The last decade has been a dynamic one from Russell Brand. It took him from being a severe drug addict on the precipice of death to one of the most recognizable comedians in popular culture. Known for his wordy, yet equally raunchy sense of humor both as a stand-up and as a film personality, Brand’s very uncensored style of storytelling coupled with a high energy, self aggrandizing persona has made him a huge success both in the United States and in Britain. But that success at times has hit some ceilings. His style proves very narcissistic when compared to most British comedy, the majority of which relies on Monty-Pythonesque subtlety rather than overt grandiose gestures. In the States, despite success in Hollywood, Brand’s persona was often regarded as too long-winded to fit the mainstream man-child personas that feed the careers of most big American comedians on the screen from Adam Sandler to Jonah Hill, to Will Ferrell (all acquaintances of Brand).
His love of controversy has simultaneously fueled and dismantled parts of his image. In 2008, to the love and hatred of many, Brand famously called George Bush Junior a “retarded cowboy” live on U.S. television. It was also the same year of the famous “Sachsgate” scandal in Britain that cost Brand his BBC Radio show, which he then followed up by putting on what was then the largest standup tour of his career. In 2001, while still addicted to heroin he was fired from British MTV after showing up to work dressed as Osama Bin Laden. In a recent stunt at the GQ awards, Brand also mocked Hugo Boss’s dark past as the designer of Nazi uniforms. Brand’s pattern of seemingly self-destructive behavior coupled with his insatiably creative energy has allowed him to bounce back from scandal after scandal (though some would argue scandal is a bit too harsh a term for celebrity riffing). But where that formula has worked wonders for the career of a comedian, Brand’s recent move from satirist to social advocate may be his greatest challenge yet.
His latest book, Revolution, is a detailed account of his own personal beliefs about the state of our world, as well as a series of highlighted suggestions on how society needs to radically change its thinking if it wishes to overcome catastrophic ecological degradation and growing social inequality. For those who primarily know Brand through some TMZ antics, his brief marriage to Katy Perry, and his roles in a handful of movies, this sudden serious and political side he is showing seems to come out of nowhere, and much of the very media that Brand both thrives on and criticizes is unsurprisingly quick to dismiss his latest piece of writing. From conservative media to new media, Brand has been slammed with disapproval and disgust. Sean Hannity devoted several minutes on his FOX program just to pick at a short YouTube video Brand made, dissing Hannity’s interviewing style (Brand was supposed to appear on Fox News, until Hannity’s show cancelled him at the last minute). Even VICE, the rising news platform with some of the world’s best coverage of everything from war zones to under reported social problems gave Brand a choppy 10-minute interview, edited to make him and his book look as foolish as possible.
Much of this, admittedly, Brand brings upon himself. He has very publicly acknowledged the hypocrisy of his current situation as a rich celebrity who is telling the public that fame has no value and that consumerism is a lie. Additionally, Brand, though articulate, still lacks the professionalism and education that most respected commentators on social change typically have. He is no Christopher Hitchens. He is no Noam Chomsky. He is no Sam Harris. He is no Gore Vidal. But he also isn’t trying to be either. The best criticism of his newest book may be the idea that he is perhaps not qualified to back up his claim-that the world needs a radical revolution-with enough solid evidence. Russell’s call on UK citizens not to vote, coupled with rumors that he may run for mayor of London in 2016, also do little to squash the idea that Brand isn’t following the doctrine that he is preaching. That being said, he has done much to soften his well crafted, but very zany image recently.
Brand doing standup in 2008
In defense of Russell Brand, he does highlight situations that are unequivocally true. The status quo of the modern world does need to change. Human society currently is not ecologically sustainable. Private enterprise does have a disproportionate amount of influence over government. Voting alone, especially on just a handful of issues, certainly is not enough to make significant reform if we wish to live in a true democracy. And unlike many other celebrities who have made that jump to politics, Brand is not claiming to have all the answers. In multiple interviews, he has said, “I’m here to raise awareness of a few key issues.” One of those issues, and something close to his heart, is drug policy reform. As a former drug addict, abusing everything from alcohol, to heroin, to crack, Russell Brand is one of Britain’s most important voices in advocating for abstinence-based recovery and reforming the country’s laws in order to facilitate rehabilitation rather than incarceration for severe drug addicts.
Perhaps most important of all, Russell Brand is chasing a mainstream audience rather than pursuing any sort of journalistic nichemanship. Academics write to impress other academics. Businessmen write to impress other businessmen. Politicians write to impress their voting base. Brand on the other hand is trying to introduce more highbrow content to people who very likely aren’t terribly familiar with it, or necessarily want to be. As an entertainer, he is working not so much to formulate new ideas about how to combat the world’s problems, but rather tries to remind us all that every society is nothing but a reflection of human endeavors. It’s not set in stone. It’s easily changed. And we can change it anytime we choose.
Brand’s own crazy attire and androgynous standup persona highlights much of the fragility of human social norms and how easily they can be disturbed. Trying to get that message out to an audience that primarily wants to be entertained is a monumental challenge. Still, at the end of the day, Russell Brand doesn’t have to know what specific changes the world needs for his efforts to be valid. He is a human being trying to improve the world in the best way that he knows how. If all of us truly made an effort to do that, odds are we still probably wouldn’t have the world that Russell Brand envisions we need (though a proper representative government is not below what anyone deserves), but society certainly would be far better off than it is now.
And while he has been injecting such points into his standup sets for years, this is his first truly overt call to civic action. It may have mixed success, but it is a valiant goal nonetheless. In his early days as a comic in Britain, Brand would, to the delight of audiences, read British newspapers and disseminate the prejudices, biases, and buzz headlines that ran rampant through a given article, hacking at everything from news sensationalism to false stories published about his own personal life. Now he is doing this in a more serious tone (though still humorously) on his YouTube channel “The Trews.”
Brand recording an episode of The Trews in 2014
For anyone who read his previous two books, the first one focused on painfully intimate recollections of the drug addiction, sexual abuse, and family tragedy that shaped his youth, and the second book about his disillusionment with the colt of celebrity. “Revolution” is a logical part three. Although there will always be those who would rather attack a person’s credibility than discuss their actual talking points, the truth is that Russell Brand and others similar to him have a power that most individuals do not. That power does not come from fame, charm, or even wealth. That power comes from a willingness to be vulnerable. All of Brand’s best work, be it his most celebrated stand-ups or his past New York Time’s bestsellers, are all successes due to his ability to be vulnerable, even flamboyantly so. His recognition that all of us are hypocrites, but that all of us are capable of striving to be better people is perhaps the most enduring message in all of his work. Whatever the success of his latest book, Russell Brand’s recognition of his own fallibility is what sets him free. The book “Revolution” is not any different. Whether an individual loves, hates, or is utterly indifferent to Russell Brand the comedian, Russell Brand the writer is a thoughtful, and wonderfully eccentric storyteller that anyone who hungers to see the world’s many problems through a new lens is likely to enjoy.
Whatever the success or failure of “Revolution”, it doesn’t change the fact that civilization as it currently stands needs now more than ever people who are willing to try, to believe, to reflect, and remember. Recognizing and accepting our own fallibilities is perhaps the best place to begin if we want to address the imperfections of our own communities, our nations, and indeed our whole world. Like Russell Brand’s public image, civilization is an enduringly loud, confusing and ever-changing entity. But it, like everything else, can always be improved, reinvented and oriented towards higher goals.