The Re-Branding of Russell
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 Brezezinski 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 Brezezinski's cleavage as she leaned forward before labelling her a "shaft grasper" because of the way she was clutching her water bottle.
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?