It’s Time for the Volcano, Charlie!
One of the oldest and most persistent themes in human mythology is that of the Corn King, a Sun God who dies at the Harvest and is reborn in the Spring. Even C.S. Lewis acknowledges that Christianity recapitulates this very old story in the death and resurrection of Jesus, though Lewis considered the myth a preparation for the real thing. Often enough history tells of tribes and cults who’d pick out one of their lucky young men to be treated like a king for a season — unlimited wine, women, and song — ending with the unlucky bastard being ritually sacrificed.
You can see a variation on this theme in the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy, Joe Versus the Volcano, where Tom Hanks’ character, told by his doctor that he’s dying from a “brain cloud,” volunteers to be dropped into a live volcano after being promised his last days would be made lavish.
The thing about the sacrifice of the Corn King is that it just never goes away. Repeatedly we see it played out in the public treatment of celebrities.
One day you’re a baseball player with a home-run record; the next day you’re just another steroid addict.
One day you’re a beloved TV comic; the next day you’re a social pariah because someone took offense at something you said during one of your stand-up routines.
One day you’re an Oscar-winning director and actor worth millions of dollars per picture; the next day you’re a drunken Jew-hater.
An entire industry of paparazzi exists for no other purpose than to follow celebrities around and either wait for them to do something that looks unflattering, or even provoke them into unflattering-looking behavior.
Of course celebrities often knock themselves off their pedestals with the full support of everyone around them. Celebrities often enough live in a bubble — an echo chamber — where everyone around them lives off their talent and fame, or wants to share in it, and flatters them like in the Jerome Bixby 1953 short story “It’s a Good Life,” — filmed both as a 1961 episode of the original Twilight Zone and remade in 1983′s Twilight Zone: The Movie. In this iconic story a child with godlike powers rules and terrorizes everyone around him, and everyone around him tell him only exactly what they think he wants to hear.
Some time or another Jerome Bixby had known a spoiled brat — quite possibly a child star. But living in a bubble, no matter how lavish, cuts a star off from the rest of the world, in which many people live in a world of drudgery, poverty, and despair, and in which even hope becomes an addictive drug.
Charlie Sheen / Charlie Harper
I have something in common with Charlie Sheen. We’re both the sons of accomplished fathers. He grew up in the shadow of actor Martin Sheen; I grew up in the shadow of violinist Julius Schulman. Trust me, having an accomplished father creates expectations, and those expectations are the first infusion of what Charlie Sheen has now referred to as “tiger blood.”
I’ve referred to the bubble and echo chamber that celebrities live in. Another word for that might be pressure cooker.
When you’re being paid millions of dollars for a week’s work — and the livelihoods of hundreds of people depend on you — you have to perform on demand, no matter what. In another article I noted that while a porn star might fall back on Viagra when the camera turns on, there’s no Cialis that can make a TV psychic get the dead to answer his call. Likewise, there’s no Comedy Levitra.
Normally when an actor plays a role in a TV series the character is entirely made-up.
George Reeves, who played Superman, couldn’t really fly, and bullets wouldn’t bounce off of him.
Nobody expects David McCallum — Dr. Mallard on NCIS — to be able to perform an autopsy.
I’m not about to ask The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons to collide protons at an underground lab outside of Geneva, Switzerland.
But the character of Charlie Harper that Charlie Sheen played on CBS’s sitcom Two and a Half Men from 2003 until a few months ago is remarkably like Charlie Sheen.
Both the character — when spouting scripted dialogue — and the actor — speaking off the cuff — are engaging, mesmerizing, and witty.
Both the character and the actor playing him have the constitution of an ox.
Both the character and the actor playing him do not suffer fools gladly.
Both the character and the actor playing him love to spend large portions of their life in epic bouts of wine, women, and song. In fact — since the character of Charlie Harper is a jingle writer — it wouldn’t surprise me if the genesis of the Charlie Harper character started with that old phrase.
And this is most important.
Both the character of Charlie Harper — and Charlie Sheen who plays him — are utter, unrepentant individualists. They apologize to no one for being who they are. They do not live by other people’s standards and do not accept their censure.
When people like this give great gifts to humanity they are called saints.
When people like this adopt a life of crime they’re called sociopaths.
When people like this become actors, they become superstars.
Charlie Sheen has been the signature comedy star for the CBS Television Network by playing a character so unbelievably lucky — and reprehensible by the standards of both pious conservatives and the politically correct — that everybody watching laughs their asses off and gives the show epic ratings.
But when Charlie Sheen reprises his role off the shooting set, people condemn him, question his sanity, and sympathize with the network and producers who have built a billion-dollar industry around his unique talent.
Yes, I’m a writer. I know that it’s the brilliant comedy writing of Chuck Lorre, Lee Aronsohn, and a staff of other comedy geniuses who put the words into Charlie Harper’s mouth. I know that any failure on the set of comedy timing can be fixed in post.
But that’s just not my point.
If you’re in the viewing audience forgetting your own troubles by laughing at Charlie Harper — if you’re a giant media conglomerate making a fortune off the beloved character — it’s a betrayal to sneer at the actor who plays him for being in real life what you love on the screen.
Shame on you all.
This article is Copyright © 2011 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.
My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Amazon.com Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!