl. The first time I was late to being early, he was going to teach me how to skateboard. I found him in the middle of a friendly conversation with a man who appeared to be living in a car. Acuña was giving him some free merchandise from his sock line.

Thick light-compression socks occupy a larger share of Acuña’s attention and interest than that of the average American adult for the same reason that skull stickers do: He is a skateboarder. To spend a few days with Acuña, who is 48, is to inhabit a parallel version of California — seemingly even more densely populated than the real California — where everyone is a professional skateboarder, or works for a skateboard company, or works for a different skateboard company, or is a skateboard photographer, or is a pioneer of skateboarding, or invented some crucial component of skateboards, or ran a skateboarding magazine, or doesn’t do any of that but can still kickflip.

All the people in the parallel California know one another, as well as 10 billion other people whose skateboarding-related activities (past, present, future) they spend a not-insignificant amount of time catching one another up on. Everyone is nice, or at least no one is not nice. This whole thing — skateboarding et cetera — absorbs a great deal of Acuña’s time but is (mostly) not really his job, and certainly not his primary source of income, though it is true that Acuña’s passion for skateboarding et cetera is directly responsible for the comfortable lifestyle he now leads, a lifestyle that affords him the ability to at “any moment” receive a phone call from a friend saying, “ ‘Hey, let’s go to Italy’” and immediately, or at the latest tomorrow, go, something he says he has done multiple times.

On a gray Orange County morning, over chilaquiles, I asked Acuña, “What would you say is your job?”

“Me?” he asked. And then said in a tone of genuine wondering, “I don’t know!” He owns businesses, he reasoned, which makes him a businessman. He amended this to “entrepreneur,” a title both grander and somehow less formal; Willy Wonka famously oversaw an industrial chocolate-manufacturing operation, but you wouldn’t call him a businessman. “I don’t have to be anywhere or anything,” Acuña said. “Obviously, we made four ‘Jackass’ movies. And we did pretty OK with those.”

Tabling, for a moment, Acuña’s offscreen business ventures — which include the socks, a partnership in an international taco chain and owning an event space regularly rented out to film episodes of “Dateline NBC” — his job, on and off for the past 22 years, might be described as: enactor of hypotheticals. It has been his work both to learn and to demonstrate, on camera, what would happen if: he and his friend were glued together with powerful adhesive; he kicked himself in the head; he was slapped in the face with a humongous fish; a bull came charging at him and all he had to shield himself was a yoga ball; he had a parachute strapped to his back and there was a huge fan.

Answers are predominantly variations on the theme “It would be painful.” It is the métier of Acuña to convey on video, with bugged out or scrunched up eyes, doubled-over body, temporarily discolored skin, shrieks, moans and groans, the flash-quick process by which nerve endings, in response to what the body perceives as an intolerable degree of mechanical, chemical or thermal stimulus, telegraph frantic warnings of “danger” and “pain” to the spinal cord and, thence, to the brain. The work is compiled under the franchise name “Jackass.” For three seasons, from 2000 to 2002, it was a television series that aired on MTV. Beginning in 2002, it has also been, sporadically, a theatrical film. The first three “Jackass” movies have earned a reported lifetime gross of more than $300 million. A fourth movie, “Jackass Forever,” will be released in February, after 11 months of pandemic-related delays.

Unlike some of the other “Jackass” players, Acuña has rarely made headlines over the past 20 years. He has not amassed (or squandered) the greatest fortune. But Acuña is the cast member for whom “Jackass” fame has been rendered most inescapable. He has a form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia; his distinct physical appearance — the “Jackass” team agrees he is by far the most recognized of any of them, even more than Johnny Knoxville— makes him the only member whose mere presence in the world in his off-hours instantly identifies him. He told me he has been recognized in public at least once every day, for decades. At 22 years, the boyish franchise is now older than some of its stars were for their TV debut. On the precipice of a fourth film, the bodies and faces on the posters having visibly entered middle age, it’s hard not to wonder: What has it been like to live as one of the guys from “Jackass”? Acuña knows best. No one has spent more time doing it.

As we were leaving the skatepark, Acuña was approached by a stranger with a request. Within seconds, he was shouting into a man’s phone: “Hey, Natalie! What’s up? Wee Man here! I just wanted to tell you: Happy Wednesday WOOOO!”

