In just over four years, Russell Brand has gone from a breakout role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to complete ubiquity, showing up anywhere and everywhere as an ill-described “edgy” comedic presence. I guess this is the place where I should say that I don’t really mind Russell Brand despite all of that. I find his shtick generally amusing, even when plastered all over MTV award shows, and I have so much goodwill built up for Forgetting Sarah Marshall that I’ve been willing to overlook the buffoonery of things like that miserable Arthur remake with Jennifer Garner. When this show was announced, it seemed like a creative sandbox for Brand to just play around in and find some kind of outlet for his thoughts that he couldn’t express in his film appearances, which since his breakout role seem to confine him in a way that’s easier to market but frustrating to watch.
Brand X is kind of like a truncated and filmed version of a podcast, or one of those late-night talk show recreations that lower-profile comedians host at a bar in big cities every other week. It’s sort-of standup, sort-of a late-night talk show monologue with a sidekick, sort-of improvisational comedy, as though Brand didn’t really know what he wanted to do, so this first batch of episodes could only serve as a trial run for his imagination. In a pilot, that makes some sense, but after a half-season's worth of episodes, the show has gone in so many directions so many times that it's spinning in circles with no idea where it's going to go. For other shows that madcap unpredictability is fine, but that's because it's intended that way. Brand's show seems aimless from a lack of clear direction.
The Olympics are going on, so Brand gets in his jabs at an extremely long opening ceremony. All the little news bits Brand comments on gives the show the same kind of topical riffing feeling that NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me strikes with its panelists. Or, you know, Jay Leno commenting on strange headlines, but Brand throws in a good dose of unnecessarily raunchy parentheticals to keep up his persona.
Political analyst Matthew Stoller (brother of Forgetting Sarah Marshall Nick Stoller, for anyone keeping track) is still the straight man, and he’s about as tightly wound as possible for a show like this. He’s incredibly intelligent and brings Brand’s crazier tangents back to a point where the issue behind all the comedy becomes clear, but he’s so clinical and authoritative in his delivery that he doesn’t really converse with Brand so much as end every conversation with the most logical comment possible.
Shepard Fairey is the guest tonight, discussing (in extremely brief answers) Olympic iconography, his infamous Obama poster, and the use of art as propaganda. He’s articulate, which prompts Brand to label him a nerd. The bit where Fairey correctly identifies the Berlin Olympic poster from a row of similarly propagandistic artwork from various Olympic games was expected, but he actually does offer up some things worth thinking about on the topic of art with a distinct agenda. So Brand gets to discuss issues of propaganda and indoctrination in simplistic terms, and then he goes off and plays an impish Cupid. To his credit, Brand isn’t really pimping any of his roles or projects, just his persona as a ringmaster/court jester, building things up with hyperbole.
The extended audience participation bits that feel ripped out of a local improv show deliberately undercuts any kind of insightful discussion in the first half of the show. It’s almost as if Brand is so afraid of presenting a more reigned in structure that he has to forcibly push the show towards the end, sitting on audience members’ laps, berating them with banter, and literally going backstage in an attempt to convince the FX Standards & Practices representative on set to come on stage. An episode that begins with the Olympic ceremonies and then moves on to art as propaganda is completely derailed when Brand talks to two formerly homeless men, then to a woman who once saw a homeless guy masturbating and subsequently gave him money, and finally brings all three of them onstage to recreate the scene. This is the kind of moment that’s easy to point to when defining Russell Brand Fatigue.
This is the last episode of Brand X’s current incarnation. It’s going through some re-tooling (trying to resist the easy joke about Brand’s persona) and Brand says he wants to create something akin to The Daily Show but hosted by Tom Green. Right now, there are the building blocks for a show like that in this first incarnation of Brand X, but as presently constituted there’s no clear indication that Brand knows what worked out of the scattershot of material. He seems well-suited to commenting on current events, but he can’t make an entire show out of the opening bit of a talk show, and his interviews have little depth. I still think he’s a decent choice for a lower-budget talk show, but Brand X needs a more defined structure to make it worth watching going forward.
- You know, despite a lot of misgivings, I’d still like to see Brand somehow play the Fool in a production of King Lear. For whatever reason I think he’d be good at that, but he’d never have the patience.
- As soon as Brand puts a baseball cap on, he looks like he works at a gas station.