It’s been four years since the last Secret Policeman’s Ball, the U.K.-born benefit John Cleese and Amnesty International inaugurated in 1976 to promote free speech. Last night marked the first time the event was held on American shores.
“I’m only doing a little at the top because there’s a billion more people coming on,” Eddie Izzard assured the crowd at Radio City Music Hall upfront. Izzard’s inclusion meant there’d be top-shelf entertainers from both sides of the Atlantic; having him open signified there was talent to burn.
The show moved along at a dizzying clip and, at nearly three hours, never felt overlong. As soon as one bit ended onstage, John Oliver was in the aisles doing an interstitial with those beloved balcony-dwelling Muppets, Statler and Waldorf. While the cantankerous social critics were their usual selves, it was a culture shock seeing them do gags about Twitter and Auto-tune.
Another pair of fictional social critics, Beavis and Butt-head, also appeared. Like most of the performers, they stayed on theme without being earnest. Sarah Silverman parodied the self-serious manner in which stories are often told at such benefits, citing a man not returning her calls as a kind of free-speech injustice. Russell Brand and the Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding ridiculed an audience member as a “selfish cow” and “a female Pol Pot” before taking her into custody – all because she admitted not being a member of Amnesty. Elsewhere, Jon Stewart ironically promised a jovial Kim Jong-Un (played by Entourage‘s Rex Lee) that he would allow the newly appointed dictator to be in a skit.
Many performers joked about the divide between America and Britain, making solid headway toward bridging it. Ben Stiller and David Walliams had a bit about what words mean in each country (turns out most U.S. words are mammorial synonyms.) Russell Brand later found common ground by comparing the Daily Mail and Fox News. And Paul Rudd and The IT Crowd’s Matt Berry bonded over their mutual hatred of sushi.
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross did an appealingly Mr. Show-esque triptych, segueing from stage banter into a self-aware game show sketch, which was then interrupted by a pre-taped bit. Bob and David still got it, even if they look like elder characters they might’ve played on Mr. Show nearly twenty years ago. They seemed to have nearly caught up in age with their spiritual predecessors in Monty Python, three of whose members made video appearances, all explaining the tragic circumstances that prevented them from showing up in person.
The biggest surprise of the night was that lesser known acts like Hannibal Buress and British comic Jimmy Carr killed, while that bastion of American comedy, Saturday Night Live, yielded kind of a mixed bag. The SNL highlight was Bill Hader bringing it as ever, with his creepy Julian Assange inserted as an audience plant.
A few musicians were on hand as well. Mumford & Sons gave an energetic rendition of “Little Lion Man” with all the band’s members standing in a row, stomping their feet to the tune. When shy Marcus Mumford exhorted the crowd to stand up, some did. Nobody needed to be told to stand up for Coldplay, however, whose rafter-raising choruses might’ve lifted them anyway. Accompanied by giant laser-spewing spirographs, the band’s arena-ready anthems sounded at home in Radio City. Reggie Watts also reached into his sonic grab bag of vocal tricks, which he performed over looped beatboxing. He appeared to have the best time on stage.
Finally, a couple of serious actors made appearances. Tim Roth, now indistinguishable from Lost‘s Ben Linus, had little to do, but Liam Neeson had the important job of introducing Maung Thura Zarganar, the most symbolically meaningful performer of the night. Zarganar is a Burmese comedian who was imprisoned for 11 years because of his jokes. At one point, he assured the crowd, “a night like this would be impossible in my country.”