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TV 101: I'm such a Jackass (or five things I learned at MTV)

by Jay Black, posted Mar 21st 2008 12:01PM
God, why did I take this assignment?On the Jackassworld website, they have a "feature" called the "AlphaPoo". This is a collection of 26 pictures of... er, human poo... that resembles the alphabet. I don't bring this up because it's clever (in fact, if there is a bright center of clever in the universe, the AlphaPoo is the idea farthest from it); I bring it up because writing this feature about Jackass reminded me of poo. Specifically, poo that you want to come out but won't.

See, almost four weeks ago, I was sent to MTV Studios to cover the 24 hour Jackass "takeover" of the network to celebrate the premiere of Jackassworld. I figured that I would write up a few hundred words the next day and everyone would be happy. Instead, this article has festered in the bowels of my brain for almost a month. Enough is enough. I've taken some mental Metamucil (i.e. Scotch) and I'm just going to let it rip...

The reason why I've had so much of a problem writing this article is that I literally have no opinion on Jackass. Freak shows illicit exactly three responses: interest (maybe there'll be two midgets stuck together!); disgust (keeping fat, bearded women chained in tents ought to be illegal!); and apathy (I'm going to go get some cotton candy and meet you at the car).

I am firmly in that last camp. I have no interest in watching the stunts, nor do I really care if kids copy the stunts (God's gene sifter as I like to think of it). For me, Jackass exists in the same pop culture limbo with the rest of the things that I know exist, but don't care about: Oprah, Men in Trees, the WNBA, etc.

So, every time I've sat down to write this article, I've thought my writing hollow, like I just got back from an afternoon of antiquing with my wife and her great aunt and my wife asks me if I had a good time. I know approximately what words I should say and in what order I should say them, but ultimately we all understand that what has come out of my mouth might be better suited for the AlphaPoo.

I took the assignment because I thought it'd be good for a few laughs. After all, I was going to get to hang out at MTV and talk to people for whom Jackass was a way of life. There had to be some mock-worthy material in that, right?

As it turned out, no, actually, not so much.

With that rambling preamble out of the way, I now give you the five things I learned during the Jackass takeover of MTV:

1. Johnny Knoxville likes crazy hats.

I got to MTV fairly late into the proceedings, so I was squeezed into the far corner of the studios, right near the door. Johnny, surrounded by the kind of black security guys you only get when you really make it in Hollywood, pushed by me in a giant sombrero. I turned to the Jackass superfan that was next to me and asked, "What's the deal with the sombrero?"

"Johnny likes crazy hats."

"Oh. Why?"

"I dunno."

There then sat between us a long silence that might have been uncomfortable had it not been for the superfan's dead-eyed staring at Johnny Knoxville (and hat). It gave me time to think about the implication of Johnny's hat-wearing and what it says about our larger culture.

Here's what I came up with: we've reached the point in our culture where affectation is more important than substance. See, there is so much information competing for our attention, we don't have time to figure out someone's personality. The best we can hope for is an easy-to-parse indicator of what stereotype the person falls into. Thus, Top Chef contestants sport mohawks, Dane Cook wears his cooler-than-thou t-shirts, and Johnny Knoxville has his whacky hats.

Of course, it's possible I'm reading too much into this. Maybe Johnny put that sombrero on completely without irony, just cause, you know, he likes sombreros. I believe this about as much as I used to believe that the kids I taught who dressed in tight checkered pants, with blue spikey hair and a "What are YOU staring at?" t-shirt did so not because they wanted to provoke the establishment, but because they liked it, no other reason.

2. MTV really wanted people to cover the launch of Jackassworld.

My appearance at MTV was supposed to be semi-anonymous. I'd show up, get my press credentials, then blend into the background, thinking of ways to make fun of everyone involved.

I figured that anonymity would be easy to maintain. When I covered The Office convention a few months ago, my place in the press pecking order was slightly below the correspondent from the Patuakhali Times-Picayune. Most people there treated the idea of blogging a lot like the gorillas treated the luggage in the old American Tourister commercial: curiosity mixed with increasing disdain and violence.

MTV, however, was either desperate for attention or they really over-estimated my readership. Either way, I was assigned my own Senior Vice President of Communications who followed me around and kept asking me if I had any questions. I wanted to say, "Dude, do you know what I actually do? I mean, I don't even have a pen. Doesn't that tell you something?" I didn't say that, though, because I didn't want to be rude.

(Incidentally, I did think of some questions, the answers to which I wrote down with a pen stolen from MTV. That's right, Viacom, send your lawyers after me!)

There is a third possibility, however, that makes me think that of all the TV channels out there, MTV might be the first that is really starting to get the importance of the web. Whereas I am just a teeny little nobody with a teeny little column, what I and other bloggers say about an event (and, more importantly, what the commenters say in response to what is said about an event) is really what sets the agenda for how people feel about an issue.

The future of publicity isn't in manipulating the members of the traditional media, it's in manipulating the thousands of tiny voices that are each having their say on the web. It might just be that MTV understands this, so they treat 'lil ol' me like I was an actual professional so-and-so.

