Monday, March 14, 2011

The Charlie Sheen Spectacle: What Does It Say About Fame, Fortune, Human Behavior -- and You and Me?

I guess I don't have to tell you who Charlie Sheen is. You know.  Everybody knows. With his name, face, and rants blanketing the TV networks and supermarket tabloids, with respectable newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which I subscribe to, running serious articles on the Charlie Sheen public spectacle, even I know.

Nor do I need to tell you the sizzling storyline: how the star of TV's No. 1 sitcom, "Two and a Half Men," partied so hard, got so drugged up, caused so much trouble on and off the set, mouthed off so much against his bosses at CBS and Time Warner that they canceled the show for the rest of the season and then fired him.

At $1.8 million an episode, Charlie, 45, is the highest paid actor in the sitcom world. In the eight years that "Men" has been running, he has been a money machine for CBS and Time Warner. The sitcom is able to charge top dollar for commercials ($200,000 for 30 seconds, one of the priciest in all of television.)
Naturally, Charlie's bosses want the cash registers to keep ringing. They tried hard to carry on with an increasingly bizarre-acting star. Finally, with things getting worse instead of better, they fired him in an 11-page letter explaining why. 
Charlie's reaction was: You want war?  I'll give you war!  He went nuclear. He launched verbal missiles  against his bosses, former wives, and various "stupid" trolls in on the conspiracy against him.   He sued the show's creator, Chuck Lorre, and the broadcaster, CBS, for $100 million, charging breach of contract.

For many, Charlie Sheen's public behavior exceeded all known bounds -- and was even frightening.  Some of the adjectives tossed his way:  drunk, drugged, lost, desperate, pathetic, volcanic, violent, paranoid, tormented, deranged, delirious, insane.

But even among Charlie's most ardent supporters and fans, one adjective won't come to mind: normal. He makes sense about two-an-a-half percent of the time. Is it because of damage from long-term drug use?  Mental breakdown?

Clearly, years of heavy drinking, drugs, marathon partying with prostitutes, broken marriages, and personal turmoil have taken a toll. Gaunt, wild-eyed, sucking deeply on a cigarette, ducking down for a swig of "tiger blood," he is a far cry from the young Charlie Sheen I remember from two seminal movies, "Platoon"  and "Wall Street."

Charlie may be loaded with money.  He may live in a huge, sprawling mansion with his two "goddesses." He may be a celebrity whose name is a household name, but is this any way to live? How can a guy who has it all, hitting the big time at 20 and hitting it even bigger nearly 20 years later with "Men," make such a mess of his life?

Charlie sees himself  living the fantasy life in his mansion with his two beautiful "goddesses," with love, money, fame, and freedom -- everything anybody could possibly want.  He even had his 2-year-old twin boys, Max and Rob, living in the mansion until last week. They were removed  by child welfare authorities.

Charlie and the two goddesses do not sleep in the same bed because, as one goddess told an interviewer, "we all need a side of the bed." So the two goddesses each have their own bed and Charlie decides each night which bed he will sleep in.

In an ABC TV interview at the mansion, Charlie walks in and kisses each goddess in turn. His two young boys are there, getting  motherly strokes from the smiling goddesses.  It is a picture of domestic bliss.

One goddess says that this is the way they live, she's happy, and is not looking for marriage.  The other goddess, asked if she longed for marriage, said brightly, "Sure, I'd love to marry Charlie.  He's a wonderful guy."

By any definition, the goddesses are prostitutes.  Over the years, Charlie has spent huge sums on prostitutes and, as with everything else, makes no apology for it.  He is equally open about his "porn room." It's who he is and what he likes, he says.  Here is short video of Charlie discussing his goddesses and way of life.

What are we to make of it?

One thoughtful, human response to Sheen's saga has come from comedian Howie Mandel.  Appearing as a guest on Piers Morgan's  CNN talk show, he was asked about "our warped news values," in which Sheen is so dominant in news cycles.

Mandel said, "It's a sad statement on humanity ... that we all love a train wreck. I'm a parent, and I look at him and I think this must be torturous for his father and his family and the people who love and care about him and this is horrible for the children. You're in television, you're in the business. We have to talk about it and show clips. [The fact that] we're mesmerized by it is kind of a statement of who we are."

