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Why it’s OK to laugh at Charlie Sheen

Here are some words Jeff Jarvis used yesterday in a blog post about media coverage of Charlie Sheen: Nuts. Nutty. Lunatic. Madman. Looney.

Those insensitive words were ill chosen, particularly because Jarvis was accusing the media of exploiting a man in trouble—while exploiting the same subject for the benefit of his blog. He’s hardly the only media critic to stand on a soap box and do so clumsily and without a trace of humor.

This Charlie Sheen post is different. I won’t accuse the celebrity press of failing their audiences, and I won’t act like an expert on mentally ill people while labeling them with slang.

Here’s my take: Folks, go ahead and laugh at Charlie Sheen. It’s OK to laugh because we are capable of holding two contradictory feelings at the same time.

Sheen’s recent interviews are amazing. Case in point: “I am on a drug. It’s called CHARLIE SHEEN!” He just started a Twitter account, where he calls himself an “unemployed winner.” And the Internet humor culture has come alive with remixes of his recent over-the-top freestylings.

No doubt about it: Charlie Sheen’s meltdown is funny. I’m laughing. I am taking pleasure in a star’s misfortunes, and in the ramblings of a man in distress. And even though I know I should feel guilty, I don’t.

Here’s how this works. Charlie Sheen and I don’t relate to each other as human beings. I have been conditioned through years of movies and TV shows to view Charlie Sheen’s exploits as entertainment. Charlie Sheen is a brand, and I am a consumer.

We make this bargain every time we switch on a television: The people we see and hear on that glowing box cannot see or hear us. We are free to cruelly mock them, knowing they aren’t in the room and our words will never reach them. Sometimes turning up the snark is the best way to enjoy TV. (“Jersey Shore” anyone?) It’s like laughing at the moon—it doesn’t hurt the moon.

That said, we can laugh cruelly at Charlie Sheen the brand while hoping earnestly that Charlie Sheen the person seeks the care he needs—especially for the sake of the children in his life. That’s the definition of a heartbreaking story. It’s the opposite of what I feel when I laugh, and yet I feel it just as earnestly.

We laugh to release tension, and to process things that don’t make any sense. We can find amusement in a situation that makes us feel sad. Sometimes comedy is barely distinguishable from tragedy.

Image via @CharlieSheen

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism

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