I am writing the introduction to this essay on a Saturday night in March, when I should be out Doing Things and Being Social. I am not doing those things. Not even close. I am watching Charlie Sheen’s brief run at celebrity transcendence implode spectacularly, and watching my own theory about What It Meant combust along with it.
Sheen is hosting a live webcast, right now, the culmination of hours of shameless online self-promotion, and the bottom of the player features a running counter of how many people are watching ‘Sheen’s Korner’ at this second. That counter is the most interesting part of any of this.
It’s like a voter reaction dial in a presidential debate, only it manages to be less important and more meaningful at the same time.
For the benefit of those reading this in the future, a brief explanation is in order: The past two weeks, spanning the end of February and the beginning of March, 2011, have consisted of nothing so much as a steady diet of Charlie Sheen mania (in the sense that we are maniacal in our consumption of him, as well as in the sense that he is simply manic). It has been a reality-television era narrative on the end result of either the ravages of addiction, the narcissism produced by a life in the spotlight, or both of these, or simply the most calculated experiment in human marketing Hollywood has ever witnessed. Sheen took initial tabloid coverage of his apparent drug overdose and ran with it, spinning Sheen’s An Addict into a multiplatform entertainment odyssey, complete with history’s fastest-to-one-million Twitter feed, some of the most-watched network television interviews since Michael Jackson fondled children (it feels good to not have to write ‘allegedly’ there), and catchphrases that will certainly, possibly even by the time you read this, be available for purchase on any number of official commemorative items.
Make no mistake, people will buy — have bought even, though probably not the official versions, they’ll come later — myriad items adorned with the words ‘Winning’ and ‘Tiger Blood’ if only to say we were here, online, right now, watching the rise and fall of Charlie Sheen. Heck, I will buy such a mug, and it will go in my cupboard next to my girlfriend’s official Charles And Diana wedding mug, both of us drinking from vessels commemorating historical trainwrecks, hers simply purchased a few years in advance.
So anyway, Charlie Sheen, owner (“winner”?) of the last two weeks of first-world history — maybe it’s a title he’ll end up sharing with Moammar Gadhafi, but I doubt it, because Gadhafi doesn’t Tweet — is hosting a live webcast. I’ve been watching for fifteen minutes now and I am, like a lot of others who bought into the promise of Live Craziness On The Internet, starting to get really fucking bored.
Sheen is, basically, hosting a shitty morning radio show, complete with stories plucked from the news, the introduction of regular features (should this ever happen again, I suppose) and shout-outs to fans. He’s saying ‘winning’ a lot, but he’s really just hanging out with two scruffy sidekicks and the lone remaining porn star who lives in his house. (The other, hotter, one apparently having left that morning and taken her semen-soaked Twitterfeed with her.)
So, the show. It sucks, and Sheen is struggling, stammering and saying ‘umm’ far more than anyone who talks in front of a camera for a living has any right to do. And none of this matters, because the numbers on the screen are riveting enough on their own.
Which is good, because the actual content of this travesty is rapidly proving me, once again, exactly the sort of idiot who wants to see the best intentions in the worst kind of people. (I also tend to see the worst intentions in the best kind of people, but that’s a topic for another celebrity meltdown.)
I thought — and proclaimed loudly, in person and online, but not over the phone, because nobody talks on the phone anymore — that this was all a brilliant put-on by an actor who had decided to turn his most successful role — Drink And Drug-Addicted Asshole — into real-life performance art, to cut out the middleman once and for all and prove to the public, the media and everyone else who’s been watching him instead of Gadhafi this week exactly how shallow and easily-ensnared by bullshit they have become.
I wanted this to Mean Something. To be a Grand Statement of the sort made by people who capitalize words that don’t need it in order to drive home Points. I think a lot of people wanted that, probably because the alternative was too unsettling to contemplate.
The alternative was that we have snuck somehow over the edge of a decidedly unsympathetic cliff, and entered into a severely worrisome freefall in which we now take pleasure at watching celebrities (and possibly even normal people too, were we able to access it) throw their lives away in self-destructive binges of insane madness, right in front of us, in Real Time, rather than shaking our heads or cackling (depending on our feelings toward the person involved) when we hear about it the next day.
It’s one thing to slow down and gawk at a traffic accident. It’s another to gleefully watch a person wander obliviously into oncoming cars. Most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as the kind of person who would do the latter. But maybe we are.
When I heard about this live webcast, I was wasting a Saturday evening anyhow, so I immediately clicked on the link.
So did seemingly everyone else on the internet. I got up and running and the number of viewers was already above 50,000. Over the next ten minutes, while Sheen stumbled through introductions, offered congratulations to ‘winners’ everywhere (“Winners”, by the way, is a term that referred to successful people when I was small, was used sarcastically to refer to dumb people — ie, “yeah, she’s a real winner” — for several years, and now apparently refers to successful people again. I feel privileged to have witnessed the full cycle.) and smoked at least two cigarettes while swigging from an unlabeled bottle, that number grew to more than 125,000.
Then, about two minutes after I called for my girlfriend to come watch figuring the craziness was just around the corner, I realized that it wasn’t — it wasn’t even on the horizon — and I got bored.
