Drama King

Johnny Drama: What a great character! I’m surprised that more attention hasn’t been paid to Kevin Dillon’s brilliant embodiment of comic/pathetic irritability on HBO’s Entourage. It’s not only the best thing on that otherwise uneven show, but Johnny Drama, pissed-off wannabe star, may be the most resonant new icon of the American character on TV, indeed in all of pop culture in the past couple of years.

But maybe Johnny Drama’s time has come. Maybe he’s getting “respek” at last, as Ali G puts it. I guess it depends on how you regard the recently announced deal for a series of special four-minute cell-phone download “Johnny Drama” episodes for Cingular.

I don’t know if competing with the ring-tone market on a four-inch square screen is a portent of cutting-edge spin-off success for Dillon—or more of a Johnny Drama–like “success” comparable to his (fictional) Valtrex commercial.

But either way, it’s an exemplar of the growing recognition of Johnny Drama, Icon of Irritability, and his breakout from the blandness of Entourage. And the growing recognition of the Johnny Drama type—of the name he gives to a niche in the spectrum of American masculinity and its discontents—offers an occasion to re-examine irritability itself as a characterological trait. Maybe the time has finally come to give it respek. Irritability has long been treated as a character flaw, virtually a disability. Bring in the anger-management people! But irritability isn’t mere anger, the same way that rock music isn’t mere noise.

And who among us, except those irritating people smugly carrying yoga mats in their oh-so-special bags, isn’t at least a little irritable? You virtually have to have had a lobotomy not to be irritable in this world and this city.

Instead, it’s usually considered something negative, and in Johnny Drama, the poster child of contemporary irritability, it’s certainly not an appealing characteristic. But hey, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate irritability. I mean, couldn’t you consider some forms of irritability a kind of highly evolved sensitivity to things?

Really, isn’t being irritable caring in its own bad-vibe way? People who aren’t irritable—emotional flat-liners, you might call them, yoga-mat people—may just lack a certain impassioned engagement with life, the kind of engagement that makes the rest of us react irritably now and then. I mean, some people, some situations really are irritating. The point is to be discriminating in what one gets irritated about.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of Entourage, and I probably wouldn’t watch it as regularly as I do (the last two episodes of this season are coming up on Sunday, Aug. 20 and 27, at 10 p.m.) if it weren’t for three factors:

1) The possibility that Vince’s vegan-yoga-instructor girlfriend from Season 1 will return from Tibet. (If you saw the episode, you’ll understand why I’m not entirely opposed to yoga-mat types. Bring her back!)

2) The occasional over-the-top Jeremy Piven wisecrack (did you catch the one involving a Dyson vacuum cleaner this season?) He’s good, Jeremy Piven—I’m not taking anything away from his entertainment value—but he’s gotten his share of attention from the show, and I’m not sure his role breaks new ground the way.

3) Johnny Drama, Mr. Irritability, does.

In case you haven’t seen Entourage or absorbed it by osmosis, it’s the story of four guys from Queens trying to keep it real in Hollywood. The lead, Adrian Grenier, plays rising star Vince Chase with moist puppy-dog eyes. Then there’s his boring straight-arrow best friend, Eric, now his manager, and their comic-relief fat buddy, Turtle.

But the real star, to my mind, is Kevin Dillon as Vince’s older (half-) brother, who, according to the back-story (and the fake résumé that series creator Doug Ellin gave to Entertainment Weekly), came out to Hollywood first, changed his name from Chase to Drama (typical J.D. acumen there) and started to make it big with a role on a Star Trek–type rip-off called Viking Quest (he played “Tarvold”). Since that alleged high point, his career’s been sliding relentlessly downhill, with little to show for it but a role as a “Bulimic Pedophile” on The Commish, as “Singing Felon No. 4” on Cop Rock, as a “Dead Body” on NYPD Blue and “a three-episode arc as Tori Spelling’s sexual harasser” on 90210. (And he’s dimwitted enough to think the slide can be reversed by getting calf implants.)

Meanwhile, his younger brother Vince has suddenly become a new mega-star, offered eight-figure deals in James Cameron epics, while big brother Johnny can’t even get an agent anymore. (The parallels between Kevin Dillon and his A-list star brother Matt have not escaped notice.) No wonder Johnny Drama’s always in a bad mood just beneath the surface. Touchy. Resentful. Thin-skinned. Trying to look like a tough guy in his leather jacket and white T-shirt, and looking instead like he’s over-amped on “performance enhancer” workout drugs, always on the verge of ’roid rage. Trying against all evidence to keep up the appearance that he’s still a player, that he’s not washed up at an early age.

How could you not like the guy? Well, pretty easily. But something about him reminds me of that other great comic-irritable Hollywood character, Pat Hobby, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories about an over-the-hill hack screenwriter who lost his juice when the talkies came in. A great comic character in the last short stories that Fitzgerald wrote, and one of his most underrated creations, too easily dismissed because he did the Pat Hobby stories for easy money from Esquire. And he’s touching as well—a somewhat sad self-portrait of the artist as an irritable lush who can’t get out of his own way.

What’s great about Mr. Dillon’s performance is that it walks a tightrope between alienating small-time punk attitude and comic pathos. You’re never quite sure if the guy is a total jerk or just a partial one.

And let’s face it: You almost never see real irritability in TV characters. It’s not ratings gold. Johnny Drama’s just about the only true portrait of irritability on TV. I mean most of the supposedly irritable characters on TV have been grouchy dads like Archie Bunker or Homer Simpson, types you always knew were really lovable teddy bears deep down.

