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Punk'd Rocker

Demi’s boy toy Ashton Kutcher would be facing Ben Affleck’s sorry fate if his hit MTV show, now entering its second season, weren’t so subversively brilliant.

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Dashton? Ashmi?: Kutcher with his special friend.  

It’s no small blessing for Ashton Kutcher that there is no obvious, mellifluous compound noun to be made from his and his galpal’s names, à la Bennifer.

Dashton?

Ashmi?

Nah.

I thought of Ashton recently, vis-à-vis Demi, when that poor bastard Ben Affleck’s face popped up as I was sitting through trailers before a movie at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. The preview was for a respectable project—the thriller Paycheck, directed by the legendary John Woo—and yet just the sight of Big Ben prompted the audience to break out into guffaws.

Ben equals Bennifer. There is no such thing as just Ben Affleck anymore, even if he and J.Lo break up again.

Ashton is arguably as overexposed as Ben, and in the same power-coupley way, but somehow I think he’s still managed to retain his own identity. You could regard this moment in Kutcher’s career as a case study in brand integrity, or lack thereof.

To wit, what happens when two once-independent brands become inextricably linked? Or what happens when a brand becomes so synonymous with a concept that the brand starts to mean something else entirely? Remember when Exxon equaled Valdez oil spill, when Tylenol equaled cyanide-laced? For some people, the associations persist. (Many reviewers, of course, regarded Ben and J.Lo’s Gigli as a cyanide-laced oil spill.)

“Kutcher’s skill is in crafting pranks that aim for both the jugular and the Achilles’ heel.”

Ben’s merger with Jennifer, it should be noted, was not his first high-profile alliance. Remember, he started out as Mattandben—a compound brand that’s turned out to have enduring equity (witness last year’s Fringe Fest sensation turned current Off Broadway hit Matt and Ben, starring two women as the pre–Good Will Hunting Boston buddies). The first time, being one half of a brand earned him a shared screenwriting Oscar. This time, it’s earning him rueful chuckles.

But Ashton, I think, can avoid a Bennifer-style curse. After all, there’s something intrinsically cool about his hooking up with an older woman. It’s simultaneously well-good-for-him and well-good-for-her. A woman of a certain age has needs. So does a young man. (Ashton instantly becomes Warren Beatty—as long as he doesn’t marry her.) Even Bruce Willis, Demi’s ex, approves.

Still, the Ashton Kutcher brand, at the moment, stands largely for May-September celebrity romance. When the Jamie Lee Curtis movie Freaky Friday opened at the end of the summer, David Letterman joked, “It’s a movie about a teenager who enters a 40-year-old body. I believe they got the idea from Ashton Kutcher.”

That’s good comedy. Good comedy’s hard to escape when you’re the punch line.

But guess what? Career salvation for Ashton Kutcher begins this week. Or continues this week, actually. I’m not talking about Kutcher’s That ’70s Show, which starts its sixth season on Wednesday, though Kutcher’s work there—as the good-natured dimwit Michael Kelso—is so consistently winning that it’s hard to imagine the show without him. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the Fox schedule without the show itself, which features the best comedic ensemble cast outside of Friends. (The sitcom’s enough of a hit that Fox reportedly just bumped Kutcher’s 2004–05 season pay to something upwards of $250,000 an episode; his co-stars got similar raises.)

Nope, I’m talking Punk’d, which enters its second season this week. MTV’s hottest original series since The Osbournes, Punk’d has a deceptively simple premise: “Ashton Kutcher plays practical jokes on celebrities.”


Kutcher with Punk'd victim Justin Timberlake.  

But the Ashton Kutcher on display in this show is the opposite of a good-natured dimwit. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say he’s a deeply cunning pop-cultural anarchist.

We’re used to a compromised notion of reality television in which nonactors act up to the camera, contriving personae and devising naturalistic reactions to preposterous circumstances. (The last truly real reality-television show was the first season of MTV’s The Real World, in which the guileless roommates—having never seen the show before—had absolutely no template from which to craft their performances as the Angry Black Guy, the Charming Gay Guy, etc.) On Punk’d, because the celebrities in question have no idea they’re being filmed, reality television is once again painfully real.

