Ryan Dunn's death is shocking. Shocking in its stupidity. Shocking in its senselessness. Shocking in its inevitability.
It was only a matter of time. You can only cheat death -- or at the very least, grievous bodily destruction -- for so long before finally running face to face into the Grim Reaper himself. And when you've made a career out of it, like the members of the Jackass crew have for the last decade-plus, something horrible was bound to happen. Of course, no one could have imagined it would be this particular player's turn at a terrible lasting legacy. Indeed, many pegged the rehab casualty Steve-O, the f-bomb bad boy Bam Margera, or the lead lunkhead himself, Johnny Knoxville, for a date with the obituary. Instead, second tier fixture, Ryan Dunn, at 3am on 20 June 2011 wound up wrapping his Porsche, and his passenger, around a West Pennsylvania tree... supposedly.
For anyone who was or is a fan of the infamous MTV stunt show and movie series -- and yours truly can count himself among them -- or who followed Margera's extended family with the scatological sitcom Viva La Bam, Dunn's death is shocking. Shocking in its stupidity. Shocking in its senselessness. Shocking in its inevitability. At 34, he had spent almost three quarters of his life in service of the skateboard culture extensions known as CKY and Jackass. As part of a recent documentary release that accompanied the latest direct to DVD installment of the movie series, Dunn discussed his desire to become part of the new TV show by agreeing to do a stunt called "Poo Diving." Wearing a snorkel mask and jumping into a local sewage system's reservoir run-off, he matched fearlessness and foolishness to become part of the program, and eventually, one of its fixtures.
Dunn, with his timberwolf beard and hound dog demeanor was usually portrayed as the "nice guy" of the group, the one victimized by his smart ass buddy Bam or a multi-party prank gone wrong. He was mocked for his crappy tattoos, lambasted for his taste in cars and women, and almost always wound up walking away from a confrontation hazed and hurting. Granted, this was all part of a paradigm set up specifically for the show. No matter what the image offered up by Jackass and Viva La Bam, Dunn off-camera was probably very different. The more intriguing thing is that he was, perhaps, exactly the same. One of the simple pleasures one could glean from the otherwise offensive mix of bodily fluids, unnecessary risk, and a lack of common sense was/is that this was a gang who really loved each other, a fart-sniffing fraternity where membership meant being bros for life. While it could have all been a reality show ruse, it didn't seem that way.
There was also a death wish dynamic present mixed with a new media desire to broadcast every element of your frequently stupid life. For someone like Dunn, who appeared to be limited in other social and career skills (there are references throughout both series that he had an auto/bike customizing business on the side), the whole CKY to stardom phenomenon must have seemed unreal. After all, from making homemade skater tapes in your buddy's backyard to suddenly earning millions from major studios is every aimless post-millennial adolescent's new YouTube dream. No work. All gain. All glory. Dunn had even managed to move beyond Knoxville and the crew, taking the lead in other shows like Homewrecker (where he would ruin/make-over someone's house) and Proving Ground (an attempt to replicate video game/TV/movie moments in the real world).
Naturally, the accident doesn't make it any easier to support the Jackass ideal, but not because Dunn died while (presumably) intoxicated. No, it was always difficult to give this collection of careless shock stunts free reign. The mantra "because it's funny" could calm some criticism, but for the most part, the series has spread like a virus throughout the majority of outsider art. A couple of years ago, legitimate moviemaker Harmony Korine adopted the meandering confrontational mindset for his extended excuse for a WTF? entertainment, Trash Humpers. Similarly, shows like Tosh.0 and Web Soup base their entire existence on the knee to the nutsack level of humor expressed by the series. Every day, some disaffected teen with a camcorder and a few willing coconspirators do an increasingly dangerous level of dumb things all in the name of Warhol's no longer elusive 15 minutes. It's no longer crazy. It's become normal.
Even MTV continues to push the boundaries by bringing Jackass discoveries The Dudesons back for another sour season of their pointless self-abuse. These Finnish idiots are the deconstructed version of Knoxville and the guys -- no subtext, no set-up, just 2x4s to the back of the head and pitchforks to the groin. In some ways, it's the illogical extension of the phenomenon's core conceit: we hurt ourselves so you don't have to. And of course, it wouldn't be back on the air if someone, somewhere, in the dark recesses of their parent's basement rumpus room weren't wetting themselves in response. While Jackass can still argue for its slapstick as social commentary angle, its offspring have often shifted aside any subtlety for increasing levels of outrageousness.
And now Ryan Dunn is dead, a pointless and cruel end to a clear question mark of a life. This is not meant to be a harsh criticism or grumpy old man dismissal. No death is ever warranted, and all loss of life is sad and tragic. But once mortality steps in to stir the pot, all previous derring-do and its irrational ilk seems strangulated. It's sidesplitting when Steve-O straps in to take a bungee cord ride in a full to bursting Port-O-Potty. It's equally hilarious when a huge pneumatic hand sweeps across a doorway and knocks Bam back into next week. From firecrackers to the crotch to fishhooks through the cheek, this glorified geek show walked a fine line between bad example and found fun. In either case, the old adage remains true: it's only funny until someone gets hurt. In this case, the wounds were fatal, and no one is coming back for a sequel.