Moving Pictures October 2009

Brit Wit

The comic invasion of Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand
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In Britain, as every Anglo­phile knows, the slumbering and sheep-studded countryside awakens each morning to the sound of footmen being thrashed. The smiling veterinarian rides his unicycle over the hill, a buttered scone in each hand. The smell of coal fires still pervades the cities, where undersized people with overbites sit at their tower-block windows strumming songs by Syd Barrett. And at night, the baying of the soccer hooligans, who are all on Ecstasy.

But there is laughter, too, in this little nation: complicated laughter, recondite and full of nuance, and adored—strangely—by Americans. They call it “the Briddish sense of humor.”



VIDEO: James Parker shares examples of Brand’s lanky sensuality and Gervais’s dumpy materialism

Not all the jokes translate, of course. The Sex Pistols, comic geniuses to a man, were poorly received on their one tour of the U.S., and the champagne wit of Prime Minister Gordon Brown went somehow unnoticed during his official visit earlier this year. Right now, though, over here, the British funnyman can do no wrong. Sacha Baron Cohen, with his Borat and his Brüno, has become a species of prancing cultural exorcist. Eddie Izzard—wobbling, quizzical—sold out in 34 cities last year. Craig Ferguson has a late-night talk show on CBS; my mother-in-law is devoted to him. Simon “Hot Fuzz” Pegg popped up as Scotty in Star Trek. And then we have Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand.

They’re not partners, I hasten to add—not a double act. Nonetheless, there is something dyadic about these two. Gervais is 47, dumpy and comfortable-looking. He’s a strict materialist: one of his stand-up routines involves reading aloud from the book of Genesis, while the audience falls about laughing. His characteristic expression is a slightly canine leer. Brand is 34, lanky, dark-complexioned, black-clad, immoderately sensual, lightly bearded, and announced in silhouette by an outrageous nimbus of back-combed hair: in full panoply, with his boots and bullet belt and chains and eyeliner, he looks like Chewbacca’s girlfriend. He describes himself as “a spiritual gent” and closes his stand-up act with a pious “Hare Krishna.”

We’re currently hearing a lot from both men. Brand has upcoming roles in The Tempest and the Judd Apatow production Get Him to the Greek, and last month, for the second year in a row, he hosted MTV’s Video Music Awards. The fact that he made a bit of a dog’s breakfast of it the first time (he disrespected the Jonas Brothers, among other sins) only added to the buzz.

Gervais, meanwhile, after getting so-so numbers with last year’s Ghost Town, is once again attempting to prove himself a bankable leading man. In The Invention of Lying, which he co-wrote and co-directed, he plays Mark Bellison, a sad sack “in a world where everyone can only tell the TRUTH,” who suddenly becomes the first man to wield the diabolic power of a lie—or as the Brits call it, a “porky pie.” Will the movie be a hit? Who cares? If Gervais entered a Carthusian monastery tomorrow (unlikely, given that he’s an honorary associate of the U.K.’s National Secular Society), his comedic legacy would be secure. Think of an office, any office, all offices: summon their atmosphere, that permanent hypoglycemic midafternoon. And at the center of that atmosphere, enthroned on a swivel chair, you’ll find regional manager David Brent.

True, America knows him as Michael Scott. In France they call him Gilles Triquet; in Chile, Manuel Cerda. But it’s Brent, the character created and played by Gervais for the original, U.K. version of the globally franchised series The Office, whose personality nailed the essence of white-collar purgatorio. His pale hands, fussing and fluttering at his shirtfront and tie with Oliver Hardy–like delicacy; his hair, endlessly smoothed, with its faint suggestion of ’80s pop quiff; his eyes, skidding constantly and uneasily to the camera. And the things that came out of his mouth! “Head office are talking of downsizing, but they’ve said clearly that the most efficient branch will incorporate the other one. We are the most efficient branch—cogito ergo sum, we’ll be fine.”

Elements of Spinal Tap were present, and of The Larry Sanders Show, but The Office was the first post-reality-TV comedy, the first to turn a sitcom audience into a reality audience—which is to say, a Greek chorus stuck on mute. No laugh track, no music. A lot of dead space and zoomings-in on evacuated faces. A lot of hate in the air. Brent spoke in sententiae or outright nonsense—“The point is, you talk the talk but you do not walk the walk, vis-à-vis, you have not yet passed your forklift-driver’s test!” He denounces sexism, racism, whatever else he’s just been trained on, but the carpets were crawling with detestation: “Naming no names, I don’t know any, but women … are … dirty.”

Because Gervais is a wonderful actor, with great volumes of emotion in the pouches and cladding of his face, we somehow credited David Brent with having the germ of a soul—or at least a heart. Gervais performed a similar magic with the character of Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., the misanthropic asshole dentist he played in Ghost Town. Here was an interesting movie: the mixture of Hollywood phantom-romance and Gervaisian disaffection made for an affecting brew precisely because it refused to jell.

