Russell Brand has been all over the place lately.
He's got a new book to promote and a marriage to Katy Perry due any minute. But despite the fact that Brand now merits a Paxman interview on Newsnight, Michael Parkinson (who has his own book to promote) thinks Brand is "pointless" and said as much on Five Live this week: "I mean, Rin Tin Tin had a very big career in Hollywood and he was a dog."
Yes, Rin Tin Tin was a dog – apparently – but Parky's an old fogey. The fact is that Russell Brand has a big career because he's good at being funny. Just because he disseminates his work in a variety of ways – stand-up, TV, radio, books, films and just being a character – it doesn't mean he has no particular talent. He's as talented as any virtuoso violinist who might – in the eyes of someone like Michael Parkinson – "deserve" to be famous.
What Parky was cackhandedly getting at was the idea that fame for its own sake is a nonsense – and, funnily enough, that's something Brand is very much in accord with. It was one of the major themes of his Newsnight interview; Brand is startlingly convincing when he talks about the emptiness of celebrity culture.
Despite his bravado – or maybe because of it – and with his trademark hyperbole (fame is "ashes in my mouth") and jaded asides, Brand really manages to communicate some of that elusive reality: celebrity pain. Most celebrity magazines exist to communicate this, yet somehow they fail. However many times we see pictures of Britney Spears getting her head shaved in public or Cheryl Cole crying in the back of the limo, it's just so hard to believe that the emptiness of fame is the cause of their suffering when they don't actually say so themselves.
Brand keeps it flamboyantly prosaic. He tells Paxman it's like getting a new pair of shoes that you thought you always wanted. But then inevitably you discover that they are too tight, that they pinch. And then you get blisters. It's agony. In other words, seeking is always doomed. There's always another hill to climb. Plus – as he says in his new book – you don't escape your problems by becoming famous; you just meet them again but worse.
There's something in Brand's willingness to engage with this topic and the language he uses that I've not quite seen in any other celebrity. When famous people talk, they usually pretend to be enjoying it. Brand is on a different mission. At one point, Paxman resorts to muttering something about his guest not being the new Messiah. But could this be a unique kind of ministry? Brand says fame is the shadow on the wall of something more valuable – truth, beauty, connection. He startles Paxman by believing in God and aspiring to ascend. "You seek death?" Paxman interjects at one point, half alarmed. Not yet – but in the meantime, Brand would like to achieve something truly valuable.
Brand isn't just riffing here for our entertainment; he has real fervour and intends to grapple with the issue head on. He's making a documentary with Oliver Stone about fame, consumerism and the way the media keeps us, to use his word, spellbound. Brand thinks the cult of celebrity has replaced the big ideas of the last century. These days we seek significance in all the wrong places and, if the Paxman interview is anything to go by, Brand may be shaping up as a great – if unlikely – ambassador for a happier way of living. Think of the way Michael Moore has brought serious political issues into the popular domain. Let's hope Russell Brand can make a meaningful bonfire of the vanities with this documentary and put his celebrity torch to it.