Where Charlie Sheen's crazy words come from.
The most surprising aspect of Charlie Sheen's suicide by camera this week—aside from the fact that he's somehow still alive—has been learning of his gift with words. Viewers quickly seized on his curious turns of phrase. "I got magic and I got poetry at my fingertips," Sheen said in a radio interview. Indeed, back in 1990 Sheen even wrote a book of poetry (now, sadly, out of print).
Sheen says that the words he strings together—like when he called himself a "high priest Vatican assassin warlock"—"just sound cool together." And they do. But they're not assembled at random. Now that Sheen has given interviews to every news organization in America, it is possible to detect patterns in his speech, to discern influences. Here's a breakdown of Sheen's linguistic tics, and the parts of his identity from which they may emerge.
Stoner surfer philosopher. Often, Sheen talks like a perpetually blazed Ninja Turtle. An interviewer he likes is "radical." His publicist's decision to ditch him is "gnarly." His life, which he hopes his children one day learn from, is "epic." It's unclear how Sheen's vocabulary stays rooted in the Point Break era while modern American usage continues to evolve, but it may say something about the last time he was fully conscious of his surroundings.
Sports commentator. Sheen's obsession with "winning" has been widely noted. (#winning has been a trending topic on Twitter for days.) "The scoreboard doesn't lie," he says, referring to the way he raises his kids, his contract with CBS, and his marital life, in which he acknowledges he's "zero for three." Addressing his boss, Chuck Lorre, Sheen, an avid baseball fan said, "Your cleanup hitter is on the bench just waiting to spin to win and crush." Never mind that he had, effectively, just whacked his coach with the bat.
Military buff. Sheen's breakout role was playing a grunt in Platoon, and he's still playing it. "Sniper team one, sniper team one, take 'em out," he joked, during an interview with TMZ, when he appeared to spot paparazzi. Many of his favorite metaphors are military ones. "I'm dealing with soft targets," he said, referring to his enemies, "and it's just strafing runs in my underwear before my first cup of coffee." The aircraft he most identifies with? "Most of the time—and this includes naps—I'm an F-18, bro, and I will destroy you in the air, and I will deploy my ordnance to the ground." He can be other weapons, too. "He might be Nails," Sheen said on a radio show, referring to the center fielder Lenny Dykstra by his nickname, "but I'm frickin' bayonets, you know? I'm battle tested, man." Sheen's fight with CBS over Two and a Half Men is not a mere skirmish. "We are at war," he says. "Defeat is not an option."
English professor. Sheen understands the limits of language. He refers to the two women in his life as "the goddesses," but the word isn't sufficient to describe them: "I don't think the term is good enough," he says. "But when you're bound by these terrestrial descriptions, you must use the best term available." He also urges his audience to do a little textual analysis when considering his plight and to think about authorial intent: "If people could just read behind the hieroglyphic, if they could put their freakin' cryptology hat on, they'd realize this isn't totally serious."
Self-help guru. Sheen's 12-step program has only one step: Sheer force of will. Asked about his substance abuse problems, Sheen said "I cured it with my brain, with my mind." If there's a method to his program, it's channeling his anger into productive activity. "People say you have to work on your resentments," he said. "Yeah, no, I'm gonna hang onto them and they're gonna fuel my attack." Like any savvy guru, he dismisses programs other than his own: "Alcoholics Anonymous reports a 5 percent success rate. My success rate is 100 percent." He even has prime-time ready slogans. "Can't is the cancer of happen," he says.
Cult leader. Charisma. Inflated sense of self. Belief that one is chosen and deserving of worship. Check, check, check. There may not be a real cult of Charlie Sheen, but he's leading it nonetheless. "I'm tired of pretending I'm not special," he says. "I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total freaking rock star from Mars." Other people cannot be like him, because they don't have "tiger blood and Adonis DNA." In fact, it would be dangerous to try: "I am on a drug," he says. "It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." But they can worship him—he has a soft spot for his "beautiful fans"—and revel in his success. "Don't be worried," he reassured fans. "Celebrate this movement."
Slam poet. It's hard to pick just one genre that captures the free-association musicality of Sheen's words. He cajoles his audience with Saul Williams-style "wake up" messages: "So just shut your traps and put down your McDonald's, your magazines, your TMZ and the rest of it, and focus on something that matters. But you can't focus on things that matter if all you've been is asleep for 40 years. Funny how sleep rhymes with sheep." He plays with words. Is he bipolar? He's "bi-winning." And anyway, so what if he was? "The earth is bipolar," he says. He's got a deep well of audience-pleasing quips: "It might be lonely up here," he says, "but I sure like the view."
Sheen's sitcom career may be over, but his knack for language suggests he could have a bright future working with words. Time to start shopping that second volume of poetry.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Charlie Sheen by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.