The Perils of Irony. No, Really.

Jackass is the name of a show on MTV in which a guy named Johnny Knoxville and his cohorts perform a variety of gross-out stunts and pranks. For example, in an episode that aired last month, Knoxville put on a fire-resistant outfit. This outfit was also covered with steaks. Knoxville was tossed onto a barbecue, sprayed with lighter fluid, and burned. Of course, he had the fire-resistant suit on, so he wasn’t injured. A 13-year-old boy who subsequently attempted the same thing, without the special suit, was injured and is reportedly in the hospital with severe burns on his legs.

Now Sen. Joseph Lieberman has written a public letter  to Viacom (MTV’s parent) attacking the “exploitative and degrading” show. Among other things, he complains that while there is a don’t-try-this-at-home disclaimer at the beginning of Jackass, the warning is “self-mocking and trivializes the seriousness of the stunts’ potential consequences.”

So there it is: Irony has put someone in the hospital. Its peril is made concrete.

According to a Variety story, the disclaimer MTV runs is this: “The following show features stunts performed by professionals and/or total idiots under very strict control and supervision. MTV and the producers insist that neither you nor anyone else attempt to re-create or perform anything you have seen on this show.” Apparently it’s that phrase “and/or total idiots” that sends up, and thus nullifies, the rest of the language around it. It’s a classic example of ironic distancing, a sort of disclaimer within the disclaimer.

I’m not here to revive the tired irony debate in general or to offer a particular defense for Jackass, which so far as I’ve seen is a forgettable exercise in unfunny shockism. But that’s an aesthetic judgment, not a moral one. And while it’s one thing to say that irony is a worn-out device—the Jackass disclaimer, like the rest of the show, isn’t particularly clever—it’s something else to hold it up as some kind of evidence of indifference to the physical safety of others. 

Certainly it’s terrible that this young man is in the hospital. And to be fair to Sen. Lieberman, his real hope seems to be that the show will be taken off the air (which is another discussion entirely), not merely that the disclaimer will be made more solemn. But really, to the extent that a few words in that disclaimer “mock” the rest of it, isn’t that because it’s so screamingly obvious that the stunts on the show shouldn’t be replicated? It’s sort of like warning coffee drinkers that their beverage is hot: It’s hard to read such a disclaimer, however straight the wording, and not smirk or even snicker. But that’s not the fault of irony. And I mean that. Sincerely. No kidding.