And the show doesn’t feature sweet little Candid Camera–style pranks. Each episode, Kutcher—who is executive producer and host—engineers genuine suffering in other young celebrities’ lives. Real distress, real crises.

Among the highlights so far: Kutcher arranging to have a fake IRS team show up at Justin Timberlake’s house to haul off his property in repo trucks because of alleged tax fraud (Timberlake’s mom, disturbingly, is in on the prank and helps the fake IRS gain access to his home before his arrival). As Timberlake frantically tries to reach his people on his cell phone (at one point lying and saying the cell phone doesn’t belong to him, because the head IRS agent seems on the verge of seizing it), agents manhandle his property, destroying a decoy version of one of his cherished guitars. Bewildered, Timberlake begins to crumble as his world comes down around him. He does his best to hold back tears, particularly when the head IRS agent briefly has him convinced that even his dogs have been seized.

Then, of course, hilarity ensues—sort of—when Kutcher shows up at the end to say it’s all a joke. Ha ha . . . har. Hmmm.

(Timberlake got revenge of sorts by hosting Saturday Night Live a couple weeks back and doing a Punk’d parody in which the deranged, caterwauling Kutcher—Timberlake in a wig and trucker hat—unwittingly prompts rapper 50 Cent to kill one of the prank-pulling Punk’d cast members.)

Kutcher’s particular Twilight Zone–ready skill is in crafting tortures that aim for both the jugular and the Achilles’ heel: Kelly Osbourne’s mother pretends to be in agreement with image consultants who insist that Kelly needs a total makeover in order to crank her career up to the next level. (Kelly storms off, stunned and disgusted by her mother’s betrayal.) Seth Green (Dr. Evil’s son in the Austin Powers franchise) is accused of narcing to the cops in an elaborately staged fake bust of a craps game and is left to meekly, pathetically defend his honor (“I do not lie in my life, and I’m not lying right now”). Jessica Biel of the WB’s 7th Heaven is accosted in a restaurant by a vulgar 10-year-old fan (he gives her career advice like “Show more skin”) whose dad then turns up in time to hear his kid insist that Biel has been abusive to him. (“My son is petrified—tell me what happened, I want to know right now.”)

Because of his ample, Rat Pack–worthy charisma, Kutcher’s been called the new Dean Martin (though I’d say that his gifts as a physical comedian—on That ’70s Show, he pulls off a characterization that is simultaneously balletic and spastic—actually make him the new Jerry Lewis). But on Punk’d, he’s more like Rod Serling.

An actor friend of mine who happens to be handled by Ashton Kutcher’s management company hates the show—despises it, finds it to be beyond disturbing—and has told his manager in no uncertain terms that if he were ever Punk’d by Kutcher, there would be hell to pay.

For actors in MTV’s demographic, it’s a genuine fear: being unwittingly cast in Kutcher’s real celebrity Fear Factor. There’s sort of no way of getting out of it, either. The show’s such a hit, and such an elaborate production, that word of a celebrity freaking out about having been Punk’d—and then, say, refusing to allow the footage to be aired—would inevitably leak out. Anyone who gets Punk’d has to pretend, in the end, to have a sense of humor about it—though more than a few stars’ obscenity-laced tirades (couched in relieved laughter) against Kutcher, once he arrives on the scene, have been bleeped out.

The way Punk’d lays celebrity pretensions bare is doubly fascinating because Kutcher himself has become this avatar of seemingly publicist-packaged celebrity ubiquity at the same time that he’s becoming synonymous with the deconstruction of the public lives of other famous people on his rather reckless show.

There is, of course, a big market right now for unvarnished celebrity: In Us Weekly’s candid paparazzi shots, stars drink coffee and go shopping and have bad-hair days. But Punk’d presents celebrity desperation: young actors and pop stars about to lose their shit. It’s truly fearless, fear-inducing television.

Best of all, nobody saw this coming. I mean, c’mon: The guy who plays Kelso on That ’70s Show—Mr. Dude, Where’s My Car?—becoming the most subversive force in celebrityland?

Really, Bonnie Fuller’s got nothing on Ashton.


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