Wednesday, June 22, 2011

There is no "off" position on the Jackass Switch (and I mean that as respectfully as possible)

Yesterday I talked for about 20 minutes with a reporter from who was working on a story about the possible implications of the car-crash-death of Jackass cast member Ryan Dunn for TV comedy. The first thing I said on the phone was that I wanted to be careful not to sound glib about his death and its possible repercussions—mostly because I didn’t imagine it would have any.
Unfortunately, when the piece was published, my thoughts were whittled down to “Jackass is forever going to be the show with the guy who died” and that’s it. I don’t know if that reads glib, but it certainly reads as useless to me. I understand that’s the nature of interviews—less gets published then spoken, naturally. But unfortunately that also tends to be the nature of journalistic quoting of academics; that is, reinforcing whatever preconceptions the writer has brought to the piece, rather than offering a more expansive view or different perspective.
I’m not so interested in bitching about this (like I said, nature/reality of journalism) as I feel like putting down some of my thoughts about celebrity, reality TV, comedy, etc. that emerged from my conversation with the writer.
The truth is I hadn’t really thought much of this until a reporter was interested in talking to me. The whole event seems mundane, and on the one hand this is maybe because Dunn was probably on one of the lowest rungs of celebrity. I don’t mean that as a dig; on the contrary. His celebrity was of the reality TV variety, and I think what is interesting here is how this particular case of celebrity death is different from the past, and therefore ordinary.
The real undercurrent of concern here wasn’t about the decline of outrageous or obnoxious comedy or audience taste broadly, but the value of the Jackass franchise in particular. What might make it an interesting case for how a franchise weathers controversy is because the Jackass franchise isn’t based in one media, but multiplatform: TV, movies, DVD, live performance, Twitter feeds, online video. Dunn’s death (and rhetoric of its aftermath) played out across those platforms, and so did Dunn’s life as Jackass performer. Dunn’s tweeting of a photo of himself drinking the same night didn’t just suggest this was a case of drunk driving, but also showed how “performing Jackass” wasn’t just about making movies or a TV show, but performing a lifestyle of such stunts that could be documented and distributed via new media at any time.
Dunn’s apparent notorious Twitter partying photo before the crash didn’t just evidence drunk driving, but was one of the attractions. Roger Ebert’s “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” tweet and Bam Margera’s response became another part of the spectacle. Sorry, but I can’t seriously contemplate whether or not what Ebert said was “wrong”—I’m too busy imagining Bam Margera trying to punch him out.
Another thing that came to mind is how totally ubiquitous “Jackassery” is as entertainment now. I find that much of the pleasures of Tosh.0 lie in physical abuse or public humiliation being suffered by people who seem like they deserve it, by virtue of them sharing that misfortune with the public. Nevermind that maybe it isn’t them who decided to share it. In some parallel universe where video of Dunn’s crash existed and Comedy Central was only slightly more adventurous, I imagine it would make the ultimate Tosh.0 clip.
I have to wonder if Tosh.0 has really taken the place of Jackass, or if maybe it just creates a little more ironic distance from Jackassery so that it can be enjoyed. I’ll admit it: Dunn’s death in a drunk driving crash, in his Porsche, just seems such a down-market Jager-bomb way to go. Maybe I would have been more moved (and do I mean entertained?) if it had been a Corvette or 1983 Trans Am.
Personally, I harbor a deep fear that beneath it all, I am just one of those people in the audience of the fart movie in Idiocracy. That bothers me more than my feelings about the death of Ryan Dunn. Sorry. I just don’t quite know the appropriate response to events that spawn headlines like “Bam Margera Rips Roger Ebert for ‘Jackass’ Tweet.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Best Riot Photo Ever

Something about this photo from the Vancouver post-hockey-game-loss-riot moves me. The whole event maybe embodies how close to the edge we all are, everywhere, at every moment, of just going completely ape shit. And then there's this hipster fellow on the left. His hair, socks, shorts--clearly he has maxed out his hipster fashion cred to the point of meaninglessness. And in Vancouver.

This photo comes from an LA Times slideshow which you can find here.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

SNL Goes to Harvard via The Land of Gorch

 This week I made a trip to Harvard for a symposium on television satire and puppets. Yes, puppets. While this might be the sort of scholarly thing that causes slack-jawed yahoo governor and tea party types crazy, I want to point out that although TAMUCC bought my plane ticket, most of the support came from a researcher from Holland who was the happy recipient of a $500K grant to study such things. She just got another $1 million grant to work on analog culture in contemporary media culture. Europeans know how to treat their academic types.

Last Gasps in The Land of Gorch from ethan thompson on Vimeo.

My paper was about the first year of Saturday Night Live, during which the Muppets had a regular skit. The characters were from "The Land of Gorch" and the skits were uniformly and irredeemably unfunny. But so was a lot of stuff on SNL (then called NBC's Saturday Night). The Muppet characters were gone after a year, when Henson went on to create The Muppet Show. Have a look at their final appearance here, with Lily Tomlin. Note that it's Tomlin, and not the Muppets, that blows the punchline.

One my last day I wandered around Harvard a little, and went to the Harvard Bookstore hoping to find one of my TV books. Turns out, there are not too many TV books to find in the Harvard Bookstore. Cinema (like so many other places) gets its own section, but not TV. The battle still must be fought! When I wandered down into the used books-basement, I managed to find a couple of TV books, mysteriously put in the "Social Sciences" section. More interesting to me were the various images, ads, art, graffiti taped to the book shelves in the area. This was a history of those who labored in the book store over the years, and from what I see, they seemed to have some excess creative/intellectual energy to burn off in the midst of the high culture and serious academic stuff that made the shelves, because the expressive graffiti was mostly pop culture ephemera stuff.

What caught my eye was an ad for NBC's Saturday Night with George Carlin. This is the same ad from TV Guide the week of SNL's premiere in October 75 that I had used in my presentation. So there was George Carlin, manning the shelves for 35 years. Look closely at the picture above and you can see that the Muppets are also listed on the bill, along with Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal. Crystal's appearance was cut. He thinks it set his career back a few years, but if you've seen Crystal's later "first appearance", they were doing us all a favor.

Anyway, you can see Carlin is now strangling the Mona Lisa. C-3P0 and R2D2 are hanging out below. On another column in the basement, someone had long ago pasted the cover of Horace Newcomb's TV: the Most Popular Art.

To be fair, I also found a picture of a TV smashed in--there's one of those in every hipster-bookstore crowd in my imagination.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show

Rowlf the Dog on the Jimmy Dean Show. First consistent network Muppet presence.

Sam and Friends: Visual Thinking

This is one of the more famous Muppet sketches, "Visual Thinking," from the original Henson show, "Sam and Friends." Consider the square vs. hip thinking. Also, this is an interesting analogue to Ernie Kovacs video tricks.