Ryan Dunn died early this morning at the age of 34. Dunn achieved his fame on the TV (later film) series Jackass, where he brought a laconic charisma to some truly warped stunts and pranks. He died in a car wreck, which, it should be clarified, happened in civilian life and was not connected in any way to Jackass.
I’m a longtime casual-appreciator of the Jackass crew, and moreover, I’m a senstive, thoughtful human being, so to me there’s not much call for anything but well wishes to the families and friends affected by the loss. Here’s a good example of the right way to eulogize a guy like this online, courtesy of the always-on-point AV Club.
Below I’ll repost the cluster of thoughts I wrote about the Jackass franchise last year, when the third movie came out. It’s not particularly specific to Dunn, but it’s a pretty generous defense/valorization of his life’s work.
What is it about the Jackass franchise that inspires its more intellectual defenders to get all pretentious about it?
Take a minute to read the piece in the Atlantic about Jackass 3D. Or better yet, read my long-winded reply to a colleague who posted an editorial about his disdain for everything Jackass. Here it is, unabridged:
I actually strongly disagree, whatever that says about me, but no one could accuse you of not having your reasons thought through thoroughly. I can’t defend Jackass 3D because I haven’t seen it yet, but I frankly love the first two movies, and the show. I love the weird, almost surreal transitions between the sketches, I love the anarchy of it all, and I happily admit that I find most of the stunts to be funny as hell. (A lot of the Bam stuff gets kind of douche-y.)
I definitely think that it helps to have the knowledge that no one was seriously injured during filming — I think I’d feel very differently about Jackass if something permanent were to happen to any of the guys. I like the fact that Knoxville and Tremaine (and obviously Spike Jonze) could do plenty of things that would be considered “smarter” — but instead they insist on topping previous heights of stupidity. There’s something pointedly transgressive about that, in my opinion. But the cinematic talent they have is still on display in the Jackass franchise. For example: The musical number that closes Jackass 2 is pure brilliance to me — it’s all of the old-school choreography and composition of musical films, enlisted for the most idiotic ends.
I’m interested in your John Waters comparison/contrast. I need to think about it some more, but I obviously don’t think I would come to the same conclusion. Besides, Waters has endorsed Knoxville & co. as his spiritual descendents in interviews I’ve read (and he cast Knoxville in one of his more recent movies.)
I’m sorry that you don’t enjoy Jackass and I wouldn’t think of recommending that you give it another chance, but I can at least say with absolute conviction that the Jackass franchise is far from the worst in film history. But that’s a much longer conversation (that I would totally enjoy, honestly!).
For the record, the franchise I had in mind during that last sentence was the Leprechaun franchise, although arguments could be made for the Basketcase movies or the two-film series of Look Who’s Talking, Mannequin, or Teen Wolf (strictly on the basis of Teen Wolf Too).
There are actually two reasons why smart people (or wannabe smart people, like me) get pretentious over Jackass. The first is obvious: American society, even now, is still puritanical enough that we feel the need to justify or rationalize our interest in stuff that, unless we’re total pricks, we all laugh about behind closed doors. You can’t go writing in the Atlantic about how funny Jackass is, unless you strain to provide a socioeconomic or psychological or cultural context – otherwise you’re going to be bounced out of that job with a quickness. Farts are always funny but try explaining that to your editors at The New Yorker. Serious people aren’t usually allowed to be silly at the same time.
The other reason is that Jackass, at its best, really does warrant the consideration. It’s really funny. It’s way better than its detractors argue and even better than most of its fans give it credit for being. Simple proof: None of the imitators come close. There’s a demented wit to the majority of the pranks and stunts in the Jackass films, i.e. the Rube Goldberg ridiculousness of the Duck Shoot sequence in Jackass 3D, where a duck-costumed Ryan Dunn is bounced a hundred feet up in the air and shot at with paintguns by his buddies in a boat nearby. Is the funniest part of it that the stunt doesn’t exactly work as planned? Is it funny because on the second take, it does? Is it funny because Dunn is wearing a duck bill over his beard? And who comes up with something like that in the first place? If you can’t admit that it’s inspired at the very least, you may not be all that fun of a person.
