The absurd and the reverent

A trip to The Bunt Jam.

The absurd and the reverent

“Hey, can you? Can you?” The young man’s voice wavered as he held his iPhone toward me. Even though he couldn’t find the words, the ask was clear. Moments before, there had been an audible gasp from somewhere in the crowd. Whispers turned to shouts, a roiling din that preceded a rush of requests for selfies — Nyjah Huston had arrived. I took the young man’s device, aimed, and pressed the small red button. Photo after photo of one of skateboarding’s most accomplished talents in his signature athletic shorts, arms around two beaming strangers, doing his best smile for every camera trained in his direction.

The entire scene was a bit surreal. We were a large, loud audience spending our Friday night lingering in an outdoor hockey rink as the stifling humidity of Toronto, Ontario, in early July pressed down. A portion of the rink had been converted into half a basketball court, and moments before was the conclusion of an eight-team, three-on-three tournament featuring some of the best professional skateboarders on the planet… playing basketball.

The beloved and enigmatic Jake Johnson, whose generally reserved and reclusive approach to his skateboarding career is perhaps the antithesis of Huston’s nearly two decades-long stint in perpetual limelight, scored the first basket of the day. Cephas Benson, co-host of The Bunt skateboarding podcast with Donovan Jones — the show that was ostensibly the reason we were all here to watch skateboarders play basketball — would score the last and claim the tournament victory.

The next day, we’d witness skaters fly over and through a football field goal and ride their skateboards as high as they could up the face of an ersatz barn. That was the underlying premise of the weekend — willful contradictions, small detours into the absurd, and a gesturing toward traditional sports that felt as strange as it did reverent. This was The Bunt Jam.

It was an idea first pitched to the podcasters in 2019 by marketer, event producer, and skateboarder Josh Clark, but the COVID-19 pandemic would delay the event’s debut by several years. Now, in its second go-around, The Bunt Jam was once again held in the rink adjacent to Dunbat Skatepark, both sitting at the North end of Toronto’s Alexandra Park. It’s in this unassuming locale where world-class professional skateboarders convened to do sports-related things for a crowd of “10,000 screaming fans,” as MC Conor Neeson put it, shouting into the mic to the delight of the few hundred in attendance during the basketball tournament.

Last year saw names like Curren Caples and Jake Anderson partake in similarly curious challenges, like attempting to charge up a wallride obstacle, basketball in hand, to dunk on a hoop that grew ever-farther out of reach and fling themselves over and onto the peak of a stout and grindable imitation barn. Beyond skateboarding and sports, this common farmstead structure is also a mainstay of The Bunt universe. “Barn burner” is a descriptor-cum-catchphrase exclaimed often enough on the podcast that it’s become part of its branding and fan culture, making its way onto merch and into the vocabulary of its listeners. Scroll through The Bunt’s Instagram and it won’t take long to find their unofficial slogan echoed back at them in their posts, house and flame emojis littering the comments section.

And now, for two years running, The Bunt Jam has included skateable “barns” that have grown larger and more complex with each iteration. This year’s acted as a towering transitional wall featuring doors that swung open to release choking plumes of smoke that revealed more skateable surfaces once the air had cleared. These types of patently silly yet objectively impressive tests of skill were clearly fun enough that many of the performing skateboarders from last year's event had returned this time around, Caples and Anderson included.

The Bunt Jam’s general premise is a familiar one: invite a bunch of premier PROs to take part in a series of challenges inspired by inscrutable inside jokes, where “winners” are decided mostly on a vibes-based scoring rubric. It’s a clear spiritual descendant of Dime’s “Glory Challenge,” an event that’s helped make the Montréal, Québec-based brand an institution and reminded the skateboarding public that “contests” can and should be fun.

Why Canada’s Eastern provinces play host to the skateboarding world’s preeminent mirth-first events is unclear. Perhaps the crushing, extended winters have altered their resident's perception of and appreciation for the more traditional forms. If good weather is a coveted, finite resource, why would you waste it watching a series of cookie-cutter 45-second contest runs?

