[21 May 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“For my mum, the most important woman in my life, this book is dedicated to you. Now for God’s sake don’t read it.”—Dedication page, My Booky Wook
In the United States, Russell Brand is primarily known for two things. First off, there’s his scene-stealing turn as rocker Aldous Snow in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall (where he fronted the band Infant Sorrow, responsible for the song “We’ve Got to Do Something”), which was a star-making turn if there ever was one. Shortly following that, he hosted the 2008 MTV Music Video Awards, where he called President Bush “that retarded cowboy fella” and made numerous cracks about sleeping with the Jonas Brothers. Humorous? Yes. Boundary-pushing? A bit. The makings of a lasting Stateside career? Not likely.
Yet American audiences are only getting half of Brand’s story. In the UK, Brand is one of the most notorious bad-boy comics around, his short-lived cult TV show RE:Brand featuring the young comedian doing outrageous things like taking a bath with a homeless man who has an ulcerating leg and jerking off an older gay man in a club restroom. During an appearance on a TRL-type show with Kylie Minogue, he showed up dressed as Osama Bin Laden. The day? September 12th, 2001. Most recently, Brand got noted UK talk show host Jonathan Ross in serious trouble after the two left a series of lewd phone messages on Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs’ answering machine, claming that Brand slept with his daughter and going into great detail over the alleged affair. The result? Brand quit his radio show, Ross got suspended from his job, and the BBC was slapped with its biggest fine in its history.
Enter My Booky Wook.
Published prior to Brand’s breakthrough with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, his self-penned My Booky Wook is an unconventional biography, to say the least. Though, yes, he does detail his numerous sexual exploits, his gratuitous experiences with drugs, and some of his more controversial moments on RE:Brand, he never once takes pity on himself, and goes as far as to make sure the reader doesn’t feel any sort of sympathy for him either. His boozing, his drug use, his perpetual womanizing—these are all character faults of his, and by all means he should know better. But he doesn’t. Some of his incidents—like refusing to take his feet down from the seat in front of him on an airplane, or getting on top of a film crew’s van and staying there—stem not from a desire to garner attention, but simply to see exactly how people would react in such a scenario. This curious impulse of his is ultimately what made him who he is, and, more critically, it’s made him experience both the highest highs and lowest lows of the human experience.
One story in particular highlights not only his impulses, but some of his admittedly stupid behavior. Following the cancellation of the short-lived RE:Brand, Brand meets a new agent who is determined to finally put a proper leash on his wildman antics, starting with getting Brand to fess up to his long-running drug problem:
“Meeting One was in the Lansdowne pub and involved [manager] John Noel buying me and my mum pizzas and saying, ‘Russell’s got a problem; we need to sort it out.’ My mum had the same air that she’s had at countless previous meetings with headmasters and head counselors and policemen—that kind of bruised and battered love for me. On this occasion though, she seemed a little more confident—perhaps because there was an alpha male offering to help. […] John said that he was going to introduce me to a man called Chip Somers, who it turned out had been instrumental in Davina McCall’s recovery from addiction. Intrigued though I was, I broke off from the conversation at this point to go and meet [longtime drug dealer] Gritty and score some heroin—just to get through the rest of the meeting about how I had to give it up. It was easier to have that discussion once I’d taken some (in fact, the impact of that specific inhalation still gives me a nostalgic pang of comfort, the sort of warm glow one might get from remembering a beloved Christmas gift—Batman costume aged seven). Once you’ve had some heroin, the idea of stopping taking it is bearable; it’s when you’ve not had any that it becomes fucking terrifying.”
During one of Brand’s rehab stints, he is asked to write in a journal about his experiences. A staff member, reviewing his writing, calls Brand out for not actually adhering to the notion of addressing his personal experiences, instead writing down anecdotes for future stand-up routines. Brand agrees, going as far as to say that life is nothing more than collecting material for his comedy—only on stage is when he’s truly living.
