Lordy, it pains me to write this. As someone who’s seen nearly every bit of footage about Russell Brand, I was amped up for something big. I’ve seen Re:Brand, Ponderland and 1 Leiscester Square. I’ve seen him interviewed on countless chat shows. I subscribed to his podcast and viddycast for a few months (until scandal, topic of titular show). I sat through St Trinian’s and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’ve seen both of his brilliant live stand-up DVDs. I set myself to the task of researching Russell Brand’s antics with all the fervour of a pervy Olympic coach training a pre-pubescant Russian gymnast. If there’s anything I’ve not seen about the guy, let me tell you it’s not worth knowing about!
I was prepared to see one of my favourite stand-ups live as his career is starting to take off around the world. I was prepared to hear his string of recent scandals deconstructed and picked apart in depth with intelligence, wit and self-deprecation. I was prepared to gaze upon a fine gentleman with good taste in pointy boots and weskits.
I was not prepared for ‘Scandalous’.
The show starts with a back projected montage of Mr Brand’s latest escapades, in the style of one of those bad celebrity exposé programs. As with his other shows, he devotes the start of the act to cruising around the audience and describing his attire (not flattering on a tall skinny man with big thighs and girl hips). There was some amusing guff about renaming his ruched leggings ‘cock slacks’ and ‘testosterousers’ to make them sound more manly.
I waited patiently for Mr Brand to warm up to his themes. As a stand-up, his methods are pretty risky. He admits to not being bothered to write any of it down, and hones his act as he performs the material. For nearly two hours of chatter, it’s quite amazing to watch. Risks are a big part of what he does – great when pulled off, but disastrous when he fails.
Speaking of disaster, the Radio 2 scandal, where he and Jonathan Ross pranked Andrew Sachs was discussed in no great detail, and with no real insights into the media response. Quite separate from the actual incident, there was a lot of interesting mileage in the papers about the responsibility of the BBC and role it plays in English society, the backlash against the unfortunate girl in question, and Wossy himself. So I guess it’s OK to comment on a girl you once slept with, but not a celebrity colleague? I heard that particular radio show (it’s out there for anyone who wants to listen), and it didn’t quite match up to Mr Brand’s reading of it.
He usually gives quite a bit of himself as part of his act, a warmth not apparent in ‘Scandalous’. In his other live DVDs (both filmed in the UK) he seemed to have a great affinity with his audience; both acknowledging his narcissism and absurd lifestyle, yet taking the mickey out of himself and identifying with the crowd.
Some of Mr Brand’s show was devoted to some really old and well-worn material about his sexual prelidictions. We know he likes the sex. We know he had a threesome with his mate. We know the bottom is an untapped wonderland, an internal ‘brown Narnia’. I have laughed at these jokes – a while back. Is it all right to present old material to a new audience? It may be powered by kangaroos tethered to a galloping Dame Edna, but we can haz the Internets here too, sir! To me, a great deal of ‘Scandalous’ came across as pretty lazy and unplanned.
And yet. At the end of the show I was undeterred – I scurried around to the back of the Arts Centre to get my pound of flesh. Coming up against dozens of teenage girls (and a surprising amount of guys), we were told to get back to the foyer where he’d appear in a jiff. I chatted with some over-excited schoolgirls about who had stalked him the longest and was instantly transported back to the days of hanging outside the stage door after the Doug Anthony Allstars, hoping for a glimpse of Paul McDermott.* It was not a pleasant sensation. It was like wishing you could go back in time to your past with all the wisdom of your adult self, and when your wish is granted you realise you are composed entirely of Dork and always will be.
As I stood there in the crowd with my crumpled article held aloft, hoping to have it signed, I could feel something ebbing away. Was it my self respect? Nay, that had already departed. My esteem for Mr Brand was slowly disappearing – he stood there and threw out charm like lollies, he bantered and wafted and simpered and as my arm flagged the paper was snatched and scribbled upon.
I retreated to a corner to watch from a safer distance, where we conjectured what it must be like to need that kind of adoration. This was no good-hearted chaffing with his fans, or genial back-slapping with the lads. As transient and shallow as the whole experience was, he was lapping it all up for real. It was weird.
We wistfully reminisced about other stand-ups we’ve seen, and I thought nothing could beat the sustained energy of Ben Elton or the gentle, incisive meanderings of Daniel Kitson. It is necessary for a stand-up to be likeable to enjoy their act? For me, yes. I like the Russell Brand who stirs up Americans, and mocks norms of masculinity and is honest about his seedy past and has a crush on Dawn French and who rings his Dad to discuss the colour of their respective willies against a Pantone chart. The version who uses his fame to gloss over some sticky realities and appears trapped in an ever-narrowing spiral of self-reference? Not so much.
And if all you do is travel the world, telling people about your life (of telling people about your life), what else is there left to do?
*One time we went on stage after the Dougs’ show, to sift among the detritus of rubbish, minties and tampons, which the crowd would throw regularly at their gigs. I seized upon one of their heart-shaped badges, glinting in the debris, only to realise it was infused with the stench of their home-made jackets, which stank of a mixture of sweat, piss and vomit. My friends and I obsessed over this badge for months afterwards, and on my 16th birthday Mum made me possibly the best cake ever, baked in the shape of the heart-shaped badge (it was only bested years later by a Bon Voyage cake in the shape of the geographic region of West Africa, with borders marked in silver cachous and a toothpick flag of Morocco).