No one likes to be told what they should and shouldn't laugh at. In the world of comedy, there is already a grocery list of sensitive subjects and ethnic/religious minorities that some believe should be off limits. The idea of adding white male celebrities—one of the most privileged segments of the population—to that list probably doesn't sound justified, even when mental illness is the source of their joke-inspiring behavior. Yet there is something unsettling about the way the public gleefully ridicules the psychotic behavior of people like Gary Busey, Scott Stapp, and Randy Quaid. It says a lot more about us than it does them.
"Celebrities are people who, for better or worse, make a living out of being a spectacle," says Dr. Kevin Everhart, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver's Psychology Department. "And I think there's a sense of schadenfreude going through people's minds when they see a celebrity suffering. Typically, those who take pleasure in someone else's suffering have low self-esteem. And for someone like that, someone who feels that they don't have anything, there can be a sense of perverse justice when watching someone fall apart."
For those unfamiliar with him, Randy Quaid is a character actor of the National Lampoon's Vacation series and Independence Day fame. For the last four years, he has been hiding out in Canada with his wife and dog, convinced that a Hollywood cabal is out to murder him, just as they did—he believes—David Carradine and Heath Ledger. The conspiracy only gets weirder from there.
Two weeks ago, he released a video of himself looking like a member of the Duck Dynasty family on a paint-huffing binge with his wife in the background in sunglasses and a bikini. After going on a rant about Rupert Murdoch not thanking him for saving the world in Independence Day, he asks his wife to put on a poorly constructed mask of Murdoch's face, then says to the camera, "You wanna fuck me? I'm gonna fuck you." And that's just what he does.
Some might find the video somewhat funny—Quaid still has a spark of thespian wit inside him—but considering it depicts two crazy people living in what looks like a cheap hotel room, screwing while their dog barks and Quaid yells out lines from his past successes, it's mostly just sad.
While Quaid was going for a bit of dark whimsy during his YouTube rant, when former Creed singer Scott Stapp posted a similar video of himself in a hotel room, there wasn't a lot wisecracking going on. This was last November, a time when Stapp says he'd been living out of his truck, penniless and starving. Like Quaid, Stapp laid out vague details of a conspiracy, claimed he was the victim of theft and unpaid royalties, and emphatically denied he was on drugs. His wife filed for divorce the next day, citing in the divorce petition that Stapp had been "doing so much amphetamines, crystal meth, and steroids that he has become a paranoid shell who has threatened to kill himself and harm his family."
TMZ fed the schadenfreude beast by releasing 911 calls from Stapp, in which he claimed he'd been followed for weeks by people trying to kill him, and then 911 calls from his wife, in which she said Stapp had plotted to kill President Obama and that he believed the Islamic State had infiltrated his family.
His behavior fit all the tropes of amphetamine psychosis, a condition I've unfortunately seen firsthand in some of my own friends and family members. Yet I have to admit, at first I joined my rock-snob friends in mocking Stapp. We did it partly because he's a pompous twit and partly because we were compensating for our collective shame of being Creed fans as teenagers. But pretty soon, I started to feel guilty for making fun of Stapp and had to ask myself: What is this man guilty of besides making shitty music?
It was even worse when director of the Kony 2012 campaign, Jason Russell, was found naked, masturbating, and muttering to himself on the streets of San Diego. I'd already built up a boiling rage at the site of Russell's face, as I saw him as a narcissistic opportunist who used a humanitarian tragedy to fund his own self-aggrandizing short films. When Jason Biggs parodied the incident in a Chicago news station, followed later by South Park, I experienced an unsettling amount of glee at Russell's misfortune.
Like Stapp, Russell was an Evangelical Christian, a religious designation I have strong personal feelings about. Though were those previously held feelings the reason I celebrated their mental collapse, or was there some deeper, perhaps unconscious reason that I refused to show them compassion?
"Most people harbor a fear of a mental illness happening to themselves," says Everhart. "The idea that you could lose control of your emotions, thoughts, and behavior is pretty frightening for people. They're afraid of it and want to distance themselves from it."
This would explain the success of Amazon's Fire TV campaign featuring Gary Busey. For the last ten years Busey has probably been the celebrity most known for mental illness. Having suffered brain damage during a 1988 motorcycle accident, Busey's ability to temper his impulse control was severely impaired, according to a doctor on a season two episode of Celebrity Rehab. A once-accomplished movie star, the second act of Busey's career has been as a Puck-like reality TV star, using his reputation for clinical madness as a vehicle for drama on shows like Big Brother, The Apprentice, and I'm with Busey.
The Amazon Fire TV ad opens with Busey saying to the camera, "If you're like me, you like talking to things." He then proceeds to commune with objects like the lamp, his pants, and fish in the ocean. The kicker is that with Amazon Fire TV, Busey can utilize the audio functions to search for movies, thereby granting him the opportunity to engage his madness as a practical resource. (I reached out to Amazon to get in touch with those behind the Busey campaign, but never received a response.)
Whether or not Busey is so crazy that he actually experiences auditory hallucinations, there are plenty of people who endure this very real condition every day. In Oliver Sacks's book Hallucinations, the neurologist explains that with auditory hallucinations, "The voices are often localized in the body… In cases of sexual complexes, the penis, the urine in the bladder, or the nose utter obscene words… A really or imaginarily gravid patient will hear her child or children speaking inside her womb… Inanimate objects may speak. The lemonade speaks, the patient's name is heard to be coming from a glass of milk. The furniture speaks to him."
According to iSpot, the Busey commercial was Amazon's most successful TV ad campaign, costing less and bringing in nearly three times the viewers than the "hipster children" campaign for the Amazon Fire Phone.
Perhaps this is due to Everhart's theory that we actively try to distance ourselves from mental illness because we're afraid it could happen to us—and, traditionally, there is no greater medium for neutralizing an unpleasant reality than humor.
Though this doesn't explain the disparity between how we treat celebrities with mental illness, and how we react to celebrities with physical ailments. When Patrick Swayze was dying of cancer, or Christopher Reeve became paralyzed, no one attempted to neutralize the difficult situation with humor (aside from South Park, of course). Randy Quaid was once our beloved Cousin Eddie, not to mention the endearing Amish boy from Kingpin, and if he'd suddenly lost a limb to diabetes or been maimed by a stalker, I can't imagine the media being as irreverent and hostile as they've been toward his "Looney Tunes Rant."
"When there's a physical ailment, it's usually pretty evident and fairly predictable," says Everhart. But it's more difficult to gauge mental illness, and when someone suffering an affliction of the mind, there is often a bit of combative, off-putting behavior that accompanies it.
And when this happens, Everhart explains that "the knee-jerk, emotional response is to punish that person, or to retaliate. It's a really difficult thing to wrap your head around the idea that this person is behaving in an aggressive or antisocial way, but I'm not going to react to them the way I typically would because this person is not in control of him or herself. But that is a cognitive decision, but not an emotional one."
This is ultimately why our treatment of mentally ill celebrities speaks to the larger issue of ignorance when it comes to dealing with diseased minds—which is possibly the greatest threat to society of our time. Mental illness can be said to be behind such social problems like homelessness, overcrowded prisons, murder, unstable veterans, domestic violence, and certain acts of terrorism. And if the most privileged among us (white male celebrities) are not afforded the briefest moments of compassion required to even understand their condition, what hope do people without the privilege of fame have in getting the help they need?
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