The Re-Branding of Russell

Russell Brand introduces singer Morrissey at Hollywood High School on March 2, 2013 in Los Angeles.

Russell Brand introduces singer Morrissey at Hollywood High School on March 2, 2013 in Los Angeles. Photo: Kevin Winter

A couple of weeks ago deliberately douchey comedian Russell Brand appeared on American cable news show Morning Joe in a segment so excruciating, it had no option other than to go viral.

You know an interview can’t turn out well when the host, Mika Brzezinski, introduces the guest by admitting she has no idea who he is. From there, it descended into chaos as Brzezinski and two other panellists all but ignored Brand and began chatting amongst themselves, occasionally referring to him in the third person.

Brand bristled at their “casual objectification”, before giving up on the interview format altogether and, taking control of the session, used it to plug his stand-up show The Messiah Complex, before launching into an impromptu rant about the media’s tendency to “forget about what’s important and allow the agenda to be decided by superficial information.”

The 10-minute clip showcases the best and worst of Brand. Quick thinking and formidably intelligent, Brand nonetheless stooped to cheap shots, calling attention to Brzezinski’s cleavage as she leaned forward before labelling her a “shaft grasper” because of the way she was clutching her water bottle.

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Brand is no stranger to casual sexism. My first recollection of him was his ill-fated prank call to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs back in 2008, in which he joked about having sex with Sach’s granddaughter.

But, as the Morning Joe clip shows, Brand is no himbo. Yes, his frustration at the lack of respect afforded him brought out his eye-roll inducing sexism, but it also showcased his talent for profound insights that has seen him become a regular columnist for The Guardian.

As difficult as it is to believe, it seems that pop culture’s ultimate hedonistic caterpillar is transforming into a colourful social commentary butterfly.

The first hint was given two years ago with his reflection on the death of Amy Winehouse. While much of the internet revelled in her entry into the infamous 27 club, Brand, drawing on his own drug addicted past, took the media to task for choosing sensationalism over substance:

“Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall…In the public perception this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent.” 

The issue of addiction is obviously a cause dear to Brand’s heart. Last year he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee looking into drugs policy, and then turned his increasingly caustic eye to the British parliament itself, poetically reminding readers that politicians only have as much power as we, the people, are willing to grant them:

 “The people that run our country are no different from us, flawed and flailing they flummox and flounder their way through the day.” 

Clearly, there is a complexity to Brand’s writing that is startling given his image. The death of Margaret Thatcher, which invoked a “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” sense of glee in many, was used both as an opportunity to extol the virtues of compassion whilst noting the futility of harbouring anger, and to tear apart Thatcher’s supposed “feminism”. If Thatcher broke the glass ceiling, he wrote, it was, “Only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards. She is an icon of individualism, not of feminism.”

But it was really Brand’s deconstruction of the gruesome murder of soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich, that signalled his arrival as someone who commands listening to. Responding to the knee-jerk reaction of blaming Islam and Muslims, he deflected the accusation that Islam was directly to blame simply because the murderer himself claimed to do it for Islam. The killer, Brand said, “forfeited the right to have his views received unthinkingly when he murdered a stranger in the street.”

In other words, there must have been other factors at play, including mental illness, but also the politics of division our leaders promote and the distrust this inevitably causes. “Let’s look beyond our superficial and fleeting differences”, Brand implores, “Let’s reach out in the spirit of love and humanity and connect to one another, perhaps we will then see what is really behind this conflict, this division, this hatred.”

Is this really the same man who thinks calling a journalist -however unprofessional- a “shaft grasper” on air is appropriate? Is the sexist shtick all an act? If so, what does this say about our love of celebrity and what constitutes comedy? Does one have to go against their own beliefs and be deliberately low brow in order to get some cred as a comic, or is Brand’s willingness to flippantly demean women indicative of his true opinion of them?

The contradiction is jarring. How do we reconcile Brand’s attention-seeking persona with his insightful, if occasionally purple, prose? There is no doubt Brand has carefully cultivated what Guardian columnist Sarah Dittum calls his “reprobate rock star image”. Along with the willingness to appeal to the lowest common denominator, there is the long, unkempt hair and the unbuttoned shirts showcasing a hairy chest.

