Russell Brand Schools A Morning Joe Panel. So Why Are We Surprised When He Does Smart Things?

(Credit: Josie’s Juice)

Russell Brand’s late-night news show on FX, Brand X never quite came together and has been cancelled by the network. But his appearance on Morning Joe this week to promote his new stand-up tour illustrated why, while Brand may not have been adept at hosting a full half-hour or hour of news and interviews, he’s strikingly gifted as a guest, correspondent, or columnist:

That the Morning Joe segment was both a disaster and an opportunity was due to host Mika Brzezinski, who utterly lost control of the program, and Brand’s fellow guests, who created the conditions for Brand to launch a scathing critique of cable news. When Brand was asked what unified the world-historical figures who inspired his tour, Brand gave a terrific answer that should have lead to some follow-up questions: “They’re all people who died for a cause, they’re all people whose icons are used to designate meaning perhaps not in the manner in which they intended.” Brzezinski’s response? “I kind of like that, that sounded dead serious.” The other panelists mocked his accent. When one of them tried to ask Brand a “serious question”–actually a bit of fluff about which medium Brand prefers, which Brand answered with insight and introspection–Brzezinski told him he could “Try. It’s never going to work,” as if being a comedian disqualifies one from introspection. They referred to him in the third person, declared his clothes distracting, and in general behaved like children rather than news professionals.

And finally, Brand had enough. “Is this what you all do for a living? Let me help you. I’m here to promote a tour called Messiah Complex,” he told them exasperated, before shuffling up a stack of paper and posing a series of entirely reasonable questions about the roles of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in our national security environment before continuing his lecture. “You forget about what’s important and allow the agenda to be decided by superficial information.” Turning to Brzezinski, Brand asked, “What do you think that gesture means, the way you’re touching that bottle. You need to lose that ring because it don’t mean nothing to you.”

The video’s gone viral because of the supposed novelty of watching a comedian outclass a bunch of news anchors in more respectable outfits than his own. But the real surprise should have been that Brzezinski and her guests had the nerve to act so unprofessionally and think it was substance. And we should stop being shocked every time Russell Brand writes or does something of substance and recognize that the man is genuinely smart.

In 2011, people were surprised when Brand published a tribute to Amy Winehouse that was not just perceptive about the way addicts conduct their social lives, but that identified larger structural issues that prevent addicts from receiving care. ” Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill,” he wrote in the Guardian. “We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense.”

And they seemed surprised again when Brand emerged to offer a read on Margaret Thatcher’s political philosophy and time out of office in the same pages. “There were sporadic resurrections,” Brand reminisced. “She would appear in public to drape a hankie over a model BA plane tailfin because she disliked the unpatriotic logo with which they’d replaced the union flag (maybe don’t privatise BA then), or to shuffle about some country pile arm in arm with a doddery Pinochet and tell us all what a fine fellow he was. It always irks when rightwing folk demonstrate in a familial or exclusive setting the values that they deny in a broader social context. They’re happy to share big windfall bonuses with their cronies, they’ll stick up for deposed dictator chums when they’re down on their luck, they’ll find opportunities in business for people they care about. I hope I’m not being reductive but it seems Thatcher’s time in power was solely spent diminishing the resources of those who had least for the advancement of those who had most.”

All of these are sensible thoughts and perceptive observations, and it says something about how we view both political commentary and comedians that we’re surprised that one of the latter offers up a well-crafted example of the former. Brand can be a bit unorthodox in his presentation–I once asked him a question in a press scrum, and he suggested we hold hands while he answer. But It would be awfully nice if we could stop being surprised by Brand’s intellect and someone in American publishing or American television could find a way to make use of him–that’s a correspondent hire that would shake up the Daily Show, for example, or enliven the opinion pages of a significant paper, if only on a semi-regular basis–if only for our own benefit. And in our debates about comedians, social change, and responsibility, we should hold up people like Brand for whom the idea that comedy is a valuable tool of social change is a given, rather than a new revelation.