When you can’t sleep, it’s more often than not because of something silly: the room is too hot, you forgot to check something off our to-do list, your bedmate won’t stop jabbing her bony elbow between your second and third ribs. When TV and movie characters are up all night, well, it’s more or less because of the same damn things. Life, as they say, imitates art. As such, here are the best depictions of what’s kept some of our favorite characters awake, from glowing neon signs and annoying bedmates to nagging thoughts and ticking clocks.
Seinfeld, “The Chicken Roaster”
After a Kenny Roger’s Roaster franchise opens shop across the street, manic hipster doofus Cosmo Kramer is bathed in hellish red light from the chicken restaurant’s neon sign. To help his friend, a Roger’s Roaster employee, Jerry Seinfeld switches apartments with Kramer. The inescapable scarlet glow robs him of sleep until he takes on the signature comedic stylings — including the physical tics and towering hair — of his neighbor.
Most of the time, Jiminy Cricket is an agreeable top hat-sporting insectile ragamuffin, eager to assure nearby animated marionettes that wishes come true and whatnot. But mess with his rest and he’s a monster. His seemingly nonexistent ears are very sensitive. The soft drip of sand in an hourglass sounds like a jack hammer, and don't get him started on the fish's snoring. Imagine what the sound of a real cricket chirping would do to him.
Nothing keeps you more awake than the fear that a clown is going to kill you. In Poltergeist, young Robbie Freeling can’t sleep knowing his spindly clown doll sits on a rocking by the bed. Despite his misgivings, Robbie closes his eyes and lies down. The rocking chair is empty and the clown is under the bed, waiting to pull Robbie under for the scene that launched eight billion ‘80s nightmares.
Secret of my Success
Michael J. Fox faces a classic bedtime dilemma: hearing the sounds of sex when you’re alone in your own bedroom. Fox lives in a rickety apartment with paper-thin walls. When the couple in the adjoining room start going at it, it’s like an earthquake punctuated by grunts, squeals and dirty talk. An optimistic go-getter, Fox recognizes the opportunity and pantomimes that he’s conducting the rising moans and bed squeaks like Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic to a rousing crescendo.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Sharing a bed makes a lot of straight men uncomfortable. Sharing one with a irritating force of nature like John Candy nearly drives the Steve Martin to madness. As Martin closes his eyes and wishes for the warmth of home, Candy runs a clinic on disgusting sleep sounds, from knuckle cracks to sinus clearing snorts until Martin snaps.
There’s something not right about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. The Vietnam vet has a PTSD three decades before it was given a name. Unable to sleep in his dingy ‘70s New York apartment, he lies awake on his rolled-up army mat, surrounded by beer cans. The only thing cutting through the sleep-deprived fog is his obsession with honey blonde political campaign worker Cybill Shepherd. He scrapes a pencil across a diary to write “they cannot touch her,” broadcasting the violence his obsessive mind will inspire.
Iron Man 3
When Tony Stark can’t sleep, it means trouble. Not just for Pepper Potts, but the whole world. Traumatized by the alien invasion of The Avengers, Stark spends his nights tinkering with his superhero armor, creating dozens of robo-suits. Despite the tech, he can’t feel safe or rest. And his attempts to ensure safety are creating danger: Pepper Potts wakes to see an Iron Man suit lurching over her in bed.
Near the beginning of Fight Club, Ed Norton’s Jack says he hasn’t slept in six months. Insomnia, he says, makes the world seem far away and unreal. We see him move through his work and home life exhausted, in a dissociative stupor. We have a hint that more than simple tiredness is afoot; as Norton complains that everything seems like a copy of a copy, Tyler Durden, his sleep deprived psychotic break-created alter ego, shows up for a fraction of a second on screen without explanation.
When detective Al Pacino travels from Los Angeles to rural Alaska to track down an elusive killer, he’s already the target of an internal investigation. Things get worse. He accidentally shoots his partner after a botched stakeout and is unable to sleep for days. He thinks it’s the constant glare from the region’s seasonal midnight sun, but no blackout curtains can hold back light that’s a metaphor for his own guilt. Robin Williams' words over the phone ring true: There is nothing as lonely as insomnia.