Unleashing locusts, brawling with security and bombing in front of Seinfeld; the comedian and social commentator guides us along his unconventional live journey.
Though his Cockney charm has remained resolute, Russell Brand’s outlook on both life and comedy has been on quite the journey. From leaning blindly on rollicking chaos and controversy to looking to abstract forces with wide-eyed curiosity, the 46-year-old has gradually cultivated a position where comedy, spirituality and socio-political commentary never step into the spotlight alone.
It makes sense that now more than ever that this desire for a more layered approach to entertainment may be on the rise. “I think that showbusiness and entertainment sometimes gets distilled into the worst element of what it could be,” says Brand on a recent call. “People are looking for more than just distraction. One of the subtler components of the global pandemic that has been overlooked is that it did show that we can change society overnight if you need to. People don’t like the way they’ve been spoken to and about, and you can feel that. People are looking for something spiritually and politically. I must say it’s intense, but I’m enjoying it.”
Unsurprisingly, then, Brand’s latest stand-up tour 33 covers the bizarreness of the last couple of years not just with witty anecdotes, some more relatable than others, but with guided meditation, dialogue and intense intimacy. “There are points where people just looked bloody grateful to be out the house, but the idea that we get to catharise this strange period in our history has been sort of spiritual.”
To help understand how this complex figure went from riling up crowds to standing in congregation with them ceremonially, Brand leads us through the lows and highs of his stand-up career.
My first gig was probably when I was thrown out of drama school when I was 22, that’s when I started getting a little bit addicted to crack and heroin so I started to be a bit of a handful. I started doing a few pubs like the Kings Head in Crouch End, which was when I started thinking I might be pretty good at this. But very early on I did the Hackney Empire New Acts of the Year, I think this was in 2000. That was significant, because I’d only previously performed in front of 10 of 20 people, but then I was at the Hackney Empire in front of a couple thousand people on that great stage. Malcolm Hay, God rest his soul, was the Time Out comedy critic then and though I didn’t place in the competition, he wrote his whole review about me. That was sort of beautiful. I don’t know if you know from your own life what it’s like to be desperate and hopeless, but to get that credit or approval in that situation was really valuable to me.
I knocked out, by the way, in my heat a certain Jimmy Carr. It’s a good job I knocked him out, he definitely would have bloody won it. So yeah that and the cluster of gigs around then were all really important, places like the Purple Turtle in Islington where I cut my eye on the mic cable. The early gigs of mine were chaotic and sometimes mad things happened…
God, there was the worst one where I got thrown off a stage and I’ve still got the scar all up and down my leg from when I got into a fight with the security because I got into a confrontation with somebody in the audience. This was when I was in my twenties, so many reckless gigs.
I had to learn over time that if I wanted to talk about unusual things I had to learn a degree of sensitivity that I did not have when I was younger. The confrontation that lead to the scar on my leg was because I was trying to talk about a sensitive and very famous murder in a very glib way. The point I was making, which I would stand by, is that crime happens within cultures and environments of criminality happen socially rather than solely in the minds of an individual. That the tendency to blame individuals is a reductive solution, all of that. I was trying to make these points but I was making them in such a mad, glib way and it lead to that confrontation.
I’ll tell you another one that weren’t great was being on with Gary Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Sarah Silverman and completely bombing. I’d done really well compèring the gig and then did a 20-minute spot in front of Seinfeld. That was no fun, ugh, who needs that? Sarah I’m mates with, though, and there was a bit where I went, “Well we’re just gonna have to accept that I’m a fallible person and that this hasn’t gone well” and I looked over in the wings and saw her delight.
I used to do stuff that was so crazy. I used to release locusts and things. Remember, I was a drug addict, so a lot of my choices were the ones that an addict would make. I did one gig at 93 Feet East when there was a bit of a buzz about me — and not just because of the locusts — and I remember Julien and Noel out of The Mighty Boosh had come and some important agents and industry people to this cool gig in East London. I didn’t have any material, I didn’t use the microphone because I thought it encumbered me, I had this hip hop crew from Hackney come and play with me, and they were intense lads let me tell you and smashed some stuff up. I put a couple of homeless guys outside to beg while people were queuing to get in, then I brought them in and went “How much money did you get? That only amounts to about 37p each from these people”. Then I gave those homeless people kettles and toasters, thinking this will be funny because obviously they’ve got nowhere to plug these things in. The whole thing was a disaster. A disaster of such scale. Did I learn from them? Well, other than some pretty fundamental lessons that shouldn’t need to be told: write material and have jokes before you go on stage, approach your audience with love and acceptance.
