Like Trump, Madonna, or Beckham, Russell Brand – the elegantly dishevelled, devilish comedian from Essex – has himself become the ultimate in commercial branding. He’s a slogan. An idiom. You could use him as an adjective: “Watch out, ladies – I’m three Brands to the wind.”
With two salacious memoirs, a marriage to pop star Katy Perry and a high profile sacking from the BBC behind him, you’d think he’d typecast himself too thoroughly to be any use to casting agents, but instead, Hollywood casts him in riproaring roles written around his reputation: promiscuous rock star Aldous Snow in Becoming Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, and the hapless billionaire playboy in Arthur.
It should come as no surprise, then, that anyone going to see his Rod Laver show, I Am a Walrus, can expect to hear an outrageous behind-the-scenes take on celebrity.
“I’ve worked really hard on it,” he says down the line from an LA limo (or at least we’d like to think it is) between meetings. “It’s got funny clips and images, a brilliant story, and it’s exciting, crazy and chaotic. There’s stuff from a drug documentary I’ve done for the BBC, about going into the Houses of Parliament and meeting the Olympic athletes as I was participating in the Closing Ceremony – and all the mayhem surrounding that. We’re approaching a time where the world’s infatuation with celebrity is ending. It’s reached a critical mass.”
To the untrained eye a Brand show may seem manic, but his interest in meditation since becoming sober (he’s overcome heroin addiction and alcoholism, but lets the sex addiction rage rampant), has affected the way he performs on stage.
“I’m completely in the moment. That’s what’s beautiful about it. I think it affects everything once you get into that stuff, because if you change your consciousness, it will change the way you eat food, your sexuality, everything; your consciousness being the vehicle through which you experience life psychologically, the same as your body is the way you experience life physically. If you make your consciousness stronger, your psychological experience improves.”
Brand also has solid foundations in performance from his time spent studying at the famed Italia Conti Academy and the Drama Centre London, before his fledgling career took him into TV presenting and stand-up. “Some of it’s still useful,” he contemplates. “I love live performance, so the voice work and breath work I learned is handy, and at the Drama Centre they taught you the fundaments of building a character… so if I’m doing stand-up and I’m doing some daft impression of Mike Tyson, or David Beckham, or a racist, I’ve got some tools to build that stuff around.”
He also builds legend around his own hijinks. He was famously fired from BBC Radio 2 in 2008, along with co-host Jonathan Ross, for prank-calling Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs with obscenities about Sachs’ granddaughter… but the Teflon boy has been welcomed back into the fold by BBC3, for the documentary Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery. It’s biased in its advocacy for abstinence, as opposed to the harm reduction methods practised in Australia.
To publicise the documentary, Brand appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight in August to debate the topic. It was car-crash viewing, as he clashed clumsily with a haughty Peter Hitchens – a rightwing columnist and foreign correspondent, and younger brother of the late atheist author, Christopher. As the discussion descended into name-calling, Brand wound up proceedings by threatening to plant a kiss on Hitchens, baiting him about his alleged homophobia with a wild veering off-topic. While this appearance many not have furthered the advocacy cause much, any such experience becomes useful material for Brand’s comedy work.
“The content comes from life experiences that made my friends laugh, or a philosophical musing about the nature of celibacy, relationships and marriage,” he explains of the creative process. “Then I’ll talk it through with people and condense the things that work on stage until there’s nothing that doesn’t work. Stuff goes up another gear on stage. So really it all comes from improvisation.”
While Brand travels with a sizeable entourage from Essex (“it would be unbearably lonely without them – I don’t think I’d be able to do it”), the aspect he enjoys most about stand-up is interacting with the audience itself. “I love to get in there, among them, like a festival. Steve Martin said that he realised when he’s doing big shows that there’s a sense that people want a party – and you’ve got to give them that.”
Brand lives in LA these days but, he says, the Scientologists haven’t yet come knocking. “They seem like an interesting set-up,” he says agreeably, “I’ve got nothing against that. If you think of every one of our customs and cultures, at some point they were created… and to a degree they were arbitrary. Not everything is pragmatic. A lot of things that we live in are constructs, the echoes of the ideas of dead men. So my mind is very open to all of that stuff, particularly in a time of civilisation and humanity changing radically and quickly. These are the kind of ideas that could become incorporative.”
Last year, Brand was deported from Japan on the grounds of his criminal convictions, but as he chides Time Out, he’s unlikely to have the same problem over here. “Come on. A country full of people with criminal convictions is hardly a problem.” Australia’s one of his favourite ports of call (although charmers will tell you such things), with the comedian enthusing about Melbourne being right up his alley. “I’m going to be looking at your magazine, Time Out, for the most fun things to do while I’m there. I’m gonna experience it.”
With longevity, Brand could enter the annals of classic British comedy as a beloved eccentric. For now, catch him live while he still has time to tour.