Russell Brand hosting the MusiCares Person of the Year event in Los Angeles in 2020.Credit…Amy Sussman/Getty Images
When Russell Brand debuted at Britain’s most important comedy festival, he was instantly marked for fame.
In August 2000, at the age of 25, he was part of a triple bill at the Edinburgh Fringe, and his opening routine involved coming onstage with a sack on his head and pretending to be the Elephant Man. Much of the rest of the comedian’s short set was “oversimplified political stuff,” recalled Steve Bennett, the editor of the comedy website Chortle. But Bennett, who reviewed the show, said that Brand’s “magnetic charisma” meant that even predictable material had appeal.
Bennett said he was not surprised when Brand soon made the leap from basement venues to being a star on the British version of MTV.
This week, Brand has dominated news in Britain for reasons other than his comedy, after three media outlets made public an investigation in which four women accused him of sexual assault. On Friday, Brand, in a clip posted on social media, denied what he called the “serious criminal allegations” that came out in that investigation and said his past sexual encounters had all been consensual.
Throughout his turbulent career, Brand has been a celebrity known for his provocative, often sexual humor and for run-ins with controversy. At several points, whether in comedy, or more lately as a politically charged YouTuber, Brand has made headlines in Britain, and sometimes the United States, for scandalous incidents and edgy views.
Roy Greenslade, a media commentator and former tabloid editor, said that Brand had always looked to “push at the boundaries” of what was acceptable: “So it’s been no surprise when he’s overstepped them.”
At the outset, Brand was focused on comedy. In 2004, back in Edinburgh, he debuted an acclaimed solo show, “Better Now,” about his recovery from drug addiction. A few years later, in 2009, he was performing another show, “Scandalous,” to 16,000 people at London’s O2 venue.
By that point, Brand’s jokes were less about politics and more focused on the Lothario persona he had established with the help of Britain’s tabloid press, which covered his antics in minute detail. As his comedy career boomed, Brand made efforts to break into TV and radio, too. In 2000, he was hired to work on MTV, only to be fired a year later when, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Brand arrived at work high and dressed as Osama bin Laden.
Following treatment for drug and sex addictions, he made the first of several comebacks by hosting a show on Channel 4, one of Britain’s major TV networks, as well as another on the BBC’s most popular radio station. In the United States he grabbed attention when in 2008 he hosted the MTV Video Music Awards and referred to President George W. Bush by an offensive name.
Brand’s rise in Britain only began to stall in October 2008 when he recorded an episode of his radio show that included a series of prank phone calls to Andrew Sachs, the veteran actor known for playing Manuel the Spanish waiter in the 1970s comedy “Fawlty Towers.” In the calls, Brand and his co-host Jonathan Ross referred repeatedly to Brand’s having sex with Sachs’s granddaughter, and made other lewd remarks.
The show only attracted two formal complaints when broadcast. But after The Mail on Sunday newspaper wrote about the calls, thousands of irate callers flooded the BBC switchboard and the incident became a political storm. Brand was forced into an apology, but Greenslade said that incident didn’t affect Brand’s popularity among fans as it played into his “bad boy” image. “It enhanced his reputation for some,” Greenslade said. But broadcasters became “wary” of working with such a loose cannon.
Brand had a brief moment of crossover movie stardom in the United States, starring in 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and its 2010 spinoff “Get Him to the Greek.” He became a major figure in Britain again when he made a surprise move into politics. In 2013, Brand guest-edited an issue of a British political magazine. Then, in a television interview to promote it, the comedian admitted he’d never voted and called for the creation of a new political system that focused on the needs of ordinary people and didn’t “destroy the planet” or “create massive economic disparity.” Soon, he was a left-wing figurehead.
George Monbiot, a prominent British environmentalist, said that Brand’s “extraordinary” interview shook up a political scene that had previously lacked “vision and inspiration.” The comedian continued to make an impact by embracing a new platform and setting up a YouTube channel, The Trews, that discussed ideas such as how corporations and the news media were influencing political events. With those videos, Monbiot said, Brand engaged young and disenfranchised voters in a way that actual politicians had struggled to do. Brand wielded enough influence to host Ed Milliband, then the leader of the opposition Labour Party, in the middle of an election campaign.
Over time, the tenor of the Brand’s videos changed, and became filled with conspiracies and conservative talking points, including vaccine skepticism. “It’s hard to put a finger on when he exactly changed, but there was a point when he stopping talking about Rupert Murdoch and started talking about far less powerful figures and demonizing people like Anthony Fauci,” Monbiot said.
Throughout his career, Brand — a self-described narcissist — had sought attention and on YouTube, it was right-wing talking points that got the most likes and shares. Brand now has over 6.6 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, to hear his commentaries on world political events and interview conservative figureheads such as Ron DeSantis in earnest. “It could scarcely be a more extreme or surprising shift,” Monbiot added.
On Tuesday, YouTube blocked Brand from making money through the site, where he collected payments through advertisements and promotions. A spokeswoman for YouTube said in an email that “if a creator’s off-platform behavior harms our users, employees or ecosystem, we take action to protect the community.”
Joe Mulhall, director of research at Hope Not Hate, a British organization that keeps tabs on far-right groups, said that Brand’s shift mirrored those of many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people who were naturally skeptical of medical orthodoxy began questioning the safety of Covid-19 vaccines and were then “dragged into” much wider conspiracy theories through online communities. Brand, an anti-establishment figure, could have equally seen those minor views as appealing, he added.
Over the past year, members of British far-right groups had begun sharing Brand’s clips, Mulhall said. Some did so only reluctantly, he added, as Brand had previously mocked and attacked right-wing groups, especially for positions he deemed to be anti-immigration and racist.
Even before the recent allegations against him, Brand’s career seemed to be situated at a point well beyond a traditional audience, even as his popularity as an online personality increased. “Clearly the road through his entire career has been his desire for attention,” Mulhall said. But with his post-Covid pivot, “he’s sacrificed much of his mainstream appeal.”