Like many Yanks, my first exposure to Russell Brand was via the 2008 Jason Segel rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where he stole the movie every time he popped up onscreen as the hedonistic rock god Aldous Snow. At the time, his particular... um, brand of "wild and crazy guy" shtick actually felt fresh and fun. But then it all-too-quickly became clear that it was Brand's default setting and the charm quickly wore off through sub-par movies (Get Him to the Greek, Arthur), annoying hosting gigs (various MTV awards shows) and his tabloid romance with Katy Perry. Instead of just playing the fool, Brand actually seemed to be a fool and that made him infinitely less appealing.
So I went into his new kinda-sorta talk show Brand X with Russell Brand, which debuted last night on FX, expecting to see an obnoxious waste of time and my expectations were pretty much met. Dispensing with the usual chat show trappings -- guests, pre-taped bits and musical acts -- Brand X is basically just 20 minutes of the star standing in front of a crowd of mostly college-age kids free-associating on a variety of topics. The only other person onstage with him is Matt Stoller, a former Congressional policy advisor and political gadfly whose main job is to tee Brand up for riffs on current events. Essentially, Brand has taken the late night talk show concept and thrown out everything save for the opening monologue. It's an idea that might have worked if the comic's observations were actually funny and/or insightful, but humor and insight were in short supply throughout this overlong half-hour. Here were the five most obnoxious things about Brand X's underwhelming premiere.
Brand's "Whatever" Attitude
From the moment he took the stage clad in clothes that he apparently fished out of the dumpster behind the soundstage, the comic projected an aura of such supreme indifference, it seemed like he might just skip out on his own show halfway through. That laziness was apparent in his first joke, which went: "Welcome to the show. It's called Brand X and I think that's because that's my name and I'm alluding to the idea of Malcolm X. As you know, I'm a black, Muslim leader." His subsequent eyeroll and shrug that followed that lame punchline was a clear signal how little he cared about providing any actual entertainment.
The publicity materials for Brand X promise that Brand will "[take] on the news of the day like no one else" and apparently no news is more important than news involving Russell Brand. For his first big news item, Brand regaled the crowd with the time he met the Dalai Lama and supposedly boasted about his sex life. "I met the Dalai Lama and I wanted to bring that up because I think it makes me look nice," he went on to add smugly. On the basis of this episode, one would have to have the patience of the Dalai Lama to tolerate Brand's presence for more than five minutes.
The Audience Interaction
Despite being packed with supposedly Brand-friendly young adults, the crowd's reaction to his antics was noticeably subdued. So to provoke them into responding, Brand forced his captive audience to become participants in the show, first via an instant electronic poll -- the question was "Would you be interested in meeting the Dalai Lama" (for the record, 92 percent said yes and 8 percent said no) -- and then later by wandering into the crowd to make them answer questions and seizing upon their halting responses as fodder for more one-liners. We felt especially sorry for the poor woman whose lap he used as a seat while cracking wise about circumcision.
The Conversations with Matt
It's true that most late night sidekicks are superfluous to the proceedings, but Matt Stoller proved exceptionally so. After ignoring him for much of the first act, Brand finally acknowledged his presence after the commercial break, feeding him easy lobs that Stoller could then lob back for his boss to smash. For example, Stoller's supposedly off-hand, but suspiciously on-target comment about how Mel Gibson is currently less unpopular than Congress with the American public allowed Brand to do a riff on how he didn't agree with Gibson's "anti-Semitism thing" but that he really liked Apocalypto. Ah yes, nothing screams current like Apocalypto jokes... a movie that came out six years ago.
Some comics -- most notably Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- use their humor to enlighten as well as entertain. Which is probably why Brand felt compelled to go off on extended tangents about how America's taste for consumerism has become its religion, the ways in which Charlie Sheen (whose new show Anger Management premiered the same night -- that's synergy, people!) could be considered a Western Dalai Lama and dropping Nietzsche quotes like a first-year philosophy student. Instead of sounding learned, these attempts at higher thought just came across like he was reading off Wikipedia on the teleprompter.
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