Goodbye Charlie

By Susan Cheever 03/27/11

Charlie Sheen is blazing new trails in celebrity-meltdown entertainment. As we watch his life and career go up in smoke, should we ask why we're addicted to this spectacle?

Is Charlie Sheen about to walk out of our lives? Getty

The silly belligerent drunk has always been our favorite party clown. He’s the guy who downs too many martoonies, whose slurred rendition of “Show Me the Way to Go Home” is less and less amusing as the evening wears on, who insults his boss, whose drooly groping and stumbling walk are met first with indulgent chuckles and then with nervous laughs. When he wobbles out to his car and almost falls over into the driver’s seat, the amusing situation stops being so amusing. Perhaps by that time of night, we’ve had a few martoonies ourselves. After all, we aren’t too uptight to enjoy a party—but that guy is drunk!

Of course, this month’s "that guy" is Charlie Sheen, whose celebrity, handsomeness, royal Hollywood bloodlines, and wealth just make the same drama more intense. Drunkenfreude is the pleasure we take in watching ordinary people get drunk and embarrass themselves. How much sweeter it is to watch the public meltdowns of the rich and famous.

Now holed up in a Hollywood mansion he has dubbed the Sober Valley Lodge, Sheen began his most recent shenanigans acting as a kind of X-rated Eloise at the Plaza Hotel -- tearing up furniture in a booze-and-cocaine-fuelled rampage and landing in New York Hospital. Since his party at the Plaza, he has trashed his career, bashed AA, badmouthed his employers and critics, and defended his repulsive history of domestic violence.

He has been fired from Two and a Half Men, the hit sitcom in which he starred as an unrepentant, debauched, promiscuous loser. Now he seems to be trying to get fired from his own life, where he plays the same role for free. This month, his 23-month-old twin boys were removed from Sober Valley Lodge by the LAPD after their mother got a restraining order against Sheen. In just three months, what began as a public comedy has become a family tragedy. The New York Post predicts that Sheen will end up dead. Will we still be laughing at that point?

Back in the old days -- in February -- when loaded celebrities fucked up and were caught on camera, they were immediately contrite and quickly guided by their PR teams into chagrined, abject, public apologies. They didn’t mean to offend anyone. They were not anti-Semitic. They loved their wonderful wives and children. This was the first time they had ever driven drunk. Off they went to rehab with redemption in the wings.

Not Charlie Sheen.

Instead of apologizing, he attacked. Rehab? Don’t think so. Sobriety? Not for him. “This bootleg cult, arrogantly referred to as Alcoholics Anonymous, reports a 5% success rate,” he ranted. “My success rate is 100%. Do the math.” Every day he becomes less apologetic and less coherent, but his crash only attracts more rubberneckers. Two weeks into the coverage of his travails, he had amassed over two million followers on Twitter, the site’s fastest climb ever.

Doing interviews with almost anyone who asked, from Good Morning America and the Today Show (on the same day) to Alex Jones, Sheen has looked dead-eyed but defiant -- when was the last time we saw a celebrity smoke on a morning news show? He called his boss “a troll,” likened himself to “a rock star from Mars” with “Adonis DNA,” and vowed that his ex-wife will, when he’s through with her, “be living under a bridge toothless and confused.”

And although Sheen may not have tiger blood dripping from his fangs (as he claims), or even blood with lower than a legal alcohol level (as he also claims), what he does have is more press than almost anyone else in the world right now, including Muammar el-Qaddafi, a man who is making bizarre pronouncements and acting fatally defiant in the face of a far more important story.

What’s behind the nation’s current Sheenmania? Are celebrities our replacement gods, as quixotic and crazy as the Old Testament Yahweh or Homer’s petulant Olympians? Or are they replacement devils who act out our secret desires while we safely cheer them on? Is Charlie Sheen a lightning rod for our repressed desires? Is there a man out there who doesn’t sometimes wish he could publicly blast his boss, or hang out with adoring twentysomething porn stars, or unabashedly proclaim that he’d like his ex-wife to end up toothless under a bridge?

One explanation may be that as long as we’re watching other people -- especially the beautiful, rich and famous -- we don’t have to turn our attention to ourselves. Whether it’s Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, John Galliano, Charlie Sheen or the neighborhood drunk, they’re the ones who are behaving badly. We can pop open a few cold ones or uncork the white wine, and kick back as they make fools of themselves. Maybe some afternoon we’ll cheer and hoot at them together at our local bar while we chat with the bartender and try the new draft. Then we can drive across town chuckling as we pick up our kids from school.

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