Russell Brand: A career in comedy defined by darkness and delusions

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Russell Brand: A career in comedy defined by darkness and delusions
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Scandal-ridden comedian. Hollywood husband. Drug addict-turned-wellness-guru. Left-wing activist. Conspiracy theorist. Over the course of two decades in the spotlight, the British stand-up and presenter Russell Brand has put forward many different personas to the public. Now, another, darker side to the comic has emerged, after he released a video to deny unspecified “serious criminal allegations”, which he said related to his “promiscuous” past.

The 48-year-old comedian and actor said he “absolutely refutes” the claims and suggested two “mainstream media outlets” were making a “coordinated” attack against him. His denial comes ahead of an expected Dispatches investigation scheduled to air on Channel 4 at 9pm on Saturday night.

Brand’s comedy style has always relied on shock tactics and thrived on controversy, but a look back at his story – from the so-called “Sachsgate” scandal to previous comments from other celebrities – prompts uncomfortable questions.

Brand’s early years are painted with his trademark high-flown loquacity in My Booky Wook, the 2007 autobiography that was once a ubiquitous presence in any high street bookshop, its cover showing the comedian’s signature look: wildly backcombed hair, eyeliner and a waistcoat.

Russell Brand breaks silence, denies allegations ahead of mystery ‘Dispatches’ programme

Born in Essex in 1975, he was raised by his mother Barbara, who was diagnosed with cancer multiple times throughout his childhood; in the film Brand: A Second Coming, Barbara recalls him telling her that he was “the second Jesus”, and becoming upset when she didn’t believe him. At 16, he started taking amphetamines, ecstasy and LSD; as a teenager, he later told US Weekly, he “got very obsessive about sex and women and pornography”, marking the start of his well-documented sex addiction.

Brand’s drug use would eventually lead to him being thrown out of the Italia Conti stage school after just one year. He started smoking heroin in his early twenties, describing the sensation in My Booky Wook as “like crawling back into the womb … a great big smacky cuddle”.

His comedy career kicked off around the same time, performing stand-up and bagging a role as a video journalist for MTV in 2000. The gig was short-lived: Brand was famously fired after arriving at the studios dressed as Osama bin Laden the day after the September 11 attacks; he had previously taken his drug dealer to work and introduced him to Kylie Minogue.

Russell Brand has says he “absolutely refutes” the allegations against him

His stand-up shows acquired a reputation for chaos, as he would often perform while high: “releasing locusts, cutting up pigs’ heads, smashing up dead mice and birds with a hammer, and then throwing them into the audience”, according to The Guardian.

Controversy only seemed to fuel his career. In 2002, he went sober after his agent John Noel forced him to go to rehab; leaving drugs behind, he said later, made his sex addiction “worse”. Two years later, he started hosting E4’s Big Brother spin-off show, later named Big Brother’s Big Mouth, a gig that would catapult him from the comedy fringes into the mainstream.

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Scandal seemed to follow Brand. He was linked to a line-up of famous women including Kate Moss and Peaches Geldof, and would become embroiled in a spat with the latter’s father Bob at the 2006 NME Awards, claiming: “It’s no wonder Bob Geldof knows so much about famine – he’s been dining out on ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ for 30 years.”

Russell Brand pictured with his wife Laura Gallacher

(Alamy)

Brand became a regular presence on the panel show circuit, notably teaming up with The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding on Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year from 2006 onwards. My Booky Wook followed in 2007.

The reception was generally positive, with many celebrating Brand’s no-holds-barred approach to his tumultuous life and praising his decision to open up about being sexually abused by a tutor as a child. The book became an inescapable fixture in bookshops and in pop culture for years: its ubiquity is perhaps best summed up by its namecheck in Gavin & Stacey, where Ruth Jones’ Nessa cites it as her son Neil, the Baby’s, favourite bedtime story.

He then made his first major attempt at cracking America in 2008, when he hosted the MTV VMAs, stirring up outrage by mocking George Bush, Sarah Palin’s pregnant teenage daughter Bristol, and the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings. Once again, scandal helped his profile. “Last night’s VMAs were as mediocre as ever, but no one can stop talking about Brand, who two days ago was a virtual unknown in America,” Entertainment Weekly wrote afterwards.

Russell Brand wrote ‘My Booky Wook’ detailing his tumultuous past

(Getty Images)

But amid this speedy rise to fame, there were complaints about his behaviour.

In 2006, Dannii Minogue called him “a bit of a vile predator” in the Daily Mirror, when she recalled an early TV interview with Brand. “I certainly don’t think he has cured his sex addiction, that’s for sure,” she said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer… throughout the whole interview, he kept making shocking remarks that I can’t even repeat. Just uttering the words would make me blush.”

