FX has a comedy line-up that rivals, if not surpasses, any other station be it network, basic cable, or pay cable. Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Wilfred, and Archer easily rank among modern television’s great comedic offerings. Although not as strong, The League is nevertheless a solid program. Additionally, both Justified and Sons of Anarchy manage to balance intense drama with genuinely funny moments and characters.
By the time it introduced Anger Management and Brand X with Russell Brand this summer, FX had a lot of goodwill built up when it came to humor, and the two they’ve added to its programming are catastrophes. Nevertheless, although Anger Management is the higher profile show, Brand X with Russell Brand is by far the more interesting one.
Brand X with Russell Brand is the rarest of breeds. A show so bad that it’s brilliant. A product that drives right through the bottom and enters into a place where conventional standards of “good” or “bad” no longer apply. It’s an honor generally reserved for Brenda Hampton fare like 7th Heaven and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but Russell Brand has managed to enter that prestigious group with his cable-access quality fare. From set design to subject matter to the lead to the grey filter through which everything is filmed, Brand X gets everything wrong, and improving any element may cause it to become merely bad or bland, a death knell for a show whose success comes from unmitigated, uncompromising failure.
My first indication of the disaster known as Brand X came within the first five minutes of the pilot episode. Brand, who I sort of liked from the Aldous Snow series … and nothing else, begins the first episode discussing his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Seemingly convinced that just talking about himself would be enough to delight the audience for the next half hour, it quickly dawns on him that nobody cares. Giganto ego bruised, Brand has fear in his eyes as he realizes this is his only topic, and he has nowhere to go with it. The next 30 minutes becomes a comedian’s own nightmare of himself bombing- an unresponsive audience, a failure to remember one’s routine, an inability to speak (he kept tripping over his own words, which, judging by the following two episodes, is his “thing”). He’s being filmed for television so he can’t even walk off stage or go completely nuts. Desperately grasping for any positive feedback, he is left adrift in a sea of blank, unwelcoming faces.
The following two episodes were less surrealistically horrific, but they follow the same basic format. Brand talks about obscure news stories where his insightful commentary ranges from “Yeah! What? I mean! That’s crazy! Right?” and “Come on folks!” to “You get what I’m saying!” and “What’s the deal with that guy?” (paraphrased, for the most part) He switched it up a bit during his third episode by throwing in an Italian accent that would have been considered racist in the 1930s. Brand seems fond of “Britain be different from America” jokes (or “jokes,” rather). Also during his incessant babbling- most of which makes no sense, and not only because he flubs about 1/3 of his words, Brand will attempt to get wise. There comes moments in every episode where his tone drops, and he adopts some kind of ‘this is something I’ve been seriously thinking about and it’s deep so try and keep up’ philosophical persona. Usually bringing up spirituality regardless of how relevant it is to the subject at hand, it goes over as well as you’d expect.
Crowd work plays a huge role in the show as Russell futilely struggles to fill a half hour; he doesn’t do it well. He jumps on people, sits on their laps, fake humps them, yells at them, and tries to get them involved, but his manic energy only turn them off more. Disgust and annoyance seem to be the most common reactions. In the third episode, he calls an audience member on stage to prove some inane point about the viability of police dogs and spends half the episode rifling through her purse. Questioning the frequency of her menstruation after dancing with a Maxi pad and calling a bank-pen chain “anal beads,” Brand brings to mind amateur prop comics and high school-level improv groups. The segment runs out of steam before the end of the break, but he continues it after commercials to close out the show despite it already having a punchline. Bit failing, he employs a Speedy Gonzales-style Spanish accent and actually makes fun of the audience member’s thyroid cancer. (After revealing she’s on medication after losing her thyroid, Brand says, “I’m not surprised you don’t have a thyroid anymore! You’re a career criminal!”)
The crowd, to their eternal credit, is not having any of what he’s selling. They’ve become more laugh-y and applaud-y since the first installment, but that only lasts for maybe the first break before they go back to not liking him. Getting them to respond to a poll (the questions to which Russell can barely remember) is like pulling teeth. One of the funniest moments in the entire series occurred in the second episode when Brand, in an attempt to make some point about money or patriotism, proudly declares that he’s going to burn a dollar bill. Expecting the audience to applaud at his rebel, screw the man attitude, they give him silence. Not gasps, not groans, not cheers, not murmurs – only silence, a “do what you want, just leave us out of it” quiet that might be among the best reactions I’ve ever witnessed. Brand loses his audience so quickly that they need to contemplate how to respond to an anti-war statement.
It would be remiss for me to finish this review without mentioning PowerPoint Guy (Matt Stoller, who finally received a Chyron in the third episode). A supposedly overqualified person, PowerPoint Guy sits on stage with Russell manning a laptop ready to hit enter and put on monitors whatever ridiculousness the host is prattling on about. Nervously laughing at everything Russell says but unable to hide how uncomfortable he is, PowerPoint Guy is one of the most abused figures on television. Russell demeans him constantly, never listens to a word he says, and otherwise has no use for this idiot lackey. The exchange between the two in the second episode about the origins and meanings of money remains a series high point. However, because PowerPoint Guy has material in his computer means that this show has some structure, which makes understanding the series even more difficult due to Brand’s inability to recall news stories or anything he’s apparently already pre-determined that he’s going to cover.
And did I mention it has talking mice?
Brand X with Russell Brand airs its fourth episode tonight. Watch it and marvel.
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