A Eulogy For Ryan Dunn

The most watched YouTube tribute to Ryan Dunn, put out by Dickhouse Productions (the company behind all the Jackass family projects) begins with the caption “our brother,” written in white atop a black background, the stylistic mark of all Jackass products and a card as iconic as a Woody Allen title sequence. The video that follows is a greatest hits of Dunn’s comedic highlights, punctuated with slow motion close-ups of Dunn, ruddy, jovial and fearless.

One year ago today, at around three in the morning, Ryan Dunn died in a car crash on Route 322 in West Goshen Township, Pennsylvania, a crash which also took the life of the passenger in his car, Zachary Hartwell.

In October 2002, I was 16 and a junior in high school and I went to Buckland Hills Theater in Manchester, Connecticut to see the first screening of Jackass: The Movie. I have a notoriously poor memory — poor not in that I misremember events (my memory for details is generally strong) but in that I remember comparatively few events, a fault which has caused me frequent embarrassment in conversation with those whom excitedly recount for me moments of our shared history about which I no longer have more than a vague feeling of kinship — so remembering anything from October 2002 is a minor miracle (if speaking glibly) and more accurately, is proof of the importance of the outing in the narrative I have chosen as my adolescence.

I arrived at the theater with however many friends it takes to uncomfortably pack a station wagon, the interior vibrating with the sort of energy particular to an outing for kids in the suburbs — systematic boredom about to meet release. The lobby of the theater was humming at the same frequency, all kids (mostly boys) between 14 and 18, all wound up to be out for a midweek midnight showing, waiting in a line that snaked across the room. Buckland Hills has one of those vomit-colored rugs found in some movie theaters and all casinos that looks like it was designed by Gasper Noe and whose purpose is to keep the patrons’ eyes off the floor and on the posters and cardboard displays for upcoming movies. The rug is bright red, yellow and orange crescents, swoops and shells on a royal purple background and, if in an altered state, the rug can easily be described as undulating. Simply put, it is not a stable surface on which to walk, emotionally or in a more literal sense when in said altered state.

To be clear, this evening the only thing altering my mind was adolescent adrenaline, reflected and enabled by the line of my peers, all in various stages of being punched, poked or punked, laughing at somebody being punched, poked or punked, or darting eyes about to find an opening for punching, poking or punking. In the odd acoustics of a large theater lobby — the sound travels fast and then dies, forceful but without any body — standing on that damned rug, which feels like dirty felt to the hand and concrete to the foot, surrounded by youthful inertia and collisions, I imagine I knew what it must feel like to be the eight ball moments after the break of a new game.

When the TV series Jackass hit the air, I was 14. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. To be more accurate, it was the most viscerally funny thing I had ever seen. It made me laugh differently — conspiratorially, with a rooting interest. The humor wasn’t crass in a traditional way, wasn’t wordplay, or the put-down humor so common in everything coming out of the 90s, where the butt of the joke is the “genuine, gullible” type and the hero is the quick-witted one who has a wisecrack for everything and is never caught off guard. The butt of the joke was everything. Everybody got caught off guard. Nobody was safe, from strangers on the street, to cast members, to the families of cast members.

The show’s main unvoiced plot was a constant attack on any perceived boundaries, societal or personal. It was a place where “do you think we could…” was always met with a “yes” and if there was any question as to why something was not generally done, the answer was sought out. Why don’t men get naked in public more? Why shouldn’t a kayak be used on land? Why should we be so afraid of hurting ourselves? The general theme was if it doesn’t kill you, why not do it?

What most drew me in was the attitude behind all the stunts. Nobody was safe and yet everybody was safe. Between ball-taps and broken bones it seemed like everybody on that show liked each other, liked being a part of the joke and liked finding new frontiers together. They were a combat unit and the limits of the human experience were the enemy. Go faster, harder. Dare more. Feel more pain. And the most amazing thing, especially to a 14-year-old, is that nobody seemed to get hurt. They seemed invincible. They relished pain, overcame it with adrenaline and laughter. There was something spiritual about it, existential. They seemed happy.

It wasn’t just that physical pain meant nothing (outside of a catalyst) to the Jackass guys, they seemed emotionally fearless as well. Everything was anger and joy, the anger released without being allowed time to fester, cast into the group until it became part of the joy. They had no time for sadness or reflection and were completely above such petty matters as embarrassment. Who cares what society thinks when you can cheat death?