Of course, there’s also the Jerry Seinfeld–Larry David spectrum of what I’d call faux-irritability. Mr. Seinfeld himself offers not genuine irritability but whiny petulance—and if you ask me, Mr. David’s has become a forced, one-note, pro forma shtick. (I’ve been pleased to hear, over the years, that he actually finds me irritating for my critiques of the Seinfeld/David shtick. Badge of honor!) And hasn’t something similar happened to that once dependable and enduring icon of irritability, David Letterman? Many still find his Irritable Attitude appealing; I’ve begun to find his irritability merely irritating.

Maybe the only convincing recent TV portrait of irritability was Jerry Orbach’s Lenny on Law & Order, but that was a kind of mature, seasoned, almost-too-dignified irritability, a wise rather than wise-guy irritability. (Current inheritor of the wise-irritability mantle: House of House.)

Johnny Drama is, at least at times (and judging especially from this season’s last two episodes, where his temper led to physical violence), less teddy bear grouchy than junkyard-dog snarly. He’s not exactly a diplomat, not into “process” and dialogue.

BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, one could look at Johnny Drama in a different way: as part of the great tradition of American losers. Not malevolent so much as self-destructive, and at least a little bit lovable (or pitiable) because they’re so unself-aware—so oblivious at times—of how they get in their own way.

(Of course, sometimes this works for him, as in the Season 2 episode when he blew up at an audition and thereby succeeded in getting himself cast as a psychopathic killer.)

In addition to Pat Hobby, there’s a bit of Willy Loman in Johnny as he sadly, incompetently tries to sell himself. That scene at Sundance where he stands up alone to praise the arty Pedro Almodóvar–type director’s unconventional visual style—and then shamelessly proceeds to undermine it all by clumsily asking the director in front of the screening audience if he has a part for Johnny Drama in his next film.

Or his response to his brother’s generosity—at first gracious, then comically overreaching. There was a scene in one of this season’s episodes where Vincent offers to buy him a brand-new Ducati motorcycle as a gift to celebrate the successful opening of Vincent’s new blockbuster ….

And Johnny Drama, mistaking the Ducati for a Japanese bike, says, “You know I hate rice rockets, Vince. I’m a Harley man.” Or he was until “I had to hock mine to Michael Madsen after a couple bleak pilot seasons.” (“Rice rockets”—the important thing is that the show doesn’t play down the loudmouth-creep side of J.D.)

Anyway, when his brother offers to buy back the Harley from Madsen, Drama says, “You’re a fuckin’ prince, bro,” and then can’t help adding, “You know he’s also got a watch of mine, too”—making himself even more comically pathetic than usual (and adding, I have to think, a twisted allusion to Walter Burns’ classic last line in The Front Page).

But I think the secret to Johnny Drama’s rehabilitation of irritability inheres in his rehabilitation of the word “bro.” Usually, I’ve found that “bro” is a word used by someone who wants to steal your watch (metaphorically) or, anyway, to sell his to you. To say the least, it somehow doesn’t really convey the spirit of brotherhood. It’s a con, a con man’s word.

But with Drama, there’s something appealing about his loyalty to his bros, about his whole “I got your back, bro” style. With Johnny Drama, “bro” becomes likable, even earnest bravado. Genuine camaraderie. He sort of reminds you of the braggart soldier Pistol, one of the band of bros of another “fuckin’ prince”—Hal in Shakespeare.

Maybe it’s a minor accomplishment, but Johnny Drama has managed to give a kind of grudging dignity to that sleazoid word “bro.” (As for those surfers who use the word “brah,” the less said the better.)

What he’s done is, in a larger sense than a single word, given us a glimpse of a sweet side of irritability. He’s not irritable just on behalf of himself (as he was in the Starbucks-meltdown episode) but on behalf of his bros—in the episode after that, on behalf of E., and in the one after that, on behalf of Turtle.

And you can’t help note that whoever’s writing him has given him a nurturing side: He takes great pride in the fact that he cooks for the rest of the crew in the Entourage mansion.

Johnny Drama’s still a punk, and not in the good sense of the word, or the most part (post–Johnny Rotten/Joey Ramone punks didn’t crave the recognition of the establishment, or stop sneering at it once they’d gotten it), more in the “small-time punk” older sense of the word—though without the noble-but-doomed sensibility that De Niro’s Johnny Boy brought to being a small-time punk in Mean Streets.

But you have a feeling that the show is setting Drama up for major punk martyrdom. The last episode saw him being dangled out a window by some of Turtle’s rappers, barely escaping a head-bashing on the concrete apron of the pool below. (“I coulda made the pool” is his after-action report—kind of a nice revision of “I coulda been a contender.”)

Is the show setting him up for a bigger fall? I can’t believe that they’d make it fatal. Irritability may deserve to be smacked around, but not permanently smacked down.

And I really don’t want to make too much of this, but I wonder if the appeal of Johnny Drama’s irritability has something to do with the way it echoes America’s irritability in the post-9/11 world: touchy, often ill-advisedly explosive. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Such a comparison would involve another long-demeaned brother figure, though that might be carrying it a bit too far.

But you’ve got to give Drama/Dillon credit for deepening our sense of the varieties of human irritability, and at least partially rescuing it as a legitimate—if not always admirable—emotion. One I’ve always been a kind of fan of. (I wonder why?) In fact, I originally wanted to call my Observer column “The Irritable Enthusiast” rather than “The Edgy Enthusiast,” because “irritable” conveyed the connotation of small-e edgy I was going for. Edgy as in irascible; enthusiasm about some aspects of the culture, usually triggered by my irritation with other aspects. Irascible—there’s another word that needs rehabilitation. Drama King