Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Fired Up By A Jackass

The show is called "Jackass."

It’s an MTV show that is being blamed for what happened to 13 year old Jason Lind of Torrington, Connecticut.

I have never seen "Jackass," but have had it described to me by plenty of people who have seen it several times. It’s a show full of stupid guys doing stupid and annoying things, designed purely to prompt a reaction in anyone who sees them doing those things. Think of it as an extreme version of Candid Camera performed by stuntmen whose fear and shame genes have been removed. Allen Funt’s bastard grandchildren, if you will.

Last Friday, Jason and his friends were watching "Jackass" when they saw the host, Johnny Knoxville, put on a fire-resistant suit, wrap himself in steaks and lay down on a lit barbecue grill while his assistants sprayed him with lighter fluid. After a few seconds, Johnny jumped up, his crew doused the flames, and some of his moronic colleagues then ate the steaks.

Not my kind of television, but that’s not the question.

After watching the show with two 14 year old pals, the story goes, Jason told them that he’d like to re-enact the stunt. So they went outside, where one of the friends poured gasoline on Jason’s legs and then ignited them with a match.
Jason wasn’t wearing a fire-resistant suit. Needless to say, Jason’s not in very good shape now. He’s hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns over his feet and legs.

Kid did a pretty stupid thing, huh?

Naturally, in our culture of No Personal Responsibility, it’s not his fault. The blame is being placed on the TV show.

The show that’s called "Jackass."

The name alone should be a clue that you shouldn’t imitate what you see. If it were called, "Here’s Something Cool To Try With Your Friends" or "Things Jason Should Do Today," then I could begin to see the argument. But it’s not, and I don’t.

That hasn’t stopped the finger-pointers. Jason’s father condemned MTV, said he held the show at least partly responsible for what happened, and called for a law to hold those behind the show accountable.

Seeing an opportunity to climb onto his pedestal and once again proclaim that Show Business Is Immoral, Senator Joe Lieberman let loose a harangue that went, "I recognize that the program is rated for adults and that it comes with general disclaimers. But there are some things that are so potentially dangerous and inciting...that they simply should not be put on TV, and this is clearly one that crosses the line....I intend to make clear to the network’s owners that we expect more from them."

Joe, how about making it clear to the kid that you expect more from HIM? At 13, what kid doesn’t know that you can get pretty badly hurt by lighting yourself on fire?

If anyone is at fault besides Jason and the Pyronauts, put Joe Lieberman, Bill Bennett, and the rest of their Righteously Right pals on the list. When they led the push to get ratings put on TV shows and V-chips in television sets, they brought this sort of thing on themselves.

You see, the TV networks now can hide behind that TV-MA rating, using it as a defensive shield. They can claim that by putting that rating up on the screen for well over five seconds, they have warned the viewers that this show wasn’t suitable for viewing by children. And parents who don’t want their kids to see a show with that rating should program their V-chip to reject it (as if any adult actually knows how to do that).

"Jackass" does have a TV-MA rating and multiple onscreen warnings throughout the show, including a skull and crossbones over any stunts that are dangerous, and the printed disclaimer, "The following show features stunts performed by professionals and/or total idiots under very strict control and supervision. MTV and the producers insist that neither you or anyone else attempt to recreate or perform anything you have seen on this show."

Pretty strong, and pretty clear. And for anyone who missed it, another tipoff might be that the show is called "Jackass."

When I was a kid, all my friends and I were fans of the TV show "Superman." We all wanted to be Superman. So we would all take a towel out of the linen closet, tie it around our neck as a Superman cape, and go jump off things. The higher the thing we jumped off of was, the longer we would fly like Superman.

In my neighborhood, the place to do the Superman stunt was the one-story parking garage behind our apartment building. We would meet there regularly and jump off of that. One day, one of my friends -- clearly affected by the peanut butter and kryptonite sandwich he had for lunch -- jumped off the garage, landed wrong, and broke his leg.

Should he have sued the producers of "Superman" for influencing him to act this way?

Of course not. As I recall, the rest of us were back up there the next day, because we all knew what the problem was -- our friend simply didn’t know how to be Superman as well as we did!

Many years later, Evel Knievel was featured regularly on ABC’s "Wide World Of Sports," doing his motorcycle jumps across rows of school buses and through flaming hoops. I once saw him set a world record by jumping over all the teeth of the Osmond family which, when lined up, measured over 200 yards.

Thousands of kids all across America were soon building little ramps to jump their bicycles over. Many of them slipped, crashed, and at a minimum ended up soaking scraped elbows and knees in a bathtub full of Bactine.

Should they have sued Evel Knievel? Of course not.

We chose to take these risks because that’s what kids do. We also knew that we were responsible for the consequences of our actions.

The same is true for Jason. Yes, he knows it. He told his father, "I messed up."

I think his father knows it, too. But the tragic site of his kid lying in the burn ward has kept him from turning the spotlight of responsibility around and shining it on himself. After all, isn’t Dad responsible for letting his kid watch this show, or at the very least, not teaching him the horrible outcome of the flame plus flesh equation?

If this one ever gets to court -- and it better not! -- all the MTV attorney has to do is get up in front of the jury and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, the show is called JACKASS!!!!!"

The defense rests.