The worst thing you can say about Brand X, Russell Brand’s new FX-sponsored experiment in late-night comedy, is that the show has so many clashing tones and underlying concepts that it feels like a mulch of about 50 different ideas mashed into a half hour. The show looks a little bit like a stand-up set filmed at your local high school. Brand moves around on stage, delivering jokes in front of a studio audience. The show’s logo looks like leftover publicity material from the early days of SpikeTV; the set is backdropped by a John Paul Goode map illustrated (if the end credits are to be believed) by iconic street artist Shepard Fairey.
Sometimes Brand interacts with the audience, although “interaction” in this case means “move closer to one audience member and shout in their face.” Sometimes he talks to his onstage political analyst, Matt Stoller, although mostly Stoller just sits on stage laughing – he’s like Phil, the guy in the window on The Tom Green Show, whose whole purpose was to sip coffee and cackle. The series premiere felt like an attempt to simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct the talk show in Brand’s image. If the show were funny, this would all be very exciting.
But the series premiere was not very funny. The biggest groaners of the night were cheap-shot jabs that might have been halfway controversial if they weren’t so out of date. Gags about Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, “the patron saint of winning,” were at least a year old. Brand also said, “You wouldn’t make moonwalking jokes to Stephen Hawking!” which is certainly the most shocking joke of 1983. Brand has an improv style which can be thrilling in the right context – he’s the only person in the last decade who hasn’t embarrassed himself as the host of MTV’s Video Music Awards, probably because that show’s slapdash style makes Brand’s verbosity seem Sorkinian by contrast. But most of his riffing on the Brand X premiere felt desperate.
And yet. Even though I didn’t laugh very much during Brand X, the show has an accumulative power that feels distinctive. You see, Brand isn’t just tossing out bad jokes; he’s tossing out bad jokes to make a point. The show started with him regaling the audience with a story about meeting the Dalai Lama, which led Brand to ask the episode’s central question: Who is the Dalai Lama of America? To whom do we look for spiritual fulfillment? Matt suggested the president and Oprah Winfrey. He also threw out Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan, who have both been called Oracles. Brand spun that thought forward: “In a way, capitalism is a belief system. Greenspan and Buffett, they’re like priests of a religion of capitalism.”
You could feel stoned college students across our fine nation nodding their heads in approval. And indeed, the rest of the half hour played out like a philosophy class taught by that wacky substitute teacher with the tattoos and the beret. Brand talked to a member of the audience who came from a mixed Jewish-Islamic family, a springboard for him to talk about how all religions are the same. “All religion is just a signpost pointing to the unknowable and the unknown,” he said, which – if nothing else – is not something you will ever hear Jimmy Fallon say.
You could argue that Brand is gilding unfunny shock comedy with just enough intelligent-ish chatter to sound smart. At one point, Brand spouted: “You know, Nietzsche said: ‘God is dead’ ” – which is so, you know, deep, man. And Brand X didn’t really change my impression of Russell Brand: He still comes off like one of the world’s greatest in-the-room pitchmen. (You get the vibe that he could keep riding Forgetting Sarah Marshall buzz for decades.)
But Brand X in the end is an intriguing attempt to combine a bunch of different ideas for a show into something that vaguely resembles a Socratic dialogue. Unfortunately, Craig Ferguson is doing something similar (and much better) five times a week over at CBS; Brand X is a half hour once a week. Still, there’s something here worth watching.
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