On winning and losing it

I like to think of myself as someone with a good sense of humor. I “get” comedy stylings ranging from Andy Kauffman’s violent vignettes of discomfort to Andy Samberg’s dormitory humor. Lucy and Ethel to Roseanne. Carlin, Chappelle and Cho? Seen them all live. Okay, I do draw the line of funny with certain figures—I can’t stand that man with the grumpy puppets or Dane Cook or Larry the Cable Guy, but I can definitely understand how these comedians could be funny to somebody else. Do I wonder about those people? Yes. But I withhold judgment as best I can. Still, in all my benevolent comedic open-mindedness I fail to be wooed by the most recent comedic trend: laughing at and loving our nation’s favorite winner, Charlie Sheen.

violent torpedo of truth tour poster

The poster for Charlie Sheen’s traveling one-man show. Tickets range from $60 to $100 with some venues offering $750 passes for a meet-and-greet with the Sheenster himself.

As we all know, since we live in, like, the world, Mr. Sheen has some problems that only a mind like his can spin into “wins.” This actor/partier once known for a string of hit movies, a cash cow CBS show, a high-profile Hollywood family and out-of-control if not abusive relationships with women is now a bizarre and erratic one-man entertainment machine. Each day people watch, cameras crowd, everyone anticipating the next verbal morsel—what crazy thing will he say? What morning show or late night talk show will he storm? What could possibly top tiger blood, warlocks, two girlfriends and Sober Valley Lodge? Hungry, starving (for what? I wonder), everyone eats it up, gorging on the man and his ranting ramblings and somehow everyone remains hungry for more.

But me, I don’t get the punchline. Where everyone else may zero in on the joke of it all, the epic hilarity, the constant surprise, I see the far away look in his too-black eyes. I see a face, weirdly gaunt, alternately stretched and crumpled into a rubbery sallow mask. He looks sick, malnourished, itchy and sleepless.

He looks like my mom.

My undiagnosed but sick-with-schizophrenia mom. She’s who I see when I look at Charlie and she makes it hard for me to laugh.

Erratic ranting with delusions of grandeur? I’ve heard that schtick since age 8. That set is tired. Zany adventures? Oh, I’ve gone for a “car ride” that suddenly turned into a 6 hour trip or kidnapping—depending on how you look at it. Let me tell you, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants Sheen-style mental illness rollercoaster is thrilling, but not in a good way. It’s draining. It’s terrifying. It’s maddening. It’s sad.

This is not to say that it absolutely can’t be funny. I would never say that. My sense of humor could very well be the thing that’s kept me a fairly functional human being, you know, for a grad student.

Laughing is channeled out of our fear and discomfort. It breaks the tension, transforms pain into ridiculous pleasure. What’s problematic in the Sheen situation for me is the cheapness of the joke and the utter disregard for the humanity of the figure in question. I can’t help but feel that every “news” show that hands money over to our fool du jour and sits him in front of a camera is killing him a little. Each manager that supports him, each ticket sold to his already sold-out comedy tour (oh, yeah, that’s happening) is just actualizing and strengthening the hold of the manic or psychotic delusions he so needs to cure himself of. I feel like we’re pointing and laughing at someone who can’t help himself and that makes me feel dirty and ashamed for all of us.

Would we so thoroughly lambast and laugh at a cancer patient in a similar fashion? Ha, ha! Low white blood cell count! Or the handicapped? Nice “Olympics” loser!

I can’t help but think that our country is still pretty deeply in denial about the breadth and reach of mental illness and this is partly behind our reaction to the Sheen circus. If we’re laughing because his sickness is scary, his empty eyes jolting, I get it. If we’re laughing because we all harbor ridiculous pain, incredible loss, stupid inequity, and Charlie, for a few seconds a day, takes the burden of being butt of the joke off of our own aching backs, I get that, too. But if we’re laughing more as the weeks go on and on because it’s easy, because we can’t be bothered to care about other people, because we’re too dazed and confused to empathize, sympathize just a tiny bit with a very sick man or his family, then I’m left to wonder who the joke is really on and I hope we have the courage to be better, smarter and at the very least, funnier than that.

15 Responses to “On winning and losing it”
  1. Jill says:

    I love this, Anna. I think part of people’s attracting to Charlie Sheen is like a car accident–you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. And you sort of hope you see blood, even though at the same time you know you’d be horrified if you did.

    The whole business is upsetting–the comedy tour to me seems like it will just be a string of cities where people are laughing AT him. For some reason, that’s ok, but no one would think of going into the psychiatric ward of a hospital and pointing and laughing.

    Great post!

  2. Teal says:

    This is a great perspective and something that really needed to be said. Thanks for sharing.