It is often said that jazz is the only true American art form. For roughly a century, this was true. Then, in the 1990s, in West Chester, Pa., a teenager named Brandon Margera, better known as Bam, began making and distributing videos of himself and his friends performing skateboarding tricks intercut with clips of them executing pranks and low-tech, high-risk stunts. At the same time, on the West Coast, a small crew of people associated with Big Brother magazine — a coarse, influential skateboard publication that also produced video compilations with similar antics — had the idea to package these bursts of mayhem into a TV show. It would be sort-of hosted by a charismatic Tennessean and aspiring actor working under the stage name Johnny Knoxville (who was not himself a skateboarder but who was willing to shoot himself in the chest with a gun on camera to “test” the functionality of a bulletproof vest, which was just as good). It would unite the combustible forces of the two daring groups into one explosive ensemble.

“Jackass” needed the infrastructure of American suburbia to exist: well-kept supermarket parking lots as vast as oceans, abandoned at night but illuminated for safety, divided by neatly planted ornamental bushes, encircled by curbs — curbs into which shopping carts could be rammed as violently fast as possible, upending human cargo. It needed middle-class parents who could attend to their offspring’s first few rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, leaving those children nourished and carefree, with endless hours of empty time. It needed chain stores whose corporate anonymity made their property fair game for destruction. It needed camcorders to become so cheap and accessible to the average person that children could be given total unsupervised access to them. It needed skateboards, a terrifying American invention.

The thing about skateboarding for a few seconds slowly in a straight line is that it requires you to overpower your body’s every screaming instinct, and lean forward, into apparent danger, rather than drawing backward, into presumed safety. Leaning back will cause the board to shoot out in front of you at supersonic speed, leaving you behind to crash thunderously to the ground — on your ass, if you’re lucky.

“It’s the craziest thing,” Acuña said 20 minutes into my crack-of-dawn skateboard lesson. After starting me at Step 1, he moved me back to a step even earlier than 1; I was clinging to a wall while shakily propelling myself forward along level concrete. When dropping in on the enormous U-shaped structures called vert ramps, Acuña said, even seasoned skaters might impulsively rear backward, away from the sheer plunge. But this urge, bred in humans over the millenniums before skateboards existed, is their peril. “Even going into a ramp, you lean all the way forward, because the board is going to catch up with you, no matter what.”

Acuña is a master of this counterinstinctual logic. He zoomed through the morning fog around the skatepark in long, confident loops, like a winning game piece being pushed across a board. Skateboarding is, essentially, a bad and dangerous idea that luck and determination can render mildly to moderately survivable. Of course it spawned “Jackass.” The franchise is broadly predicated on the belief that the human body, captured on video in unusual circumstances, is sufficiently entertaining to satisfy audiences for upward of 90 minutes, without the need for additional plot lines, back story or even much dialogue. Illustrating this theory required characters who were willing to do anything with their bodies (Steve-O, who once shot a bottle rocket out of his anus), or show a tremendous amount of their bodies (Chris Pontius, who is willing to be completely naked all the time), or who had bodies that were in some way different than average and were game to emphasize that difference onscreen.

Acuña was born in a United States Army field hospital in Livorno, Italy, when his parents, George and Dagmar, were both 20. The doctor delivering him noticed that his head seemed big relative to his newborn body. He worried Jason had hydrocephalus — “water on the brain” — a serious, potentially fatal condition, and had him whisked away for two days of tests. The doctor knew George, who worked in the hospital as a cook. On the third day, the doctor called him with good news: Jason did not have hydrocephalus. But he did have a condition called achondroplasia, he explained, which affects the body’s cartilage. A mutation on one gene of the fourth chromosome slows the development of cartilage into bone, leading to shorter-than-average bones and, therefore, shorter-than-average people.

George had known somebody with dwarfism, an old high school classmate named Kevin. One day when Jason was an infant, George happened to spot Kevin at a bus stop. George asked if he might come over for dinner, to speak with George and his wife “about what to expect.” Kevin agreed, and he and George have kept in touch for the rest of Jason’s life. He advised, as best George can recall, that Jason would turn out just fine. As Jason grew up, George admired his son’s natural ease with others. “He was never afraid to be around everybody,” he said. “He’s got a beautiful smile.”

On a winter morning in California, sitting in a beachfront park between two faux-lighthouse edifices, Acuña recalled how, when he was a child, his mother learned of an annual conference held by Little People of America, a support organization for people with dwarfism. She thought he might enjoy the opportunity to meet other kids like him. The hypothesis proved incorrect.

