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Stunt Copycats Put MTV in a Spot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before a 13-year-old suffered severe burns trying to replicate a stunt from the MTV show “Jackass,” its producers and network executives were worried about what kids might imitate.

Brian Graden, MTV’s president of programming, said copycat behavior was a concern from the early development stages of “Jackass.” The half-hour show features host Johnny Knoxville and other young men performing stunts that range from eating 50 hard-boiled eggs to being shot with a stun gun to swimming around in sewage.

“You can’t program for young adults and not be a steward of those airwaves as well, which is why MTV does so many pro-social campaigns and antidiscrimination campaigns,” Graden said in an interview with The Times eight days before the Jan. 26 incident that burned 13-year-old Jason Lind.

“So around ‘Jackass’ our concern--and Johnny [Knoxville] has been really great and just embraced this and been very public about this--our concern is anything that would be imitable. Most of the stunts are of a caliber that they couldn’t be imitable because you need all these wild props and professionals and all that. And anything that looks like it could be backyard antics we try to avoid, so people don’t get the idea that they should do that.”

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With two friends, Lind poured gasoline on his feet and legs and lighted them on fire at a friend’s house in Torrington, Conn. One boy, whose name has not been released, was charged with reckless endangerment. Lind is still in critical-stable condition at Shriner’s Hospital in Boston, which specializes in pediatric burn victims.

MTV officials declined to be interviewed for this story. The network hasn’t commented since the incident, except to issue a statement wishing Lind a speedy recovery and emphasizing that written and verbal warnings on every episode tell viewers not to try such stunts at home. The show carries the rating TV-MA, which means content may be unsuitable viewing for children younger than 17.

Typical of the “Jackass” sensibility, warnings on the first two episodes said: “The following show features stunts performed by professionals and/or total idiots. In either case, MTV insists that neither you or any of your dumb little buddies attempt the dangerous crap in this show.” By the third episode, it was changed to say stunts were performed “under very strict control and supervision. MTV and the producers insist that neither you or anyone else attempt to recreate or perform anything you have seen on this show.”

In addition, particularly dangerous segments show a skull and crossbones in the corner of the TV screen. “If you watch the show, it’s almost ridiculous in terms of the number of warnings we put on it,” Graden said.

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The two stunts that are reported to have motivated Lind and his friends were shown in two separate episodes. In the “human barbecue” segment, Knoxville donned a fireproof suit, pinned steaks to the outside and cooked them by lying across a grill. In the other, a pyrotechnic expert dressed him in a fireproof suit and explained the dangers of the stunt. Knoxville was lighted on fire for 10 seconds and then doused with multiple fire extinguishers. Both segments carried the skull and crossbones.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), an outspoken critic of violence in movies and TV programs, condemned MTV for showing the stunt. Lind’s father phoned Lieberman’s office Monday, and the senator promised to contact MTV and parent company Viacom.

“The ideal would be to take the show off the air or change the standards for the program,” Dan Gerstein, communications director for Lieberman’s office, said. “At the minimum he’s going to ask that they put it on at an hour when it’s less accessible to children and with adequate warnings.” As it is now, he added, MTV mocks and trivializes the idea of a warning.

The regular time slot for “Jackass” is Sunday at 9 p.m., but MTV reruns episodes up to seven times a week at various hours, mostly on weekends. So far the network has made no decisions about whether to change the times or pull the episodes with the fire stunts.

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In 1993, MTV faced a similar situation. On two occasions, parents claimed their young children started fires after watching “Beavis and Butt-head,” on which the two animated characters burn things and snicker, “Fire is good.” After the second fire, in which a 2-year-old was killed, MTV deleted all references to fire in the show and eliminated a 7 p.m. broadcast.

MTV, with the agreement of the “Jackass” producers, already kept some stunts off the air. As part of the pilot episode, Knoxville tested several self-defense devices on himself, including pepper spray, a stun gun and a Taser gun. The footage, originally taped for a video put out by the skateboarding magazine Big Brother, included Knoxville testing a bulletproof vest by shooting himself with a .38-caliber handgun, which did not air. A video of Knoxville being deliberately hit by a car was also rejected.

“We want to push the envelope but we don’t want anyone to get hurt and try this at home,” Knoxville said in an interview Jan. 11. “So there are long talks with legal and standards about what we can shoot and can’t shoot.”

Concern for viewers’ safety is also the reason that “Jackass” does not accept videotaped submissions, Knoxville said.

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“Jackass” has been something of a cable phenomenon. Soon after its Oct. 8 debut, it was getting between 3 million and 4 million viewers on Sunday nights. Only eight 30-minute “Jackass” episodes have aired so far. Material for another 16 episodes has been filmed, and new shows are scheduled to begin airing Feb. 18.


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