3. It takes a hell of a lot of effort to bring something as stupid as Jackass to life.

At one point during the show, Steve-O duct-taped six sodas to his forehead. He then proceeded to bash his head against a table in the hopes that the sodas would explode, surrounding his head in a Belagio-like fountain dance. Ultimately, the stunt failed, with only a little bit of soda dribbling out (and Steve-O sadly still alive).

From a performance angle, you couldn't have had anything simpler: one idiot, six sodas, and a table. From a production stand-point, however, it might as well have been a Space Shuttle launch.

Here's what was needed to show the world Steve-O bashing his head against a table:

-- 18 people in a production studio (I counted). Just like they show you in the movies, a team of people sat in front of a bank of about 40 tiny television sets, while one guy shouted out orders about which camera angle he wanted from moment to moment. At one point, one of the workers turned to another and said something (I didn't hear what) and she snapped back at him, "I know!" as if his suggestion was a silly, obvious one. Think about that... two people got angry with each other over the best way to film Steve-O bashing his head against a table.

-- Four camera guys, plus at least one person with each camera guy to make sure none of the camera cables get tangled.

-- Approximately a dozen other crew members -- people to work the lights, the sound, etc.

-- An "audience guy" on either side of the studio to make sure that the studio audience applauded loudly enough (and at the appropriate times) while Steve-O was furthering his brain damage.

-- An untold number of pages, assistants, and security people. Anyone who worked there had a badge and there were literally dozens of people with badges doing things that I couldn't quite figure out. They all moved around with purpose, however. I know, because whenever I was even slightly in their way, they looked at me like I was a giant, pulsating tumor.

My guess is it took about 80 to 100 people working in unison to make sure that the people at home got the best possible presentation of Steve-O bashing his head against a table. One can assume that those people are good at their jobs -- they're working, after all, at a major cable network. One can also assume that not all of them are free from self-examination. At some point in their lives, they must realize the amount of effort they're putting into something that most people consider the antithesis of entertainment... some guy banging his head against a flat wooden surface.

Now you know why most people in the entertainment business are bitter.

4. The obligatory list of stuff that MTV wants me to tell you about Jackassworld:

  • The 24-hour takeover of MTV was done to celebrate the full release of the Jackassworld website.
  • Jackass is the first MTV property to make a complete transition to the web. Jackassworld is not considered an extension of the television show, like most shows' websites, but the new home of all Jackass material.
  • Jackassworld is a joint production between MTV and Dickhole productions. David Gale (no, not the guy from that awful Kevin Spacey movie, the former head of MTV Studios) got the project off the ground. This will be the first of hopefully many innovative web presences for MTV.
  • Several hundred Jackass clips are broken down into segments and fully searchable on the site.
  • There will be extensive user-interaction, but MTV and Dickhole have gone out of their way to make sure that user-created-content will fall into very specific boundaries (and not to fall into copy-cat stunting). While it's infeasible to police the entire site all the time, the goal is that user contributions will be more of AlphaPoo variety than the "Let me bash my head like Steve-O did" variety.
  • The ease of web production will hopefully lead to interesting new types of segments that would never have been feasible on the TV Show. A cooking show is planned as is an interview show. Should these shows be popular on the web, it's possible that they crossover back to television.

It's entirely possible to be stupid and innovative at the same time.

The more time I spent talking about Jackassworld with the people who created it, the more excited I became about the project. This really is a web-based initiative. It's not Real Time Overtime, where HBO wants you to go to a computer to watch more of what you just watched on your TV (for some reason I can't figure out). It's not Hulu, where NBC thinks you'll want to watch shows you're used to watching on your 55" big screen TV on your 17" computer monitor.

This is something different: a web-based entertainment site that brings the branding and budget of the old media to bear on the new. The people behind this new venture seem 100% committed to exploring the limits of what web-based entertainment can and will be. If the web is where television was in the 1940s, Jackassworld is trying to be the Texaco Star Theater. Except, instead of Uncle Milty in a dress, it's Steve-O with a ring of soda taped to his head.

I don't get Jackass, but I walked away from my time at MTV respecting them for trying something different. Maybe the same world view that lets you actively seek to give yourself brain damage is necessary to risk millions of dollars on a new-media web venture. Or maybe MTV just figures that Jackass fans are so stupid, they'll look at anything so long as pubes and poo are involved.

What's important is this: someone has finally recognized that the web is not like television. Jackassworld gives us a glimpse of what big media has come up with as the next iteration of web-based entertainment. Just because it involves stupid people doing stupid things doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the effort.


Phew. You have no idea how happy I am that this article is finished. Seriously, I feel like I've given birth to Bono.

Now that this is out of the way, I've got a whole slew of articles ready to go. If you were a little disappointed that this TV 101 was not filled with the usual belabored metaphors and rhetorical reaches, don't fret! I'll be back in the next few weeks with some more traditional installments.

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What's jackass?

March 21 2008 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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