The Wisdom of Russell Brand

The comedian-actor’s interview podcast, Under the Skin, is a fascinating listen that channels its host’s energy and interests in surprisingly productive ways

Ryan Olbrysh

When you’ve done it all, what then? When you’ve smoked all the crack, eaten all the chocolate, had all the sex, made all the money, and been on all the talk shows—where do you go next? Because there it is, squatting on the far side of adulation: nothingness. “Celebrities,” the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman once said, “are in a very interesting position. They’ve already achieved great fame, success, and wealth, and they’ve realized that those things alone don’t bring happiness; that, in fact, they can be a real pain in the neck.” Or, as Russell Brand puts it, tunneling toward enlightenment in the 2015 documentary Brand: A Second Coming, “Fame and power and money is bullshit.” (Brand, in this scene, is addressing a group of wonder-struck English schoolchildren.) “To feel adored is a buzz for me, but—what does it matter, really?”

Russell Brand has always been interesting. Excessively interesting, perhaps: There’s an outsize, overheating quality to his charisma, as if it entered his body superpower-style, via a laboratory accident or flying asteroid chunk. Forty-three years old, he comes from the working-class backwater of Grays, Essex, in England. His physical presence is slightly dazzling, unnerving, with a subversive, greased-by-eroticism effect. The word louche attaches itself to him. Genetically a comedian, he is also an occasional film star. As the sleazily marvelous rock-god boyfriend Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he stole so many scenes that he got his own spin-off movie, Get Him to the Greek. He is also some sort of culture-jammer, a serial causer of flutters/disturbances in television studios and at awards ceremonies. (“Is this what you all do for a living?” he asked during an infamous 2013 takeover of Morning Joe, a pheromonal blitz that deprived the panel of speech and left Mika Brzezinski slurping in panic from her water bottle.) In pre-Brexit Britain he reaped the scorn of the political classes by appearing on current-affairs programs, long-haired and messianically tinged, and preaching revolution: transformation of consciousness, down with capitalism … love. He writes, speaks, and performs a lot about his former addictions—to drugs, to sex—and about his need for attention. For less than two years, he was married to the pop diva Katy Perry.

But it is in his latest incarnation—as a podcaster, of all things, clamped in headphones and nuzzling a huge mic—that Brand has become genuinely, slow-growingly, deep-brain interesting. The Brand who presents Under the Skin With Russell Brand, the second season of which began in June, is part seeker and part clown, capering at the margins of thought in the company of scientists, anarchists, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, Marxist scholars, documentarians, and mad professors. And Al Gore. “Thank you so much for doing this interview and for putting so much thought into it, Russell,” the former vice president says, with hilarious imperturbability, to the gasping, insatiable person on the other side of the studio table. He will later reward Brand with some bass-boosted vice-presidential chuckles and, at the end of a frantic exchange about climate change and spiritual renewal, exclaim, “That is entertainment!”

To the author and interrogator of capitalism Naomi Klein, Brand reveals that he read her book No Logo while in Cuba, addicted to heroin and making a commercial: “I felt somewhat conflicted … I was making a chewing-gum commercial—the most vacuous of all products, of course, unnecessary mimicking of mastication while the world starves.” “Bringing capitalism to Cuba, personally?” an amused Klein replies. With the physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox he has a lyrical exchange of views on the meaning of life, Cox contending that meaning is “local and temporary”—supplied by us, in other words, and not by God—and Brand rather grandly demurring. “What does it mean to you,” Cox asks, “what do you feel like, if I say that there will come a time in the future when there is no consciousness in the universe? So all possibility of meaning has gone, but the universe will still be there?” Brand barely draws breath before responding: “I would say that within my philosophy, consciousness and matter have the reverse relationship to in yours. I believe that matter emerges from consciousness, not vice versa. So even where the astrophysical context alters and evolves, as brilliant men such as yourself and your predecessors have demonstrated that will happen, that to me is essentially irrelevant because it’s just part of the cosmic ballet continuing within the framework of consciousness.” By way of proof, he cites Herman Melville, and then the comedian Bill Hicks. Not bad.

It is Brand’s presentation of himself as an addict, a man in recovery, a 21st-century consciousness who has gone through the veil of maya and now wants answers—or better questions, at least—that provides the theme for what might otherwise be a scatter-shot sequence of encounters. “I used to like nice, numb drugs,” he says wistfully to the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, a notably down-to-earth presence from whom, over the course of the interview, he elicits a lovely selection of gurgling belly laughs and high, wild titters. Aren’t we all addicts anyway, twitching over our phone, infatuated by this, attached to that, buzzing or starving for a little squirt of dopamine? The snicker-snack of addiction is inside consumerism, and inside the version of human relations that is determined by consumerism. And the ungratified celebrity, he for whom the world’s ultimate blow job has not sufficed, is our paradigm. The sensual realm has combusted before his eyes, in demon twists of chemical vapor. He has squandered his serotonin supply, his natural gladness endowment, and hungry ghosts are roosting in his blackened brain-wires. Time for a change of approach

“We are different men, you and I,” Brand tells Andy Puddicombe, a co-founder and the mesmerizingly everyday-English voice of the meditation app Headspace. “I am a person that has found flesh very, very appealing and corrupting. I’ve found drugs very, very engaging. I like senses, I like sensuality, I like the body. So I’ve had to come to meditation, yoga, spirituality with a gun to my head.” (Puddicombe gently points out that he too has a body, of which he is quite fond.)

On his podcast, Brand is in dialogue with some very expert people, some very large and poised intellects. And in dialogue, his effervescing synapses and manic facility with language—the tools of his trade as a comedian—are stabilized and counter-balanced. Not always, of course. Brand will prattle, yap, cross-talk, overuse the word ideology, and now and again spiral off into monologue, into a heightened, incantatory speech that sounds weirdly lubricious: New Age dirty talk. “My consciousness has existed before me, and my consciousness will exist after me,” he says to, or at, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake. “My consciousness is part of a vital energy, a continual pranic flow existing through all forms, existing beyond and through time and space, time and space themselves being just referential points from this biological organism …” But by and large his pranic flow is contained: He listens, he pays attention, and the conversations prickle brilliantly along.

Your enjoyment of Under the Skin will depend on your tolerance for Russell Brand—how much of him you can take before you’re overloaded. But in this medium you might be able to take more of him than you’d previously thought. The new season promises conversations with Gabor Maté, the physician and addiction expert who wrote, “Addiction floods in where self-knowledge—and therefore divine knowledge—are missing,” and Jim Carrey. (Jim Carrey! There’s a guy who’s gone off and come out on the other side of … something.) And Brand will preen and prance and shake his bells, proclaiming the void within him, which is the void within us all. “That there is information available,” he says to Sheldrake, “that can’t be understood within the existing template—it seems to me bloody obvious.” So ask not whether Russell Brand is for real. Ask yourself, rather: Am I for real?