So much for out-of-town tryouts. On Friday night, Charlie Sheen brought his Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option tour to New York City, where he delivered an hour-long show to a more-or-less capacity crowd at Radio City Music Hall. There was no warm-up act, and the show has been shorn of bells and whistles, though the hour did include a replay of the overly long parody video of his Andrea Canning interview on 20/20, as if anyone needed to see that YouTube clip one more time. In speaking about the evening, let me not mince words: It was Detroit all over again, an aimless and slovenly disaster, with the crowd taking less than 20 minutes to turn on him. And once they did, the boos and the catcalls just kept slowly escalating. The rumors of a better, more disciplined and lively show that had emerged during the last week out of Chicago and Ohio never came close to materializing. Does Sheen wonder, at this point, what he’s doing wrong? It was obvious that he found the mounting audience hostility at Radio City a little flabbergasting. He jeered at the jeerers, and often seemed to be saying, with a grimace of attitude: Why the hell are you people heckling me if you paid to see me? He didn’t seem to get that the audience was answering back: Because we didn’t want you to suck.
One thing is now clear: Sheen’s 15 minutes are over. Kaput. I don’t mean his 15 minutes of fame, of course, or even of infamy. I mean his 15 minutes of being a Rebel. For that, let’s make no mistake, is what this whole hellapalooza has been about: the prospect that Charlie Sheen, by saying whatever damn thing floats through his tiger blood and into his bizarrely semi-lucid crackpot brain and down to his hair-trigger mouth, could sort of, perhaps, just maybe be the Last Honest Man in a paralyzingly bogus media culture.
In the early stages of his madman meltdown phase, when he played the talk shows like a seasoned provocateur, or even on his public-access-style webcasts, he created the sex-and-dope version of a Howard Beale mad-as-hell moment. He held out the prospect of danger, of saying the things that we aren’t allowed to say. And that, let’s be honest, became – at least to some of us – an addictive prospect, a slumming form of performance-art entertainment for an overly controlled, rule-bound, PR-driven, terminally politically correct, spin-cycle America. Which leads one to ask: What does a Howard Beale who has already had his mad-as-hell eruption do for an encore?
Before the show, in the gilded lobby of Radio City, the surest sign that Sheen had passed from unpredictable bad-boy showman to official (yawn) rock star were the merchandise boutiques, stocked with paraphernalia that bear his patented if not yet trademarked phrases: the T-shirts emblazoned with “Winning” or (against a photo of Charlie with his fist raised) “F—ing,” the wool cap that reads “I’m Not Bipolar,” the white “Genius” book bag, the wifebeater T-shirt that says “Bangin’ 7Gs,” the “Goddess” hot pants. Sheen may be an addict, a screw-loose flake, a messed-up husband and father, but the message of the tour, and of those chintzy swag counters, is that he is also an industry. Which, of course, is supposed to be the way to get payback, the way to win, in our capitalist Thunderdome. “I want the Warlock T-shirt!” the guy behind me said to his girlfriend, and many, indeed, were lining up to buy them. I kept asking people in the lobby why they’d come to see Charlie, and more or less everyone told me variations on the same thing: that they respond to Sheen because he barks out the truth as he sees it. That’s hot currency in a climate where even a comic artist as outré as Howard Stern – who once occupied that deathless truth-teller role – sounds more and more, beneath his bluster, like a happy and quasi-defanged pussycat.
The show kept to a mini version of rock-star time, starting exactly half an hour late, and Sheen dispensed with any fripperies. From the get-go, it was just Charlie, out on stage in a matching black New York Yankees cap and T-shirt, sitting down in a plush armchair to be interviewed by his softball patsy/straight man. From the get-go, the trouble with this format, at least when you’ve got a personality as hostile and acerbic as Sheen’s, is that it basically sets up the audience to hear a series of zingers. In essence, they’re expecting “sit-down comedy.” And Sheen doesn’t have any jokes! He just has grudges that make him sound like a bad Vegas insult comic (think Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, with less charm). His dribbled-out, half-baked ramblings try to be funny, but mostly they’re like setups without the punchlines. And that has a weirdly enervating effect. Every time he coughs out another observation that’s greeted by murmury silence, punctuated by the occasional “Bor-ing!,” a little more air gets sucked out of the room. And pretty soon everyone there is starting to suffocate.