Brand would later brush off her comments in The Independent. “If that’s the language you’re going to use about someone who really ought to be described as ‘having a bit of an eye for the ladies’, then what sort of language are you left with for Peter Sutcliffe and Ian Huntley?” he said.

Two years later, he was forced to apologise after making a hoax call to Northamptonshire Police during a comedy set, in which he claimed to have spotted the man responsible for a spate of sex attacks. “I don’t think that’s particularly amusing,” Lynda Yorke, a representative for Leicester Rape Crisis, said at the time. “It’s in very poor taste. The issue of sexual assault is often belittled, and such callous behaviour is extremely hurtful to the victims.”

Complaints over ‘Sachsgate’ reached 55,000 and led to the resignation of Brand, the suspension of Ross and a series of sackings and resignations at the BBC

(Getty )

A few months later, Brand became embroiled in his biggest scandal yet. While recording an episode of his BBC Radio 2 show, he and guest co-host Jonathan Ross left a series of lewd voice messages on the phone of Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs.

Sachs, then aged 78, had been due to be interviewed over the phone, but when he failed to answer their call, Brand and Ross proceeded to make explicit jokes about the former’s relationship with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie. Both sniggered their way through a series of excruciating comments, culminating in a sing-song apology from Brand featuring the rhyme: “It was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual.”

Baillie was humiliated on national radio, with details of her private life launched into the public domain. The BBC received almost 43,000 complaints, the then prime minister Gordon Brown described the incident as “clearly inappropriate and unacceptable” and Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas stepped down.

Brand also resigned, admitting to “complete responsibility” for the incident in an apology video. Ross’s career floundered in the immediate aftermath of “Sachsgate”, with the more seasoned broadcaster suspended from his radio and TV commitments for three months.

Brand with Helen Mirren in the film ‘Arthur’

(WARNER BROS)

But once again Brand seemed to flourish in the face of controversy. His return to UK TV, in the second season of his Channel 4 show Ponderland, drew its biggest audience yet following the furore, and MTV asked him to reprise his role as VMAs host for the 2009 ceremony (he boasted to The Sun that they had come to him after ratings increased by 20 per cent in 2008).

A Forgetting Sarah Marshall spin-off centred on Brand’s character premiered in 2010, followed by a stint voicing a villain in Despicable Me, and acting alongside Helen Mirren in a film version of The Tempest.

His 2011 remake of Arthur, the Eighties romcom about an alcoholic upper-class philanderer, was a major misfire, though. In a scathing one-star review, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described it as “an atonal symphony of wrong notes”; The Independent’s reviewer, meanwhile, suggested that this “full-on stinker” would be “watched in the mortifying discomfort of a full body cringe”. It bombed at the box office, as did his next movie, the big-screen adaptation of glam rock jukebox musical Rock of Ages.

Brand landed his first major role in a film in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008

(Universal Studios)

By this point, though, Brand was a fixture of gossip magazines on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his relationship with Katy Perry. He met the singer backstage at the 2008 VMAs, when Brand was not just preparing to host the awards but also filming scenes for Get Him to the Greek; they started dating the following year and got engaged soon after.

In 2010, they married in a Hindu ceremony in Rajasthan, India, with Brand arriving on an elephant and buying a tiger for his new bride. A fortune-telling parrot reportedly told the couple that they would have a long marriage, but it wasn’t to be. They announced their split 14 months later; in 2013, Perry told US Vogue that Brand had broken up with her in a text message. “Let’s just say I haven’t heard from him since he texted me saying he was divorcing me December 31, 2011,” she said.

Post-Perry split, Brand began his pivot into a new incarnation: as a self-styled political sage speaking truth to power. In 2013, he was invited to guest-edit an issue of the New Statesman exploring the idea of “revolution”, and wrote a 4,500-word essay on that theme (which mainly served to emphasise his verbosity: at one point, he tries to anticipate the reader’s criticisms by describing himself as “a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk [who] has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth”).

Katy Perry revealed that Brand put pressure on her to start a family

(Getty)

In a notorious Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, he admitted that he had never voted, and called upon the British public to do the same, as a protest against politicians. “I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he claimed.

Next came his YouTube video series,The Trews, launched in 2014. Its name, Brand said, brought together “true” and “news”, and each episode saw him “analyse the news, truthfully, spontaneously and with great risk to his personal freedom”, by his own reckoning.

In December, the journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot hailed him as “the best thing that has happened to the left in years”, describing his “rough and inchoate” politics as “a refreshing change from the stifling coherence of some of the grand old men of the left”.

