Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Farewell to a Brilliant Jackass

Important and beloved people that have recently passed away include Yelena Bonner, widow of Andrei Sakharov and a Soviet dissident in her own right, and Clarence Clemons, saxophone player for the E Street Band.

Though he will likely not be afforded the same praise and headline space as these or other recently-passed celebrities, Ryan Dunn of “Jackass” brought laughter to a generation that had grown cynical and helped change television for the better.

When I first heard about “Jackass,” I was very skeptical. MTV had been shoving “reality television” garbage our way for years and pioneered the shallow, self-absorbed and vapid genre and brought it new depths quickly (“The Real World” and “Road Rules” etc.). But Jackass spit in the face of MTV’s other programming, and brought slapstick comedy back into America’s living room in a big way. Without “Jackass” much of what is funny on television today wouldn’t be on. There would be no “Tosh.0” without Jackass, and I’d even argue that “Jackass” helped push the envelope of what could be said and done on regular television. How can a standard cable channel censor the word “shit” when they’re willing to produce video of people literally eating shit for money (cow pies in “Jackass 2”)?

A tragic death is always more tragic when the deceased is younger than you, and Ryan Dunn is the first member of the “Jackass” cast to pass away. He was 34 years old and died in a car crash near his home in Pennsylvania.

He was one of the cast members that we could relate to most easily. He never exhibited the celebrity ego of Bam Margera or the Hollywood ambitions of Johnny Knoxville. He went into every new experience with wide-eyed innocence that brought the audience in with him and put us on his side. While we laughed at the antics that often left him in pain, we were always aware somehow that Dunn was on our side.

Dunn took some of the worst punishment in the “Jackass” films, taking it up the ass, literally, by placing a toy car in his ass for the first film. He did it for our amusement and we were laughing with him as much as at him.

“Jackass” is beloved by millions because it is funny and because it gives many of us a chance to live our juvenile fantasies through the cast. During the week we sit in cubicles or in small offices and think about crazy fun things we would do if we weren’t burdened with the responsibilities of making a buck. If I dropped through the ceiling of my office in a ski mask pretending to be a burglar or sprayed a coworker with a fire extinguisher, I’d be shown the door and be out of a job. Dunn and the other Jackasses made a very good living doing the goofy shit that would be pathetic for grown men to do if they weren’t being paid millions of dollars for it.

It’s possible that Dunn died while driving drunk, as news reports have been quick to point out that he posted photos of himself drinking before the crash (the show is called “Jackass,” not “Genius”). If that’s true then it’s an even sadder end to a well-lived life.

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