Can a franchise built on reckless youthful humor survive the death by high-speed wreck of one of its core cast members?
Critic Roger Ebert unwittingly raised the question — and set off a web-wide controversy — when he tweeted “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” shortly after news broke Monday that “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn had died in a car crash.
For some, the connection was a little too close for comfort.
But Ebert alluded to the obvious: “Jackass” was built on the kind of high-risk behavior that led to the 34-year-old’s fatal accident early Monday morning.
Dunn’s 2007 Porsche 911 careened off a Pennsylvania highway at 130 miles per hour, and left his car a flaming metal shard. In the process, both the “Jackass” original player and his passenger, production assistant Zachary Hartwell, were killed.
That’s the kind of carnage — minus the fatalities — that would fit comfortably on a show where Johnny Knoxville once tried to fly a homemade rocket and got in the ring with a charging bull.
Pictures Dunn tweeted hours before the crash that showed him drinking have prompted speculation that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
On Wednesday, The Daily published an interview with a drinking buddy of Dunn's, Thaddeus Kalinoski, who said the "Jackass" star consumed Whiskey shots and beer prior to his fatal accident. He had also reportedly told Kalinoski that he had struggled with addiction to prescription drugs.
“He was shooting picklebacks — whiskey shots chased by pickle juice,” Kalinoski told The Daily. “The shots were coming right to him. They were all over the bar.”
MTV declined to discuss whether there might be any impact on the “Jackass” brand, saying only that they were saddened by the tragedy.
But could there be repercussions for a franchise that has evolved from a hit MTV cable series into a box-office juggernaut? The three films in the franchise grossed more than $334 million globally and collectively cost less than $40 million to make.
After all, will watching someone jump off a balcony be a lot less funny following Dunn's senseless tragedy?
"'Jackass’ is forever going to be the show with the guy who died,” Ethan Thompson, professor of media studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, told TheWrap.
Others said that the culture will take a breather and go right back to sucking down the sensationalistic and often dangerous antics Jackass and lots of other shows gleefully celebrate.
“We’re going to take a respectful break, and then people are going to go back to doing what they do,” Eric Deggans, a television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, told TheWrap.
He added: “It might have been different if he was hurt during filming, but people who watched the show realized his lifestyle was occasionally dangerous. There’s a thrill in watching someone like that who is living a life that is not completely safe.”
One other casualty was Dunn’s G4 series “Proving Ground,” which premiered day’s before its host’s death and has since been pulled from the air.
As for “Jackass,” with a graying group of thrill-seeking stars and a third film that many claimed served as a farewell of sorts for the franchise, it seemed as though a brand that started over a decade ago on MTV might finally be coming to an end even before Dunn’s death.
Still, given all the money that the low-cost series has generated for MTV and its corporate parent Viacom, a spin-off is always possible.
With "Jackass 3-D" grossing more than $170 million last year off a $20 million production investment, there was no hint that the decade-old franchise was slowing down.
Whatever the film series' fate, Dunn’s death has returned "Jackass" to the controversial status it shed years ago.
When its initial television iteration debuted in 2000, it raised the ire of Sen. Joseph Lieberman and others, who branded it irresponsible.
At the time, the series inspired allegations that numerous younger viewers had been hurt trying out stunts from the series. To MTV’s credit, “Jackass” always carried a disclaimer urging audiences not to try the pyrotechnics and pranks featured on the show themselves.
However, the series gradually lost its status as whipping horse for public morality, as new lowest-common-denominator treats such as “Jersey Shore” and Teen Mom” came onto the scene.
With Dunn’s death, the franchise could once again become a cultural hot potato.
Of course, that it’s not to say "Jackass" condones drunk and reckless driving, or that folks in more mundane walks of life, from lawyers to accountants, don’t suffer alcohol-related problems, too.
Yet "Jackass" does promote reckless fun, and those Twitter pictures of Dunn imbibing in the hours before his death don’t exactly serve as an attractive promotion for the films and movies or any future spin-offs.
“Those shows attract a certain personality type,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, media psychologist and director of the non-profit Media Psychology Research Center, told TheWrap. “They’re not creating them, they’re attracting them. It looks like he was living his life in a high-risk way.”
For its part, MTV has chosen to focus on the human tragedy, rather than dwell on its ramifications for the mega-grossing film franchise.
“We’re sad that two young men’s lives ended prematurely and are thinking of their families and friends at this time,” an MTV spokesperson told TheWrap.
Too true, and clearly no laughing matter.