Russell Brand’s political awakening successfully turned off all but his most dedicated fans. But can a comeback special salvage the Brand?
Russell Brand is one of the most important comedians of the 21st century, but he has never been widely regarded as a great stand-up. His best weapons are a quick-wit, grandiose verbosity, and an astounding ability to radiate warmth in conversation. The lonely craft of stand-up, however, demands assiduous preparation and austere economy of words. We adduce that the three most prominent YouTube compilations of Brand’s ‘best moments’ do not feature a single instance of him performing comedy live—he is more exciting when climbing onto an interviewer than when walking onto a stage.
Re:Birth, Brand’s first stand-up special in five years, isn’t filled with classic bits—there’s no ‘shallow grave’, no ‘the machine‘. Still, there are a few well-timed, self-deprecating stories, and old clips score some funny Ponderland-style commentary. Along the way we hear about the birth of his daughter, a story told, for the most part, in a Mr. Gee-like slam-poetry style. If you’re already a fan, you will find Re:Birth to be a perfectly agreeable hour in Russell Brand’s company.
But of course, in 2018, most people are not fans of Russell Brand. That fact looms large over Re:Birth, which has been quietly released onto Netflix this week. Is there another public figure, besides Brand, who has so rapidly descended from widespread appreciation to ubiquitous disdain, without a sexual abuse scandal in-between?
And from whence, we ask, has the contempt come? Certainly, there have been years of anti-Brand headlines from Fox News, the Daily Mail, and all the other interested parties who materially profit from the sledging of long-haired weirdos. In Re:Birth, Brand takes aim at their most ridiculous reporting but, in truth, the man is held in low-esteem not just by tabloid readers, but by the majority of people aware of his existence. A few years ago a YouGov poll indicated that he was one of the most disliked celebrities in the UK. When this reviewer asked his housemates—three persons diverse in aesthetic tastes and political proclivities—whether they wanted to watch the new Russell Brand comedy special, all expressed disgust and refused.
Not so long ago, Brand was leaping from banquette to banquette, establishing himself as the light-entertainment chat show guest par excellence. Verbose, warm, energetic, dressed up like an “S&M Willy Wonka”, he was always fantastically entertaining. Controversies and gaffes (dressing up as Osama Bin Laden on September 12, leaving horrid messages on Andrew Sachs’ voicemail) did little to derail his blossoming celebrity, which peaked with beloved appearances in film as rock star Aldous Snow.
“Thank you for being so kind to me about my physical appearance. But, of course, beauty is transient and, one day, you and I will both die, Johnathan. We will be naught but dust. Not today though! Today is going to be lovely. I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
Breaking up with his high-profile wife via text message—and having that act immortalised in a hugely popular yet unsympathetic documentary—was not great for Russell Brand’s public image. And yet, that is not what ended his A-list celebrity. It was only afterwards, when he found personal rejuvenation in political activism, that the entrenched opprobrium began. Every celebrity is required to pay lip service to ‘making the world a better place’, but the masses seldom want to see someone try and do something about it.
Brand started banging on about addiction and revolution and joined the preachy ranks of Bono and Bob Geldof. Then, well-publicised missteps on television made him look ill-informed. John Lennon once sang “they hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool”. For a time, Russell Brand managed to come across as both.
Starter for ten: How are we going to organise society after the revolution dismantles parliamentary democracy?
In Re:Birth, it seems as though Brand has turned another corner. He has, if you will, been born again, again. Throughout, he is at his funniest and most engaging when dismantling his own foolhardy naïveté. Philosophising about the human spirit has, pleasingly, taken the place of grating political agitation. If nothing else, the special is a hopeful indicator of exemplary chat-show appearances to come.
Russell Brand: Re:Birth is currently streaming on Netflix