If you've been a little taken aback by the reaction to the death of "Jackass" daredevil Ryan Dunn, you're not alone.
Even "reality" TV expert Andy Dehnart was a little surprised yesterday by the outpouring of grief for Dunn, whose death in a fiery car crash in Chester County was trending on Twitter for much of the day and drawing responses from the kind of people — actors — who usually don't have much use for the so-called real people whose antics have swallowed up so much of the TV real estate that used to belong to them.
"There are people my age who are really crushed by it," said the 33-year-old editor of realityblurred.com.
Dehnart, who's been writing in depth about unscripted TV for more than a decade, was also surprised Dunn's individual profile was so high, given that he's best known as part of the ensemble on MTV's "Jackass" and "Viva La Bam."
Dunn also briefly hosted an MTV show called "Homewrecker," in which he helped participants get revenge on people by literally wrecking their homes, and recently began co-hosting a show on G4 called "Proving Ground," which Dehnart said he hadn't yet seen, but described as "kind of a gamers' version of 'Mythbusters.'"
(G4, reported E! Online yesterday, has taken off the show "while they determine what they will do without Dunn." The first of nine episodes he taped aired last week.)
Dehnart has a piece in the July edition of Playboy — titled, ironically enough, "The Curse of Reality TV" — that mentions a rash of suicides in 2009 among people who'd appeared on "reality" shows and other problems some participants have experienced.
Nevertheless, he said, it's probably wrong to draw a straight line from Dunn's on-air antics to the crash that took his life.
"Are reality stars just normal people and we notice when bad things happen to them?" he said, suggesting that if someone who weren't on TV had died in a similar crash it would have attracted far less attention.
Dunn, of course, made his living attracting attention, taking his daredevil stunts from YouTube to MTV to the big screen.
You may or may not get the appeal of a show like "Jackass," but the way Dehnart sees it, it's just one point on a continuum that includes such network hits as CBS' "Survivor" and ABC's "Wipeout."
It's not something that's going away, either: My email yesterday brought a notice from truTV, announcing its "Wanna Be on TV" contest, in which viewers are invited to submit "outrageous, caught-on-camera moments for a chance at cash and to be on truTV." Before you get too excited: The "cash" they're talking is $100 per video used. (Not enough, I hope, for anyone to take his life in his hands.)
"There's something that clearly fascinates us about watching people go through extreme physical" challenges, Dehnart said.
Dunn's popularity, even with people in show business who'd normally turn up their noses at "reality" stars, may have been due to his approach to the genre.
The stunts he and his fellow "Jackass" stars pulled "looked like a big deal on some level, but it didn't look like he was trying too hard" to get our attention, the way Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian seem to. Instead, the image he projected was that "he was just screwing around with his friends, rather than trying to become a TV star," Dehnart said.
"I think that authenticity and consequence is really what draws people to the genre. And I think \[Dunn\] really had both, as ridiculous as the stuff that he did was."