Brand X With Russell Brand premières tonight on FX at 11 p.m. Eastern.
In another life, Russell Brand would make a successful, benignly debauched cult leader. For all his celebrity anecdote-dropping, Brand as a standup is at his best when he’s in a truth-telling groove: His manic theatricality becomes more focused, his signature volubility more rapid, his Steven-Tyler-stick-insect stage persona shading into Rasputin territory as he builds to a comic climax whose virtuosity often leaves the audience giggling in admiration as much as laughter. Throw in Brand’s mischievous rock-star sensuality, glaring eyes, and perpetual bad-boy flirt act, and it’s a short hop to envisioning him casting rapid-fire wisdom over rapt admirers in a secluded compound’s great hall, before retiring to the guru’s quarters with two or three of his giggliest followers. Brand the bookish jester, pointing out the absurdity of our celebrity-obsessed world while embracing his own foolishness and celebrity. When he’s on, it’s an impressive balancing act.
Brand’s new late-night series, Brand X With Russell Brand, is his attempt to fashion a vehicle for both sides of his comic persona, one whose format works both for and against its host. The first episode—helmed by Mr. Show veteran Troy Miller—introduces Brand on a small stage with a pair of video monitors and a small, mostly young and appreciative audience. Brand starts the show right off with the sort of “look at the crazy things that happen to me because I’m so famous and the paparazzi won’t leave me alone” anecdote, attempting to debunk the story that upon meeting the Dalai Lama, Brand boasted to the spiritual leader about how much tail he gets. It’s the sort of bit we’re accustomed to from the host, an outrageous tale from his endlessly scrutinized life tossed out in order to illustrate the ongoing silliness of a TMZ-and-tabloids culture. It’s a decent starting point, with Brand comparing his purported braggadocio in the presence of a celibate monk with the idea of taunting Stephen Hawking with his moonwalking skills, and it allows Brand to introduce the theme of the show—and the idea that each episode of Brand X will, in fact, have a theme.
Taking the form of a sort of Russell Brand-centric Daily Show, Brand X’s comic format looks to be a vehicle that allows its star to tackle a particular concept or issue he cares about and which promises to be comically fruitful. In that respect, it recalls Lewis Black’s comic panel show Root Of All Evil, except that Brand, instead of humorously debating with other comics, will be playing his ideas off of the audience and a guy in a suit.
Oh yeah—did I mention the guy in the suit? Introduced simply as a Harvard graduate named Matt, Brand’s sidekick is here to provide a more informed (and American) perspective on the stories addressed on the show. It’s an awkward introduction, rather clumsily explained by Brand, and it points out the biggest problem with Brand X: The host clearly has a lot to say about his subject (in this episode, spirituality and the formation of a uniquely American substitute for spirituality), but, with a brisk 21 minutes or so to express everything his febrile brain wants to get across, Brand X is overcrowded with ill-integrated comic set pieces. There’s the sensible Matt—who’s there primarily to play informational straight man—as well as audience-participation bits that do little to illuminate the subject at hand. Instead, they’re an entry point to one-on-one interaction between Brand and members of the audience, making the show something of a saucy, tactile Donahue. Not a bad idea, but these segments are abrupt (Brand is not particularly adept at transitioning between the show’s segments) and time-consuming.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t matter as much if Brand X were just plain funny from beginning to end, and that, ultimately, depends on your tolerance of the man whose name is in the title. Brand’s delivery can salvage some weaker material (like a not especially sharp comparison of Charlie Sheen and the Dalai Lama), the loony momentum of his arch phraseology and exaggerated physicality smoothing over the rough patches. If you instead find Brand presentational and mannered, Brand X isn’t going to change your mind.
Overall, it’s clear the Brand has a rather ambitious plan for the series, shaping it as a pulpit to express himself, comically and otherwise, and presenting his interactive format with an eye toward creating a more two-way exchange of ideas than traditional stand-up. Of course, the show has a road map (smirking images of Charlie Sheen don’t just appear out of nowhere), but Brand (the only credited writer, along with a handful of researchers) is presenting Brand X as a genuine on-the-fly act of comic discovery. At one point, Brand seems to stop himself dead in his tracks with a realization that: “We seek out public figures with a spiritual dimension to them because we’re spiritual creatures,” momentarily letting his rapid-fire ramble stutter to a halt as he asks, “That’s interesting I suppose, isn’t it… yes… I think it is.” As much as the show wastes time, that sort of authentic, thoughtful insight is the sort of thing that Brand X has going for it.
- Despite being introduced solely as ”Matt,” Brand’s sidekick is a former congressional adviser, financial writer, and economic activist Matt Stoller—who’s also the brother of Nick Stoller, Brand’s director in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek.
- It’s good to have celebrity friends. Brand X’s set design? By Shepard Fairey. Brand X’s theme song? Slash.
- For the première, the front rows of the audience are stacked almost exclusively with pretty, giggling young women. By design? You make the call.