CHICAGO — It was a curious choice for Russell Brand to enter the Just For Laughs headlining stage to the Oasis track “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” considering that the famously sober comedian imbibes in neither.
That said, his set was loaded to the gills with familiar stories of Brand’s pre-enlightenment indulgences, anecdotes of booze and birds (along with some high-minded social commentary) that anyone familiar with his Booky Wook series had long-since committed to memory. While this matched his soundtrack (which also included junkie heroes The Libertines and Buzzcocks) this was disappointing for a longtime fan with great expectations for some exciting new material. So maybe the Oasis song was, for me at least, an appropriate choice: “I went looking for some action, but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol.”
The night wasn’t a complete write-off, though. With some strong crowd-work, a history lesson on Hitler’s youth, and a comedic look at Illinois’ more bizarre state laws, Brand eeked out a decent handful of crowd-killing narratives.
“I am single now,” Brand said, to predictably wild applause from the ladies in the audience. “I was faithful while I was married, but after I got divorced I was thinking about what to do next. So I met with the Dalai Lama, thinking maybe I should become a monk. And he said ‘no, you’re not qualified.’ Because the principle of being a monk is celibacy. And the principle behind being married is fidelity. So if you’re a monk you don’t have sex with ANYONE, if you’re married you only have sex with one person. That’s only one more than a monk! That’s not a big enough gap is it?”
Beyond pulling from a lot of his pre-Katy Perry material about Dionysian orgies and the existential guilt following orgasm, Brand delivered some new linguistic gems to describe the female anatomy. Referring to a woman’s anus as “a perfect aperture, so delicate and sweet it could’ve been penned by Walt Disney, so perfectly sanitary it could dispense nothing more toxic than little pink tic-tacs,” he went on to explain his sexual tactic of “ass-jazz,” a bit that devolved when genders were switched and the male stimulation replaced jazz with German Oompah music.
While there were a handful of strong laughs peppered throughout the night, never did Brand’s set reach the communal rapture that a show of that size required. This was undoubtedly, in part, due to his lack of new material — many of those seated around me giggled during the setup of his jokes, knowing what was coming — but it was also most likely due to the lack of an opener. A single-bill show can get away with this if you’re slaughtering them with fresh jokes, but much of last night’s audience were made up of super-fans who knew his material front-to-back. While wading through stories and one-liners I’d been repeating to friends for years, I spent the entire 80 minutes waiting for the show to begin.
As seen on his podcast and unscripted FX talk-show, Brand X (or formerly seen, as the show was recently canceled), Russell Brand is a wizard of improvisation, leading him to often go without a planned set for a show and fuel the performance on organic adrenaline. When this works, the show is a priceless experience, when it doesn’t, the comic has to fall back on what killed in the past.
“You might be a woman from the Chicago area thinking ‘oh, I’d love to have sex with Russell Brand,” closing his set with a joke he’s been churning out since even before he made it in America, “‘but he’s so erudite and great I’m probably not good enough for him.’ Give it a shot. You probably are good enough. Have some confidence in yourself.”
Following this, Brand exited the stage of the Chicago Theater to the Michael Jackson song “Bad,” once again unintentionally scoring his set with a bleak irony.