"Do you find any of what Charlie's doing funny, in a dark way?" Morgan asked.

 "In the beginning I thought it was funny," Mandel said. "Now it seems to be getting a little more tragic because I didn't know the extent of his issues and what the problem was. I thought ultimately the two sides would come together and he'd be back on the show and now it's just falling apart. We're watching somebody who could possibly die and that's a horror show. That's not something I really want to be a party to, but here I am talking about it."

And here I am writing about it.

I have never watched a single episode of "Two and a Half Men."   Two guys sitting on a couch exchanging wisecracks, my impression of the show from glimpses of TV ads for it,  doesn't do it for me. Though 14.5 million people may tune into the sitcom every week, I  prefer to do other things with my time.

Only because of the media onslaught have I recently learned what "Men" is about.  Charlie and his hard living inspired the series.  The main character, Charlie Harper, is a Charlie Sheen doppelganger, a freewheeling bachelor who says, "I make a lot of money for doing very little work. I sleep with beautiful women who don't ask about my feelings. I drive a Jag. I live on the beach. "

This was Charlie Harper boasting to his gnarly, chiropractor brother, Alan, (Jon Cryer), whose wife has thrown him out of the house.  Without enthusiasm, Charlie takes him in along with his son Jake (Angus T. Jones), then 10 and now a sullen teen. And what does that make?  It makes two and a half men!  I finally know the storyline.  Yeah!

I'm not singling out "Men" for special abuse. I have the same aversion to the number one rated show on all of television, American Idol, and also Dancing With The Stars. A minute or two of them, which is all I can stand, leaves me let down and dumbfounded.  Apparently, the American public's appetite for celebrity is bottomless  and what performers will do in the pursuit of fame is limitless.

Watching contestants sing their hearts out only to have celebrity judges dash their big dreams, sometimes meanly, is not my idea of entertainment.  I don't enjoy seeing people being used, failing, and having their feelings hurt.

I feel the same about all those reality shows.  After a few minutes of watching people looking for happiness or a wad of money or the big break, but actually being cheap, disposable entertainment, I invariably want out.

Why do so many of us willingly, even eagerly, publicly parade ourselves, our lives, our hopes on reality TV shows?  If you are a survivor, what's the point of proving it on "The survivor?"  If you know it, why isn't that enough?

What did I just hear you say? Did you say, "It's the attention, stupid. It's a shot at becoming known. It's a chance to become a celebrity, maybe even one as famous as Charlie Sheen. It's the bucks that goes with being a name and the bigger the name, the bigger the bucks."

I get your point and I stand properly put in my place.  Charlie Sheen's outlandish behavior is surely not the point, its the means.  It's what he achieves with it. In the process of making himself a household name, he makes himself into a brand, and a bankable one. 

On March 1, soon after his name was everywhere 24-7, Charlie Sheen opened a Twitter account. In one day, he attracted one million followers, becoming the fastest to reach that milestone. A few days afterward, he had 2.4 million followers and companies lining up to advertise. Here he shows off a bottle of his favorite drink--"Tiger Blood."

If Charlie Sheen is mentally ill and is in fact on the road to an early death unless he gets help, then we should all be praying and pulling for him. As one not all there myself, (judging from overheard whispers), and therefore in no position to call anybody crazy, I would be pulling for him to turn his machete against his inner demons and -- win, win, WIN!

But if this is an act, a huge put-on, it is one brilliant performance.  If it's all about money, the guy is a promotional genius. He knows how to market himself.  Not surprisingly, he has decided to write a book and sell it for at least $10 million.  Negotiations are underway.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, describes celebrity obsession as "economically rational activity" in which celebrities, agents, producers, paparazzi, publishers -- everybody in the value chain -- make more money than they would otherwise. Here is a tee shirt from Charlie Sheen's new line, which is selling briskly.

Weisberg wrote:

"Celebrity journalism is not only diabolically popular but cheap to produce, which explains why People is America's most popular magazine.  Charlie Sheen may not get $10 million for his memoirs, but they're worth more than they were this time last year. It does not seem impossible that his "breakdown" has been entirely calculated."

I suppose I shouldn't have written this story without watching one minute of  "Two and a Half Men," but I did.  Too late now. Maybe I'll watch a couple of minutes some time. Or maybe I won't.

So long and keep moving.

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.

   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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