Steve-O's self-destruction played as self-expressionWhen MTV's "Jackass" franchise made the move this year from movies and TV to the Internet, fans of its patented blend of comic sadomasochism had reason to rejoice. Surely JackassWorld.com would allow these gross-out artists to push even further beyond the boundaries of good taste in a medium with few content restrictions.
So who could have foreseen "Jackass" would be upstaged online, and by one of its own people?
JackassWorld.com has nothing on SteveO.com, virtual home to longtime "Jackass" prankster Steve-O. He has been posting self-produced videos of himself in various states of what is either drug-induced delirium or bipolar-induced manic episodes; one of his most recent installments notched more than 1 million views last week on YouTube.
Jabbering incoherently to the camera, the decorum of Steve-O's latest work makes "Jackass" look like a Merchant Ivory production.
Steve-O probably is the "Jackass" member whom you'd least like to end up with alone in an elevator. Whether bobbing for jellyfish or having a stapler applied to his skin, there always was something unnerving about the wild-eyed glee with which he approached his stunts.
But as his fans discovered, Steve-O wasn't just high on adrenaline. He was arrested for possession of cocaine this month. Shortly after jail, he was spirited off to a psychiatric ward and rehabilitation clinic for treatment of mental illness and drug addiction.
Ever the showman, Steve-O hasn't let any of these legal and medical nuisances keep him out of business. He even has been blogging about life inside the "loony bin" on his Web site, which carries the tagline, "Where self-destruction is funny." But watching and reading as Steve-O turns his troubled life into an unauthorized "Jackass" spinoff series isn't as hilarious as he or his hangers-on might think it is.
What's interesting about Steve-O is how the influences of "Jackass" and the Internet change what ordinarily might have been a slow sink into obscurity for him.
While SteveO.com is not a formal extension of the "Jackass" brand, it might as well be in consumers' minds. That's what makes his blogs and videos even more pernicious: To the audience, this is all just another wacky stunt to get us howling in shock or laughter.
If there is a guiding principle to "Jackass," it's that there is no form of humiliation too low to pass off as popular entertainment. In this instance, what should be a cautionary tale plays as comedy instead.
A celebrity's descent into addiction and insanity actually is a pretty marketable story arc these days. Think of the mileage TMZ.com has gotten out of the woes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, or how VH1 has stocked its primetime schedule with similar tales, from "Breaking Bonaduce" to "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew."
With so many shutterbugs busy on the Britney beat, the Internet allows Steve-O to become his own paparazzo. He can document his own decline without having to bother with TV or print editors shaping his image.
Turning "The Sad Saga of Steve-O" into a self-portrait also changes the moral equation. Were it TMZ.com or Us Weekly chronicling his problems, it amounts to exploitation. With Steve-O himself at the helm, it's just self-expression.
And yet you can't quite condemn Steve-O for venting his demons for the world to see, either. After all, is he not absolved of his actions given that exhibiting his madness is part and parcel of his madness? There's an insanity defense for you.