Cold open on a helmeted man in a jumpsuit kneeling on the grass. Something behind him explodes! Nimoy says ‘there are people who will do anything for a thrill,’ and now we’re seeing footage of people jumping cars over things — which is certainly thematically appropriate. Nimoy wonders why people jump cars over things and asks if they are ‘possessed by a daredevil death wish?’
And then we’re looking at a trick diving platform to try to deepen our understanding of the daredevil… and who am I kidding? The whole ‘daredevil death-wish’ thing is one of the silliest In Search Of… rhetorical questions ever. What this is about is In Search Of just having a go at being That’s Incredible for an episode.
Younger readers may not recall That’s Incredible. This is probably for the best. The easiest way to describe the show was that it was the 1980s equivalent of watching incredibly dumb shit on Youtube for an hour. Three very excitable presenters (why three? Why not?) showed a studio audience a selection of live and recorded… stuff. To be fair, some of this stuff was kind of informative – there were periodic segments on the latest technological breakthroughs, especially in medicine. There were segments on people dealing with disabilities, which could be patronising, but were basically well intended. Then it got into the dumb stuff – surfing dogs, flying hamsters and what have you*.
And then, there were the stunts.
Stunt driving, stunt falls, chainsaw jugglers, fire-eaters, escape artists, high-divers… Many of these were professional stunt-people who basically just did their usual act for the camera. Others either weren’t professionals, or were professionals who were encouraged to go beyond their usual safety limits. Several people were injured during the production of the show, in some cases quite seriously. But more often, there was just breathless three-way narration of the preparation that the stunt-performer needed to do, the risks being taken, endless repetition of how little margin for error there was and then finally a vehicle would travel over another vehicle.
I’m being a little cynical about this now, but when the show was on I was in single-digits age, and I thought it was awesome.
There are a bunch of episodes of That’s Incredible out there on YouTube, if you want a look. For research purposes, I put on the first one I found. It had segments on a beach sand sculptor, a sixty-something year old man who supposedly beat some young muscle-men in a workout competition, a game of elephant-back polo in Nepal and not one but two segments about stunts – one about a man jumping a car through a gap in a pile of other cars, and the other about jumping a toy car over some toy busses, the ‘incredible’ part being the frog seated in the back of the car.
For our purposes, the interesting thing is that That’s Incredible was made by the same production company as In Search Of, Alan Landsburg Productions. This episode of In Search Of consists of what I strongly suspect is surpluss footage and interviews from That’s Incredible, repackaged as an In Search Of episode. And this, I think, is what makes the episode interesting. Moving so far from In Search Of’s usual range of topics, what we’re left with is In Search Of by the numbers in a way that borders on parody.
In typical In Search Of… style, immediately after setting up the episode we go to a history of daredevils, which claims that this sort of thing began in the 1920s. Not true, but that’s where usable stock footage of daredevils begins. Mostly the footage of successful daredevils (including Harry Houdini) until we get to the sad story of a man who died going in a barrel over Niagara Falls.**
A motorcycle rides past Nimoy, dressed in an open-at-the-neck denim shirt. He insists that the show is not just footage of stunts, but an in depth look at the ‘daredevil deathwish’. He seems less convincing than usual.
We move onto a middle-aged woman who is a stunt driver. She talks about how she’s a ‘normal housewife’ over footage of herself driving a car on two wheels. She talks about the risks involved and blah blah who cares she rides a motorcycle through flaming boards! Hell yeah!
Talking now to a young man who is in the same stunt show. This guy dangles off the back of a moving truck. This time, the performer misjudges, and he has a spill. He’s not badly hurt and he brushes it off as part of the job, but In Search Of doesn’t believe him! And it shows ‘how close he came’ by means of slowmo and jarring chords. The next performer has a wooden ramp laid over his body, and a truck drives over the ramp. He tells the story of how it went wrong once and broke both his legs… Look, this bit is just footage of stuntmen doing crazy things and pontificating about it.
