India Knight, a columnist for the London Times, wrote the following about English comedian Russell Brand's hosting of the recent MTV Music awards and the ensuing broohaha...
(Reprinted in full from The Sunday Times. original article here)
From The Sunday Times
September 14, 2008
The funny thing is Brand let America off lightly
The comedian Russell Brand, who is candid about the fact that his ambition is even bigger than his enormous nesty hair, presented the MTV video music awards last week. The show goes out live and is a very big deal in America, where Brand is, or was, largely unknown; it was watched this year by 8.4m people.
During his opening speech, he urged viewers to vote for Barack Obama, adding that though Americans were clearly open-minded people, since they’d let “that retarded cowboy fella” do his thing for eight years (“in Britain, we wouldn’t trust him with a pair of scissors”), it might be time to “let someone else have a go”. He went on to make jokes about Sarah Palin and about the “purity rings” worn by the Jonas Brothers, a wholesome teenage band who like to advertise their virginity through the wearing of jewellery – jewel-assisted virginity being, presumably, superior to the ordinary kind. (It’s only a matter of time before some American pop star broadcasts her sexual innocence by means of a huge, clanking chastity belt.)
Brand is a stand-up comedian, so he stood up and made jokes. Since he is a comedian rather than a children’s entertainer, the jokes had some edge, though his humour is observational and absurd rather than vicious: he doesn’t do great bitchy tirades. The jokes were funny, and were made funnier still by the nonplussed reaction of parts of the audience. He’s making jokes about our president! He’s making jokes about sex! He’s teasing the little Christian singers! He’s a Brit!
Never mind that this material was Brand Lite, sanitised for America: swathes of the viewing public were instantly outraged and keen to express their revulsion by flooding internet forums and news sites. Their comments were startling in their toxicity, taking in everything from Brand’s appearance – he’s a plain-looking fellow, apparently – to his heroin habit (he’s been free of drugs since 2003) to how he isn’t funny to Christian people, ergo needs to be hunted and shot. There was also lots of chippiness about how the UK is a “Third World country” and nobody in the US cares about it or anybody it has ever produced (um . . . Mayflower? Plymouth Rock? Oh, never mind). Television news and entertainment channels talked of nothing else for days, editorials were written, the blogosphere went mad: you get the picture.
America is so odd. They’re not weird in New York, or in California, and I know vast swathes of the country are packed to the gills with charming, lovely, clever people. They produce brilliant stand-up comedians themselves, and make some of the world’s best television and cinema. They have writers and actors and musicians of genius; the cliché about America being culturally barren is untrue. But you do worry about the rest of the populace when they threaten to do physical harm to a comedian for daring to suggest that Dubya, the least popular president in modern American history, doesn’t perhaps come across as being quite the full shilling. The vociferous commentators on MTV’s website can’t all have been fiftysomething Republicans whose sensibilities had been offended; they must have included a proportion of MTV’s viewers, broadly aged 16-24. How is it possible for young people to be so reactionary?
The issue seemed to be a) that non-Americans have no right to express any kind of opinion about the world’s only remaining superpower; b) that it’s not nice to say “retarded” (which it isn’t, especially, but– and I say this as the mother of a child with special needs – it is surely a matter of context. Besides, Americans like nothing better than the word “spaz”, so frankly we’re splitting hairs); c) that there’s nothing funny or odd about chastity rings (except there is: they’re completely absurd). This third point is especially peculiar given America’s vast, bottomless appetite for pornography, to say nothing of its fondness for sexualising female children: see the country’s tradition of toddler beauty queens in 3in heels and pancake. Britney Spears, the other star of this year’s VMAs, became America’s sweetheart at 17 by grinding and pouting while wearing a micro school uniform and her hair in bunches. Then she went a bit mad – gee, I wonder why – and America hated her for being fallible and human. The bile directed at Brand is nothing compared with the venom poor Spears endured for years. Then she looked hot again, so everything was fine.
I interviewed Brand last month; he was about to go back to LA for these awards. He was charming and bright, cerebral as well as motor-mouthed. He felt a certain trepidation about the VMAs, being fully aware that presenting them would catapult him into the American consciousness overnight. The awards haven’t done his US profile any harm: viewing figures were up 19% this year and MTV has asked him to host again next year. But his friend David Baddiel told me on Friday: “I think he was maybe a little surprised by the level of rage. He said he could imagine feeling that angry only if someone said something about his mum. What’s bizarre is that his remarks would be considered tepid in this country – it’s a massively disproportionate response to someone saying something very mildly out of turn.” Baddiel added that the script would have been checked by MTV, “which means you got maybe 10% of what he’d have liked to have said – he was operating at a fraction of his taboo-busting capabilities”.
The whole episode is like a parable about the differences between the US and the UK: so much common ground and yet such oceans between us. It isn’t about whether you find Brand funny or not: there’s always the “off” switch. It’s about the peculiar contradictions that seem to define modern America: the love of free speech and pride in democracy, coupled with bottomless abuse for anyone who has the temerity to voice dissent. The devotion to the flag, in people who strike some of us as trying their hardest to make the world dislike America. The sanctification of sexual purity versus the insatiable appetite for porn. And, above all, the sanctimony.
The only way of dealing with that kind of mindset is to joke about it, which is what Brand did. I’m glad of it: his performance was a useful reminder that sometimes jokes aren’t only funny, but necessary.