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Russell Brand in New York City

(US DVD: 19 May 2009)

"These are just words to you ... I live this shit."

There’s something profoundly frustrating about Russell Brand’s stand-up comedy.


Though a good portion of us have seen him in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or know him as the controversial host of the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards (or possibly even read his quite-excellent memoir My Booky Wook), not many of us really know who Russell Brand is, much less know what one of his comedy routines would be like. 


Though he dresses as a perpetual rock star, his stand-up persona is more akin to that of a flamboyant Puck, legs kicking and arms flailing while spewing cheeky homoerotic come-ons just for the hell of it. He’s vain and suffers from a severe case of megalomania, and—over the course of his first Comedy Central special Russell Brand in New York City—his jokes are all about himself, his fame, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and his VMA hosting gig. 


As if that wasn’t enough, he concludes his routine by giving out sex tips, detailing his personal techniques for labia stimulation. No, really.


Yet Brand’s giddy, almost childish approach to his comedy hides a mind that’s deeper and far smarter than we’re lead to believe. Though his body language implies that he has absolutely no harness for his energy, his way of dissecting words and big ideas is something of a wonder to behold, as within the first ten minutes of his routine, he’s already discussing the notion of reciprocal altruism with a deftness and brevity that never once comes across as smug or condescending. 


Brand’s best material, in fact, comes from his careful examination of grammar and prose, ranging from the smugness of Google’s search suggestions to the odd phrasing of some of the post-VMA death threats he received (responding to the comment “drop dead and die!” from a web user named Yankee: “Well that’s actually a tautology: once you drop dead, you can’t then die—unless Yankee is a Hindu and believes in reincarnation.”). 


Coming on stage to the opening riff of Oasis’ “Supersonic”, Brand emerges triumphantly and appreciative, absorbing the applause before launching into a series of clichéd jokes about how (stereotypical) English people would react to being acknowledged in a crowd and how he’s prostituted YouTube out so much he’s taken to call it “MeTube”. Needless to say, his set doesn’t open on his best material, and his egocentricity only balloons from there. 


However, once he starts cutting himself down at the knees (“fame does a little of its cache when you have to tell people that you have it” he notes at one point), a genuine momentum is gained, and, as such, the whole concept of Russell Brand: Comedian is a bit easier to swallow, as it’s easier to enjoy his set upon realizing that perhaps he’s not completely consumed by hubris.


Given his rather-sudden ascension into cult celebrity status, his anecdotes often detail pop culture events of the very recent, and—for the time being—his material retains its freshness, with topics ranging from meeting a post-breakdown Britney Spears (and wondering what the protocol is for meeting someone you’ve already seen naked) to wondering just how long it is appropriate to keep talking to Marshall co-star Mila Kunis after finding out that she already has a boyfriend named Mac. None of these observations are groundbreaking, but Brand is able to still find humor in the situation (especially upon discovering that “Mac” is, in fact, Macaulay Culkin).


Along the way, he touches on how much he dislikes the perpetually-upbeat spirit of Hawaii (“it’s like being beaten over the head by a fucking rainbow”), his excitement upon meeting an elephant for the first time, and then thanks the audience for their continual applause when detailing his less reputable moments (“thanks for the sympathy—‘cos sympathy can be converted into fellatio very quickly”).


At times he dabbles in surrealism (his visit to a “horse house” being one such example), and at others he makes remarkably well-read observations about the marketing ploy that Disney uses for promoting the Jonas Brothers (noting that in mentioning that the Jonas’ are virgins, the sexually repressed demographic that Disney is aiming for can’t help but think about the Bros.’ having sex—a topic that was covered almost verbatim in a recent South Park episode). He continually cracks wise about his sexuality, yet never once apologizing about such comments as he believes in the Freudian observation that “the sexual self is the essential self”, further showcasing Brand as someone capable of making some remarkably insightful comments amidst his clownish, schoolboy antics. 


Yet Brand is truly on fire when he tackles language and syntax. In noting the numerous death threats he received following his VMA gig, he tries to wrap his mind around how someone—in watching a show—can dislike the program so much that he soon wants to go and murder the host of said show (“take murder a bit more seriously” he implores). Detailing a death threat from someone with the screenname of WhiteBoy, the message at one point reads (in reaction to Brand’s request that Americans vote for Obama in the then-upcoming presidential election) “I will NEVER vote for Obama EVER!”, Brand soon nothing that inbetween WhiteBoy’s choice of capitalized words, it’s as if someone was actually trying to convince him to vote for Obama.


Later, Brand reads aloud a UK tabloid piece which says that Brand is currently residing in a rented Hollywood house, which Brand picks apart line-by-line, noting that if the word “rented” wasn’t in there, it would imply he’s doing rather well for himself, the inclusion of “rented” now implying that his stay is only temporary, and—worst of all—that he cannot redecorate, even if he wanted to. 


In dissecting language, he finds a commonality that the entire audience can share in, showing that amidst his occasionally sophomoric hijinks, high-brow wit and wordplay have their place in the realm of stand-up comedy; and best of all, that’s the stuff that kills the most. 


The DVD extras are barely worth mentioning (his off-the-cuff comments to a drunken fan in the first row probably being the best of the bunch), but all in all, Russell Brand in New York City is an amusing if not entirely fulfilling comic detour, his outlandish pranks distracting us from what may arguably be one of the smartest comic minds working today—it’s just a shame that this isn’t the best vehicle for exhibiting such a trait.

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Evan Sawdey started contributing to PopMatters in late 2005, and has also had his work featured in publications such as SLUG Magazine, The Metro (U.K.), Soundvenue Magazine (Denmark), the Daily Dot, and multiple national newspapers. Evan has been a guest on RevotTV's "Revolt Live!" as well as WNYC's Soundcheck (an NPR affiliate), was the Executive Producer for the Good With Words: A Tribute to Benjamin Durdle album (available for free at GoodWithWordsAlbum.com), and wrote the liner notes for the 2011 re-release of Andre Cymone's hit 1985 album A.C. (Big Break Records), the 2012 re-release of 'Til Tuesday's 1985 debut Voices Carry (Hot Shot Records), and many others. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow him @SawdEye should you be so inclined.


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