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.”

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