The first time I was flown out to Hollywood to work on a film was a very exciting experience. Barely a year before, I had been a struggling wannabe, now suddenly someone was paying me more money than I’d ever imagined making and even flying me across country first class. My wife was so excited she took a picture of me getting in the limousine that the studio sent to my door.
In LA, I found myself sitting at a power breakfast with a bunch of studio muckamucks whose tie-clips cost more than everything I owned. I did my best to make small talk, but I was nervous beyond description. Somehow, the conversation turned to Maria Shriver, and one of the people at the table said, “I’ve always liked her because she’s the one member of the Kennedy family to whom nothing tragic has happened.” To which I immediately piped up: “Oh, I don’t know. She married Arnold Schwarzenegger!”
Well, the table went silent. A long time. Long enough for a bead of sweat to run from the nape of my neck to the small of my back. Finally, one of these studio guys cleared his throat and muttered, “Nice man – Arnold.” And the conversation resumed.
See, it’s not that I thought Arnold was a bad man, or a bad husband or a bad match for Maria Shriver. It simply never occurred to me that Arnold Schwarzenegger was real! To me, he was a two dimensional image on a screen, a celebrity, a persona not a person. I made a joke about him because that’s what he was there for, that was the purpose of his existence in my life. It had never truly entered my mind that he was an actual living, breathing human being whom other people might know and work with, respect or like or care about.
Last week, like everyone else, I took an occasional five minute break from work to watch, laugh at, shake my head over, pontificate on and make jokes about the drug-induced psychosis and probable incipient death of actor Charlie Sheen. Like everyone else, I watched the bear-baiting “journalists” draw yet more absurd statements out of the man, then shared the videos with my friends and slugged the emails with headings like, “The Train Wreck Who Thought He Was A God,” and “I Too Am Tired of Pretending Charlie Sheen’s Not Special.” I even discussed him in an interview on New York radio.
And no, I’m not about to get all moralizing and sententious about it. It is what it is. They put this stuff on TV because we watch it. We watch it because they put it on TV.
It did, however, remind me of that embarrassing moment at my first power breakfast in LA, and of something else as well. Once, when Johnny Carson was still hosting the Tonight Show, his staff took out a full page joke advertisement in, I think, The New York Times. It said – I quote from memory, “You may think Johnny Carson is your friend, but he doesn’t even know who you are.”
That’s a deep truth about celebrities–and like many deep truths, the reverse is a deep truth as well.
Charlie Sheen may think we’re paying attention to him, but we don’t even know he’s real.