If you’re gonna be dumb you gotta be tough
When I started this week’s column I had planned on writing about music featured in film or television. This is, but of course, a wide swatch to write about but I planned to write about one television show in particular: Jackass. That’s right, the show with the colorful cast of characters that hurt each other in the name of laughs. I know this is not everyone’s cup of tea, Jackass, but I have been a big fan of the program since the first debut of the show in the year 2000. I can remember first reading about the show and its host, Johnny Knoxville, in the “Hot Issue” of Rolling Stone and I remember dismissing it as a cheap knock off of The Tom Green Show. Something about the shock value and gross-out humor seemed like a rip off rather than homage. I don’t remember when I first watched the show, but I do know that I have watched it constantly over the past ten, eleven years. When the show first debuted years ago the timeframe coincided with my arrival at a certain local bookstore. I am resisting the temptation to hold grudges here but apparently to one staffer my enthusiasm for the program was a sign of some greater societal failing. Sure, I can be abrasive when you get to know me, but I’m a lovable sort who loves lots of things on this wacky world, Jackass being one of them.
Above everything that has happened in my life in the past eleven years, the show made me do one thing when I watch: I laugh. And I laugh and I laugh. The stunts were funny and fun to watch, as was the self-harm but you can do those things without it being funny. Jackass was always, always, always, incredibly funny to watch. Initially it was a shock-and-awe type of humor, self-destruction but with an eye toward the audience’s reactions. As fame grew the ability to rube the squares disappeared and the show became more self-contained — the stunts and jokes came at the expense of the entire cast and crew of the show. Their Dickhouse Universe was decorated with colorful characters. Every person played a particular part yet nobody rose above the cast and all contributed equally. Some would step up and some would recede but it always felt like a group thinking individually and acting collectively. What’s more, the cast found what they were doing funny and their enthusiasm for their “craft” is something to behold. The whole cast of characters on the show was perfect and, more often than not, there was music in the show that stuck with me, combined perfectly with the visuals on the small(and eventually silver) screen. The opening theme music was a perfect lick from the Minutemen song, “Corona” from their classic 1984 double LP, Double Nickels On The Dime. I hadn’t heard the song in years when the show began but I dug out that LP and relived its greatness. Whenever I hear the song I think of the show, the way I could hear the opening chords through walls and floors. My brother would turn the volume up whenever the show was on as a signal to me to turn it on. It always worked.
The music felt like an extension of the group, the tastes of the individual came through on TV and in the films. When Johnny Knoxville was on the cover of Rolling Stone, the author described driving to a set while listening to The Frogs (check ‘em out) and the music from the actor Chris Burke, star of the television series Life Goes On. The soundtracks to the series and films were at times both obvious and obscure, yet every piece of music fit the scenes and made the scenes so much greater. The tastes influenced the movies and TV shows and the enthusiasm and energy the group brought to the stunts was reflected in the music that was featured on the show. In the early TV shows it was amazing simply that they were able to play all this different music. During the “Roller Bobby” skit Panic by the Smith played. Due to licensing issues, many of the original songs were replaced on the DVD releases.
I saw the third film, Jackass 3D in the theater. Twice. I stayed through the end credits and found myself oddly touched by the final song/montage that played during the closing credits. Ten years of footage of the performers were mixed in with current pictures of those performers. The song under these images is “Memories” by Weezer — an incredibly nostalgic, backwards-looking song. I sat in the dark watching this and realizing that I had been watching this program for ten years. I thought about how different things were then as opposed to now. I don’t know if it made me think of living with my brother on the west side of town, moving, or whatever. I don’t know if it was a longing for a pre 9/11 world. I think it was moving as it was so real, felt so authentic, and signaled an end of some sorts.
A few weeks back I DVR’d Jackass 3.5 on MTV. I didn’t know it was going to be broadcast and just happened to see the listing and recorded the flick. I queued it up and watched as the opening scene rolled. There was a song in the opening, a song I hadn’t heard before, sung in French. I waited for the end of the film and discovered the song title and artist. The song was by the “band” Plastic Bertrand and the title is “Ca Plane Pour Moi” I loved it, found it and downloaded it and was so excited to have the song.
Within a day or two of my watching Jackass 3.5 I read online that one of its stars, Ryan Dunn, had died in a drunk driving accident. It was a drag to read about, to see it play out, to realize how fragile and tender life is and how quick it can be taken away. It was a drag to read about the blood alcohol level and the speed at the time of the crash, details that make the event all the more tragic and all the more needless. The accident did something unexpected to me, not so much unprecedented, but more unexpected: I stopped finding Jackass funny. Where there were laughs there is now nothing.
Something about the age we live in, where every moment is recordable and uploadable, something about being able to witness a real time event creates distance while taking it away. The men that made Jackass seemed like real, genuine friends that cared about each other and seeing their grief in all its realness and rawness was both touching and devastating. This closeness amongst the cast, the casting of parents and families, made these people seem real. You knew their names, you knew their lives, and it just added more to the show. The character — no, not the character. Referring to a person as a character is demeaning — the PERSON that died, was such a large part of the franchise over the past ten years, that the sudden loss stole something from the show. Perhaps I should be able to recognize that life happens and it can be cruel. But when you have invested so much into something, so much time, so much life, into something that makes you laugh out loud, free of yourself and your worries; when that something encounters tragedy you can’t go back to those original feelings.
I don’t know these men apart from what they displayed on TV and on the movie screens. I know their stories and their work but I don’t know them. Yet when one of their own died their honesty with the tributes and the emotion behind every turn was heartfelt and genuine.
I’m conflicted as what to do with the Jackass stuff I have in my home. I have these DVDs and Blu-rays. I don’t know whether to keep them in the hopes that the laughs will return. Yet I don’t know whether or not to accept that this part of my life, laughing at the shows, is finished and I should move on. What I’m not conflicted on is that I have invested so much time into this show with these characters. I have laughed and laughed and laughed watching their antics. Their laughter during the events made me laugh harder, made the memories of watching cement in my mind.
If you are in need of a laugh, take a chance on the series. You may see a tad too many wieners or a bit too much poop, but you will laugh and you will feel the connections between the people performing the stunts. And when you enjoy it try not to think of the loss and let the laughs take you to another place. If you watch the original TV shows let them take you back to that pre 9/11 mentality you may have forgotten, when things were a lot less scary and the laughs may not have been as needed. If you watch the films think of how much you needed to laugh in the years after. Watch both and see the laughs, and general connections between these men. Watch their smiles and that is one thing you will always see Ryan Dunn doing, smiling. Sure he frowned from time to time but when you watch the shows you see the smiles. And those smiles always felt true.