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.