Had it with the ubiquity of this week’s celebrity obsession? What’s a woman of substance to do? Our own Diane Vacca, a former medieval studies professor and writer for ComedyBeat.com–in addition to her WVFC contributions–looks at why, this time, some of us can’t take our eyes off the sight of an addict’s meltdown.

Charlie Sheen is imploding. Publicly. Broadcasting his meltdown on prime-time and late-night TV, on the radio and on Twitter. And then there are the jokes: his off-the-wall rants are compared to Qaddafi‘s and Glenn Beck‘s, paired with New Yorker cartoons (right), lampooned in a YouTube mashup, parodied in rap songs and randomly generated at a website set up for just that purpose. The appetite for mockery is insatiable. A Charlie Sheen appearance guarantees a spike in ratings and profits, so these outlets have a vested interest in Sheen’s continued outbursts, outrageous antics and self-destructive behavior.

So why are laughing as we witness the disintegration of a man’s life? What’s funny about drug addiction, shooting your girlfriend and holding a knife to your wife’s throat, having the police remove your kids from your home? If Sheen is mentally disturbed–as seems inescapable from his actions–if his addiction to cocaine isolates him from most people’s idea of reality, if he’s incapable of controlling his rage, why is he ridiculed rather than pitied? And what does it say about us that we are both fascinated and repelled by his defiance of social convention?

Mulling over these questions, it occurs to me that though the irrationality of his soundbites (“I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body”) can be very funny, his alleged violent abuse of women, the precipitous decline of his career and his drug-induced fantasies are actually very scary. Our laughter is defensive: it distances us from his crackup. If we can laugh at Charlie Sheen, we don’t have to imagine that we too might experience the horror of his disintegration.

“Either we live vicariously through something that is positive or we distance ourselves from something that is negative, that we want to keep at bay,” concurs the noted psychoanalyst Dr. G. Heath King. He offers the classic explanation for the public’s attraction to Charlie Sheen and the hit show, Two and a Half Men, in which Sheen essentially plays himself.

“Charlie Sheen is doing basically what he wants, breaking social mores, going out with two or three women at once, which many, many guys would like to do.” The problem is “they can’t, so they live vicariously through him,” King explains. “And yet, at the same time, they’re envious,” because Sheen has the money and the elevated position in the entertainment world that has allowed him to get away with behavior that would get other people fired and ostracized. That’s the double edge: we are drawn to him, but at the same time, we appease our guilt with condemnation and scorn for desiring what we know is wrong. Sheen lashes out in response to the criticism, which in turn “elicits more of the abrasive, insensitive, caustic reaction from the public,” says King.

Another way to see Charlie Sheen’s escapades and how they reverberate through his attentive audience is to view him as the comic hero, the jester, in an evolving comedy. In his essay on laughter and the meaning of the comic, the philosopher Henri Bergson observes that laughter has a social function as a response to the faults of others. It’s a corrective, intended to intimidate by humiliating, and it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. Since society avenges itself with laughter for the liberties taken with it, laughter would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness. Comedy in its very nature is destructive and anarchic. Bergson’s theory would explain our mostly unsympathetic response to Charlie Sheen’s antics and his resultant problems.

If the real-life Charlie Sheen functions as the buffoon who embodies in an exaggerated form the ills of our society, he corresponds in many ways to the archetype of the comic hero in the drama he is playing out before us. In his analysis of comedy, Maurice Charney identifies some of its characteristics:

  • The comic hero is a realist who celebrates the body and affirms the life force. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the Rabelaisian Gargantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’s Sancho Panza are towering figures in European literature. These famous comic heroes are all larger than life, and they all have enormous bodily appetites. Though Charlie Sheen appears to have lost weight— very likely attributable to his cocaine use— he, like his literary counterparts, violates every norm and drinks and fornicates prodigiously.
  • The comic hero imagines himself to be invulnerable and omnipotent. Sheen is in the grip of a powerful megalomania, which may well be drug-induced: “I’m tired of pretending like I’m not special. … You can’t process me with a normal brain.” Cocaine has the effect of bestowing on the user a false sense of power; the non-stop attention and publicity only magnify Sheen’s delusion of invincibility. “I’ve got magic, and I’ve got poetry at my fingertips.” Believing himself to be too big a star to be fired, too exceptional to be bound by the conventions that constrain other people, Sheen keeps pushing the envelope. When his boss, Chuck Lorre, finally fired him, Sheen was not only angry, but surprised: “I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can’t handle my power and can’t handle the truth,” he said. “[I'm] a rock star, a legend. Why isn’t anybody, like, rushing to my aid, rushing to protect me, rushing to protect their most valuable commodity?”
  • The comic hero may serve as the ritual clown of his society, acting as a scapegoat for its taboos. Our laughter at Sheen’s transgressive behavior enables comic catharsis of our repressions, pressures and guilt. We assign these to Sheen so that he can bear the blame for our own transgressions and we don’t have to.

  • The comic hero cultivates comic paranoia as a defense against a hostile reality.Sheen’s reality grows ever more hostile: he’s lost his children; he’s alienated his three wives; his future income and opportunities for work are nil at the moment, placing his expansive–and expensive–lifestyle in grave jeopardy. The drugs and alcohol that are an essential part of that lifestyle have taken a visible toll on his body, and he is unable or unwilling to renounce them.  “I had a disease, I cured it with my brain, with my mind. I can’t use the word sober, as that’s a term from those people [AA], but I have cleansed myself. I closed my eyes and in a nano-second I cured myself from this ridiculous model of addiction, disease and obsession.”
  • The comic hero never truly feels sorrow, guilt, or compassion. If Charlie Sheen does, he keeps it well hidden.
  • The comic hero indulges in wish fulfillment and fantasy gratification. Wish fulfillment is common to dreams and comedy. As if in a dream, Sheen transforms and distorts reality, imagining himself infinitely superior to all other men, able to handle every situation that may present itself.  ‘I’m an F-18, bro. I will destroy you in the air and I will deploy my ordnance on the ground.”

Watching the drama of Charlie Sheen’s disintegration as he performs his theater of the absurd may trigger the frisson of schadenfreude in his audience. Yet as he hurtles down a sure path to self-destruction, his resemblance to a comic hero begins to dissolve. Comedy can be cruel— its very nature is destructive and anarchic— but it can’t end in death.  Our derisive laughter masks our terror: we fear a harsh justice will strike him down, and to the extent that we live vicariously through him, we fear for ourselves, knowing we will have been complicit in his downfall.