It makes much more sense to spend those months hiding from the cold scheming up the best way to build a giant, skateable, foam and flame-spewing volcano, as Dime did during its 2022 Glory Challenge in a not-so-subtle and longstanding sendup of Scientology. A VICE article from 2017 described that year’s Glory Challenge volcano obstacle as “The greatest skateboarding challenge ever concocted [and] a direct dig at Scientology, as this firey kickflip challenge was inspired by the Dianetics book cover. As the pyrotechnics team shot 15-foot flames into the air, announcer Conor Neeson told the crowd, ‘75 million years ago, billions of people were murdered via volcanic cremation. Thetans were unwillingly released into suppressive engrams. This is our chance to get revenge on Xenu.’”

Beyond being similarly absurd, the two events also have more direct ties. Vans Footwear has been the presenting sponsor of both; those VF Corp dollars funding the fun. There’s even a crossing of streams of talent and personnel, from the skaters who take part to fixtures like Neeson, who has long been the MC of the Glory Challenge, and Josh Clark, who is integral to the planning of both Dime and The Bunt’s events. Donovan Jones would tell me via email that “[Clark] makes the whole thing happen [and is] really the glue to everything. [I] can’t express how much he really does.”

Part of Clark’s role is to make sure bureaucratic hoops are jumped through. For The Bunt Jam to take place in a City of Toronto park, Cephas Benson explained that “it has to have an affiliation with a charity, so we started our own, The Bunt Live Foundation, where we aim to provide skate lessons and boards to kids who usually wouldn’t have that opportunity.” Before The Bunt Jam kicked off its second day of festivities on Saturday, there was a well-attended skate lesson with kids of all ages looking to get the hang of riding around on that mercurial piece of wood with wheels. It was an admittedly sweet precursor to what was to come, even if it was effectively a box that needed to be ticked.

While both Dime and The Bunt’s events have some common genes and clearly revel in the ludicrousy of their reverence — like Dime making once little-known skateboarding figure Joe Valdez a central pillar of their competitions — there is a key differentiator: The Bunt itself is a skateboarding and traditional sports podcast. So while the Glory Challenge might make reference to Valdez and Xenu, The Bunt Jam is going to make skateboarders “[Go] intramural,” as Alltimers Skateboard’s Zach Baker (who played for Miami’s Andrew Skateshop in the 3-on-3 tourney) explained in an event recap for Quartersnacks.

“I, for one, would probably have turned down an invitation to attend and cover the spectacle of skateboarding’s elite seshing a bump to field goal, or quarterpipe-to-barn alone. I mean, I saw that shit too and it was pretty sick. I saw Mason Silva get completely annihilated on the goalpost. Grant Taylor flew a million stories into the sky. It was incredible… But c’mon dog. I’ve been to so many goddamn skate events in my day, boy. Hoo-wee. Why I gotta go?...  I gotta physically be there? Why? To network? Get lost! Now…the Bunt Jam, offering a display of some my favorite skaters not only skating, but seriously engaged in a 3-on-3 tournament of basket…ball? We’re cooking with petrol now. That’s what I call entertainment.”

That’s what I’d call it, too. From team REAL Skateboards’ Davis Torgerson demonstrating that he does, in fact, have that dog in him by making big plays and taking bigger hits, team Thrasher’s Gary Rogers consistently making clutch shots from behind the arc — following his potentially dubious win in the Arcteryx $1000 CAD half-court shot contest where he appeared to take more than the agreed upon number of attempts — to team Andrew’s Elijah Odom recovering from a nasty looking leg cramp to return to the finals matchup against team Bunt; there were enough highlights and drama to keep even the non-skateboarder tuned in.

Team Bunt claiming the spoils of victory.

At least for now, on the court and in this still somewhat nascent sphere of events that could be described as “skateboarding entertainment,” The Bunt doesn’t have a lot of competition. “Someone better be cooking up a super team out there, or else the 3-peat is inevitable, and we might have to retire from the tourney MJ styles.” Benson would say about the former.

