Maybe it’s Aldous Snow, the British rock star Russell Brand played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to The Greek. Or maybe it’s his recent divorce of Katy Perry. Or his even more recent post-Olympic relationship with Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell. Or the MTV VMA gigs. But for some reason — or perhaps many reasons — it doesn’t seem like we’re quite ready to take Brand seriously in America. The man has written two books, produced a BBC documentary about Jack Kerouac, and testified before Parliament about the barbaric criminalization of class A drug addicts. He’s basically Stephen Fry in skinny jeans! Ahead of this fall’s return of BrandX, his talkshow on FX, and a couple of East Coast stand-up gigs (Westbury, New York on September 14), we attempted to keep it as highbrow as possible with Brand: discussing his Sammy Davis Jr. impression, his haircut, and his kitty cat, Morrissey.
Is your American standup different than your British stand-up?
No, because luckily a lot of the things I do are of global relevance. Whether it’s talking about the experience of performing at the Olympics. Or universal ideas about sex, bigotry, drug abuse. You know, these are things that are relevant everywhere. You got to change the quirks, of course. I don’t know if my act would work, if you will, in Switzerland. Or Uganda or North Korea. But when you’re talking about countries like ours, we pretty much share a culture. I mean, there are sort of differences, but broadly speaking you’re all right.
Yeah, I suppose dick jokes don’t need Booky Wook–esque footnotes.
Yeah, you don’t need have to do a diagram of a penis being inserted into a vagina. Although, sometimes I am incredibly explicit, Steve.
I understand. Have you been watching our election coverage? Did you catch Clint Eastwood talking to Invisible Obama?
I heard a bit about Clint Eastwood’s chair thing. It sounded to me like a piece of performance art, as far as I could understand it. Clint Eastwood is one of those people who’s got sort of a cultural legacy. I mean, that’s Josey Wales. That’s The Man With No Name. If he wants to karate chop the president in the windpipe, we just have to go with it. There’s some people that are unimpeachable. Whereas, presidents are always impeachable.
You wrote in Booky Wook that your song and dance skills pale in comparison to your verbal improv skills, but during the Olympics you sang the Willy Wonka song and proclaimed you are the Walrus in front of billions of people.
It’s pretty weird isn’t it?
You know what, I only realized that at the last minute. From the edge of the fucking stadium I was watching Annie Lennox singing, and I thought, ’old on a minute, these are professional singers. And I freaked out. This isn’t even what I do for a job. And somebody’s like, “Right, the bus is leaving! Get out!” Oh no! It was a terrible time to realize that I was the only person there that was unqualified.
That’s gotta be a sinking feeling.
You just gotta belt that shit out.
So what is the attraction to being a song-and-dance man? It does seem like it’s been a temptation of yours throughout your career.
Honestly, I haven’t got an idea of myself as a fucking Sammy Davis character. I really haven’t. I’m a comedian. I’m still surprised that I get acting work. All I want to do is make people laugh. Because I like to play rock stars in movies, I’ve had brilliant vocal coaches and singing teachers, so now I can carry a tune. But I don’t see myself as doing that. Especially not dance. Jesus Christ! The reason I do these things is because it’s going to be funny when I talk about it afterwards. That’s the only reason I do it. And I’m right, because now I have about twenty minutes in my set talking about that experience at the Olympics. The chaos and the things that happen when you meet other celebrities in them situations and all that rhubarb.
So you sang at the Olympics for the material.
My whole life I’ve been doing things cause it would be funny. When I was a kid people used to say, “Go on, Russell, do that, it will be funny.” And now in my thirties, I’m still doing that.
You advocate for a lot of serious causes, but the way you dress reminds us less of Che Guevara and more of Brett Michaels.
I like seeing myself between those two characters. That’s cool. A fully qualified doctor-revolutionary that can get a blow job wherever he goes.
But do you think the hair-metal look has a different meaning in London than in does in New York?
I can’t imagine it’s got any meaning anywhere. It’s the most ridiculous form of physical appearance known to man. I don’t think I’ll stop doing it.
We’re also a country that never quite got the arrogance of Oasis. Stage conceit plays differently in America than it does in England. Do you think you’ll ever have to distance yourself from playing that kind of a rock star here?
I’ve never really thought about that until you’ve just asked. When I’m doing stand-up I’m just saying, “This is who I am authentically.” I try and be really, really honest and tell people my honest experiences cause they’re usually really funny. And when I’m acting you gotta just do what you’re told. And just being a human being … God! My life has taught me that any arrogance I have will be really misplaced. So I’m not going to let that stand in the way of a really good haircut.
I’m just wondering if that haircut is appreciated in a different way here than it is in England.
God knows. I’ve given up trying to account what other people think about things, you know. They either get it or they don’t.
BrandX is returning to FX this fall. The show started with a very Adbusters tone. And now you’ve said that when it comes back it’s going to be a more conventional talk show setup.
I think visually, certainly. Yeah. I think it’s going to look a bit more normal ‘cause it looked a bit balls out. So I think it’s going to look a bit more normal. But I think in terms of content it’s going to be the same. But for me, I think it’s really good working with FX, there’s always room to sort of ask, How can this be done different? How can we amend this? But something that I want to do is to talk about current affairs in an honest and truthful way. And I think this will give me the best chance of doing that: to have a set that looks a bit more like a normal talk show.
You’re somebody that grew up loving Bill Hicks. And you’ve namechecked Chomsky and Naomi Klein. What’s draws you to the American dissident?
Truth. I think. Truth. Because I think that America is a really great country, and it’s produced the most significant and exciting — at least from my perspective — performers in the last 100 years. You know, there’s Bill O’Reilly but there’s also Bill Hicks.
You’re a vegetarian and you have a cat named Morrissey. Last week, during Mitt Romney’s speech, I was at a cat video film festival in Minneapolis. Do you watch cat videos?
Yes. I mean, cat videos and pornography were the main reasons the Internet was invented.
So here’s a universal topic: Why are they so popular?
I think because people like to see feline elegance punctured by this fascination they have with getting into boxes. Cats seem to think they’re better than us, but when you see them try to get into increasingly small boxes, you think, Hmm, we’re better than you. It’s time to take these cats down a peg or two. They wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for us. They’d be in Siam.