Stars of both the music and comedy world descended upon New York’s Radio City Musical Hall on Sunday, March 4th, for Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball, benefitting human rights issues around the world. The Ball, which up until now has taken place exclusively in Britain, made its first American appearance, retaining the British feel with some of the biggest acts – Coldplay, Russell Brand, and Eddie Izzard to name a few – from across the pond. To appeal to the New York audience, whom the British comedians consistently teased for being turned off by the slew of British accents and phrases – Amnesty also brought out American stars such as Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, and almost the entire current Saturday Night Live cast, to add a sense of familiarity.
To go through a brief history lesson, The Ball started in 1976 as a collaboration between Monty Python star John Cleese, Amnesty International’s Peter Luff, and media executive Martin Lewis, bringing some of Britain’s most famous comedians together on one stage to raise awareness and funds for Amnesty’s many causes. Over the years, the event has grown larger, eventually adding musical guests, constantly evolving over the years. It is largely credited with being one of the early precursors to the many modern large scale benefit shows that take place around the world – Bono and Bob Geldof both cited The Ball as a huge influence in planning the Live Aid benefit in 1986. The event moves in a frantic pace, shuffling performers on and off the stage almost as quickly as they arrive, weaving in skits, stand-up comedy, video pieces, and musical acts. In order to make sure that you don’t miss a moment of action, I took meticulous – and, well, half drunk and sloppy notes, that I have transcribed below in a running diary of all the action.
7:00 – The show opens with a video segment from none other than former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man whose advocated for human rights through almost all of his 80 years. Tutu hyped up the rest of the line up and cracked a few jokes.
7:02 – Eddie Izzard is our first live act on stage, and he brought his usual style of almost rambling British humor to the stage before introducing our first presenters, “Jon and Kim”.
7:13 – Jon Stewart walks out on stage to a huge ovation – and he is accompanied by none other than Kim Jong-un, portrayed by Rex Lee, whom is immediately recognized by the audience as Lloyd, Ari’s assistant from Entourage. Stewart is confused – he thought he was presenting with Kim Kardashian – and tells Jong-un that this may not be the right type of event for him. This makes Jong-un tease, “What, Asians can’t do comedy shows? And I guess we can’t play basketball either”, to one of the first huge laughs of the night.
7:20 – Stewart brings out The Ball’s house band, the Amnistones, which is comprised of SNL stars Fred Armisen and Kristin Wiig, along with British superstar Catherine Tate, who is currently guest starring on The Office. The band performs a song with no real lyrics, just mumbles and noises.
7:22 – Russel Brand and Noel Fielding take the stage seeming particularly chummy. They crack jokes back and forth while briefly talking about Amnesty’s causes. At one point, they attempt to create a new conflict in order to make Amnesty a more interesting cause, before finally listing a bunch of facts – some true, some embellished – kind of like a Snapple cap. The highlight of the segment was the endless teasing of a woman in the crowd, who is compared to the female Pol Pot, and described as “Hitler with a perm” by Brand.
7:30 – We are treated to a correspondence from the crowd by The Daily Show’s John Oliver. He is interviewing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is portrayed by SNL’s Bill Hader. Oliver is puzzled as to how Assange is at the event, since he should be under house arrest – but is informed that he is actually talking to a hologram.
7:32 – Tim Roth comes out to announce the winner of Amnesty’s “World’s Shortest Act” competition. Comedians submitted 15 second video clips of a short act in a competition that supposedly took place on Facebook. The winner is “Piff the Magic Dragon”, who comes to the stage decked out in a dragon costume and informs the crowd they “may know my older brother….Steve”. And that’s it. It really was the world’s shortest act.
7:36 – Next up is a video message from Michael Palin, known in most circles as an original member of Monty Python, and by high school students everywhere for being forced to watch his travel documentaries. Palin just wants the crowd to know he is sorry for not attending, but he has unfortunately broken both his legs.
7:38 – Almost 40 minutes into the show we are treated to the first musical act of the evening, Grammy nominated Mumford and Sons. The folk rock group from Britain has quite a strong following, as they were greeted to an array of shouts from scattered patches of fans rocking ‘Mumford and Sons’ t-shirts. The band opened with their hit “Little Lion Man”, before trying out a new song, “Ghosts That We Knew”, and closing with the Macbeth inspired “Roll Away Your Stone”. The band brings an amazing energy to their live show – compared to their more relaxed studio work, the band erupts with a liveliness that lends well to sing-a-longs and dancing.
7:53 – As Mumford and Sons’ stage set is carried away, the camera zooms in on a box off to the side of the stage, which is home to The Muppet’s resident cranks, Statler and Waldorf. The puppet duo did what they did best – heckle the band as they were leaving. “There’s nothing like a great musical performance”, said one, before cracking “Yeah, and that was nothing like a great performance!”.
7:55 – Jack Whitehall is introduced as one of Britain’s young upcoming comics, aka you don’t know who this guy is but you will laugh. Whitehall says he’s “quite English” about sex, before comparing sex in his parent’s house to Anne Frank’s parents having sex in the attic. Ouch. And amazing.
8:02 – The stage opens to what is apparently a meeting of members of ‘Anonymous’. The signature Guy Fawkes masks seemed to get in the way – no one could tell who was talking, leading to a “raise your hand when you speak rule”, before de-riding the masks for their impracticality, noting an obvious “nose pinch” issue. One by one, the members decided to remove their mask revealing the likes of Chris O’Dowd, Tim Roth, Peter Serafinowicz, Rachael Dratch, Jay Pharaoah, Bobby Moynaham, Chewbacca, and finally Richard Branson – who was told to put his mask back on.
