There are few taboos or transgressions that still pack the power to raise eyebrows in Hollywood these days. If you’re talented enough, no past is too sordid to spoil your chances for success. (Just ask Robert Downey Jr.) And then there’s Russell Brand, a British stand-up comedian with an act so raunchy and debauched, he threatens to put that free-to-be-you-and-me tolerance to the test. Take, for instance, his recent encounter with Britney Spears, which stirred a YouTube sensation. In a teaser for the madcap mayhem Brand hopes to inflict as the host of the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 7, the gangly goth did the unimaginable and didn’t ask her about her disastrous performance on last year’s show. Instead, he fawned over the fallen angel of pop, asking Britney to pinch him harder (”You won’t hurt me, darling, I like it!”), while ignoring the fact that there was literally a 900-pound elephant in the room. It was a sweet and oddly authentic 50-second interaction culled from a shoot full of exchanges so lewd and filthy they’ll never see the light of day. ”I just wanted to cuddle Britney and say, come here, you silly girl,” recalls Brand, best known here for his role as the girlfriend snatcher in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. ”I don’t like to let moments pass squandered when I have the opportunity to graffiti across time.”
Grandiose? Absolutely. But Brand is dead serious about seizing the moment to make his mark on Hollywood. After two stops in rehab for sex and heroin addiction, Brand has channeled his demons into a larger-than-life rock-star persona that’s made him England’s comic provocateur of the moment, with sold-out stand-up routines, an MTV talk show, a weekly radio gig, and a best-selling autobiography. Now, five years sober, the 33-year-old libertine is hoping his stint on the VMAs will set him up to follow fellow British comics Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, and conquer audiences across the pond. ”I’m pretty excited about it. I think MTV is quite keen for the show to be risky,” says Brand, seated in a leafy hotel courtyard looking like an Edward Gorey sketch come to life (though one with black pants so tight they’re a crime against circulation). ”I think perhaps, semantically, we should look into the definition of what I consider to be risky and what they do.”
Even on his best behavior, Brand brings the kind of combustibility that made last year’s show such a phenomenon (witness Britney’s meltdown and Kid Rock and Tommy Lee’s throwdown). Otherwise, why pick someone virtually unknown to American audiences? ”There were more obvious choices, but Russell brings that mysterious and dangerous element, and that really worked for us last year,” says Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks. Comedy insiders are already buzzing about Brand: ”The day that we announced it, Chris Rock sent me an e-mail saying it was a brilliant choice,” Toffler says.
That warm embrace by Hollywood’s comedy fraternity is somewhat surprising. Lately, American humor has become driven almost entirely by a single archetype — the schlubby neurotic who can’t get laid to save his life. Brand, on the other hand, has fashioned himself as a Jagger-esque superstud. And even the most famous of man-boys, Judd Apatow, can’t say no. When Brand showed up to his audition for Sarah Marshall saying he had only taken ”a cursory glance at the script,” the producers weren’t put off. Instead, they rewrote the part, originally scripted as a bookish writer type, based on Brand himself. ”I would hear things about Russell’s effect on women and think, That never happened to me as a comedian,” says Apatow, who is now producing a spin-off titled Get Him to the Greek based on Aldous Snow, the rakish rock star Brand played in Marshall. ”My bread and butter is 40 Year-Old Virgin. I don’t understand Russell’s world. But he’s funny, charismatic, and completely irresistible.”
NEXT PAGE: On Sept. 12, 2001, Brand showed up to work dressed as Osama bin Laden. He was fired. ”Put bluntly, it was a very stupid thing to do and I put it under what I call the ‘drug-brella’ — stuff I did while on drugs.”