So I started watching other people getting bored, too, in real time — all of us turning on the saga that had hours ago collectively enthralled us faster than any event in online star-making history. I doubt even Sheen, in the most self-hating depths of his depressive side, would imagine we would collectively bolt this fast. I mean, this had pretty much gripped most of a the continent for two weeks, at the same time as Arabs were crying for democracy on the other side of the world. God, we really are an awful continent, aren’t we? That’s pretty terrible.
Anyway, we were all watching the same thing, and we were all watching one another stop watching. At least I was. The counter refreshed every couple of seconds, and Sheen was hemorrhaging viewers. 117,000, 116,600, 115,900, 115,341, 113,917 … Is this what it looks like when your five minutes are up?
Was anyone relaying the numbers to Sheen, now lurching and reeling his way through giving a ‘Winning’ award to an old lady who had reached out to tell him, he said, that his approach to life had allowed her to reclaim her youth and vitality? (He grabbed an eagle carving from his desk and awarded her the prize as a sidekick took a Polaroid.)
Did he know that, less than 17 minutes into this thing, he had already peaked and was now rolling downhill, gathering steam like a giant snowball of suck? (Probably, since he would say the next day that the webcast was ‘treason’ and would improve for, yep … next time.)
And why is a man who ‘wins’ every minute of every day spending his Saturday night in a dull wood-panelled room, hosting a poorly-lit webcast, with two chumps and a somewhat nasty-looking porn star applauding his every fractured sentence? Even my night was better than that, at least until I turned this thing on.
Were other celebrities watching this, seeing the numbers fall and the relevance fade and taking mental notes not to screw with the producers of their sitcoms and movies? Were they struck, watching this, by just how much the medium makes the man and just how large and impervious to this kind of embarrassment a bland, overproduced network laugh track can make you?
Charlie Sheen is spending his Saturday night trying to prove to the world that being a celebrity can be reduced to a couple of catchphrases, a je-ne-sais-quoi madness, a willingness to act like you are on drugs even when you are sober and a good marketing plan. That celebrity can create its own platforms, and not the other way around. And that celebrity superstardom, once attained, is durable, despite the opposite appearing to be true. He was “winning” for two days, which is kind of like awarding a baseball team the World Series after a strong Spring Training. He is now “losing”, at least tonight, and probably the foreseeable future. It’s much harder to make water flow uphill again, once it has started trickling down.
This, I had argued, was meta-art so deep as to be sublime. It seemed so mad that it had to be calculated. So well-orchestrated and precision-timed — the rumours, followed by hospitalization, followed by claims of sobriety, followed by less-than-sober seeming behaviour, than a show cancellation, half-mad interviews buttressed with negative drug tests, a flurry of memes that exploded just before what had to have been a well-planned debut on Twitter, which is the online equivalent of inviting the media to just hang out in front of your house with a mic on 24/7 in case you have anything interesting to say — that it couldn’t have possibly been a sad and desperate coincidence. And now, that’s what it looks like.
The number of viewers of Charlie Sheen’s webcast is down to less than 100,000 and it is still falling. The show has not gotten any more interesting. If this was indeed part of the well-orchestrated playbook I wanted so badly to believe existed, it’s an awful call and the coordinator should be fired. This move, if it was at all calculated, is the celebrity equivalent of taking a knee three times on the opponent’s 5-yard-line, and then missing the field goal on fourth down.
I did not want to believe that Sheen was simply careening from one opportunity to the next, spinning whatever insights his drug-addled mind was capable of producing into the Profound Truths of a Level Nine Warlock. But maybe that’s all it is. Maybe Sheen is an opportunist who foolishly went all-in, and somehow doubled up, so now he’s playing every hand as if it were the same lucky aces he just used to cash in, and nobody is man enough to tell him to step away from the table.
Whatever he is, he is no longer an actor on television’s highest-rated comedy and he sure as hell is not any sort of live radio or television host. Now he is just another train wreck, and less than 75,000 people are watching. The numbers are still falling.
A friend of mine compared Charlie Sheen to Hunter S. Thompson a couple of days into this saga, and on the surface there are similarities. Substance abuse, obviously. A strange spoken eloquence. Dramatic adventures, whether real or imagined. A cathartic need to expose the public to the lifestyle they believe it lacks — full of risks, indulgence and self-importance — and to give them the sense that there are greater existences out there, like theirs, that exist for us to reach for, but are too dangerous to actually touch.
Underneath the veneer, however, the two are nothing at all alike. Hunter S. Thompson was a man of passionate beliefs and fiery political stances and staunch convictions. Charlie Sheen is passionate about nothing so much as Charlie Sheen.
Sheen — now live on the internet wearing a shirt with a dollar sign, an ugly fedora and a mumbling behind a cigarette — is playing Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson. He’s a facsimile of a facsimile — pallid and ghostly; stretched thin, like butter over too much bread, and not nearly deep or compelling or entertaining enough to warrant anybody’s attention as soon as the volume drops below 11. A one-trick pony who will only perform in his own decrepit circus.
I wonder if Martin Sheen is watching this right now? Soon, he might be the only one.