Time to admit it once and for all: Charlie Sheen is nuts. Big surprise, right? Well here’s the thing: I say that not because of the cocaine binges and hotel room trashing and beat poetry rants. No, Charlie Sheen is nuts because he thought he could do the impossible. Charlie Sheen is nuts because he thought he could get up and — with no preparation and no script — entertain thousands of people for several hours just by telling stories and being himself.
How’d that work out for you, Charlie?
The first night of Charlie Sheen’s comedy show in Detroit, “Violent Torpedo of Truth Defeat Is Not an Option” was so bad it ended 20 minutes early because everyone left and booed him off stage. According to reports, “Violent Torpedo” was a disjointed, self-indulgent, unfunny mess of old clips featuring Sheen, stupid catchphrases, a video of him playing Call of Duty and unfortunate dissing of Detroit.
But in fairness to Charlie, probably no one could have done what he tried to do last night in Detroit. Now before you go disagreeing and tossing names like Henry Rollins and Kevin Smith at me, realize that neither of those people do what Charlie Sheen did. Rollins, love him or hate him, knows exactly what he’s doing in his spoken word shows — he doesn’t just get up there and wing it, telling whatever funny anecdote happens to come into his head as he strolls on stage — even if that’s exactly what it looks like he’s doing. There is not an element of chance in his performances. Rollins knows his audience; even before he ever did his first spoken word show, he had years of performing with Black Flag under his belt, so he knew the give and take of interacting with a crowd, he knew how to read and respond to their energy, he knew what to do if he found himself floundering. Even then, he had to hone an entirely different set of skills when he started doing spoken word, and, here’s the thing, Charlie: he started small and learned his fucking craft.
Of his early days, Rollins says,
Well I started doing spoken word tours back in 1985 when Black Flag wasn’t touring. In the beginning I was drawing about 12 – 50 people each night. I remember my big goal was to sell 100 tickets to one of these shows. I believe I hit that goal within the first year.
A year of shows before he had an audience of more than 100 people. That sounds about right. Charlie, on the other hand, played a 5,000 seat hall on his first ever spoken word performance (though it’s not clear how many people were actually there). This is like a garage band that has never played a live gig being booked into Wembley Stadium. Like I said: it’s nuts.
As for Kevin Smith’s live Q&A thingies, he comes with his own built-in audience, rabid fanboys who hang on his every word, the complete opposite of the rubber-necking gawkers that Charlie Sheen faced in Detroit. Audience good will is an essential component of any successful live performance. Without it, you haven’t got a hope (just ask Tila Tequila). From the EW article linked above, it sounds like the crowd at Charlie’s show was game enough at the outset but turned against him as the debacle unfolded.
When this misbegotten tour was announced, I remember thinking, what the hell is it? Is it stand up? Is it story telling? Turns out it’s Charlie Sheen winging it in front of thousands of people, padded out with, no kidding, fan-created YouTube videos.
But here’s the thing: it could have worked. Sheen has led an . . . interesting life, and I’m sure he’s got great stories out the wazoo (certainly as many as Rollins or Smith). But a show like this would have required Charlie sitting down with a writer, or preferably a team of writers, and hashing all this stuff out, weeding out the weakest material while highlighting the good stuff, then honing it, running through it, learning the flow and pacing of each story, then trying it out in limited doses in front of small crowds, then honing it some more, then trying it out again, then honing it, trying it out again, honing it, ad infinitum. It would have taken months at a minimum to produce anything worthwhile, and probably more like a year.
And it would have required effort and patience and persistence — skills that are nowhere in evidence these days from a guy who can’t be bothered to learn his lines for a television sitcom. Another squandered opportunity from a narcissistic asshole. Winning indeed.
EW’s James Hibberd give five ways to fix Charlie Sheen’s live tour — pretty much just what I said above.