In describing his childhood, Brand admits that he was the kind of child to act out for attention—a lot. That curious urge to do something just to see how authority figures would react was apparent even then, and, yes, it got him into a lot of trouble—at least until Bugsy Malone. As a young teen, he wound up auditioning for that play, getting cast as the bit part of Fat Sam, but mainly relishing the experience just to see girls getting undressed. Upon performance night, however, he stepped out on stage for the first time, and got struck with that adrenalized frenzy that happens to all performers at one point or another:
“There was five minutes more, standing there with the tension, stifling urge to vomit, already drained—nothing left to give but a performance. And then I walked out onto the stage for the first time in my life. The light. The light is so bright that all that remains is you and the darkness. You can feel the audience breathing. It’s like holding a gun or standing on a precipice and knowing you must jump. It feels slow and fast. It’s like dying and being born and fucking and crying. It’s like falling in love and being utterly alone with God; you taste your own mouth and feel your own skin and I knew I was alive and I knew who I was and that that wasn’t who I’d been up till then. I’d never been so far away but I knew I was home.”
And with that, Brand’s career began, starting with a series of small school productions, eventually getting into standup, then small television and film works. He became addicted to the spotlight, and, shortly thereafter, drugs and sex as well. Though his fame and talent would eventually lead him to encounter the likes of Ricky Gervais and Little Britain‘s David Walliams, he often gets starstruck and overcompensates his “cool factor” by going a bit too far, particularly with Walliams, who he unsuccessfully tries to convince to go with him to a seedy European strip joint that doesn’t have a “no touching” rule. Yet those looking for dirt on other UK notables are best advised to look elsewhere: this is Brand’s story through and through.
For those who might look at Brand’s life as nothing more than a glut of empty sex and offensive jokes, perhaps no story best emphasizes his views on sex than during the filming of a particular episode of RE:Brand. During it, he asks simply “would anyone sleep with prostitutes if they weren’t able to dehumanize them? If they understood that prostitutes were women with lives and families and problems and hopes and dreams, would they still be able to empty themselves soullessly and leave fifty quid on the table?” During this experiment, he befriends a “somewhat scatterbrained” prostitute named Ali, and spends a week getting to know not only her, but also Pete, her dad. Him and Brand struck up a great relationship, sharing stories of addiction, and becoming friendly with each other and also Ali.
Shortly thereafter, Brand explained the premise of the episode to Pete, and that he was going to have sex with his daughter. Pete then got visably upset, began crying, and caused Brand great personal anguish. He didn’t go through with it, ultimately. He showed his producers the footage—the same producers who he had to convince to show him wanking off a man in a public toilet on television—and they were moved by the display, showing that when streetwalkers aren’t dehumanized, the emotional experience becomes overwhelming—too much, even. We do sometimes place ourselves above certain groups of people, which is ultimately a selfish thing to do: we all have our own scenarios, circumstances, and problems. Perhaps its too much to think that our own anguish is above that of another.
Heady stuff for a biography whose subtitle is “A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up”.
None of this would be as interesting, however, if Brand wasn’t so damn funny. He writes in a self-deprecating, sarcastic style that is instantly relatable and remarkably digestible (“I couldn’t even distract myself with a wank over that gorgeous slag Venus de Milo; well, she’s asking for it, going out all nude, not even wearing any arms.”). He does drugs ‘cos he’s an idiot, has sex simply because it provides him “a breathing space, when you’re outside of yourself and your own head”, and pushes other people’s buttons just ‘cos he’s curious as to how they’ll react. He’s witty, intelligent, and—through all his debauchery and self-inflicted torment—a remarkably likable chap, charismatic even through his writing. My Booky Wook is a biography of the best kind: 100 percent quotable, and almost completely re-readable.
For a tome that so succinctly and smartly details every single embarrassing moment and temporary triumph in his life, one might ask as to why he would go through making these tales public. Perhaps the reason lies in the last paragraph of the first chapter, in which he is forced to re-evaluate his life while stuck in a sex addict recovery center:
“In that situation, alienated from my personal surroundings, I realized that the outer surface of what I thought was my unique, individual identity was just a set of routines. We all have an essential self, but if you spend every day chopping up meat on a slab, and selling it by the pound, soon you’ll have become a butcher. And if you don’t want to become a butcher (and why would you?), you’re going to have to cut right through to the bare bones of your own character in the hope of finding out who you really are. Which bloody hurts.”
In reading My Booky Wook, few things hurt so good.