Grumpy, lonely Pincus, having briefly experienced clinical death during a colonoscopy, now sees ghosts. He sees the restless departed, each of whom needs him to discharge some final obligation among the living—to find a bereaved child’s teddy bear, or to convince a crane operator that the accident that killed his friends wasn’t his fault. Pincus won’t do it, because he’s a selfish bugger, until Love (in the person of Téa Leoni) teaches him a lesson. He woos her with lines of pure Gervais: “I like Sting,” he tells her over drinks, “because you can hear he is educated in his lyrics.” She stirs the ashes of his empathy; he heeds the unresolved spirits around him, and gently does their bidding. And so, in brief blazes of light—a street lamp gone supernova or the glare of a welder’s torch—it happens: the dead are relieved of their burdens of conscience, the living absolved of their pain. It’s quite beautiful. I’ve watched this film twice, and both times I wept.

Russell Brand, by contrast, doesn’t have a body of work behind him so much as a portfolio of false starts: fired from here, fired from there, until the world, that jade, yielded at last to his importunings and he became very famous—almost omnipresent, in his homeland. As a celebrity, he is frequently “disgraced”; as an aspiring talent, he was just messed up. There was his show Re:Brand, for example, a kind of Jackass of the heart, seven desperate episodes of which ran in 2002 on a now-defunct U.K. digital channel. Episode One: “Dadfight.” Brand faces his own father in the boxing ring. “Why do you think I wanna do this?” spits Brand Jr. at an unmoved Brand Sr. “Shall I tell you what it’s about? I hate myself, Dad. I hate myself. I hate being alive. And one day, mate? You’ll get a phone call. ‘Russell’s killed himself.’” Episode Seven: “Wanky Wanky.” Determined to interrogate his own sexuality—is his straightness “innate,” or is it “conditioned”?—Brand noisily invades one of London’s gay pubs, where in the toilet his researches are furthered by an obliging man called Gary. (“I’m a Buddhist,” says Gary. “I help where I can.”) Charity was a pronounced element in the show—the spectacle of this strange young soul, in despair or recklessness, chaotically seeking occasions for compassion: taking a bath with a homeless man (“Who gets trench foot in the year 2002?!”), or romancing an elderly lady. We learn from his memoir, My Booky Wook, a best seller in the U.K., that Brand was mostly lost in a psychotropic fog during these escapades.

Cleaned up and hitting his stride, Brand did loads more TV and some very naughty radio (one of his prank calls, to the aging and much-loved actor Andrew Sachs, triggered the kind of tabloid apoplexy that only the British press can pull off—the controller of BBC Radio 2 was forced to resign), and somewhere in there got his big movie break with the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Sliding without apparent effort into the baggy matrix of Apatow-ness, where every character—however half-assedly written—is allowed his or her lopsided human value, Brand played a sharp-tongued, oversexed cheeky-monkey rock star with the accent of a Blakean chimney sweep. Himself, in other words.

Or himself in one aspect, because his stand-up persona is another thing again. With a mic in his hand, Brand is more literate and pantomime-dame-ish: the swagger is still there, but ventilated by blasts of estrogen and purple prose. In one routine, describing his “ludicrously alpha” surfing instructor for the Forgetting Sarah Marshall shoot, he exclaims, “The sea were incarnadine wiv his testosterone!” Eye whites flash, hyperboles pop, the mic cord is whipped around cowgirl-style.

And Brand can write. My Booky Wook is a sweet read, despite the author’s occasional urchin refusal to conjugate a verb correctly: “In our household, mundanity were regularly achieved, banality flourished unchecked, but normalcy were seldom seen.”

Brand and Gervais, fellow countrymen, come to these shores in the embassage of two very different types of Englishness. Gervais projects a bloke-ish fatality, a sense of cosmic curtailment that has traditionally been recognized by Americans as the English comic condition and the source of Briddish humor. Hilarity in a cramped space, which fame cannot enlarge. David Bowie, playing himself, appeared on Gervais’s post-Office series, Extras, singing a song right into Gervais’s face: “Little fat man who sold his soul… Chubby little loser… He’s so depressed at being hated/ Fatso takes his own life!” But then there’s Brand, babbling about his film shoots, keeping the papers busy. Channeling Morrissey, Ziggy Stardust, Edith Sitwell, the shrieking queens of the music-hall era, and—more distantly—Percy Bysshe Shelley, he is currently the leading exporter of English exoticism: a crash course, indeed, in Albion’s buried glamour.

It remains to be seen just how ready American comedy fans are for all this. “Someone may say to you, ‘Oh, you went and saw Russell Brand? How was that gig?,’” Brand recently told a New York audience. “And you may respond, ‘Russell Brand? More than a comic, he’s a prophet, a poet, a genius, the leader of the revolution!’ I don’t wanna put words in your mouth. Not when God gave me [pointing at his groin] THIS!”

Two comedians, two libidos, two Englands. And if America can accept them both—well, she’s an even more generous hostess than I took her for.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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