Jeremy Paxman interviews Russell Brand for ‘Newsnight’

(BBC)

A few months later, readers of Prospect magazine voted him as the world’s fourth most influential thinker. Brand drew in increasingly high-profile guests, interviewing the likes of Alastair Campbell, The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein (who appeared in third place on that Prospect list) and, perhaps most famously, Ed Miliband, who visited Brand’s home on the 2015 general election campaign trail.

And yet many noticed some uncomfortable contradictions in Brand’s new persona as a liberal hero.

In 2014, controversial pick-up artist Julien Blanc was banned from touring the UK by the Home Office. When a picture of him posing with Brand emerged online, the comic not only denied knowing Blanc, but criticised his so-called dating tactics, telling his Trews viewers that “any system for chatting up women is in itself questionable”, and something that he would “never, never, never, never, never endorse”.

Brand had, it seemed, conveniently forgotten the fact that he had previously shared his support of The Rules of the Game by pick-up artist Neil Strauss, in a quote that appeared on the book’s front cover. “Neil Strauss’s writing turned me from a desperate wallflower into a wallflower who can talk women into sex,” it read.

Elon Musk (left) backed Russell Brand after the comedian came out to deny the allegations against him

(Getty Images/X)

The writer Suzanne Moore summed it up when asked to share her thoughts on Brand as part of a 2014 profile for Vanity Fair. “He still has this history, no matter how he cloaks his sexism – and I’ll call it sexism – in this new spiritual talk,” she told the magazine. “He plays this double game, being very self-aware of his past misdeeds, but I don’t know how much respect he has or shows to women.”

After winding down The Trews in 2015, Brand launched his podcast Under the Skin a few years later and seemed to embark on another strategic career shift: this time, entering the world of wellness. The comedian, who has been sober since 2002, started to embrace mindfulness. Transcendental meditation, he said, had helped him “become a better person”, and he swapped political Q&As for guided meditation exercises on his YouTube channel.

In 2017, he released the self-help book Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, his own modern spin on the “12 Step programme”, to which he credits his sobriety. Two years later, after the birth of his two daughters, Mabel and Peggy, he suggested that he was on too high a spiritual plane to get involved with the practical sides of parenting in an interview with The Times. “I’m very, very focused on the mystical connotations of Mabel’s beauty and grace,” he said. “Not so good on the nappies and making sure that they eat food.”

The comedian-turned-political-activist was in typically combative form during his promotional interview on the BBC for his book ‘Revolution’

Wellness has remained an important part of the Brand brand. Last year, he and wife Laura Gallacher launched Community, a three-day sober festival in Hay-on-Wye that espouses “personal awakening and social change”. The 2023 line-up included the explorer Bruce Parry and ice bath aficionado Wim Hof; in one bizarre video on the event’s Instagram page, we see Hof dancing and doing the splits in the mud as a group wearing masks plays steel drums, while a heavily eyelinered Brand looks on, holding what appears to be an antler-inspired wooden carving.

Perhaps Brand’s most surprising pivot yet, though, has been his shift from left-wing hero to conspiracy peddler. Where once he positioned himself as a truth-teller, these days he trades in fake news, broadcasting live from a shed in Henley to his viewers on the right-wing streaming site Rumble. His YouTube videos have shouty, alarmist titles like “Bill Gates Has Been HIDING This And It’s ALL About To Come Out” or “The FBI Have Been Harvesting Your DNA?!” He has falsely claimed that drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin can be used to treat Covid, is avowedly anti-vax, and has espoused the “Great Reset” theory, which alleges that global elites are using the pandemic to usher in a new world order.

No wonder, then, he has been dubbed the British answer to controversial American podcaster Joe Rogan (he has, inevitably, appeared on Rogan’s show). Brand’s celebrity means that his platform is much, much larger than the average conspiracy theorist shouting in a garden shed: his YouTube channel alone currently has 6.59 million subscribers.

Comedian Russell Brand calls Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a tyrant in a video discussing the war in Ukraine and democratic ideals

(screengrab)

In the wake of the #MeToo revelations that swept through the film industry back in 2017, a handful of reporters have asked Brand to share his thoughts on the movement, and its unmasking of sexual predators. “I just feel like MeToo is a really positive step, it’s a sign of real awakening,” he told The Times in 2019.

The previous year, in an interview with Balance magazine, he described it as “a positive movement… It’s important in the way men and women relate to each other and reset the rules in ways beneficial to both for a long time to come. We’re in this together.”

Let’s see how he feels after the Dispatches documentary airs.

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