Amazon, Gary Busey, And The Mocking Of Mental Illness

Apr 13 2014, 2:28pm CDT | by

Amazon, Gary Busey, And The Mocking Of Mental Illness
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

You may have noticed that Amazon’s launch of its new streaming media box, Fire TV, features actor Gary Busey. The ad campaign’s shtick is that Busey likes talking to inanimate objects, like a lamp and his pants, but nothing happens when he talks to his Roku streaming media box. Fire TV, a voice-activated device, does respond to Busey’s shouts, making him very happy.

Since his mainstream film career slowed in the 90s, Busey has banked on his reputation for saying and doing strange things. From his defunct Comedy Central show, I’m with Busey, to his bizarre appearance in a Turkish nationalist film, Busey has become synonymous with zaniness.

And I must admit some of what he does is really funny. If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t get parts like his starring role in Amazon’s advertising campaign. People love laughing at Busey. But even while I’m laughing, I have to remind myself that Busey’s behavior isn’t an act, at least not completely, but the result of severe brain damage from a motorcycle accident he suffered in 1988.

When Busey appeared on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008, he was referred to a psychiatrist who evaluated Busey and concluded that his brain injury took a massive toll on his executive control capability – the filtering process a normal brain engages to regulate what we say and do. Busey’s brain trauma damaged this capability, resulting in a loss of control over impulsive thought and behavior.

The truth is that Busey’s behavior is a form of mental illness spawned by brain trauma, and yet we find it hilarious.

That being said, I’m forced to wonder if Amazon’s choice to showcase him in its commercials is in poor taste. Or is the popular caricature of Busey’s behavior a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’ when it comes to laughing about mental illness?

One argument in Amazon’s favor is that Busey is being paid well, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that it’s in his best financial interest to act as off-the-wall as possible.  I’m sure that’s at least partly true, but it doesn’t erase the fact that his brain damage is very real.

A friend of mine with a performance background reminded me recently that effective comedy is all about dissociation. We laugh at things to distance ourselves from the pain and discomfort they might otherwise cause us.  Mental illness, in any form, is an uncomfortable topic. When we see an interview with Muhammad Ali or others suffering from brain trauma-induced illness, it’s not funny. Perhaps Busey is our popular go-to source of dissociation about mental illness that allows us to laugh at a comfortable distance.

Let’s open the floor to opinions. Is Amazon out of line for featuring Busey’s bizarre behavior in its commercials, or is it okay because Busey’s behavior—no matter its cause—is funny, and as long as something is funny, it’s fair game? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.


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