“I came back and I go, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to these things anymore,’” he said. “I’m like: ‘That’s not what my life’s about. I have friends.’”

“I don’t think anybody in the world needs to like — ” Acuña noticed a bald man jogging on the beach. “ ‘Well, I’m a bald guy so I need to go hang out with bald people.’ No, he doesn’t care. He’s a dude. He’s a jogger, he wants to hang out with more joggers. Skateboarder, hang out with skateboarders.”

Acuña’s achondroplasia, coupled with his inclination to make himself ultravisible, helped him stand out as a skater. An inveterate disrupter in class, he always bloomed under attention. Earning notice for being famous, he said, “felt just the same as looked at for being little. So that feeling never changed.” He told me he began being sponsored by local skate shops when he was 14. At age 19, he appeared in the fifth issue of Big Brother in a feature that spotlit him for, he said, “being a little-person skateboarder” who was “very talente — or talented, you know. I don’t want to say ‘very talented.’” The article, which also contained an interview with Pancho Moler, another skateboarder with dwarfism, was titled “Wee Men.”

Acuña’s “Wee Man” nickname was coined by a warehouse employee at World Industries, the skateboard company that produced Big Brother. Teenage Acuña and his friends were frequent visitors to the company’s factory and warehouse space for reasons obvious to skateboarders, but which are unable to be logically articulated to the wider world. Every time Acuña showed up, he said, the employee — whose brother owned World Industries — “would yell to everybody: ‘Hey, everybody, Wee Man’s here! Wee Man’s here!’” Acuña says he always loved the nickname. His family embraced it, too. George Acuña does home inspections, and sometimes when he completes a job, he’ll tell the prospective Arizona homeowner the house “was just inspected by Wee Man’s dad.” So shocked is the average person to receive this honor that George must pull up personal photos on his phone to prove he really does know his son.

There is a comment on a 10-minute YouTube video titled “Best jackass compilation - PART 2” that poignantly elucidates the je ne sais quoi of “Jackass,” and that has been rewarded with more than 1,000 likes: “Really good friends getting paid to do the stuff you and your friends talk about doing while drunk. These guys deserved every dime they got. They don’t make things like this anymore.” They do still make things like this, of course: The fourth “Jackass” movie, for instance. But it is also true that the fourth film, while thematically identical to all “Jackass” that preceded it, is eons from the franchise’s early days in its production budget, filming conditions and cast demography.

Initially, for the TV show, cast members were paid per segment. Acuña recalled the amount was in the arena of $500 to $700; Jeff Tremaine, a creator of “Jackass,” who has directed the franchise since the beginning, said he was pretty sure it was under $1,000, unless the stunt “was something life-threatening.” By the third season, Acuña said, “we knew we were pretty popular. We were hearing, like, Shaq was having ‘Jackass’ parties at his house.” A push for higher pay, and the freedom to execute ideas that were deemed too expensive or outrageous for television, resulted in “Jackass: The Movie.” Acuña’s first salary payment from the first film amounted to a figure he cited as “above $20,000, under $100,000” — enough, he said, that when he received the check, he was like: “Oh, my God. I’m OK now.” Earning a living as a professional haver of skateboard-adjacent fun was no longer a precarious dream.

The fourth film will be the first “Jackass” without two important onscreen presences: the valiantly jolly Ryan Dunn, who died in a car crash in 2011 — his bearded face is tattooed on Acuña’s calf in tribute — and Bam Margera, whom Paramount fired in August 2020. The studio claimed that Margera, who has struggled with addiction, was dismissed for breach of contract after he stopped complying with a sobriety-and-wellness program mandated in his employment agreement. Margera disputed this and filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination. The saga has been messy both in and out of court. In videos on his Instagram page and TMZ, Margera denounced his former co-workers and encouraged fans to boycott the movie.

“Bam, just — he needs to take care of his health,” Acuña told me. “We’ve all tried for him.” We were sitting on a public bench, watching a sea lion surface and submerge in Newport Bay. A man had just asked Acuña to sign one of the $2 bills he carries around with him, for his celebrity-signed $2 bill collection. “He’s doing good from the last I’ve heard. Because he’s not on social media. He’s not doing anything crazy,” he said. “When he was on the phone more, and on social media, it wasn’t good for him.”

