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Joker as a rocker god

British comedian Russell Brand mixes Jagger swagger with erudite riffs.

June 14, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Clad head to toe in skin-tight Johnny Cash black, Russell Brand mounted the stage at Hollywood's venerable rock venue the Roxy Theatre on a recent Sunday looking every inch the louche, preening British rock star of archetype. His haystack of "Edward Scissorhands"-esque hair: impressively vertical. His winkle-picker boots: pointy and sharp. Brand's shirt was unbuttoned nearly to his waist, revealing a cluster of silver Gypsy medallions as he looked up to face the capacity crowd.

Then he started talking. Because Brand -- who ends a six-week "residence" of sold-out Roxy dates Sunday night (several were added "due to overwhelming demand," according to the venue website) -- had come to rock the house with jokes, not music.

The UK native is a superstar in Britain, with household-name status and a kind of sudden cultural ubiquity, not unlike Paris Hilton's a few years back. The difference? There's no sex tape and he's actually talented. Among his bona fides across the pond: a bestselling memoir called "My Booky Wook" (which earlier this week netted Brand a multimillion-dollar two-book deal with HarperCollins), reported "canoodling" with supermodel Kate Moss, and writing a column about soccer for the liberal newspaper the Guardian.

Entreating British people in the crowd to vouch for him, Brand asked, "I'm famous in England, right?" Then he paused, somewhat dissatisfied with the amount of qualifying applause.

"Without fame, my whole persona doesn't work," Brand said gripping the mike stand. "My haircut just looks like mental illness."

It would be an evening of ribald sex tips and athletic pelvic thrusts with plenty of simulated masturbation and frequent references to his "selection process" for the groupie love session he promised would get underway posthaste post-show.

While staying within his dandyish sexual persona, though, Brand would also treat the crowd to surprising bursts of erudition and candor. The comedian interspersed laughs with illuminating glimpses at his troubled relationship with his father and casually referenced philosophers Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. He also used the words "churlish," "recalcitrant" and "apotheosis" in context and without any apparent condescension to the beer-chugging crowd.

In previous weeks, an eclectic array of showbiz boldfaced names had stopped in to catch Brand's act, including Ewan MacGregor, Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer, Brit mope rocker Morrissey and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones . In a display of Brand's rising profile in town, a roundelay of promoters, publicists and executives from Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, HBO, Comedy Central, MTV and all the town's major talent agencies had clamored for VIP seats.

Not that Brand was letting any of it get to his head -- already inordinately huge thanks to the comedian's chiaroscuro of dark hair.

"It's important to keep a spiritual perspective on it, because I am narcissistic and vain," Brand said in the Roxy's dressing room after the show. "But every time I take myself seriously and think I'm cool, something embarrassing happens. I'm forever reminded I'm a bit of an idiot, really."

He can conjure the situational absurdity of a Monty Python sketch in just a few exaggerated pantomime moves and wield the observational wit of Oscar Wilde after an amyl nitrate hit. But moreover, Brand exudes a Jagger-eque rock star charisma mixed with an undercurrent of David Schwimmer's "Why me?" neurotic twitchiness that has the industry trade paper Variety touting Brand as possibly the hottest British comedy export since Ricky Gervais.

And depending on the angle from which you consider Brand's career inroads here, he's either the anti-Hugh Grant or heir to Grant's movie throne. But where Grant cracked Hollywood's A-list as a kind of puppy dog hunk -- an Englishman desired by women yet unthreatening to men -- avowed sex addict and former crack smoker Brand stands to connect with American audiences by channeling another cultural stereotype: a rock 'n' roll ladykiller.

"It's appealing to me to be part of that lineage," he said. "Rock 'n' roll had a strong ideology and came about because of the strong suggestion of revolution, right?"

That Brand is already a big deal overseas is of little consolation as the comedian attempts to conquer America one laugh at a time. "It's been quite difficult, actually," he said.

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