By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A lot of great works of art begin with promising openings. There's the famous first line from "Anna Karenina," for instance: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Similarly, I knew when Steve-O opened the first clip of his new TV show "Killer Karaoke" by explaining that the contestant would be "singing 'You Are So Beautiful' while wearing drunk goggles that are guaranteed to fill his ass with cactus needles," human culture had scaled another peak.
Or sunk so low it plummeted through the bottom and came out the other side. It's difficult to say.
We are currently in a golden age of television I trace back to 1999 when "The Sopranos" and "Freaks and Geeks" first aired. Since then, shows such as "The Wire," "Homeland," "Justified," "Louie" and "Breaking Bad" have deepened and enriched the medium.
These are the kind of buzz-worthy small-screen treasures that friends and relatives this holiday season, in their desperate search for common ground to carry them through another seasonal get-together, will breathlessly inquire whether you've seen.
When they do, pull up YouTube and show them the "Killer Karaoke" clip where the guy is trying to serve Steve-O dinner while simultaneously being electrocuted and singing the Black Crowes' version of "Hard to Handle." Then ask them to show you a corresponding clip from "Mad Men" that's even half as poignant. They won't be able to.
Still, I will never bother to watch a single episode of "Killer Karaoke," the competition-based reality show where contestants sing popular hit songs while being lowered into a vat of water teeming with snakes or grinded on by sweaty, half-naked 500-pound men dripping with sweat.
It works much better as a series of clips on YouTube that you can watch at your leisure, unless you really have to know who "wins." It's basically 50 percent "American Idol," 50 percent "Fear Factor" and 100 percent amazing.
I've never really enjoyed any of the dozens of reality-based dancing or singing competitions, and similarly I've never enjoyed shows such as "Wipeout," the premise of which seems to be staging a variety of elaborate crotch shots delivered to out-of-shape people wearing tight clothing.
The former is a shamelessly crass debasing of artistic expression, and the latter a shamelessly crass debasing of humanity. But it turns out when you combine the two, you get magic!
There is just something about watching people try to sing Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" while being savaged by attack dogs or get through a rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" as their head is shoved into a box of pigeons that expresses something profound about the human condition. We're all just trying to get through the day with a modicum of dignity and, if we're lucky, maybe express something beautiful inside us. But most of the time, it turns out Steve-O put drunk goggles on us, covered our bodies in balloons and steered us into a cactus patch full of snakes.
In a recent interview with MTV, responding to a question about a positive review of "Killer Karaoke" in The New York Times, the former "Jackass" alum did a nice job of summing up the appeal of his new show:
"I think what they're particularly appreciating about 'Killer Karaoke' is the way that it's a blatant jab at this played-out genre of singing competition shows and just the way that we're really sort of transparent and upfront about what it is," said Steve-O, "which is an exercise in people leaving their dignity and well-being at the door, and it's just a new low in an ever-devolving sort of medium, you know, like, it's everything that's wrong with America, and I think The New York Times can appreciate that"
We all can, Steve-O, we all can.