A few months ago, a “Morning Joe” video clip featuring Russell Brand went viral. I have to admit, I kind of loved it.
I had been aware of Brand before, and found him amusing in films like Leaving Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. But between that onscreen persona, and possibly the marriage to Katy Perry, I just assumed he was the usual attention grabbing comedian type who was perhaps slightly more clever than Tom Green et al., and that his schtick was that of a foppish, English fool.
I first had an inkling that there might be more to him when I read an interview excerpt about his role in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (which features Helen Mirren as a gender-swapped Prospero/a, but which I didn’t love as much as I expected to) and was surprised at the intelligence that peeped through that constructed persona of foolery. But, I didn’t think more of it.
Until the Morning Joe clip, when suddenly the mask came off, and the clueless fool became the wise, truthtelling fool–a truly Shakespearean figure (I’m thinking Lear, here and the interplay between the Fool, and Edgar in the guise of a mad fool). After a few too many digs (the interview, which is worth watching, begins with one of the anchors making the dig “Joining us now, he’s a really big deal…. [glancing at other two anchors] I know, I’m told this. I’m not very pop cultured, I’m sorry.” Though she’s not sounding particularly sorry at all, truth be told).
What ensues is a series of odd and painfully awkward exchanges, in which neither side is quite able to get into step with the other. Brand tries to play along, but the anchors–possibly unconsciously–keep straying into rudeness, by jumping into asides where they talk about him as if he’s not there, or as if he’s a strange creature on display. After a few of these, and other digs from the anchors that are evidently attempts at humour which fall flat, Brand changes the game and takes over. The veneer between his “I’m just a silly man” persona and his underlying intelligences thins, and he begins calling them out in a way that they clearly did not expect. The scene that follows is increasingly chaotic, and clearly others in the studio have come to watch, because there is louder and louder laughter from the background as the segment progresses, and even the onscreen descriptive tag keeps changing appropriately.
I love the intelligence of it, but what I love most is the truthtelling of it. He calls them out on pieces of sophistry that are normally part of the accepted patter and idiom of “interviews lite” that are the hallmark of talkshows. I love such moments of truth on television–like the time Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire and just dug right in. I expect many of us do, amid a vast buffet of intellectual pablum that is the result of the balance the media feels is about right for their viewerships.
These sorts of incidents (Sascha Baron Cohen is also a master at manufacturing such incidents and scenarios–another highly intelligent, articulate man who regularly puts on the guise of a fool and plays it up, to often devastating effect) always get me thinking about the inherently transgressive nature of humour. So often, we find a comment, an observation, an image, funny because it either shifts our usual conventions and paradigms in a way that is absurd and either mildly or extremely transgressive, or because it recognises and calls out the fact that those conventions are inexplicable and ridiculous in a way that we, as insiders and participants in perpetuating those conventions, no longer see.
One of Brand’s more recent antics involves another incident in which he let the mask slip. He was invited to an awards ceremony co-sponsored by GQ and Hugo Boss in which he was to be given the prize for being an “oracle”, and his friend Noel Gallagher was to receive an award for being an “icon”. If you haven’t seen it yet, he begins by thanking the person who introduced him for being sincere “because this is not designed for sincerity, this environment.” He goes on to say thanks for the award which “sounds like the kind of thing that has recently been made up.” It gets worse. Brand continues by not just calling out the absurdity of such fabricated ceremonies but then starting to dig deeper and deconstruct the way in which such events blandly overlook the often dark political stances and perspectives of the award recipients and related histories.
As in Lear, which by one reading is about speaking truth to power (Cordelia does so seriously and is punished for it, while the fools of the piece do so under the pretense of nonsense and so get away with it), or the older, medieval Carnival tradition of the Feast of Fools, and its transgressive inversion of authority, the clever fool has the best chance of getting away with such audacity. He or she walks that line between being viewed as buffonish and therefore not to be taken seriously, and using that perception of harmlessness to deliver a sucker punch of truth.
Then again, Brand has, at this point, unmasked himself and revealed his intelligence and his anger (his articulate piece in the Guardian, discussing his conduct at the event is also an interesting read)–not just at specific political issues or causes, but also at the overall pretences of the world of celebrity. Ironically, in being given the “oracle” award, and in pointing out its absurdity–before going way, way further than that–he has in fact become somewhat oracular in the way he has cut through the nonsense and gotten at the underlying truths we ordinarily choose to ignore. It’s doubtful other fashion houses or designers will dare give him another award, but then again, I don’t get the sense that he would really care.