British comedian Russell Brand tries to conquer America

British comedian Russell Brand tries to conquer America
COMIC: “Without fame, my whole persona doesn’t work.” (Nancy Pastor / For the Times)
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.

Never mind that he's already jumped into the Judd Apatow comedy gang after having stolen scenes as the libidinous Brit rock star Aldous Snow in the comedy mogul's hit breakup comedy, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" earlier this year. Famously, the filmmakers rewrote the part to fit Brand, who auditioned without bothering to read the script. And later this year, he will star as Aldous Snow again in "Get Him to the Greek" (Jonah Hill will play a hapless young intern charged with transporting Brand's rocker character from London to L.A. for a performance). But circling Brand's runway are a live special for Comedy Central and an Adam Sandler-produced movie, "For My Sins," in which Brand will play an English con man.

Russell Brand

Still, Brand -- who will travel to New York for a number of live dates and headline the "Apatow for Destruction" comedy showcase at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival next month -- describes stand-up as his life's work. Even if the very idea of live performance induces nausea and feelings of mortal dread in him before every gig.

"Being at liberty to say what I want in front of a room full of people: I love it. . . . But it's just ridiculous that something that scares me so much, that makes me feel sick and afraid, provides me with such rewards. I feel like I'm going to die before I go on."

So why bother going the stand-up route in this country at all?

"Because this is an American age, so I have to be able to perform for America," Brand said.

Brand is nothing if not hyper-self-aware -- a self-confessed sex addict and former junkie who attended the same prestigious drama school as Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan and was fired from hosting a show on MTV for dressing up as Osama bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001. He's had his ups and plenty of downs (like being beaten, jailed and hospitalized after performances).

But for all his shtick and bluster and ambition, there's no denying Brand seems to have his eyes set on a higher prize. To wit: a conversation about how he handles hecklers suddenly veers off into a free-form discussion of meditation, Hinduism and Schopenhauer's "will to life" theory -- apropos of how it all relates to stand-up, of course.

"It's the divine spark," Brand said. "If you can move closer to that, even while talking about any daft thing -- [fornicating] or football, any inappropriate substitute we find for being at one with God -- if you legitimately feel love for the people you're performing for, you've got the resources of the whole world at your disposal.

"I am going to the bathroom to micturate," he said, rising to his feet. "I think it is good to use Latin-derived words to describe lavatorial affairs."