Comedy is everything for Brand's generation


For those born after 1970, irony and humour became the sole cultural outlets, writes John Waters 

FROM THE low-key coverage of the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross controversy on this side of the water, you would think Ireland and the UK were two different cultures. Yet, on any given night, half the Irish audience watches British television. What happens there today will arrive here tomorrow, and what happened yesterday is, right now, the most happening thing in the land. This lends an anomalous tint to the comparative lack of interest among Irish media in one of the most shocking and salutary episodes in the history of the BBC. Perhaps the reticence arises because the controversial episode occurred on British radio, which, though once a vital lifeline, is now a marginal influence here.

It is difficult to summarise for the uninitiated ostrich the episode at the centre of this cultural tsunami, which has already provoked an intervention by Gordon Brown. Almost two weeks ago, on Russell Brand's late-night Radio 2 programme, the presenter and his guest Jonathan Ross made a series of calls to the answerphone of the veteran actor Andrew Sachs, in the course of which Ross blurted that Brand had "f***ed" Sachs's granddaughter. Brand went on to speculate about whether Sachs might commit suicide on hearing this news. Reading the transcript of the broadcast item, it is hard to comprehend that grown men could sink so low, never mind on national radio. Still more bizarre is that the show was pre-recorded two days before broadcast, and passed by an as-yet-unnamed BBC "senior editorial figure" who overruled appeals by Andrew Sachs to have it suppressed.

Merely to express outrage is to miss the point. Remarkably, although at the time of writing the episode has attracted nearly 30,000 complaints, just a handful of the two million listeners complained at the time. Brand has now accepted responsibility and resigned, but his initial "apology" provided an interesting insight into his mindset. "Sometimes," he allowed, "you mustn't swear on someone's answerphone and that is why I would like to apologise." He added that "it was quite funny".

Russell Brand is an engaging comic talent who has created a persona suggesting a cross between Frank Spencer and Keith Richards, written in the style of Charles Dickens. For all his preening narcissism, there is something beguiling and deeply funny in Brand's playing of himself as a Willy Wonka of the Pleasure Dome who can't believe his luck.

Watching Brand and Ross in their occasional TV encounters, it is clear that Ross is utterly in awe, and perhaps a little envious, of the younger man. The transcript of the Sachs broadcast shows that this factor was rampant on that occasion, with Ross trying his hardest to out-Brand Brand. Ross was among the most talented of the 1980s TV generation, a witty and thoughtful facilitator who brought to television a sense of the ironic knowing of the first generation reared in front of the box. But he is now deep into middle age and desperately trying to make the right noises to hang in with the youth audience.

A similar syndrome afflicts his employer, the BBC, run by fogeys desperate to keep up with what "the yoof" are thinking, and employing people like Russell Brand to do, you know, whatever it is they do in order to prevent the haemorrhaging of younger audiences to the competition.

Brand belongs to a generation for which comedy is almost literally everything, and the laughter factor the only reliable test. The kinds of energies which previous youth generations expressed through music, art or protest have in his generation compressed into a single essence: a dissociated blend of ridicule and humour that lacks roots in any form of empathy. This comedy obsession arose in large part because this generation had its capacity for idealism usurped and frustrated by the couple of generations which preceded it, which refuse to countenance that anyone could be more "progressive" or engaged than themselves. Because those who emerged from the 1960s have been running everything, and refusing to provide space for challenging alternative perspectives, irony and humour became, for those born after 1970 or so, the sole cultural outlets for their natural transformative energies. The tone of detached, vacuous mockery that pervades the internet arises from this cultural stakelessness, now rendered artful by comedians like Russell Brand. On his television show a couple of years back, Ross asked Brand about the hurt humour can inflict: "I just see it as entertainment and try to divorce myself from moral obligation," he replied.

The Sachs episode was an inevitable culmination of this logic. The point is to be "funny", at any cost. There is in this, of course, an evasion of the essence of laughter, which is first and foremost a nervous response to encroachment on a taboo, a necessary social instrument for testing existing social instruments, but hardly a heroic calling.

For many of his own generation, Russell Brand is the closest to a hero they know. But the really interesting issue concerns the sabotage of their natural idealism by older generations now vacillating between managed outrage and indulgent giggling. They, still in control, have the last laugh.