The Twitterverse has been buzzing with Charlie Sheen’s terrible comedy performance last night in Detroit (seriously hasn’t that city suffered enough?). Well, apparently the “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option” was not the groundbreaking comedy experience that so many stupid, fame-hungry, comedy-ignorant people were hoping for. But, just like the Rolling Stones said, they may not have gotten what they wanted, but they got what they needed. Or at least deserved. OK, so that is not exactly a Rolling Stones song anymore. Just keep reading.
For me, the Charlie Sheen tour represents a new low for comedy in America, but also something else: it is the convergence of that low with America’s morbid new pastime: voyeuristic fascination with self-destruction.
Starting with comedy, his tour sold out across America because of a series of bizarre (and admittedly quite funny – both intentionally and unintentionally) interviews he did following his firing from CBS’ “comedy” Two and a Half Men. Well, mainstream America never had the most sophisticated sense of humor, but several things in the last several years have further eroded that sense of humor. From America’s Home Videos (I will admit – I enjoyed it when I was 10) to YouTube, ridicule and bodily harm have increasingly replaced nuance and creativity as the humor America responds to. Shots to the nuts have made Adam Sandler and Kevin James bankable movie stars and when people turn to their computers they seem more likely to laugh at someone’s expense than at someone’s creativity.
Couple that with America’s increasing, almost faith-based devotion to famous people, irrespective of talent or quality, and you have the two main ingredients in the recipe that is hurting comedy. One of my favorite comments I received from a fan in Iowa last month was, “You guys were great and I had never heard of you. Last month I came with my girlfriend to see Pauly Shore and he sucked.” That was just one man’s opinion, but it illistrates something larger that I see in comedy. Comedy clubs, like much of corporate America, are increasingly more concerned with the bottom line at the expense of the quality of their product and the workers that provide it. Clubs are more than willing to bring in acts like Pauly Shore, largely on name recognition alone because they will fill seats. However, what happens is that clubs continue to bring in acts solely on name recognition, so they continue to draw reality show, fame-hungry morons to their clubs, but the real, substantive comedy fans stop going, except to see acts they already know. Comedians in my position are reliant on real comedy fans to build their base. People who like famous people will not come to see me perform. People who are real comedy fans and looking to find new voices and new perspectives will, but they cannot if they stay home because they have been turned off by the Steve-Os of the world.
So Charlie Sheen represents the apex of these trends in comedy: fame-hungry people who laugh at train wrecks. But there is a more insidious side to these crowds as well.
I was recently watching an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary about June 17, 1994. It was a day with an incredible mix of high profile sporting events, but the overwhelming headliner of the day was the infamous White Bronco Chase featuring a suicidal OJ Simpson. I remember sitting in a hotel in Evanston, Ill. for my brother’s college graduation watching the Knicks-Rockets NBA finals game with my Patrick Ewing-worshipping family and being interrupted by the car chase. But what I did not realize at the time, but was made clear from the documentary, was that was the turning point for American popular culture. If there is any moment where our voyeurism hit an awful point of no return it was that car chase. People were stopping their cars on highways in LA to watch the chase and every news network was covering it. I believe that it was simply with the hope of catching a suicide of a famous person on camera. It was intense, but it was also shameless and disgusting. If a no-name serial killer were fleeing they would not have covered it so intensely, but to see a famous person flee justice and maybe kill himself – what a rare chance on television!
Fast forward – reality television now features people having sex on camera (Real World, Jersey Shore), people dying (Deadliest Catch and the new reality show “Coal” which is less “appreciate the working man” and more “hopefully we can see poor people die or get in dangerous situations”), and just generally elevating and tearing down insignificant people.
Well, once again Charlie Sheen is at the peak of this as well. He is a drug-addicted, crazy ego maniac. People tune in to him to see him rant, but also to possibly see him self-destruct fatally.
Charlie Sheen represents the combination of the worst trends in comedy and in our popular culture. And after raising him up, people are now eager to boo him and act as if they are not getting exactly what they paid for. Because if there is a national pastime in this country it is not baseball or football; it is raising someone up beyond where they should be and then tearing them down to lower than they deserve to be. And now I am sure all the “comedy fans” who have tickets to upcoming Sheen shows are already rationalizing their purchase by saying – “I hear he sucks. I can’t wait to boo the dude!”
I feel the same way about people who go to see Charlie Sheen’s tour that I do about people who vote for Sarah Palin. If you support it then you, more than anyone, actually deserve to get what you want. Good luck to everyone with tickets.
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