The Charlie and Barney Show: birth of a new American male?

Twohalfmen I watched heroic quantities of TV over the holidays.  And I was struck by how much comedy now comes from characters who are self interested, self serving, self aggrandizing. 

I’m thinking of Charlie Harper played by Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, and Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother.  Both Charlie and Barney are in it for themselves. They have no empathy.  They have no principles.  They have no shame. They are serene in the knowledge that they are without moral reflex of any kind…and that that’s ok.  The rest of us a struggling to live a good life (more or less, give or take) and these guys just couldn’t care less. 

There are British origins to this character, let’s call him the unapologetic male.  John Cleese’s character on Fawlty Towers, Martin Clunes’ character on Men Behaving Badly, and Rickey Gervais’ character on The Office all made a contribution.  It is worth pointing out that these British tokens of the type were just as likely to make us cringe as make us laugh, whereas the American instance is appealing even when appalling. 

American contributions came from Phil Hartman’s character on NewsRadio, David Spade’s character on Just Shoot Me, Jack on Will and Grace, and perhaps even, and distantly, Archie Bunker from All in the Family.  There is a bit of the SNL Bill Murray and a bit of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers, but there is a difference between being self possessed and being self centered.  And there is a bit Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy but there’s a difference between self centered and dumb as a post.  Ron Burgundy is too dim to know better.  Charlie and Barnie know exactly what they’re doing. 

The unapologetic male is a species that appears only in comedy.  And this must be because someone who acted like this in a simulation of real life would be intolerable.  He would, in fact, be Borat.  The unapologetic male always exists always in a series (and not a one-off movie).  We have to get to know him.  We have to grow to love him.  It takes awhile to forgive him.  Something.  But duration counts here.

The unapologetic male is a still minority face in TV comedy which continues to be dominated by characters like Frasier, The King of Queens, Old Christine, Will and Grace, or the Seinfeld crew, all of whom are usually struggling to do the right thing, and ruefully bad at it.  Is it just me, but does the unapologetic male appear to be gaining on the outside.  Is Charlie Harper the future of TV comedy. 

Why is the unapologetic male so funny?  Well, I guess that everyone likes what William James called a moral holiday, the occasional moment when the rules of decency do not apply.  But Charlie Harper and Barney Stinson are always on moral holiday.  Surely, we should tire of them.  Why aren’t they a one-note whistle, predictable and finally annoying.  But this is wrong too.  Charlie and Barney are characters that comedy writers love to write for and we love to listen to.  It’s as if our expectation of the wrong, selfish, abominable thing never goes for enough.  Charlie and Barney are always one step ahead of us. 

I think the Basil Fawlty character worked in England because the English are generally speaking more careful, more exacting in social life.  Watching someone shambling and shameless is good fun.  But we Americans are not so constrained.  Haven’t we always been famous for our candor and freedom?  Perhaps this was only the case when we didn’t really have to pay attention to different points of view and new diversity-borne delicacies in the workplace.  Maybe Charlie and Barney represent the "good old" days when Americans weren’t proceeding with caution.  I really hope this is not it. 

We could look at the unapologetic man as progress, an evolutionary development even.  Feminism demanded a more sensitive male, and the likes of Alan Alda obliged.  Then Madonna sounded the all-clear signal with her "boy toy" video, and many men took this as license to retire to Morton’s, order steak and whiskey, and return to the old rules of gender.  In fact, many males began to think of themselves as "dogs," as big, stupid, but lovable, brutes driven by appetite, capable of only the smallest, simplest niceties.  The unapologetic male, at least he’s a step up.

12 thoughts on “The Charlie and Barney Show: birth of a new American male?

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Oh…I think the nostalgic longing for “the good old days” is much of it, Grant. These guys seem to represent a species of wish fulfillment (for both sexes?) that we can’t get enough of.

  2. Jaynie

    I’d offer that this is why Kim Catrall as Samantha on Sex and the City was such a shock of a character– in her portrayal of the even more rare Unapologetic Female.

    Moreover, in her “balls to the walls,” sexually brazen attitude, she almost took on a Unapologetic-Male-As-Played-By-A-Female role even more so than carving out a new niche within her gender.

  3. Grant

    Jaynie, perfect, I was wondering whether Wendie Malick (sp) in the new show Big Day might also qualify. Thanks! Grant

  4. Pramila

    Hi there,

    My first time here…

    my two cents worth : Maybe, just maybe Charlie and Barney are tolerable …even kinda likable cause they are ‘funny’ or made out to be – being witty may not come to a ‘Charlie’ in real life – but in reel life where lines are fed to him – he is funny.
    and its human nature to like, to accept one that makes you laugh..

    also unlike the character on The Office – the Charlies of the sitcom world have a “caring” side to them – of course revealed only when young nephews are involved – here the length of the sitcom, where the viewer gets conned into getting to know the ‘real’ charlie.
    the english counterparts however usually have no such redeeming qualities.

  5. mega-much

    I agree.Charlie Sheen is patetic.Here in spanish culture knows like a ‘chulo’.(a man who lives for prostitutes)But the other rol(Barney)maybe is worst.

  6. peter spear

    can’t say i’ve seen that show, but have marveled at it’s success from a distance. (That’s not true. as an american, i’ve lost my ability to marvel).

    But I couldn’t agree more with the notion that the American male and the ideas of masculinity are in flux at the moment. i think what’s fascinating about TV as a mirror to masculinity is that, for the most part, content on family/comedic TV has historically been directed (by advertising at least) towards a neutralization of traditional masculinity for a female audience. (i’m open to this being patently wrong)

    I also think that feminism and identity politics of the 90s has created an environment where masculinity is almost always a detriment of power – the brutish, helpless neanderthal that would die without the ingenuity and stalwart instincts of a strong woman.

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  10. Matt

    I just want to see a spin off of both shows with Charlie and Barney living together. Kind of the odd couple but identically wrong.

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