Jackass also really does carry a direct link to the oldest cinematic traditions. For one thing, it’s like an old-school circus sideshow, with Johnny Knoxville serving as the charismatic, demented ringmaster and all of the other guys serving classic sideshow freak functions. You have Steve-O, the raspy-voiced masochist who offers up his body for torturous entertainment – Steve-O has a great story arc in the course of the series because he’s sober by the third film and is now reluctant to participate. (By the time the Poo Cocktail Supreme rolls around, Steve is visibly miserable.) You have Chris “Party-Boy” Pontius, the joyful nudist who throws himself without hesitation into the path of unfriendly beasts (Pontius has a classic encounter with a scorpion in Jackass 3D). You have Bam Margera, the skateboarder who may be a douchebag but is obviously talented and has a fear of snakes like no one since Indiana Jones – Bam’s rotund father Phil is apparently now an official member of the Jackass cast, which I was glad to see. (Gotta love a guy who runs off to take a shit while his wife is being terrorized by a man in a gorilla suit. Long story.) You have a remarkably agile little person (Wee Man) who is always treated as an equal, if not a superior – Wee Man is obviously sharper than many of the other guys – and his frequent co-star, the unconventionally obese Preston Lacy (who is hilariously often mis-billed as Preston Gacy). I like Preston because he looks like the great character actor Oliver Platt but has a higher voice than you’d expect a guy his size to have. Finally, you’ve got the disturbing duo of Dave England, who can crap on command, and Danger Ehren, who seems borderline mentally-challenged and joyously loses teeth at a rate of what seems like at least one per film. (The Lamborghini Tooth Pull in Jackass 3D is the first time I ever completely covered my eyes during a Jackass sketch. They finally outdid themselves!)
Besides the carnival connection, Jackass carries on the spirit of the classic screen comedians, such as Buster Keaton (whose physical stunts are frequently evoked, if not name-checked), Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, John Belushi, and the Marx Brothers. The key to Jackass is maybe in that last point of reference. The Marx Brothers, more than anything else, brought a sense of anything-goes anarchy into cinema, and to me, that’s what Jackass represents in the year 2010. The Jackass crew is the closest thing we have today to true anarchy in movies. It’s punk. It’s anti-authoritarian. It’s pretty damn necessary, if you ask me.
When we’re a country at war and the only thing people want to talk about is the curiously star-free Dancing With The Stars, things have gotten scarily vapid. Sarah Palin, a woman who let’s try to remember, quit her position in government, is somehow still considered a viable future political candidate, against all logic and evidence to the contrary – just because she somehow has managed to master our Facebook-driven culture of celebrity. Idiocy is rewarded because it seems familiar. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to feel like my country’s leaders are smarter than me, not dumber. If you’re going to be dumb, you shouldn’t be in politics, or talking about important issues anywhere; you should be walking into a high-five from a gigantic spring-loaded hand. What I love so much about Jackass, and Jackass 3D is no exception, is that it’s all done in such good cheer. These guys know their place and they enjoy it.
I don’t actually care about politics, regardless of what you think of the previous paragraph. Republican, Democrat, whatever; all of them just talk too damn much for my tastes. What I don’t like, what can get me to speak up, is ignorance and stupidity, and worse, people taking pride in their stupidity and wrongheadedness, and thinking it makes them better than anyone else. I see that all over the place. I hate it. If Jackass doesn’t exactly hold a mirror up to this ridiculous sociopolitical climate, it certainly outdoes it, and in outdoing it, it underlines the point.
Jackass literally takes a shit on a society that wastes our valuable time with middle-of-the-road irrelevance and proud ignorance. Why pretend to be polite to a society that doesn’t bother to act with much propriety? If we don’t strive for excellence, but instead settle for the subpar, we deserve to be served a big ol’ shit sandwich, fresh and warm out from Dave England’s butthole. What I love about the Jackass guys is that they have managed to push their stupidity into the stratosphere. They actually attain excellence with their stupidity. No one is stupider than they are (which makes me suspect they’re actually pretty smart). But they’re not prideful about it. They seem pretty humble to me. They’d rather have fun than give anyone else a hard time. They’re egalitarians. I can respect that. Stupid times call for stupid screen heroes. Jackass 3D is kinda heroic.