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Canadian Jackass: Before Johnny Knoxville, There Was Cap’n Video

You've probably never heard of Ralph Zavadil. And he doesn't care. Or does he?

by
Kathy Shaidle

Bio

August 13, 2013 - 1:00 pm

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Before Johnny Knoxville and Tom Green and backyard wrestling, before YouTube and idiot-proof editing software, there was Ralph Zavadil.

Over twenty years ago, the young millright passed out drunk at the GM plant in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. They put him on medical leave. He never went back.

Instead, Zavadil got hold of a camera and an editing bay, and gave himself a new name: Cap’n Video.

Every Friday, he donned a bizarre helmet and welding goggles, put on a French-Canadian accent, and single-handedly filmed improvised stunts in his backyard, inspired by whatever everyday objects happened to be laying around.

No assistants. No planning.

One take.

Not since Buster Keaton had such dangerous, original stunts been captured on film — clothesline skiing, roof tobogganing, egg snorting.

Looking for an alternative to the daily tedium of shaving? Cap’n Video helpfully demonstrates how to set your face on fire.

And Buster Keaton, a vaudeville tumbler since age 3, planned his pratfalls to the second, and employed a professional crew.

He was also getting paid and was presumably well insured.

Whereas The Cap’n Video Show was an amateur, lower class goofball’s labor of love, seen only on the local cable access channel, then on videotapes passed to friends by fans.

Zavadil pioneered a genre that would make other men rich and famous (and sore.)

So why haven’t you heard of him?

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It’s too easy to use what you might call the “Anvil alibi”:

“Well, the guy was Canadian. He was cursed from the start.”)

Fortunately, a documentary about Zavadil called Beauty Day doesn’t use Cap’n Video’s nationality as an excuse to get bitterly, stupidly anti-American.

That said, Zavadil is one of THE most Canadian guys I’ve ever seen — the type I grew up with, even dated a few times.

(True story: I didn’t realize the guys in Fubar were actors until later.)

Hell, Cap’n Video could be my dad:

Smarter than he looks, but more or less content to make a living of sorts with the least amount of effort, often with little regard to legality.

He measures out his life in cigarettes and beer, in hockey pools and Rush concerts and tax refunds.

He spends his cash on Harley Davidson ephemera instead of saving up for an actual bike.

He’s more interested in juvenile, gross, vaguely dangerous fun than in family and female companionship.

His best friend is his dog, which he boasts is “half wolf.”

His “retirement plan” is either winning the lottery or falling off a roof and collecting disability.

He’s such a familiar “type” that he’s a staple of Canadian TV and cinema, who occasionally breaks out into international consciousness:

Remember Wayne’s World and the Mackenzie Brothers?

(And no, I don’t know what it is about Canadian guys and cable access. Anybody looking for a master’s thesis?)

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So what’s Beauty Day like?

Because it’s devoted to chronicling one man’s eccentric obsessions, comparisons to the work of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are inevitable (reinforced by that Philip Glass-like score.)

While Beauty Day isn’t a groundbreaker in terms of form or style or even subject matter, it’s a touching, honest film, full of surprise twists.

Zavadil’s old stunts are weirdly compelling, something to do with his camera’s rigid p.o.v.:

He just stuck it on a tripod, pressed “record” then jumped around in front of it.

And Zavadil himself is candid and charismatic, although, one senses, not as sanguine about his lot in life — he puts together bicycles at Canadian Tire — as his constant shrugs and “whatever”s are meant to indicate.

He could have really made something of himself, I kept thinking.

Thinking of my estranged (now dead) father, too, who spent my child support money at the track or the golf course or Sinatra tickets.

Who was smart as hell but dropped out in Grade 7 because he couldn’t handle the boredom, the routine, the discipline.

Who’d told International Harvester to “take this job and shove it” before that song ever came out, and drove a cab instead.

(The perfect job for a taciturn misanthrope: You aren’t stuck behind a desk. Your boss is a disembodied voice. Your customers are gone before you can start to hate them too much.)

“My Way” was his theme song.

And he died as he’d always wanted to live: alone.

Men have been going “on strike” longer than even Dr. Helen realizes.

What’s weird is that we only seem to be noticing it now.

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(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 14th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).

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