A mix of madness and matter, Russell Brand evokes all the tedium of Shakespeare’s clowns

Is he clever or does he just use words we don’t expect him to use?
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The disquiet caused by Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman’s encounter on Newsnight lingers on – in my memory anyway – like the queasy half-recollection of a bad dream. Given the millions still watching it on YouTube, I must suppose that other people are unwilling to dispel all remembrance of it as well – or, if they never saw the original, feel they need to be up to speed on it – though the trash-can of telly trivia is where it belongs. Unless it doesn’t. That’s what nags away about the interview, if it can be called an interview: you can’t decide if it was something or nothing.

In this way, the whole thing was consonant, as the comedian himself might say, with his persona. Is he funny or does he just take liberties? Is he clever or does he just use words we don’t expect him to use? Is the entire act predicated on the proposition that he talks like an idiot but isn’t, that he swaggers like a clown-lothario who doesn’t have a conscience but does? Myself, I think he’s overrated, but then again I don’t. As a comedian, I mean. As a political thinker, he is not there to overrate or underrate, unless thinking society is unfair is a political position, in which case we are all political thinkers.

Part of the queasiness I go on feeling is to do with my not enjoying the spectacle of authority being twitted. It doesn’t matter where we stand on Paxman, who sometimes performs the role of tweaker of the noses of authority himself – in this instance he was simply the voice of “how we normally talk about things” and Brand the spirit of anarchic mischief, licensed to spin like a naughty angel on a pin head. Some people enjoy the sight of kids making grown-ups look daft: I don’t. Not because I am by nature on the side of authority – I wouldn’t be a novelist if I were, and sometimes I too want to see it all go up in flames – but because I find cheeking cheap. It always upset me to see teachers outfoxed at school. Once, on the last day of term, our form-master was impersonated to his face by a boy with a reputation for unruliness. The class became a riot of celebration. It was like carnival – the usual order of things turned, for a brief moment, magnificently upside down. But for me, the indignity suffered by the teacher, though I no more cared for him than the others did, was unbearable to see. And I found nothing to applaud in my classmate’s spirit of unlawfulness. I would as soon have cheered on someone kicking a dog.

And it feels no different from the inside. On the rare occasions I have made light of people hamstrung by their seniority or over-seriousness, I have immediately felt ashamed. Not so much because of what was owing to them, as because of what had been released in me: a self-pleasing impishness that owed nothing to whatever cause I was espousing, but everything to the impulse to show off and belittle.

There is a media fad at the moment for inviting comedians to expatiate – to sound like Brand again – on serious matters, and since the distinction between comedy and seriousness is spurious anyway, I am glad of it. But the comedians are inclined to want it both ways, now showing how unexpectedly learned and passionate they are, and now reverting, when the going gets tough, to playing the fool. They turn themselves, in other words, into moving targets, while the poor old politician, economist or social worker has to sit there stodgily being himself and himself alone. This was the difficulty Paxman had with Brand: one minute he was talking, in tried Newsnight fashion, to a person with a particular platform and an unusually showy vocabulary, the next he was trying to lay hands on a will-o’-the-wisp whose words went off like firecrackers, never staying still long enough to have meaning.

If I was reminded at times of the trouble inquisitors have with George Galloway – wondering whether they’re talking to a serious politician with dangerously extreme views, or an ad hominem buffoon – I was reminded even more of those interminably tedious clowns in Shakespeare who mix madness with matter. These are impossible to reason with, since the moment you tackle them on matter they take cover in madness. Pertinent they might sometimes be, but they are seldom there when the essential business of the play is being settled. They are a sideshow at best.

I understand what this sideshow is for. When the king cannot see because he is lovesick, gullible, or simply too full of self-regard, a little jesting might restore him to his wits. Thus, when our politicians grow blind to the concerns of those they govern, it can’t hurt to expose them to ridicule. But we’d be fools ourselves to turn the clown into a better version of the thing he mocks. Scepticism demands that we mistrust everyone alike, the courtier and his jester.

As for lightening up Newsnight with guests from the world of fun, this is hardly a good idea given that it is one of the few moments of respite from the world of fun we have. Throwing Paxman into the animal cage might make for what some call “good television” but it’s an abrogation of Newsnight’s purpose. Or does television now want to call time on seriousness – except of the toy-soldier, firebrand sort – altogether?