Tonight’s season premiere of Two and a Half Men featured a funeral for Charlie Sheen’s character. That said character’s name was also Charlie means that the show got to have a double funeral for both the actor and the character, two figures fused together by a name that demands quotation marks be placed around it in order to separate the two. Men buried the real life drama behind Sheen’s departure by having people past and present within the show’s fictional universe dump on him merciless. What served as catharsis onscreen undoubtedly served as catharsis behind the scenes as well. But where does that leave us on the other side of the screen?
To watch the funeral for “Charlie” was to passively participate in the age-old tradition of burying a celebrity long before they’ve actually died. The merits of such burial can be endlessly debated, but after two and half million “WINNING” hashtags on Twitter, plenty of people pushed the warlock assassin aside for newer, fresher targets of scorn and ire. That’s not to say that Sheen’s a saint undeserving the mockery he received. But it was symptomatic of a larger cultural ADHD in which we collectively agree to get outraged over something until something new shiny comes along to replace it. That new thing could be the BP oil spill, the cost of the Kardashian wedding, or something the kids on the Internet are now referring to as “Qwickster.” We’d get instantly nostalgia for memes if only we had the attention span to ever remember they existed in the first place.
Meanwhile, Sheen himself is alive, albeit primarily in a biological, not career, sense. He’s walking, and talking, but he’s not exactly “existing” in his accustomed manner. The semi-cogent man that appeared at the Emmys last night certainly seemed out of place, but more shockingly he seemed to recognize that he was out of place. That’s the kind of self-awareness that can only come through 1) sobriety, 2) a serious wake-up call, 3) a series of ritualized humiliations, 4) a few meetings with one’s accountant, or 5) some combination of all of the above. “Charlie” may no be longer on Two and a Half Men, but Charlie Sheen is still around, for all to see, in spotlights that no longer serve to highlight his fame so much to remind people that this guy still exists at all. Whereas once he attracted our gaze without effort, now he has to submit to us in order to stay famous.
There’s culpability on all sides, which makes reviewing The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen in and of itself potentially problematic. Does reviewing it make me part of the overall problem? Would it be better to simply move onto the next shiny object of scorn? Plenty of people in the press outwardly express loathing Sheen, yet I saw countless accounts of the roast on the night of its taping. Each person wanted to avoid being the one person NOT covering the event, and so everyone went, and so the cycle continues, spinning round and round until we end here, at this particular point of the perpetual arc. This will only stop when we all agree to stop talking about, which is something we either can’t or won’t do, and so it’s once again unto the breach with the guy who voices Stewie Griffin.
During the last roast, the dais roasted a man they hardly knew: Donald Trump. Tonight, they roasted a man they assume we all know. Yet said knowledge has been obtained through carefully choreographed, unidirectional interactions. Both roasters and viewers have a much larger vocabulary about the life and times of Sheen than Trump, but what everyone roasted were the actions of a character almost as fictional as “Charlie” himself. It’s not enough to blur the line between Sheen and the character he played on Two and a Half Men. Now we have to untangle Sheen from “Sheen.” Jeff Ross referred to the crowd as “friends”, “roasters,” and “enablers,” which accurately describes those in-house and at home. Sheen himself may have summed it up best, saying, “It’s true, I’ve hung around with a lot of shady people over the years–losers, drug addicts, drug dealers, desperate whores–but to have you all here on one night is really special.” The not so subtle message: we’re all in this together, people, celebrating the facsimile of a living, breathing human.
“I’ve known Charlie for 18 years,” says Jon Lovitz at one point, “And I can tell you he’s nothing like the character he plays on TMZ!” And therein lies the disconnect: there’s either a subconscious or willful desire to assume what’s not scripted can’t actually be fake. That’s all part of the celebrity game, to be sure. And most of the time, it’s benign, like the way we try and pretend stars are JUST LIKE US because they also go to Whole Foods. Stars are not like us, but then again, most of the time we’re not like us, either. Everyone’s making it up as they go, inventing new selves for their family, friends, and strangers alike. It’s just that some of us claim to be Vatican assassins after making more money in a year than the entire citizenry of Montana will make combined in that same twelve months.
For his part, Sheen seemed lucid throughout the roast, if more than slightly gaunt. William Shatner made a joke at one point about the two of them looking as if they went to high school together. But it was more like there was less Sheen there, both physically and psychically, than during the height of his career. Sheen claimed to have come out of both the recent past and the roast itself “unscathed,” but that’s clearly not the case. Sheen dutifully laughed at everything said about him, but how much could he really enjoy hearing about all the women he tormented and terrorized over the years? About the daughters that will undoubtedly be in therapy for decades? Roasters are expected to produce shock and awe in terms of their comedic content, but it’s still somewhat jarring to have Sheen’s actions towards others played for laughs. What he did to his own body? Fair game. That’s like making fun of Donald Trump’s toupee, on the morality scale. But the “Rock Star from Mars” also did harm to countless women, and no amount of ironic distancing could really dull that edge.
To solve this conundrum, most roasters directed the majority of their material at the other members of the dais, as has become tradition in these recent Comedy Central roasts. (An average bit tonight was 80% directed at the dais, and only 20% to the honoree.) A lot of that has to do with a lack of history between roaster and roastee, but in this case often served to deflect attention to those less comfortable making jokes about romps involving cocaine-fueled prostitutes. (See Walsh, Kate.) The biggest dais target? Mike Tyson, who took Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino’s place as this roast’s wild card. But while The Situation’s performance went down as perhaps the biggest fail in roast history, Tyson lent an air of unpredictability and geniality that was infectious. Plus? The dude referenced Lord Fucking Byron during his speech. How many of you saw THAT coming?
