In all my years scouting out the best examples of communication, leadership and tools for sustainability change agents, I never dreamt that I would be featuring UK comedian Russell Brand as a case study.
Perhaps this is not so unusual as I have already tipped my hat to Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon (and that other guy in the clip with Fallon…) and others, for whom comedy well done becomes a powerful tool for communicating so much more:
Comedy is a way of ‘reaching around people’s walls’, because those endorphins (released during laughter) bring down the walls. This works in exactly the opposite way to anger, fear and panic – the fight or flight responses that release adrenalin, which raises our walls of self-defence. Through laughter, comedy enables us to question the validity of ours and others’ views on issues without becoming defensive.
The Fool, or Jester, was considered an important part of public life in past centuries – through humour, they could breach taboos and challenge conventional wisdom, whereas such actions may have been a dangerous tactic for ‘serious’ discussions.
Like all exceptional comedians, Brand is not only very funny, he is a social commentator, highly intelligent, articulate and able to run rings around those who are wrong-footed on encountering him because they are expecting The Fool.
Brand created a viral internet sensation when he interviewed leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) on his TV show ‘Brand X’ late last year.
First, a little bit of context as to why this was an interesting scenario in terms of communication.
The WBC, who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible, have gained notoriety for their extreme homophobia (their web site URL is godhatesfags dot com) and hate tactics in general – among a string of provocative actions, they had most recently planned to picket the funerals of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting and Boston bombing. Some sources claim that the WBC’s ‘hate’ tactics are to offend, and incite people to sue them, so that they can counter-sue on the grounds that their First Amendment rights (right to free speech) have been infringed.
Russell Brand, on the other hand, is an outlandish comedian, actor and author whose public image has been in large part shaped by his wild reputation. Marvellously sharp-witted, Brand holds views that could be described as diametrically opposed to those of the WBC.
Watch the clip (11 mins):
After I’d finished laughing until I cried at this unlikely scenario, I saw a deeper value to this example than comedy.
Regardless of what you think of Brand, the WBC or religion, what played out here was an interesting example of being open to the views of others where they do not agree with yours, withholding judgment, and stomaching hostility so that you can hear what they have to say.
This situation could have quite easily gone all Jerry Springer very quickly at any moment – but notice how Brand manages both his own reactions and potential conflict.
On introducing his guests, he makes a point of saying ‘please welcome my guests, with love…’ and follows it up by dampening the adverse reaction of the audience with ‘don’t be mean, don’t be mean!’
His guests then promptly present him with a large red sign depicting himself with three words in large capitals: ‘FAG PIMP BRAND’.
Rather than taking offence, which would be the natural reaction of the ego, he approaches the situation in a detached manner, as if the poster is referring to someone other than himself.
Instead of reacting to the ad hominem attack, he deflects the intent of the poster’s abusive message by choosing to take issue with something different – pointing out that the picture of him used on it was ‘…not a very flattering photograph’.
Did Brand create this situation for comedic purposes? Of course. Is he taking the mickey out of his guests? Yes, though cheekily rather than insultingly.
But he was also being genuinely respectful in the face of what at times was open hostility and rudeness, working to allow his guests to get their message across, no matter how abhorrent he or members of his audience may have found it.
In response to his audience’s reaction, Brand announces:
Thank you, I appreciate your vocal respect, but these people are here to explain something to me, and it does take courage and bravery to come in front of a room full of people you think almost certainly aren’t going to agree with you, but let’s hear what they have to say, because I’m actually very interested.
Here, Brand adopts a position of ‘curiosity without judgement’ in order to hear another’s point of view. After being cast as a ‘promoter of sin’, he listens patiently and without interruption as his guests explain:
When the Lord Jesus Christ said to ‘love your neighbour as yourself, you love your neighbour as yourself by warning them when their sin is taking them to hell. And as a matter of fact, if you fail to warn your neighbour, you hate your neighbour in your heart. So by a Bible standard, we love you all, and I know you can’t believe that from your goofy Hallmark standard, but from a Bible standard, we love you. And by a Bible standard, he (Brand) hates you (the audience). And, you probably hate each other.
In his Essex accent (which makes what he says all the funnier), a bemused Brand looks directly into the camera and exclaims:
‘Bloody ‘ell! It’s like a really, tricky, quiz of hate!’
Later on, he offers a view counter to those of his guests, pointing out that although they are ‘good on the scripture':
Have you considered that the Bible, like all religious doctrine, may be allegorical and symbolic, to direct us toward one holy entity of love, as opposed to a specific, litiginous text to direct the behaviour of human beings?
Notice how unlike his guests, Brand puts forward his view not as a forceful statement of position but as a question, an invitation to converse. At this point the following exchange occurs:
[RB] The Bible wasn’t literally written by a cosmic entity, it was written by people! People!
[WBC] It was written by the Holy Spirit.
[RB] The Holy Spirit – ain’t got a pen!
This last comment generates peals of laughter from the audience, and some conflict with the WBC. Brand then attempts to find common ground, without yielding his position.
There were several moments in the segment where Brand managed to get both his audience and his guests laughing for the same reason, at the same time – either by his persona or by making himself the object of amusement. Watch the WBC guys’ faces at 2:20, where even they lose their composure in the face of Brand’s irresistible eccentricity.
Imagine being able to sustain for longer those instances where deeply opposed groups found, momentarily, a commonality through laughter.
Ironically, Brand was far more the embodiment of the Christian values of tolerance and turning the other cheek than his guests.
He was able to maintain a fine balance between being inquisitive and non-reactive, and squeezing comedy gold out of the clash of values.
And he showed far more ability to be open to conversing with others ‘not-like-me’ than many people and groups in society.
Russell Brand’s leadership skills, intellect, wit, empathy and command of English in this exchange are admirable – this sets a standard for those in positions of power, who, if they really want to pimp their brand, would do well to learn from his example.
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