Russell Brand and the Genius Celebrity
Who you got? What faces, egos, reputations come immediately to mind when you try to name any celebrities of high intellectual acumen, famous actors, rock stars, comics who can not only speak in complete sentences, but who know a thing or two of the world and can eloquently analyze, satirize and flip that wicked world around like a slippery gemstone made of Swarovski crystals and cocaine and dark, kinky dreams?
Louis C.K.? Matt Damon? Alec Baldwin? Jon Stewart? Natalie Portman? Maybe. Sort of. Sometimes. The list, as always, is depressingly short. The truism remains: Few top-tier celebs are intellectually capable of handling just about any topic – politics, culture, art, God, world events – thrown their way, by anyone, at any time, in front of any TV camera or live microphone.
I hereby nominate, and humbly kneel before the altar of, one Russell Brand, the lanky rock-god Brit actor/comic/writer, to this rarified group, a guy who I’ve always passively liked but who I also believed was a bit too smarmy, far too dependent on projecting a persona of mania and insanity as his raison d’etre. Not to mention most of his acting choices have been rather hideous (cough, Arthur, cough).
I am, apparently, a bit late to the party in realizing Brand isn’t really any of those things, at least not predominantly, at least not at the expense of what appears to be a delightfully insightful and nimble mind, coupled to rather shockingly adroit, sophisticated way with the written word. It’s true. And “refreshing” doesn’t quite cut it.
My awakening comes by way of a rather brilliant piece Brand just penned, seemingly without much sweat or egomania, for the Guardian, casually explaining his side of things following a rather ridiculous gaff at a recent, glitzy pseudoparty held by GQ magazine and sponsored by the barely upscale menswear brand, Hugo Boss (or, as Brand calls them, “an irrelevant menswear supplier with a double-dodgy history”).
Did you know Huge Boss, back in the day, designed uniforms for the Nazis? I sure as hell didn’t. But Brand did, and he made light of this absurd fact in his rambling, hilarious acceptance speech for a silly and made-up award (“Best Oracle”) from GQ, the whole, silly spectacle of which Brand, being a comic trained to point out – even as he revels in – cultural absurdities, was happy to call attention to. (Watch the whole speech here). [Or here:]
The joke, as you might imagine, didn’t go over all that well. Brand was reportedly escorted from the premises. Which, if you’re Hugo Boss, might have been a mistake.
I know what you’re thinking: You could care less about glitzy revelries attended by PR-crazed celebs, fashion wannabes and patronizing politicians. I understand. But miss the piece Brand wrote as follow up to the party and the bizarre, self-parodying universe it inhabits, and you’re missing something special.
As we come out of the lift there’s a bloody great long corridor flanked by gorgeous birds in black dresses, paid to be there, motionless, left hand on hip, teeth tacked to lips with scarlet glue. The intention, I suppose, is to contrive some Ian Fleming super-uterus of well fit mannequins to midwife you into the shindig, but me and my mate Matt just felt self-conscious, jigging through Robert Palmer’s oestrogen passage like aspirational Morris dancers.
A few things are immediately evident: There is superb, next-level writing here. There is a unique grammar and turn of phrase. But more than that, there is high-level abstract thinking, an ability to zero in on multiple absurdities from multiple angles at once, all while taking the whole as exactly what it is: a hollow exercise in ridiculous ego.
My friend Scott put it best in describing Brand’s mind: The guy is awake. And what’s even better, he doesn’t give a damn what you, me, or the corporate sponsors think. Which is exactly as it should be.
Let us not get carried away. The guy’s a flagrant celeb, marries cheesy pop singers, has massive, million-dollar weddings in India and then gets divorced a year later, is as famous for childish antics on MTV as articulate observations in major media.
But really, who cares? He’s also surprisingly spiritually aligned (he claims yoga helped him overcome multiple addictions – watch a fantastic, slightly NSFW interview about his dedication to the practice here), doesn’t drink or do drugs (anymore), doesn’t depend on a callow mean streak to earn laughs – like, say, fellow intelliBrit Ricky Gervais.
Some of this makes easy sense. After all, all the best comics are experts in dissecting modern culture from multiple angles. But all are not created equal. Jon Stewart rarely veers from politics. Louis C.K. may be the new George Carlin, but his depressed-shlub, middle-aged-men-are-gross shtick is nowhere near as sparkling and fun as Brand’s Catherine Wheel/sex-god personality. Louis C.K. enervates. Brand energizes.
It gets better. Watch Brand casually eviscerate, seemingly without guile, the doorknobs over at MSNBC’s stilted gabfest, Morning Joe, back in June. Brand was on the show to promote his comedy tour, The Messiah Complex. He proceeded to fluster, confuse, mock the entire hosting cast, without even really trying. It was masterful.
Part of Brand’s appeal lies in his unpredictability and feral imperfection. The little I saw of his late-night talk show on FX, called Brand X, was (it was recently canceled) a scattershot mess.
His standup appears just as manic and uneven as he is, sometimes hilarious and sometimes sloppy and inexplicable, depending as it does almost entirely on freestyle, off-the-cuff commentary on current events mixed with large amounts of what Louis C.K. calls “crowd work” – which is, from what I can glean, just a little bit lazy, riffing off the audience as opposed to actually writing and honing real, solid material.
But never mind that. Because to me, to someone who’s been writing a commentary/satire column for nearly 15 years and has something like a million and a half published words floating out in there the public sphere – some of them even passably readable – it’s Brand’s unexpectedly nimble writing skill that floors me most.
The Hugo Boss piece led me deeper into the Guardian, where I discovered Brand’s surprisingly somber piece from back in April, on growing up under the Margaret Thatcher regime. Poignant, thoughtful, sharply detailed, not at all the slick, comedic hack job you might expect. Good luck locating an American celeb of any kind who could pen such an introspective piece for a major paper.
I have yet to read either of Brand’s crazed memoirs (both bestsellers in England), but love him or hate him, most reviews seem to reinforce a single conclusion: The guy can write. Which also means: The guy can think. And he isn’t afraid to show it. And that’s a precious quality indeed.
I shall not overheap the praise (too late?). Brand is far from flawless; his titanic ego and careless flamboyance seem to lead as much to childish chaos as sly nuance. But again, who cares? He’s a completely unique, fearless creation, balls out and on full display. He seems to live by a maxim I’ve enjoyed as a writer forever: If certain kinds of people don’t find you annoying or terrifying, you’re doing something wrong.
It is unlikely Brand will blast the youth culture wide open. At 38, he is of no use to the twee Instagram set. And since he and Katy Perry divorced, his relevance to the People magazines and Perez Hiltons of the world has diminished greatly. But if all goes well, as this powerhouse sex god slides into his 40s, we’ll hopefully find ourselves in the presence of something altogether better: a fearless, flawed, lurid, kinky, spiritually awake intellectual, only barely disguised as a goofball comic. What more could you ask for?
© 2013 The San Francisco Chronicle