I can testify that if he had actually tried to say something thoughtful or confessional or interesting, even if it had been deadly serious, the crowd would have been with him. Instead, taking “edgy” puffs on a cigarette like the Denis Leary of 1988, he tells “stories,” a lot of which are reruns, and almost all of which sound like vague and hazy barstool anecdotes. Which is why the first trickles of heckling, I’m not kidding, commenced within the opening five minutes. People are used to entertainers, even mediocre ones, establishing a rhythm, an authority, and Sheen, in his act, doesn’t deliver that basic, organizing energy. He’s essentially reactive, which is why he’s so effective on talk shows, or even during those hostile news-media interrogations. He requires an antagonist to heat up his tiger blood. Here, to me, is why the show was like a car accident unfolding in slow motion:
His most coherent message is how much money he has. Sheen kicked off the evening by recalling all the fabulous hotels he’s stayed in, and then, in one of his only solid laugh lines, he welcomed himself to New York by saying, “Surprise! I’m not staying at the f—ing Plaza Hotel!” He then presented what was supposed to be “his version” of the infamous night when he was arrested for locking an escort in the bathroom and for trashing his Plaza suite. Everyone in the audience knew enough about this incident to want, at the very least, some juicy, revealing, added-value details. But Sheen’s idea of a detail is to make a big point of the fact that the evening started at the legendary restaurant Daniel (“That place f—ing rocks!”), that his “date” drank $20,000 worth of Latour Bordeaux, and that the trigger for his big hotel tantrum was the fact that she stole his $173,000 watch. And then, right there on stage, he made a big show of telling us that he went out and bought an identical one, which he was now wearing. All of which sounded about as rebellious as a diary entry by Donald Trump.
His pop references are weirdly stuck in time. He kept referring to two of his movies – Platoon and Wall Street – as if they had been made about three years ago. Indeed, his whole flaunt-my-money thing seems to come right out of the latter film. He’s still stuck in that ’80s idea of conspicuous consumption as “class.” And telling a story about a pleasure jaunt he took with his buddy Nicolas Cage to the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, he did an impersonation of Cage that hinged on what he called those great Cage gestures from Raising Arizona. Yes, the story took place 20 years ago, but he didn’t seem to have any awareness that the words “Nicolas Cage” do not, today, make anyone think of Raising Arizona.
When it comes to his father, he has a serious reality-and-illusion issue. We all know that Charlie is obsessed with Apocalypse Now. But during a moment when he was talking about why he admires his dad so much, he observed, with great pride and without any irony or humor, “The guy killed Kurtz in the middle of a f—ing typhoon!” Which was such a bizarre thing to say that the guy sitting next to me let out a gasp. Yes, Martin Sheen survived a typhoon (and a heart attack) during the filming of Apocalypse Now. However, he did not kill Kurtz. The fictional character he was playing did. As if to compound this nutzoid mix-up, Sheen explained the derivation of the term “tiger blood” by referring to the scene in Apocalypse in which “that tiger attacked my dad.” Once again: A tiger did not attack Martin Sheen. Of course, if Charlie is the one with the tiger blood, then what exactly is he trying to say…
He flirted with a sequel to “Chaim Levine.” Actually, Sheen’s only mention of Two and a Half Men creator/producer Chuck Lorre was friendly: He invited Lorre to show up on stage during Sheen’s follow-up Radio City show this coming Sunday night. This time, though, Sheen played the Jewish name game when he talked about getting tricked into doing Scary Movie 3, and he sneeringly dropped the name “Weinstein” (not Harvey, just Weinstein), as if he was talking about some Hollywood version of Shylock. To be fair, he trashed Oliver Stone, too, saying that “his movies now suck.”
How he loses the audience. The show was really a classic version of the comedian who fails to catch fire and bombs out. But in Charlie’s case, there’s a second dynamic at work. His show is supposed to be about zinging, winning, laying out the lethal truth, and as soon as he started to betray that promise, people in the audience didn’t just turn against him. In a funny way, they “became” Charlie Sheen, turning the same venom on him that he once turned on the lamestream media. It’s as if, in putting on such a feeble show, he’d become part of what we were supposed to be in solidarity with him for attacking. By the end, the crowd was like the Hollywood horde in Day of the Locust, rising up to destroy the cult of celebrity it worships.
Does Charlie Sheen want his old job back? You betcha. But he shouldn’t! The Sheen we came to see has blown everyone off, including – defiantly – the people connected to the show that made him a superstar. He once flirted with saying that it was all good riddance, but he has now gone back to admitting that he would like to return to Two and a Half Men. “Of course I want my job back, man!” he told the audience at Radio City. And if he had simply come clean and said why, I think that might have been accepted. But he had to follow it up with “You guys want me to have my job back, right?” Adding, in a meager attempt at blowhard swagger, “So you guys can keep enjoying the greatest sitcom ever, right?” All of which made him sound like he was operating not out of the old Charlie Sheen I-do-what-I-please-and-screw-the-consequences conviction, but out of something far more craven and cautious. He sounded like a politician interrupting his rebel yell to take the temperature of the room. And people turned on him for it. Speaking of which…
You know a performer is in trouble when his hecklers are funnier than he is. I went to see Charlie Sheen at Radio City because I’ve been fascinated by his ranting-outside-the-box media blitz, and because I do think, given the right setting, that he can be a witty and truthful bomb-thrower. But I didn’t get one honest laugh out of his hour of lamely convoluted self-love – that is, until near the end, when the jeers were mounting, the people were already streaming up the aisles in bored contempt, and a guy a few rows in back of me yelled, with one of those full-throttle arena-rattling shouts, “This is the worst thing I’ve seen, ever!” A statement of pure opinionated passion, and not necessarily all that funny, until, a moment later, with the kind of timing that only a born heckler can muster, he added, and at top volume: “This is worse than Chernobyl!” No one there, including Charlie, could have said it better.
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