The Sneaky Smarts of Russell Brand

Russell Brand is one of those comedians who, despite selling out theaters all over the world and starring in several films throughout the past decade, I have simply not paid much attention to. Perhaps it’s due to my American-centric worldview, but Brand never quite jumped on my radar as far as standup comedy goes. It seems that I’ve been guilty of a particular form of American exceptionalism, in that I don’t really pay attention to standup from other countries nor give foreign standups much of a chance at all. This is a particularly hypocritical on my part as I write weekly about keeping an open mind toward all kinds of comedy, as well as self identify as an unbiased liberal with a healthy distrust of exactly that kind of mindless xenophobia.

While my prejudice may have played a part in my disregard for Brand, this wasn’t the only reason it took me so long to get into him. Brand often seemed to me too smug, self-referential, and, quite frankly, stupid to ever give him the benefit of the doubt. While finding him generally appealing in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshal and even Get Him to The Greek, I found that his standup (or the bits that I had seen of it) left me cold. However, in the last few months, I’ve slowly come around to Brand. In April, Brand appeared on Norm MacDonald’s video podcast Norm Macdonald Live, and I found that his lascivious, free-love persona contrasted well against MacDonald’s particular brand of sexual repression. (MacDonald refers to sex as a “filthy, vile act” throughout the podcast.) Of course, it was Brand’s appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last month that made me rethink my assumptions about him.

I don’t think I am wrong in saying that his appearance on Morning Joe and his uniquely hospitable and downright congenial take down of the anchors led many people to think that they had misjudged Brand not only as a comedian, but as an intelligent and intuitive social critic as well. Like the anchors, we gazed at his outrageous rock-and-roll appearance and loopy demeanor and took him for a fool. However, these very characteristics allow Brand to deliver deft jabs at socially conservative thinking in a way that is unexpected and cavalier and leaves the audience caught off guard. Like a kind of glammed up Trojan horse, he sneaks past our defenses and enlightens and entertains while pontificating on the news of the day.

To fans of Russell Brand, none of this comes as a surprise; however, while I was aware that Brand touched on politics, I was ignorant to the just how much of his act encompasses this subject. I always thought of him as more of a randy, provocateur rather than an astute social commentator. Despite his flamboyant appearance, however, Brand is a political comedian of great eloquence.

Political comedy can often come off as shrill and simply preaching to the choir, but Brand flexes some serious intellectual and philosophical muscle in his musings. In this fantastic article he wrote for The Guardian after the passing of Margaret Thatcher, Brand brilliantly writes about what Thatcher meant to him and his countrymen while growing up in the age of The Iron Lady. In the article, he shows compassion for an elderly Thatcher, whom he saw watering some flowers in a upscale neighborhood while on a walk one day, while also taking to task her legacy of greed and selfish individualism.

In the article, we see that Brand is also an excellent writer. He ably dissects Thatcher’s legacy, while interweaving his personal history with her political leadership while very much keeping his idiosyncratic voice. The article has been thoroughly thought through, and there is never any mistaking the identity of the author. That is no mean feat, however when this article became viral a few months ago, many received this piece much the same way they received his appearance on Morning Joe, meaning that the mere fact that it was written by Brand and did not seem to be a gobbly-gook incoherent rant caught people off guard.

This consistent surprise at Brand’s intellectual acumen may be the one downside to his dandyish persona. Like court jesters of old, he prances about throwing well-aimed barbs at the powers that be; however, he has difficulty in finding the kind of credibility that someone like Bill Maher or Jon Stewart enjoys. His garish dress and rather flighty persona have worked against him in some ways (not to mention his dalliance with the poppiest of pop stars, Katy Perry). How can we take this silly-looking man seriously?

However, we shouldn’t be surprised. Brand has had three books published, all of which have been well received by critics and readers alike. Two of which are personal memoirs in which Brand goes into some detail about his struggles with addictions of both the sexual and narcotic varieties. In his memoirs, Brand shares plenty of bawdy anecdotes, but the real pleasure comes from reading his mastery of the English language. He drops archaic words and references in a way that is natural and cerebral without being showy. He is not trying to prove that he is smart; he simply uses the written word as an extension of his personality.

Personality, by the way, is something that Brand is not short on. He flitters across the stage and fills his act with flowery language in a way that cannot be duplicated. This is important for a standup comedian. When starting out, one of the most difficult things for a young comic to master is that sense of self on stage. Often, neophytes tend to take on the mannerisms of their heroes. Brand reminds us that the only “right” way to be a comedian is to simply be funny and generally that means finding out the weird part of you that you have been told since childhood to bury and let it out onstage.

However, it is not only as a monologist and writer that Brand excels. He is quite apt as an interviewer. Starting with his brief career as an MTV VJ over in the UK, Brand showed a facility in interviewing and reacting to his interview subjects. For the most part, musicians can be a rather dry and quiet lot (which is by no means meant as an insult), but Brand had a knack for winning them over with his effusively charming personality. At no time was this talent more on display than when he had two members from Westboro Baptist Church to discuss homosexuality and its relation to Christianity (spoiler: God’s not a fan) on his recently defunct FX show, Brand X.

It says something about Brand that he was able to engage possibly one of the most vocal hate groups in America in a way that was both civil and cheeky, even winning the Westboro members over in spite of themselves. In a political climate where civil discussion is becoming an increasingly rare sight, it is refreshing to see Brand playing the jester and giving Westboro their say without angrily stomping on them. If anything, his silly and light attitude toward Westboro only helps to illuminate just how ridiculous their beliefs are in an increasingly tolerant society.

To be honest, I’m second-guessing my decision to include Russell Brand in this series. My initial impetus for this series was to look at comedians who have achieved great success but lack the comedic credibility of other peers. Surely, there must be some redeeming quality in these people. There have been some comedians who surprised me and won me over. However, there are others who, while I found a respect for them, did not make quite make me a convert.

With Russell Brand I realize that I was simply wrong.  He is an innovative and original comic with a distinct point of view and a mastery of the stage. A quick wit, Brand never leans on lazy stereotypes for an easy laugh and presents his ideas humorously with little pretension. Oh, and he is ridiculously funny.

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