In short, the Jackass ethos was everything appealing to a 14-year-old boy with profound existential unease and inconsistent self-confidence. They attacked my enemies for me. They showed me a way out of fear of death, my own thoughts, the opinions of others. Everything could be survived and so nothing should be feared. Beyond that, everything could be challenged and there was joy in that challenge.

I was nearly fearless by the time I was 16, at least as far as the limits of my fearlessness could take me, and waiting in line at Buckland Hills Theater I began to feel potential in the pit of my stomach. Grand potential. It was one of those moments I felt connected to the limitlessness of a situation and energized by this connection. The true scale of my options, on a specific and on a broad level, overwhelm me in these moments. My head emerges from all its logic spirals, all the navel-gazing, all the rapid-fire sentence fragments too numerous to ever do justice describing in a linear fashion, and lets in my surroundings. These are the moments I feel free. These moments come in decreasing frequency.

Perhaps a more accurate portrayal of the unvoiced plot of the Jackass series was the pursuit of those moments in which one feels free. Conventional wisdom on adrenaline junkies is that there is unhappiness from which they are fleeing, some hole which needs to be filled. Not being of the thrill-seeking disposition, I can only guess at this wisdom’s veracity but I suspect it is overblown. I would guess that adrenaline junkies are doing the same thing anybody else is doing in the only manner that works for them — trying to find moments where they can transcend fear or anxiety or neuroticism or existential unease or just the fatigue of being a thinking creature.

But of course, there is the risk, and the Jackass guys proved not to be invincible. And it has been 10 years since I walked out of that theater, abuzz with possibilities. Someone had brought a shopping cart from who knows where and was pushing somebody else around in it, crashing him into bushes. Two kids were fighting with two-by-fours. Everybody left the theater parking lot too fast.

Ryan Dunn’s death was the first and only time I have felt a personal sense of loss at the passing of a celebrity. He seemed like a real person to me. Maybe I felt this way because I had seen him laugh and bleed so many times. Maybe it’s because of the self-contained, homegrown aspect of Jackass, guys living and succeeding on their terms, who grew up just like so many people I knew, doing stupid shit on camera. Maybe. But most of my reaction probably comes from those teenage years spent projecting my insecurities onto Ryan and his brothers and letting them do battle for me, using them as a model for my confidence, for a way out of of my head toward those beautiful moments of freedom.

Thank you, Ryan. Rest in peace. TC mark

image – ryandunn.tv

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  • KJ

    Invisible s/b invincible? Of course the Jackass guys weren’t invisible.

  • chucky

    Maybe he shouldn’t have been speeding around at 3am drunk in a Porsche. The jackass guys aren’t role models.

  • Ryz

    This is incredible. Thanks so much for writing this.

  • P

    Ryan Dunn committed suicide and murdered the passenger in his car by driving with way too much alcohol in his system. I feel no loss at his passing. If you want to kill yourself don’t take someone with you.

  • Guest

    ^^^Please have some respect. Regardless of the circumstances, loved ones had to experience the loss of a son, a brother, a friend. Have the decency to avoid trashing another human being.

    Good article. Insightful and truthful.

    • yourmommma

      fuck respect!!!

    • http://gravatar.com/cspeedy Chris

      You cannot let emotions get in the way of what this actually was. It’s not regardless of circumstances. It’s saying things like that which allow people’s decision making to be swayed by feelings. Saying that people still need to experience the loss of a brother, friend and so on adds an unneeded dimension to the situation. As stated by others, it was not one time. He made this mistake years before and apparently did not learn from it. If you want to feel sorry for the passing of someone that has the inability to learn from their own mistakes, and is then honored for a life they lived that trivialized danger, please go right ahead. If he had lived through this I’m pretty sure he would be facing some pretty serious accusations. Why? Because no matter what frivolous emotions you decide to attach to this, it still does not eliminate the fact that another life was needlessly lost because one person couldn’t control themselves. I refuse to respect someone who cannot respect others. If he is such a role model to people, how has he enriched their lives? What is the ongoing legacy that we are supposed to honor of his aside from reels and reels of mindless stupidity that was caped off by appropriately ignorant end. Thoughtful article about a thoughtless person.