The societal terrain over which “Jackass” gleefully rides roughshod has likewise been radically transformed in the 10 years since the last movie. The franchise has long outlived most contemporaries. Only a handful of the cultural phenomena that debuted at the same intersection of two centuries as “Jackass” still survive: “Survivor” is one, actually. “Law & Order: SVU.” “Rick Steves’ Europe.”

The delights of “Jackass” have long derived from carte-blanche obnoxiousness — the enthusiastic ruination of a miniature-golf course, or a toilet in a hardware store, or a parent’s slumber, or a friend’s haircut, with no consequences. But while physical comedy is ageless, the context in which it occurs can make it fall rapidly out of fashion. It was never, for instance, socially acceptable to sneak up behind unsuspecting Japanese people and startle them by banging a tremendous gong — but it’s difficult to imagine this segment from the first movie being greenlit, or even pitched, 20 years later, for the fourth. The audience’s tolerance for Americans amusing themselves in this way has considerably diminished.

But two qualities intrinsic to “Jackass” have facilitated its dependable profitability across two decades. First, it embraces the lighthearted, preposterous violence American audiences have enjoyed since the earliest “Looney Tunes” shorts; a trompe l’oeil bicycle-path gag in the new “Jackass” replicates nearly exactly a gag from Wile E. Coyote. But what keeps the brutality on “Jackass” from feeling sadistic is its emphasis on whole-group participation. Every member is both Coyote and Road Runner. Scenes of terror invariably end with good-natured laughter all around. The temporary nature of the suffering makes “Jackass” bearable. Consent makes it fun.

In December 2019, in anticipation of a fourth movie, the “Jackass” team began filming test shoots with potential new cast members to “see if they would fit with the group,” Acuña said. One of the primary concerns, he said, was that the advanced ages of what Paramount has branded the “legacy cast” — in their early 20s and 30s when the show premiered — would “have an effect” on their willingness and ability to pull off the signature stunts. One of the most jarring visual elements of the film is that Johnny Knoxville’s hair toggles between a fetching silver (now, according to Knoxville, its natural color) and an improbable jet-black dye job between scenes. Cast additions altered the appearance of “Jackass” in another, even more obvious way: Two of the five newcomers — Davon Wilson and Eric Manaka — are the first Black performers featured in the primary cast. Another, Rachel Wolfson, is the first woman.

Testing out new members “was weird,” Acuña said from behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, a vast white luxury camper van, the tall clearance of which prevents Acuña from taking it through some drive-throughs. “At first,” he said, “the original of us were like, ‘We don’t need anybody else.’” He still feels this way to some degree but acknowledges that the world has changed. “Gender stuff and, you know, things like that.” He doubts the show as it existed in 2000 could debut now on television. “When we first started, there was never going to be a girl in it,” he said. “We didn’t think it was funny for girls to get hurt. For us, it was like, ‘That’s not funny’ — hurting a girl.” Now, paradoxically, it would be in poor taste to not hurt a girl on “Jackass” — and so they do.

Acuña skates early in the morning; sometimes after dark. Otherwise, he is hindered by all manner of questions and requests. (In the hours I spent with him, fans initiated interactions about a dozen times.) He appreciates the easy community of skateboarding. When he goes somewhere new, he pinpoints a local skate shop. At that store he will, inevitably, meet a person planning to skate at another location, if he’d like to come along — at which place he will meet more people planning to skate somewhere else, and so on forever.

Acuña enjoys being a cog in the perpetual motion machine of skateboard society because he is implacably antsy. He gets anxious, he said, if he does not launch himself into an activity after waking. The occasions when he must rest to recover from injuries (from skateboarding — or “Jackass”) torment him. To Acuña, waking hours constitute the period in which he must tire himself out before bedtime. He careers through the day like Animal the Muppet through a Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem drum solo.