It’s a hard path, stand-up comedy. Particularly if it’s approached ambitiously. For many of the things I do I’m very grateful I was that adventurous in a way, because I was really trying stuff. But I was also, as I’ve said, severely mentally ill and the consequences of those things I’ve now just recited.
The first gig I did after my daughter was born. I couldn’t cancel it so I did a gig a couple of days after she was born. I felt like I was wearing a crash helmet made of love, nothing made sense. I couldn’t believe I was even there, it was incredible. That was in somewhere like Tumbridge Wells.
At the beginning it was all mad, and there was a lot of excitement, shall I say? The first time in Edinburgh, when the lights went down and the room screamed. Other than that Hackney show, my stand-up career had been in pretty modest rooms, and after I did that Big Brother show I was doing a run at Edinburgh that was supposed to be this 100 seater place, and they said we’ve sold it all out and moved to a 1000 seater place and then sold that all out for the entire time I was there. I was standing in the wings and when the lights went down and everyone screamed, and I remember I looked at my manager and mouthed “Oh my god”. That was the beginning of a time of madness.
What I suppose I love about it is the feeling of commune and connection. Over time I’ve gone from something that was clearly very solipsistic and an expression of mental illness, which I still deal with but deal with very differently thank god, to something that is very communal. It still requires me to stand on my own on the stage, but the connection now is very different. In the interval now I come out and meet as many people as I can, we stay at the end and meditate and do questions and answers. I suppose even though I have the same drive as a person that I’ve always had, there isn’t the same mad thirst for narcissistic approval. The shows have become about connection and service. It’s the love of my love. It can kill me, but it gives me life also. Any stand-up will tell you, it’s something that you can’t not do; it’s so terrifying but so beautiful.
You know, I could say the gig I hosted at Live Aid in front of 100,000 people with Chris Rock and all these famous people, which was exciting, but sometimes you’ll do a gig to a few people and there’s an intimacy. Because I’m no good at anything like surfing, I don’t know what it’s like to have that euphoria in nature, but I know the euphoria of that. This is congregational power that you can deal in, and I suppose the mistake you can make is thinking it’s your power rather than your audiences. When you recognise that it’s their power, some really amazing things can happen.
Once I had these children working for me, that was weird. I did this show at Edinburgh Festival and had these little kids that I’d met hanging around the venue and said “Come on, you can work for me handing out leaflets”. Then I started bringing them into the show, this crew of seven to twelve-year-old kids from some estate in Edinburgh. After a while they were naughty, these kids, they started nicking stuff from the venue. I’ve still got this letter of complaint. I had to sack those children! That was even harder, “You can’t work for us no more”. One of them even said, and I’ll never forget, “But we don’t work for you, we’ll just go back to stealing”.
Ten years later, when I went back to Edinburgh all famous, some twenty-year-old came up to me and told me they were one of those kids. I’m not even joking. He actually seemed a lot more together, because the way they were heading…
The Most Memorable
Well look, even the most recent one in Scarborough. It was so intense and mental in there. Or the one before that in Sheffield, where people stayed to meditate. I reckon half, maybe more, of them stayed and meditated. To sit there in Yorkshire, looking out at people silently meditating. It’s really intense and beautiful, and I think the most memorable gigs of my life are probably somehow defined by something else happening to me. I’m still trying to do things that create live moments, because the point of being live is that you make room for spontaneity. You make room for the moment, for the present. That’s the place where we can be beautiful together, where we can heal one another and have a laugh together. Live is everything.
Russell Brand’s 33 is touring the UK now, finishing at London’s O2 Academy Brixton on 30 May. Tickets for all dates can be found here.