  • asdf

    Ignoring the subject matter, this was an amazingly introspective and illustrative article. I never watched Jackass, but through your descriptive metaphors and experiences, I felt connected to Ryan Dunn in the way you did.

    This is one of the finer articles here. Well done, sir.

  • Anon.

    I feel sorry for his family and loved one’s loss, but I refuse to feel sorry for him. His blood alcohol limit was twice the legal limit and he was going at a ridiculous speed. All of this combined with the fact that he had a passenger makes me sick. It’s one thing to be idiotic enough to do while while driving alone, but it takes it to a whole new level of stupidity to do with another life in the car. It makes me feel even worse for his family because not only did they have to deal with losing someone but also losing someone due to that person’s own stupidity. Just because he was famous and made people laugh does not excuse the horror of circumstances that took his life as well as another persons.

    • guest

      def agree

    • Isosceles

      Exactly.

      But that’s even not the whole story though. Bam Margera said that Dunn had already had an accident near that very same spot in 1996. He said he was driving the same way back then and the car flipped *8 TIMES* with Bam and Bam’s brother in the car with him. Bam’s brother didn’t have a seatbelt on, so he went flying 40 feet from the car.

      So… Yeah. Can’t really feel too much sympathy for someone who would roll the dice like that with someone else’s life AGAIN and lose.

  • sam

    This is beautiful. Definitely expresses many of the things I felt. Thank you.

  • Michelle

    I’ve never seen so many people hero-worship a guy who drove 100+ mph while drunk and killed himself and passenger. He deserves no respect for the lives he endangered and the lives he took. Dunn was an idiot – stop glorifying him.

    • guest

      I just love how one (albeit, extremely stupid) act seems to cancel out the good acts of someone’s life. A life that clearly inspired at least one other person does not deserve respect? A man who lived a relatively successful life is now an idiot? Who are you to judge? By your standards, everyone deserves to be vilified if they’ve ever made a mistake. And last time I checked, we are all human and extremely likely to mess up. Sorry that the human race can’t live up to your high standards. I wish I could be as perfect as you must be.

      • Alex

        He killed someone. I’d love to hear you say this if the passenger was one of your family.

      • Isosceles

        It wasn’t one stupid mistake. He had an insanely bad accident in that same spot 15 years before and one of his passengers went flying from the car. If my passenger went flying from my car when I flipped it 8 times, I would feel guilty enough for life that I wouldn’t do that shit again…at least not with someone else in the car with me.

    • Michelle

      You need to look at the context of the mistake. Yes, absolutely this person deserves to be vilified. You cannot honestly tell me that there aren’t people who have destroyed lives that deserve a free-pass postjumously. A murderer is still a murderer (because remember that is what he did here.) Do not take away the significance of this action. By labeling murder as “human” is silly. You need to take a look at your standards.

      • webster

        “postjumously”?
        You need to take a look at your spelling.

      • http://gravatar.com/cspeedy Chris

        ↓ ↓ “take a look at your spelling” implies reviewing, not revising. Perhaps you may want to “take a look” at your editing cues before you play spelling police.

      • todd

        Are you serious, Chris? Cute try. By your own expert defition, all Webster will be doing is “reviewing” rather than “revising”. Your little grammatical feud is meaningless. You may want to realize how pointless your argument is before you play grammar police.

      • psstop

        chris=owned

      • Michelle

        Webster, stop being trite. It’s a typo.

      • Michelle

        Additionally, Webster, if you prefer to add some valuable counterpoint to my argument, by all means, do it. But, taking a cheap shot over a typo is kind of stupid. Last I checked, “h” and “j” were right next to each other on the keyboard. Let’s move on now, this thread is boring.

  • Arch

    I don’t mean any disrespect to Ryan or his family/friends/fans at all, but I had no sympathy for Ryan when he died. I felt terrible for his family and friends and that of his passenger. He died three weeks after one of my best friends was killed in car crash, where the driver of the other guy was speeding and distracted (he was driving a mini bus full of his friends) she died instantly and the accident was in no way her fault. She was 21. So as far as I’m concerned Ryan Dunn was extremely lucky he hit a tree and not another vehicle, and I hope people learn a lesson from his death. Speed limits and driving laws are there for a reason, have enough respect for the rest of humanity to adhere to them.

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