Acuña’s mission to burn off his energy is expedited by extreme organization. (“He is 1,000 times neater than the average person walking the earth,” says Preston Lacy, a “Jackass” co-star whose size discrepancy with Acuña is frequently employed to comedic effect.) Determined that I not experience one nanosecond of boredom during our time together, he mapped out complete days of activities for us and chauffeured me to most of them in his Sprinter. Most of the things I did in 2021 were accomplished in a three-day stretch with Jason Acuña. Engagements included: learning to skateboard; going to Starbucks, where he requested they make me a hot chocolate “with a little pizazz,” and they did; going to the beach; having lunch and making sure the music wasn’t too loud for customers at a branch of his restaurant, Chronic Tacos; embarking on a driving tour of his town that he loves, Costa Mesa (“You could travel around the world and still not leave Costa Mesa!”); one disgusting hour of hot yoga where the perfectly balanced Acuña flowed through poses like mercury in a maze; driving an hour to the Dogtown Skateboards warehouse to talk about skateboard colors; buying tacos for the Dogtown employees; driving back to Costa Mesa for “a fabulous doughnut”; looking at a Ferris wheel; taking a kickboxing class, during which Acuña executed burpees and star jumps at double the rate I could; visiting the workshop of the skateboard designer Paul Schmitt, who is known as the Professor and under whose supervision Acuña, standing on a bucket, cut out a new prototype for his upcoming special-edition deck; helping two strangers locate a table at In-N-Out; dropping off a sock donation at Two Felons skate shop, where Acuña exclaimed, “Oh, daaaaaaang!” after one of the proprietors demonstrated the zoom capability of his phone camera; and, of course, snapping dozens of pictures of various vanity plates we encountered.

Taking pictures of vanity plates is one of Acuña’s joys in life. “I got it!” said Acuña, glancing at his phone screen after spotting a “GRINDER7” plate while driving. “Pretty pro at this,” he explained, and added, giggling: “This is what I do for a living! I drive around collecting private plates.”

“I nailed it,” he said, after snapping a photo of a plate that read “BWAYNE.” “Nailed it!” he said, photographing a plate he guessed read either “Flippin’ John” or “Filipino John.” “Nice!” he said, appreciating a plate that read “MOMONLY.” “IMNUTS2!” he said, reading a plate that said, “IMNUTS2.”

On one of our drives around Orange County, Acuña spotted a rare natural wonder of the California roadway. “Oh!” he gasped as he approached a stoplight. “We’re going” — his voice dropped to an awed whisper — “side by side to another Sprinter!” Acuña peered, beaming, into the window of the gunmetal van alongside us.

In his Sprinter, Acuña uses detachable pedal extenders to operate the gas and brakes. It’s estimated that 90 percent of children with achondroplasia in Italy, his birth country, take surgical means to acquire extra height. The method is arduous: a yearslong series of procedures in which children’s bones are systematically broken, and then pulled apart, typically at a rate of one millimeter per day, for several months. The process is controversial and unpopular in the United States. Acuña’s mother learned of the technique when he was a child, he said, and because their relationship was “very open,” shared the information with him. He thought it sounded “torturous.” Not to mention all that downtime.

The most scared Acuña remembers ever being was in 2005, when he spiral fractured his right femur while skateboarding. “My whole life just flew right in front of me,” he said. He didn’t have time to foresee his death as he was plummeting through the air — the fall wasn’t that high. But lying at the bottom of the ramp with his foot facing the wrong direction, Acuña became “very panicked.” Terror-stricken. Brief, far-spaced work commitments on “Jackass” were what afforded him the freedom to spend most of his life doing whatever he wanted, i.e., skateboarding et cetera — exactly this. He was due to begin shooting the second “Jackass” movie in three months. If he got hurt while having fun, he couldn’t get paid to get hurt for work. “I was like, ‘I just royally effed this up,’” he said.

Doctors put a titanium rod in his leg, and Acuña threw himself into physical therapy. He was on set in time. And on time. He’s the most on-time person people who meet him will ever meet.

Easing the Sprinter down a picturesque residential street, Acuña told me that skateboarders “very literally” see the world differently. He was hunting for a parking spot but also, in the back of his mind, deconstructing the block into an arrangement of angles, curves and curbs. “That’s not just a set of stairs, to walk up into the house to me,” he said, indicating paved steps. “That’s where I can go up and down on my skateboard.”

“I always do it,” he said.

Analyzing his environment for reservoirs of fun is second nature to Acuña, who, seeking a good time, always finds it. Anywhere he goes, people are happy to see him. He can go to Italy whenever he wants, and he can travel the world without leaving Costa Mesa. He loves being Wee Man.

I asked what his job would have been if he hadn’t managed to make a career out of “Jackass.” He stopped what he was doing — which was whistling — and thought for a few seconds. “I think I would have just been a guy that grew old and worked at a skate shop,” he said. His tone suggested this was an almost equally desirable outcome. It’s sort of already what he does, for no pay. He threw back his head and boomed in an old-timey prospector voice: “ ‘Wee Man,’ they called him!”