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Russell Brand’s ‘BrandX’ Has Potential to Be More Than Generic
June 28, 2012  | By David Bianculli

The initial installment of FX’s new late-night comedy standup showcase, BrandX with Russell Brand, isn’t that impressive. But both the star and the format show signs of being onto something potentially special here…

premieres Thursday, June 28, at 11 p.m. ET, and is slotted intentionally in late night to allow Brand to engage in the often provocative banter that made him a stand-up comedy star and popular MTV Video Music Awards host. More important, and more risky, is the show’s last-minute production schedule, which has it taping each weekly episode only a few days before air.

Theoretically, this gives Brand the chance to be as topical as possible, and confront the news of the day with a freshness and immediacy. It’s not as out-of-the-oven fresh as HBO’s live Real Time with Bill Maher, or even the taped-earlier-in-the-day programs by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, or any of the late-night network talk-show hosts.

But it’s something. And Brand does seem determined, at times, to refer to recent events and personalities, and talk to the studio audience, for his entire act, like a latter-day Mort Sahl.

Other times in Thursday’s premiere, though, he’s more obsessed with talking about himself — like the late-career Lenny Bruce, reading from his own trial transcripts. Except that Brand is showing recent photos of himself with the Dalai Lama, and using that as a springboard for a monologue that touches on several touchy topics, including religion.

The structure of BrandX places the comedian in front of a small, intimate audience, with a putative serious sidekick, Matt Stoller, off to the side, offering occasional analysis from an American perspective, but mostly laughing when things are otherwise silent, filling the void like a 21st-century Ed McMahon.

Stoller is a Harvard graduate, but his clearer connection to Brand and BrandX appears to be that Stoller’s brother, Nick, directed Brand’s breakthrough movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In the premiere episode, Matt Stoller contributed little, except supportive chuckles.

The audience was even less helpful. If you’re going to deliver some smart comedy and some rapid-fire asides, which Brand does, you need a catcher to receive your fast balls — and the studio audience for the first show let almost everything zoom past them. Even when Brand would ask if they were aware of certain topics, including fervently religious pro quarterback Tim Tebow, this small crowd responded only with the sound of silence.

And when Brand dove into his best moments of comedy in the opener — an improvised bit about religious circumcision rites, and whether that was something God should really care about — several audience members appeared to be looking for a clue. Or an exit.

But I see something here that can be built upon. Stoller’s role needs to be more clearly defined, or eliminated entirely. Wherever the producers got the studio audience members for the premiere, they should go elsewhere for next week’s show. And Brand, while not discouraged from talking about himself, should widen his sights from now on — and hit topics that are more current than, say, foreskin.

Right now, the star of BrandX with Russell Brand is too smart for the room. But change the room, or at least the audience members in it, and this could be a show, and a comic, worth a regular tune-in.

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