Dais-wise, it was the usual mixed bunch. Jeffrey Ross and Anthony Jeselnik killed with their sets, and roast newcomers Patrice O’Neal and Amy Schumer (filling in for the Whitney Cummings slot, now that Cummings has an executive producer credit on 40% of the new comedies on network television this Fall) succeeded as well. William Shatner did what William Shatner does, and it played well to the crowd. Former Jackass star Steve-O looked shaky (on multiple levels). Neither Jon Lovitz nor Kate Walsh did a particularly bad job, but Lovitz relied on decades-old schtick and Walsh relied on no one who watches Private Practice ever watching this. Tyson didn’t give a speech so much as perform inadvertent performance art, rambling on and on about his poetical impulses in a way both manic yet innocently sweet.
Many of the punch lines were funny, but few were particularly cutting, except for a Schumer joke about the late Ryan Dunn that clearly pissed off Steve-O. A dozen jokes about Seth McFarlane’s sexuality, a dozen more about Tyson’s lisp, a handful of diabetes jokes at O’Neal’s expense…each member of the dais had the same easy targets, and the degrees of success for each depended on quality of material versus originality. (The only truly original thing might have been Ross’ Qaddafi outfit, and even THAT was derivative.)
Is there any true takeaway from this? Probably not. Mcfarlane’s first jokes centered around the interchangeability between Sheen’s fate and that of Amy Winehouse, another example of the cyclical nature of these pop culture horror stories. Sheen hasn’t won so much as avoided “not completely losing” at this point, which will either serve him well or create an even bigger God complex. He might turn into a real-life version of Bill Murray’s character halfway through Groundhog Day, convinced he can never die and going through increasingly complex ways of proving that hypothesis. It’s hard to tell at this point.
Many of the roasters ended their sets with seemingly genuine good wishes for him the future. But the best chance for that is for this to be the last time anyone sees him for a long while. The head-to-head competition between Two and a Half Men and this roast will dominate the entertainment headlines for 48 hours, and then it will be essentially forgotten. This review will be buried off the main page in less time than that. But Sheen will still be around, whether we acknowledge it or not. Best case scenario? He goes away quietly, fading away as the newly minutes objects of scorn feed the beast. We have all tasted tiger blood. And as such, we all have a little blood on our hands here.
- If I had to rank the roasters, from best to worst: Ross, O’Neal, Jeselnik, Shatner, Schumer, Lovitz, Walsh, Steve-O, Tyson. Tyson might have been entertaining, but a large portion of that was at his expense.
- Sheen’s entrance featured Slash playing guitar behind him. Seriously. Look at that picture up top. As Todd would say, that was a thing that happened on television. Sadly, he wasn’t playing “Mr. Brownstone.”
- More than a few roasters pointed out what was clear at the time: Sheen should have been fired long before he actually was, but the sheer amount of money surround Two and a Half Men meant a lot of people had too much stake in the sanity of a lunatic to stop him from almost killing himself.
- I wish Vegas had odds on things like “Sheen will come out sooner rather than later claiming the whole ‘winning’ thing was a Joaquin Phoenix-esque way to get himself out of a job he hated.”
- Line of the Night, courtesy of Anthony Jeselnik: “The only reason you got on TV in the first place is because God hates Michael J. Fox.”
- “I only had to change three things: the sex of the deceased, the location of the body, and the part that says ‘a talent that will be missed.’”
- “You claim to have tiger blood, but from all the porn stars you’ve banged, it’s probably Tiger Woods’ blood.”
- “He’s the reason a dick with cocaine on it is called a ‘sheenis’.”
- “Honestly, I never thought I’d live to see the night where you lived to see this night.”
- “Did you know that according to the Torah, he’s Jewish? Not because his mother’s a Jew, but because CBS paid him $50 million and he still sued the network!”
- “Seth McFarlane: the only difference between you and the hooker in Charlie’s closet is that the hooker eventually came out.”
- “Friends, roasters, enablers…lend Mike Tyson your ears!”
- “Charlie’s meltdown was so bad, Al Gore’s making a film about it.”
- “Charlie’s nostrils are so snotty and full of coke he calls them ‘the Hilton sisters’.”
- “Charlie Sheen is to stand up what Larry Flynt is to standing up.”
- “The only time your kids see you is in reruns. Don’t you want to live to see their first twelve steps?”
- “Slash, you’re like the Abe Lincoln of rock and roll. Especially since you haven’t had a hit in four score and seven years.”
- “She’s not very bright, unless Charlie’s throwing a lamp at her.”
- “Hey Captain Kirk: maybe Scottie can beam your balls up from the floor.”
- “He’s a guy who’s beaten every opponent he’s come up against. Except the letter S.”
- “During your performance, I wish I could bite my own ears off!”
- “My good friend Jeff Ross is here…even though it’s laundry day.”
- “I saw your act at the Comedy Cellar, and let me give you some free advice, Steve-O: don’t give up your suicide.”
- “Too many white people? Know what no one ever says? ‘Too few black people.’”
- “Mike Tyson, to me you will always be the champion…of having more shit on your face than Seal.”
- “Dude, your nose is like my ass: you’ll shove anything up there.”
- “That’s what it looks like when an asshole gets fisted.”
- “You have a slutty lower-back tattoo on your face! Men don’t know whether to be afraid of it or finish on it.”
- “Tonight isn’t just a roast for Sheen. It’s a goodbye to Patrice’s foot.”
- “William: I’ve seen less bloated men being pulled out of rivers.”
- “Thank you, thank you. Keep it going for Chaz Bono.”
- “And people WORSHIP that guy!”
- “Who’s the warlock now, bitch?”
- “You’re a fucking asshole, Captain Kirk!”
- “I’m just disappointed and hurt about how comfortable white people are around Mike Tyson now. I don’t like it.”
- “He sucks, but he’s good! But he sucks, at the same time.”