What Conan O’Brien Taught Charlie Sheen

Conan O'Brien, Charlie Sheen Photo: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images, Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images/Getty

A man who makes his living on television gets into a high-profile dispute with his corporate employer. He feels wronged. Rather than stay silent, he states his grievances directly to the public and becomes a media and Internet sensation in the process. His relationship with his employer is terminated. He takes his show on the road. Who is it? Conan O'Brien or Charlie Sheen?

But good things regularly lead to bad (see: most sequels, Frank Lloyd Wright–based suburban tract housing), and even unhinged guys have to get their inspiration from somewhere. A little over a year ago the NBC-Conan fiasco was taking up as much column space as Sheen is now, a frenzy fed in no small part by Conan's groundbreaking work in taking his case to the people and making himself into the Internet equivalent of a folk hero. A year later, Sheen is cribbing Conan so plagiaristically that he's about to go on tour. What's next, a beard? To be sure, Charlie Sheen and Conan are not headed in the same direction. Things probably aren't going to work out for Sheen as, uh, professionally as they have for Conan (good will, good sense, and healthy living habits— they're worth something!). But that's what happens when a person drives a bulldozer with a "winning" license plate down a path a redhead blazed with just his weed wacker: He gets lost in the woods.

Admittedly, this setup is missing some key details: Conan does not have an apparent mental-health disorder, a history of drug problems and domestic abuse, or multiple girlfriends; Conan's relationship with NBC fell apart because of low ratings, not because he was so addled that he was allegedly muffing his lines and missing his marks. Conan's idea of speaking directly to the public involved Twitter and an emo letter, not Twitter and a wild-eyed, twitchy interview with every news organization in the land (though that letter did contain a Sheenian allusion to Mars). Conan's not-very-popular show was pretty funny, Sheen's very popular show is not, and on and on, all adding up to: Conan's a good guy; Charlie Sheen, not so much.