Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Charlie Sheen and the Return of the Catch Phrase

Rumor has it that, after all the hullabaloo, Charlie Sheen is in negotiation to return to Two and a Half Men this fall. I have one thing to say to that:

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?

It's shocking to the point of scandalous, given all that's been said, that anyone on either side of the Charlie Sheen/CBS debacle would return to the table. But it's one thing Charlie said, and the way he said it in particular, that I think will seal the deal:

Winning!

It's Sheen's particular mad genius that led him at the exact right moment to drop that verbal whammy on us, in the tone and pitch and timbre that he did. And the fact that he could walk away from a show that supposedly generated close to $3 million per episode in revenue for CBS, say one weird and seemingly meaningless word, and parlay it into a reported $7 million profit for himself right out of the gate - not to mention the cottage industries and cultural blitzkrieg that have followed in the wake of this random utterance - was apparently enough to convince Les Moonves that "we need this guy back in our fall lineup."

(That's not a direct quote. Please don't sue me, CBS.)

Here's my concern: what does the success of this odd catch phrase mean for the future of the sit com?

It seems to me that we'd escaped the era of the catch phrase. I grew up with them: Gary Coleman had the aforementioned "Watchoo talkin' 'bout?" on Diff'rent Strokes. A young Jason Bateman had "You're gonna laugh" on It's Your Move. Emmanuel Lewis had a simple funky laugh on Webster. Happy Days' Fonzie had "Ayyyyy!" and Friends' Joey had "How you doin'?" and South Park's Cartman had "Respect My Authority!" and The Simpsons' Bart had "Eat my shorts!" And then . . . nothing.

The catch phrase had a long and storied career, but I thought it had run its course, and I thought we were better off for it. Oh, you'd still hear The Office's Michael Scott say "That's what she said!" over and over again, but I took that more as a statement by the writers on that show that the catch phrase was a cheap shot, the last resort of the not too clever - not a mark of good writing but rather early evidence that a show had jumped the shark. The Office, in fact, in many ways revitalized the form of the sit com, with lots of innovative shows following in its wake, none of them relying on audience anticipation of When's he gonna say it! It's been a great run for situation comedy over the past few years, till Charlie Sheen had to open his mouth and ruin it.

In the movie The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges plays a former radio DJ tortured by a taste of success and his public fall from grace, on a desperate search for forgiveness that he never quite realizes he's on. He's haunted throughout the film by the big break he didn't get: a sit com role, obviously beneath him intellectually, characterized by the melodramatic catch phrase "Forgivvvvve Meeeeeee!" It's a powerful film, and if I were Charlie Sheen's agent, I'd make him watch it. There are infinitely higher callings out there, I'd tell Charlie, than silly comedy with a lack of imagination; such a project could in fact distract a person from the most important role of his life: cleaning themselves up, conducting a ruthless moral self-inventory, getting right with God.

But that's not going to happen. And meanwhile, even if Charlie Sheen doesn't return to Two and a Half Men, even if Two and a Half Men doesn't return to the airwaves, I suspect there are lots of writers in and around Hollywood who are licking their pencils--or, more likely, dusting off decades-old pilots that never took off--in anticipation of the resurrection of the self-made cliche. To that I say, with all due respect to Flo from TV's Alice:

"Kiss my grits!"

1 comment:

Mark Nielsen said...

Apple fell rather far from the tree in Sheen's family. I respect Martin's moral character and his acting chops immensely. But I agree the writing on 2-1/2 generally sucks compared to the new crop of sitcoms, and Charlie is being "enabled" by CBS and the American population's fascination with flash and catchphrase-ology over substance and actual thinking. There's at least one catchphrase from the movies being uttered behind closed doors here, ... I think Sheen (highest salary in TV)and CBS (I think "2-1/2" is their biggest moneymaker)are reviving this one:

"SHOW ME THE MONEY!"