Russell Brand: Good Pundit, Bad Thinker

The comedian wants his ideas to be taken seriously in the political world, but his call for revolution doesn't deserve it.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

In a review of Russell Brand’s 2007 memoir, Andrew Anthony of The Guardian asked: “What will become of Russell Brand?”

More than five years later, the answer is that he’s developed a sideline career as a pundit of sorts: writing a piece about an encounter with Margaret Thatcher in the Temple in London, published the day after she died; embarrassing the hosts of Morning Joe in the summer (“Is this what you all do for a living?”); editing a special edition of the New Statesman; and calling for utopian socialist revolution during an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, a move that has been tremendously popular, getting support from Time and Gawker.

This level of engagement isn’t usually in the purview of celebrities or comedians, but Brand isn’t typical here; he begins his memoir with lines from Percy Shelley, after all.

Over the last few years he has been edging towards seriousness, flirting with it at first, then finding its allure too great to return to writing solely about sex and heroin. As a comedian, Brand is witty, dark, and funny (“I was born with my mouth open, and my umbilical cord wrapped around my throat, as if I was thinking, ‘Well, if this is all there is, I’m off. Check please,’” he writes in his memoir). But the Serious Brand’s ideas—with the gravitas, and with the humor pared away—aren’t very good. In the case of calling for a socialist revolution, they’re quite awful.

Brand has become a goofy warrior, trying to balance seriousness with comedy. This is difficult not just for the performer, but for the audience as well. In 2011, when Stephen Colbert stepped out of character while testifying to Congress and read from the Book of Matthew in defense of treating undocumented immigrants compassionately, it was both gratifying (he actually does have sensible opinions) and confusing (with that much influence and those convictions, why isn’t he serious more often?).

Brand, though, has clearly decided to wield his influence. In the Morning Joe interview, he asked his hosts to look beyond the superficial, past his appearance—long curly hair, a dark beard, and generous chest hair to match behind an open button-down shirt. He asked, basically, to be taken seriously by his hosts. All of that served to give him more credibility with a younger, alternative audience, one willing to listen to his blithe calls for revolution, despite the fact that he clearly hasn’t thought much about actual revolution. Actual revolution, after all, is stylish.

Not all of his seriousness can be easily dismissed, though, which is perhaps why he is taken more seriously than most American celebrities who dabble in politics. His Thatcher piece, for example, had the interesting insight that the Iron Lady had broken the glass ceiling for women “only in the sense that all women beneath her were blinded by falling shards. She is an icon of individualism, not of feminism.” When Brand saw Thatcher in the Temple, he saw her as a lonely old lady; and when she died, he suggests, echoing her famous phrase, society did not mourn, but a handful of individuals did.

One may disagree, but Brand makes a legitimate contribution to the debate over the sustainability of an ideology or project that emphasizes the individual above all else. His ability to analyze major figures on a personal level can be even quite good at times. But he has no ability to theorize on a grander scale. When Brand starts talking about revolution, the folly of his political ideas becomes clearer.

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Parker Brown is a writer based in New York.

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