Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brand Oh

I once wrote a book about a man who made comedy dangerous. Last night I saw someone who embodies that and more.

Russell Brand's danger differs from O'Donoghue's. It's more playful, seemingly uncontrolled. An anarchic dancing id that O'Donoghue's forensic mind might not abide. Yet for all of Brand's play, there's a physical menace that if pushed, would kick your ass.

It's there the second Brand steps on stage. Laura and I were in the fifth row, center. Largo's theater is old and intimate, so Brand was practically on top of us. The crowd went crazy as Brand strode left to right, long legs extended, hands slicing the air. Total rock star. I felt envious but also taken away. Before Brand said a word, he established his turf, his magnetism palpable.

Until recently, I didn't pay Brand much attention. He lived on the tabloid periphery, marrying Katy Perry, this generation's Marie Osmond. But Laura is a huge fan. She insisted that I watch Get Him To The Greek, which I wasn't keen to do, but did.

I loved it. I'm tempted to call Greek a guilty pleasure, but it's a solid comedy with great chemistry. Jonah Hill and Sean Combs shine. Brand drives it through the screen. I've seen Greek numerous times and it hasn't lost its punch.

As Brand straddled the mike stand, surveying the house with blazing eyes, a nerdy looking guy stage right stared into a laptop, next to a large flat screen on a stand. I assumed he was tech support, which later proved true.

Brand introduced him as Matt Stoller, the liberal policy advisor and writer. An odd combo, I thought, until Brand revealed that Stoller's brother Nicholas wrote for and directed him in Greek. While Stoller's role was ostensibly technical (he loaded images on the screen for Brand to remark on), his main purpose was to be Brand's straight man and punching bag.

It was a loose, informal show. A work in progress for an upcoming FX program. The main theme was media distraction, how people are made to care about meaningless stories and personalities. Brand also assailed social prejudice and assumptions, reading from several news stories, stopping every few words to deconstruct what he'd just shared. Yet this wasn't an academic exercise. Brand riffed wildly, assumed different personalities and voices, his long body kicking, punching and swirling about.

Brand's stage presence amazed me. I didn't laugh so much as marvel. I laughed maybe four or five times over 90 minutes. Instead, I studied him. Brand was like a child playing in his room. Nothing was too crazy to say or do. It seemed that whatever crossed his mind, we heard it. I'm sure much of it was scripted, or at least mapped out. But a lot of it felt improvised. If it wasn't, then Brand is an even better actor than advertised.

The show was more town hall meeting than concert. The house lights were kept on. Brand encouraged the audience to talk back to him. Plenty did. Mostly women. No surprise -- the majority of the audience was female, many of whom were dressed for action. Laura said that the talk in the ladies room was decidedly sexual. Some openly hoped to hook up with Brand after the show. I can't think of another comedian who attracts such an amorous audience.

Though Brand delivered countless sex jokes, complete with wriggling movements and orgasm sounds, he also proposed a spiritually socialist society. Celebrated our inter-connectedness. Advised us to reject fear and ignorance in favor of love and revolution.

He was fluid and incredibly articulate. Brand played class war with Stoller, mocking his Harvard education, blaming him for the financial crisis. Stoller simply smiled and shook his head. He occasionally spoke, dry as bone, sending Brand into further abusive wordplay. It was an interesting dynamic, which added texture to the overall mix.

Something deeper was at work. Brand was clearly working through emotional and psychological issues. And while you can say that about most if not all comedians, Brand's confessions were different.

Perhaps his celebrity made this more pronounced, but you really sensed desperation in his act. Strange, given Brand's seemingly charmed existence. He didn't just want us to love him: he craved acceptance, using every seductive move he possessed.

He needn't have bothered. The audience ate him up and wanted more. The 90 minutes flew by; and with Eddie Izzard performing a late show, Brand brought it in on time. He announced that he would meet with and talk to anybody who stayed after.

Laura asked if I wanted to. At first I said no. What would I say to the guy? She mentioned the media criticism parts of the show as a starting point. I could certainly discuss those issues, but did Russell Brand really want to? Especially with so many sexily-dressed young women around?

Roughly 40 people milled near the stage door. We decided to stay and see what happened. Fifteen minutes later, Brand emerged alone. No entourage. No bodyguards. He asked random people what they thought of the show. Did they understand the premise? Was it clear what he was trying to achieve?

A few nodded yes, but most simply wanted their pictures taken with him. Brand generously complied. He even talked to a guy's girlfriend on his cell, unlike Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy.

Up close, Brand emits serious heat. His sex appeal and charisma are undeniable. At one point I stood right next to him as he talked to a female fan. I've met, known and been around numerous celebrities in my life, but I can't recall feeling weak in the knees. It was a primal reaction. I actually felt intimidated. When he asked what people thought of Stoller, I replied:

"Matt works well as a philosophical straight man."

Brand turned to me, dark eyes widened.

"He's a brilliant philosophical straight man, isn't he? I'm very happy with him!"

Laura nudged me to ask for a picture. But I couldn't do it. I lacked the nerve, which is very rare for me. Plus, Brand wasn't posing with many men, certainly none my age. I was content to watch him work the crowd.

As he hugged a young woman, Brand stared over her shoulder, directly into my eyes. We locked for a long instant. They weren't happy-looking eyes. Then again, he'd just finished a high energy performance. Still, that neediness was there.

I don't think he wanted anything from me; I just happened to be in his field of vision. I smiled back. He turned and made his way to the stage door. I stood there feeling hollowed out. For all of Brand's intensity and genius, something seems to be missing. But then, maybe that's the point. We all nurse phantom wounds.