Regarding the latter, being able to have professional skateboarders do something other than skateboarding and for it to be an engaging, compelling watch is a feat. One that could speak to the evolution of skateboarding culture and how bored that culture has become with the seriousness of itself.

“Show me dat ass Jah,” read a piece of cardboard scrawled with Sharpie and held over the heads of those in the crowd watching and roaring as Nyjah Huston switch-frontside-flipped through the goalposts on day two of The Bunt Jam. “Cunt Jah,” read another. The mixed reaction of those in attendance to one of skateboarding’s biggest and most controversial names was not surprising. What was surprising was that Huston was there at all.

One of his premier sponsors, Monster Energy Drink, was also a sponsor of The Bunt Jam, and word had it that when Huston asked Monster if he could attend, they wanted their scantily clad Monster Energy Girls to be at the event with him. After some negotiating with the event organizers, just Huston and a significant amount of Monster Energy Drink promotional paraphernalia made the trip. Jones would later confirm that there was “some truth” to the rumour.

That the organizers were able to haggle with a blue chip sponsor also seems indicative of the space an event like The Bunt Jam occupies because just a few weeks later, the Monster Energy Girls attended X Games California 2023 and stood awkwardly on the side of the street course — a simulacrum of a Californian schoolyard — throughout the entirety of the contest, smiling stiffly in their bikini tops and short-shorts as Huston failed to make the podium. Could The Bunt Jam have successfully negotiated their way out of a similar fate if it was broadcast on ESPN or actually drew a crowd of 10,000 screaming fans that brands like Monster pay big dollars to put their logo in front of in precisely the way they want?

Being a smaller, self-produced event comes with those certain freedoms. For The Bunt Jam, that also included having guest skaters Torgerson and Ryan Townley help design this year’s event concept. Benson noted that Townley, who closed the show with a frighteningly large 360 flip through the goalposts, had himself pitched the obstacle into existence. “Townley masterminding his own moment of Glory a year in advance was pretty cool to witness.”

Townley for three with a three via Converse Cons’ Instagram.

I watched Saturday’s final scenes unfold while standing on the top of packed aluminum bleachers placed along the perimeter of the course. As the seats rattled and bowed under our collective weight and excitement, the person next to me would occasionally grip my shoulder to steady himself as he took rips from a small bong stored loose in his backpack — this was a crowd geared for a good time. Before Townley’s crowing moment, the swell of people on the sidelines had rallied behind 13-year-old Faye Ebert, who struggled with a 360 flip of her own over the tabletop obstacle. The audience chanted her name on each attempt until she eventually rode away and the outdoor hockey rink filled with skateboarders erupted.

It would only go quiet when Mason Silva authored the slam of the summer an hour or so later, losing traction on a kicker slick with drizzle and nearly sacking himself on the goalpost’s crossbar. From my vantage, it looked devastating. The DJ cut the music, hushed voices asked questions no one could answer, and the guy beside me kept the bong in his bag out of respect. “Concerned would be an understatement,” Jones said when I asked if he was ever worried they’d lost a SOTY.

Thankfully, Silva recovered quickly and proceeded to not just land the trick he bailed but a grip more, making the resulting clips shared infinitely online another part of the growing Bunt Jam lore. These moments — whether of glory, (near) peril, or redemption — are what stick in the public’s mind and help an event live on long after it's done. When money is not a measuring stick, that’s how you gauge success: exposure and memories made. A combination of the two is what’s needed to convince people to come back next year and for those who didn’t attend to feel like they missed out and to mark their calendars for 2024.

For this level of spectacle to have evolved from a podcast hosted by a couple of friends nerding out about sports is as much a surprise to Jones and Benson as anyone else. Now, across seven years, 18 seasons1, some 200 episodes and counting, plus two successful Bunt Jams, Jones said it’s a spectacle that will “definitely” continue. Benson added, “At this point, it all feels like a massive cherry on top that we never could have imagined before we started. [We] hope to keep it going for as long as we can and as long as it’s fun.”

  1. Season 18 started today.