Material: Delivery: Laughs:
While knowing Russell Brand mainly through his activism and political commentaries, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the eloquence of his new stand-up special Re:Birth. Among his excoriating critiques on British politics, the mass media and political power, I couldn’t help but notice that a major target of his special was himself, particularly as he highlighted his interventions in British political debate and by discussing how he wrestled with his role as a British political comic figurehead. Alongside some rich material on being a father and his past drug addiction issues, it’s this quality of self-interrogation that for me really stood out in Re:Birth.
One element of the show that in my opinion worked very well was Brand’s use of short video segments. I’ve found many political comedians’ use of videos during their acts somewhat laboured, often being employed to act as a means of delivering a punchline without putting in the effort. However, in Re:Birth, the videos he uses encapsulate Brand’s self-confessed, awkward dalliances between comedian and political activist, mocking his infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, a recording of a pre-presidency Donald Trump in which he called Brand a loser, and a final segment in which the comedian invokes an exaggerated, Danny Dyer-ish Cockney accent while in battle with a journo outside 10 Downing Street.
Between segments, the videos work well because they strike at the heart of Brand’s comic message, which, refreshingly, also tears down his authority as a political comedian, or at the very least, questions his ability to effectively translate complex messages through mass media. This material is reinforced by his numerous, eloquent and sincerely heart-felt critiques of the merciless cruelties of the British tabloid media, as well as the myopic disconnect of political culture with everyday life, the latter of which he brilliantly compares to a well-oiled machine of continuous bullshit. It is in these moments that Brand comes into his own, and we remember why, for all his foibles, he still plays a distinctive role in the corridor between British comedy and politics. In essence, Re:Birth acts as a form of comic referendum on his struggles with how he sees himself as a public figure, where the comedian, through videos of his appearances on British news, invites the audience to recognise the contrast with his media image, while simultaneously embracing the numerous contradictions to which he readily admits. In one section in particular, he jokes about the various personalities he possesses that can pop out unexpectedly, giving a slight Whitmanesque vibe to his presentation.
The only major criticism I have with Re:Birth however is Brand’s use of dance movements and raps as forms of punchline or tags, which seemed more akin to a nightmarish Blackpool matinee. I found myself cringing at several of these interludes, which in my opinion did a disservice to both his likeability as a comedian and the political shrewdness of his material, making segments of his special less like Bill Hicks and more like “Knees Up, Mother Brown”. However, in perhaps the strongest portion of his show, and the one that testifies to his eloquence as a political comedian, he recalls his initially reluctant involvement in the New Era Estate rent row. With the protest reaching the steps of 10 Downing Street, Brand recounts how the activists were inevitably side-lined by the media, who unsurprisingly focused on him. He narrates how he remedied this by shifting attention to one of the main activists, Lindsey, during his interview. His subsequent appraisal of Lindsey, as an activist and a fighter is beautifully conveyed, and serves to remind us of Brand’s genuine sympathy with public activism, as well as his own generosities as an entertainer.
In settling on what makes Re:Birth worth watching, it’s not just that’s its funny. Quite the opposite in some segments; some of it, such as his rap / dance / Cockney japes, is frankly a little upsetting to watch. However, it’s also quite comprehensive in terms of the material it grapples with. For example, a recurring theme is his toying with the concept of “simulacrum”, the analysis of something that looks like or represents something else. He employs this effectively in his portrayal of his expectation vs. the reality of watching his child be born, or in his description of the anticipated authority of 10 Downing Street feeling more like a deserted movie set when he visited it during his involvement in the New Era Estate rent row. This disconnect can be extended to Brand’s self-perception as a political comic firebrand / radical / Daily Mail nemesis vs. his personal introspection regarding his efficacy as a political commentator and activist. In fact, he spends a good part of his special arguing that he might be best steering clear of complex political commentaries and forms of activism altogether to avoid jeopardising the possibility of left-wing policies he favours. As he reflects in his material on the successes of the New Era Estate rent row, he argues, “that’s what happens…when people come together, in pursuit of common idea, there is great power. So, I suppose, the lesson was, ‘Russell, shut the fuck up.” [Laughter.]”
In doing so, Re:Birth provides a refreshing take on contemporary British political comedy in the way in which it questions its own worth in the public sphere. While British comedy is nowhere near as traumatised as its American sister and its cultural defeat at the hands of the satire-proof titan of Donald Trump, Brand’s special gives glimpses into the nature of this mode of culture and its relationship with public commentary and politics. While his stand-up provides a poignant example of the championing qualities of British political comedy, with its exploration of alternative ideas, protection of the downtrodden and its ridiculing of old cruelties, Brand also gives us cause to reflect on the exalted role of comedians as contemporary social and political guardians by highlighting their own limitations. In doing so, it stands out as an intelligent and self-aware piece of stand-up comedy and I look forward to his future contributions. I just hope he goes a bit easier on the dad raps next time.