  3. ana says:

    Thanks, guys. I totally get the must-watch compulsion. I love to see what celebrities are doing crazy or not. What’s scary is how everyone is adopting his vocabulary and sharing his video clips like it’s the most awesome addictive eye and ear candy, but no one seems genuinely upset, scared or sad. I think he looks terrible and I feel so awful for his family and the people who’ve lost the person he once was. I felt the same when Britney was our favorite bald-headed comedienne.

    • Angela Vasquez-Giroux says:

      Americans love watching the mentally ill / mentally suffering crash. Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears…even Mel Gibson.

      It’s sick and twisted and, yes, wildly entertaining because it is so easy to capitalize on. It’s like we’ve become an entire culture of Jay Lenos, where the punchline is never a surprise but we laugh along and watch anyway.

      • ana says:

        I thought of the Jay Leno humor, too. It’s so poorly structured and simple. “Bill Clinton! Sex! Boobs! Penis! Suck!” “O.J. Blondes! Dancing Ito!” REALLY, America?! At least respect me and the subject of your comment enough to do some thoughtful comedy writing.

  4. Kate says:

    This is a great post. Did you read the Disposable Woman piece in the NYT about Charlie Sheen earlier this month? (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/opinion/04holmes.html?_r=1)

    • ana says:

      I *did* read that and shared it on fb. His history as a kind of spoiled jerky abuser make it a little weird for me to feel so moved by him, but it’s too hard for me to just say, “meh, he deserves it.” Complex feelings all around.

  5. Jason McCaffrey says:

    I’m with you on this. A few years ago a friend of mine had a psychotic break when he was living a few states away. I took a week off work and drove all night to go help his mom deal with that situation and we ultimately had to commit him to a mental hospital. I’m not gonna lie. There were a couple times during his hallucinations that made his mom and I laugh pretty hard. But ultimately it was one of the scariest weeks of my life seeing my friend go completely over the bend and learning just how fragile anyone and everyone’s mental state really is. But he had friends and family to support him. His mom made sure he continued to get the help he needed. And luckily that was an isolated incident. He’s healthy, happy and the same guy I always knew and has been healthy and happy for a number of years now.

    I’ve thought often of that week while watching Charlie Sheen and I’ve thought, “doesn’t that man have anyone who loves him?” He needs help, not encouragement to keep doing what he’s doing. I can’t tear myself away from keeping up with the recent Charlie Sheen news, but it hasn’t been because I want to point and laugh. I’ve been watching for any sign that Martin or Emilio have stepped in with the compassion a father or brother should be stepping in with or any sign that the so-called “goddesses” truly give a shit about this man’s health and not just their meal ticket.

    But his response to getting fired from “Two and a Half Men” was pretty funny: “I never liked that show anyway.”

  6. Jordan L-S says:

    Great post, Ana. I watched one of his YouTube shows the other day and felt awful and sick afterward. The guy is seriously ill, or he’s doing an incredible job of pretending to be seriously ill. Either way, I’m tuning out.

  7. Lindsey says:

    I shared a clip of Charlie Sheen doing his “cooking show” on FB because it was so ridiculous and I have to admit I laughed at it. I always appreciate when someone will poke fun at their own embarrassing moments and not take themselves too seriously. Clearly, I haven’t been following his recent activity closely enough to care much outside of that, especially since reading the Disposable Woman piece a couple weeks ago. After reading this it really is disturbing that so many people are following him on Twitter and it’s probably just to watch the train wreck and not because they actually like him. Jason is right, where are Martin and Emilio?

  8. ana says:

    Sadly, it can be extremely difficult for manic depressives and people suffering from schizophrenia or schizoid disorders to get the help they need. Even if Sheen’s family wants to help, Sheen might not listen and he has the power and money to keep them at a distance. Also, people have to commit themselves–they must agree to treatment. My mom is paranoid. She fears doctors and doesn’t trust them. How will she ever agree to treatment? To take a pill she thinks is poison? People riding a manic high feel like they’re untouchable, godlike, ahem, “winning.” Why would someone want to give that up? They don’t. To forcibly be placed in an institution or the hospital, a person has to become a danger to themselves or others. So, basically, you end up waiting until things get scary dangerous.

  9. Jessi says:

    Great piece Ana. I totally agree with you. I hosted a quiz night where one round was on Charlie Sheen quotes and though the quotes were pretty funny, it still made me feel uncomfortable knowing a bit about his mental state. I followed up your piece by reading the Disposable Woman article, and ugh! I had no idea about any of that history! I really don’t follow celebrity lives/drama. I barely have time to keep up with the people I actually know, and honestly I just don’t care about what famous people are doing. Inevitably I do hear bits and pieces, but i just don’t understand why people care so much about what rich strangers are doing with their lives. Except for Gaga. ;)
    I am glad to hear a sane perspective in the plethora of the circus which is the Charlie Sheen-media-freak-show. The only other “hey, let’s think about this rationally” point of view I have heard of was Craig Ferguson, which I think you shared the link on FB anyway.

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