Next up is a stunt performer school. Lots of discussions of safety, because nothing says ‘deathwish!’ like a careful attention to OH&S. But again, who cares. We get to watch people fall off motorbikes and jump off towers. The instructor actually explains the difference between stuntmen and daredevils, in that stuntmen are creating an illusion of danger while maximising safety, while daredevils are ‘just going for it’.
The instructor goes on to talk about how his students have no fear, and how he has to ‘mould that energy that they have into safety’. Again, so very little to do with the supposed question of the episode. I guess it’s about creating a contrast?
Now we’re looking at stunt driver who jumps pickup trucks over things while sporting a beard/white afro combo. He talks with studied nonchalance about how dangerous his act is and his various injuries. He proudly proclaims his longest jump ‘longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight.’
And just like that we’re talking to a psychologist about why daredevils have a deathwish. Basically he says that fear can be energising, only he takes a long time to say it. I guess this is the bit where they justify the title of the show.
Back to the stunt truck driver, who after talking up how nonchalant he was earlier now talks about a bad crash he had and how he had nightmares about it for months… Oh, good, now we get to see footage of the crash that traumatised him. It’s… wow, that’s pretty ugly. What surprises me is the sheer size of the venue – Nimoy says 59 000 spectators.
As an aside, I had forgotten how popular daredevils were in the late 70s/early 80s. Evel Knievel is probably the best known daredevil of the era, becoming the first person to turn stunt jumping from a sideshow attraction into the basis for international stardom. A friend of mine had the toy Evel Knievel stunt bike with ramp, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so jealous in my life. Daredevils were so popular, they sort of crossed over into other media, like cartoons (Devlin) and comic books (Ghost Rider).
But I digress. The driver describes his injuries in grotesque detail. The psychologist from earlier talks about how stress-seeking can become an addiction. And then the daredevil, now recovered, is talking about jumping over more cars, which sort of proves his point I guess.
They intercut the daredevil talking up his next big jump, and footage of his crash, with a voice-over from the psychologist. The psychologist talks about how thrill-seekers seek to maximise the effect of thrill-seeking. The daredevil talks a bit about coming close to dying, and how he appreciates life more as a result. But then he undercuts his own theory somewhat by mentioning that some people nearly die and are ‘still depraved in some way.’
This segment and the stock footage at the beginning are the token attempts to answer the driving question of the episode – the part that turns it from an extended That’s Incredible into an In Search Of, the talking head intercut with the thing said head is talking about. Notably, neither the psychologist or the stunt driver actually say anything about a death-wish. The psychologist talks about stress-seeking behaviours, and the stunt-driver talks about how taking risks makes him appreciate life all the more. Ultimately, we’re asking questions about a phenomenon with no clear indication that said phenomenon actually exists, so the whole thing is pretty In Search Of after all.
Footage of someone climbing up a hot air balloon. Then Nimoy proclaims that daredevils help us appreciate life by reminding us of our own mortality. But he sounds just a little more tired than usual as he says it.
I’ve got to be honest and say I love this one. When I was primary school age, two of my favorite shows were In Search Of and That’s Incredible, so a mashup of the two is simply delightful. That’s Incredible would probably have taken more time with the stunt footage, making the big crash or explosion a bigger thing and then the studio audience would have yelled ‘that’s incredible!’ because they totally fucking did that. Making this material into an In Search Of forces them to rework it by adding a bullshit rhetorical question that they half-heartedly attempt to answer, some spooky music and a few editing tricks. It’s almost a parody of In Search Of, and like all good parodies, it’s extremely revealing of the thing that’s being parodied.
* So many animal stories that it spawned a spinoff show Those Amazing Animals.
** Slooooowly I turned…
‘I’ve also got this hellbent dream, if you don’t mind, that I also want to fly a diesel truck with trailers and I want to jump that over at least twenty cars, twenty-five.’ – Live the dream, buddy. Live the dream.
Nimoyness: 7/10, Music: 8/10, Stock footage: 8/10, Useful information about the world we live in 1/10, YEEEE-HAAAAAW! 20/10. Overall: 43/50. High Distinction.