But there is also a complexity to his writing that leaves me wanting more. If there is a strand running through Brand’s cultural commentary, it is the appeal for us- the public, the media, the politicians- to look beyond our superficial differences, and get to the substance underneath.

So perhaps here he would chide me for pondering on the significance of his image in the same way he scolded the Morning Joe panellists: “What am I saying? What am I talking about? Don’t think about what I’m wearing. These things are redundant. Superficial”.

But that just adds to the mystery, leaving me wondering if he isn’t adopting a fake veneer to make his subversive thoughts more palatable to a wider audience. Which raises yet another question, how does Brand hope to change a society whose superficiality he is all too willing to indulge?

20 comments

  • No one can say Russell Brand he doesn't have a commanding presence, sharp wit and perceptive writing ability. Now, to his credit, at the height of his career, he is not afraid to use his status to become a champion for social justice. Good on him.

    Commenter
    Diane D
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 04, 2013, 9:14AM
    • I'm sure much of his public persona is a carefully crafted veneer, he's a performer after all. As for his sexism, yes it does detract from his otherwise insightful commentary but I guess nobody is perfect.

      Commenter
      Mellah
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 9:42AM
      • If you've ever seen Russell's standup, read his book or listened to his podcasts, then his soulful side does not come across as sudden or fake. He (like most of us) is a multi-dimensional human and would be the first to admit he is both genuine in his quest for social justice AND his shameless love of the female sex.

        Commenter
        Mrs Brand
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 9:44AM
        • +1
          I do love this website but sometimes it does tend to take itself awfully seriously. Handwringing about whether we can enjoy Brand's intelligent and witty views, if he is also rude and offensive? Honestly.

          He's highly polarising, but I find him terribly amusing and smart, even if he does have a slightly warped view of the world. Let's not pigeon-hole everyone into a boring little box of politically correct conformity, otherwise how dull would the world be?

          Commenter
          vintageyahtzee
          Date and time
          July 04, 2013, 4:17PM
      • No doubt Brand is an interesting guy. But is his social commentary appears insightful merely because the general level of discussion has fallen so terribly far... If he world greatest bands stopped producing music tomorrow, it's only a matter of time before One Direction starts sounding good....

        Commenter
        Dtj
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 9:44AM
        • +1.
          If Russell is what passes for a public intellectual these days, it's pretty sad.

          I like him, but he is really just a witty satyr whose attitude to women is beyond doubt: never mind his puerile sexism, he has famously shagged many hundreds of them during his 'sex 'n' drugs' years. He probably doesn't know one end of a woman from the other, having never actually been in a relationship of any duration.

          He is id personified, and while not lacking in insight or erudition at times he is often quite undergrad and over-wordy in his writings. I would bet he embarrasses himself a lot, but I would never try to stop him speaking his mind because at least he says clever things quite often. He is lot better than the seriously moronic mainstream cf. Kanye/Kardashian, Snoop Dawg, Beckhams et al.

          Commenter
          Evan
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          July 04, 2013, 1:53PM
        • I actually think he'd be the first to agree with you.
          On another note, however, comedy has always been a great vehicle for social commentary.
          Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Joe Rogan, Adam Carolla, Chris Rock many, many others.
          They're all satirists, using comedy as a tool to comment on society.

          They follow in the footsteps of guys like Orwell, Twain, Voltaire and Plato, as historically significant satirists.
          Because Brand is so outside the norm, because he is an entertainer and very funny, he is able to question things in a way others cannot.

          Commenter
          Jon
          Date and time
          July 04, 2013, 2:16PM
      • not funny and I don't like him worst comedian

        Commenter
        me
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 9:56AM
        • Maybe so, but he does seem to have a better grasp of grammar and punctuation.

          Commenter
          Peta Armstrong
          Date and time
          July 04, 2013, 10:45AM
      • As a feminist I was happily surprised when I read Brand's books - they are self-deprecating, insightful and hilarious. Brand has cultivated an introspection of his strengths and (many) weakness that many men could never achieve. That US tv interview was so disrespectful towards Brand - they even got his name wrong several times! Quite frankly that presenter deserved to be put in her place - what a brainless ditz.

        Commenter
        ingo
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 10:32AM

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