This week I witnessed the bloody, brutal death of mainstream television. It will, I think, go down in media history as one of those ‘Where were you when JFK was shot?’ moments. The victims were the presenters of a US breakfast television show called Morning Joe; the executioner was Russell Brand.
Russell Brand? No, it’s OK, I’m quite with you: on a bad day he can be the most annoying person on earth, with his swarthy, beardie, slimy, wheedling faux-grandiloquence and even more faux-intellect and that little-puppy-dog-lost way he has of looking you straight in the eye and impudently demanding your forgiveness for having just shagged both your wife and your daughter ‘because, hey, it could have been worse — at least I didn’t do grandma too’.
Problem is, on a good day he’s more or less unbeatable, as he showed with that fantastic piece he wrote for The Spectator on heroin addiction, and as he has demonstrated yet again with his Morning Joe appearance — which has become a massive viral hit on the internet.
Morning Joe (on MSNBC) is like a British breakfast TV show only more stilted, more formal, more painfully insincere. It’s the kind of ordeal you submit to as a guest not because it’s in any way edifying or enjoyable but because you have a product to plug and the audience is too big to ignore.
When a show gets that powerful, its presenters tend to develop a toxic complacency about their own mediocre talents and a casual contempt towards their guests whose job, they begin to imagine, is to sit there making pleasantries while their hosts outshine them with their Gods and Goddesses of Breakfast TV status and their dismal in-jokes. Brand noticed this and wouldn’t play ball.
Do watch it on YouTube. It starts deceptively blandly, with host Mika Brzezinski (Joe was away that day, apparently) and her two guest panellists Katty Kay and Brian Shactman utterly failing to engage with Brand. There are awkward quips about his weird clothes, strange accent and hairy chest, much of it referring to Brand in the third person — or even by the (rather Freudian) wrong name, Willy.
After about six minutes of this nonsense, Brand has had enough. ‘You’re talking about me as if I’m not here and as if I’m an extraterrestrial,’ he says, doing the very thing you’re not supposed to do on TV (or so Mark Lawson once pointedly told me): drawing attention to the artificiality of the format. Brand then proceeds to seize control of the show, leaving his hosts looking slow-witted, unprofessional and quite agonisingly embarrassed.
‘Is this what you all do for a living?’ he asks, snatching away their briefing notes, and ad-libbing about the sort of stories they should be covering — Edward Snowden, maybe — rather than making disparaging remarks about their guest’s attire. ‘These people, I’m sure, are typically very good at their jobs,’ he tells the camera — having now reversed roles and begun talking about his hosts in the third person. ‘You’re conveying news to the people of America? People of America, we’re going to be OK!’
Perhaps the cleverest aspect of Brand’s performance is that he manages to make himself incredibly objectionable without actually being rude. Any act of rudeness would enable his hosts to take the moral high ground and squash him and Brand instinctively (everything he does is instinctive, I think) understands this. So rather than destroy Brzezinski with caustic insults he instead does so through flirtation, complimenting her on her Lady Di hairstyle and then, when she makes the mistake of being half-flattered, following through with the lubricious suggestion that she’s a bit of a ‘shaft-grasper’. (All right, that one’s rude, but he saves it till the end.)
MSNBC’s response, of course, to this abject public humiliation has been to put on a rictus smile and pretend this was merely a story about Brand’s ego. (‘People come in here, one after the other,’ said Brzezinski. ‘I didn’t know who Russell was. I don’t think he liked that.’) What this story is really about, though, is a naughty little boy pointing at the Emperor and observing, not before time and to no one’s great surprise, that he’s wearing no kit and that, what’s more, he’s got a ludicrously small appendage.
Shows like Morning Joe — and their many equivalents on British TV — are about as relevant to the age of Twitter, Spotify and YouTube as Muffin the Mule or the Black and White Minstrels. On some level, they all know this but like the orchestra on the Titanic they’re going to go on playing the same old repertoire in the same old way right to the end — because what other options do they have?
That said, Brand was utterly useless a few days later on Question Time. He uses lots of long words not because he is particularly brainy but because it’s his way of making a fairly average intellect punch massively above its weight in front of the sort of people who don’t know any better.
His line on bankers, for example — that those who had made the most money after the 2008 crash were clearly the biggest wrong’uns and should therefore be put away — was stupid beyond measure, as he’d know if he’d read The Big Short. That’s the problem with doing everything by instinct. It only gets you so far.