8:08 – SNL’s Taran Killam takes the stage alone to address the crowd. He just wants everyone to know that he was extremely excited to perform at The Ball until finding out that he was cast as Chewbacca wearing an Anonymous mask. He was cast to wear a mask, over a mask. For this, Taran Killam wants you to know he’s a team player, and a funny guy. That is all.
8:09 – British-Irish comedian Jimmy Carr takes the stage for a brief set. Carr is known for deadpan one-liners, and he delivered a bunch of hilarious ones. Highlights include “I get love sick when I’m away from home…or as they call it here, Chlamydia”, “I’ve never payed for sex…which has upset a lot of prostitutes”, and my personal favorite “I gave my girlfriend an orgasm – and she spit it back in my face”. Who doesn’t like a good jizz joke?
8:14 – The crowd is in for a treat – as Bob Odenkirk and David Cross take the stage in what became a re-union of their cult comedy series Mr. Show. They introduce the skit they intend to perform – a game show called Cash or Check. The concept is Cross is a contestant on a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” type stage, who has already been given a million dollars – he just needs to decide if he wants it in cash, or a check. While deciding the faults and benefits of each option – “if I take the check, I have to go to the bank – but then I can see the cute bank teller” – a phone goes off, to which Cross flips out and runs into the crowd to find. While Cross is running, Odenkirk goes into a long monologue about profanity in comedy – before Cross finds the perpetrator – who turns out to be Odenkirk, backstage, who has pocket dialed himself. Confusing, hilarious, weird, awkward and exactly what you’d expect from the Mr. Show guys.
8:20 – Bob introduces Sarah Silverman, who starts off with a brief monologue about free speech. She claims to have been persecuted for telling her boyfriend she loved him – accused of “stalking” – and played victim to having her right of free speech violated. Cute, appropriate for the setting, not what I expect from Sarah Silverman. This was followed by a long diatribe about how at one point, she was just one sperm swinging in Don “Shleppy” Silverman’s semen – she was once shot out of a peehole. And that is the purpose of this story – we all came from peeholes, so let’s love each other. That is what I expect from Silverman.
8:24 – Paul Rudd and Matt Berry come out together giving each other backhanded compliments about their works, and making Britain vs America type jokes. Finally, they were both able to agree that they hate sushi. Funny, but uneventful.
8:29 – Statler and Waldorf, from the balcony, heckle Rudd and Berry off stage. John Oliver, who had earlier introduced the duo to ‘tweeting’ – which they now love – explains the concept of a viral video. Oliver tells them that the Gregory Brothers have made a viral video about them, based on actions that happened literally moments ago. The video is screened, it’s just Statler and Waldorf trying to tweet and making noises that are synched up to some electro songs – in style similar to ‘Auto-Tune the News’.
8:32 – Original Python Eric Idol is displayed via pre-recorded video, a la Michael Palin. He excuses his absence from the event, but, unfortunately, he has “leg problems”.
8:34 – Brooklyn based comedian/musician Reggie Watts takes the stage along with his piano and looping machine. Watts uses an extremely unique technique to his live act – he beat boxes into the mic, and then loops it, constantly layering noises until he has a beat. On top of this beat which was made completely live, Watts sings in a surprisingly versatile voice, bringing humor along with some catchy music. He tells the crowd he’s bringing out one of the biggest bass players of all time – Paul McCartney – to audible gasps from the audience. We are treated to Peter Serafinowicz’s incredible McCartney impression, in which he begins to sing a song while Watts plays the keys. The song is – well – about how Serafinowicz did not write a song for the occasion – to which Watts eventually notes is beginning to sound like a song, or, a non-song.
8:40 -Micky Flanagan is the next comedian on stage, and he continues on the theme of misconceptions between Americans and Brits. For example, some Brits say the word “house”, like Americans say the word “ass”. This causes much confusion when Flanagan tries to ask a girl if he can “come in her house”.
8:45 – Ben Stiller and Britain’s Got Talent Host David Walliams took the stage together – Stiller being one of the first big surprises of the night. The screen displays various common words, which Stiller would explain the American interpretation, while Walliams would explain the British meaning. Such phrases, as jugs, hooters, and aluminum, before they pulled out the heavy hitter – Blue Steel – which Walliams explained was some sort of British military weapon – and which Stiller, well, gave us a glimpse of one of the most famous looks in male modeling.
8:49 – New York City based comedian Hannibal Buress was our next performer, and he came out explaining of his first name has cost him several female encounters. The rest of his set was quite good, and you can catch him every Sunday at The Knitting Factory.
8:54 – Seemingly out of place, yet not without comedy chops (he recently was featured on the HBO series Life’s Too Short), Liam Neeson took to the stage to introduce who was presumably the guest of honor, Maung Thura Zarganar, a Burmese comedian, whose work consistently speaks out against and satirizes government. In 2006, he was banned from performing in public spaces or doing any sort of entertainment work. In 2008, he was arrested for speaking out against the government and sentenced to an absurd 59 years of jail. Due to Amnesty International’s help and support, he was released in October of last year. Zarganar addressed the crowd and thanked Amnesty and spoke some inspirational words – this was clearly the story that Amnesty wanted us to all take home from the evening. People are still persecuted for exercising free speech. Zarganar was given a standing ovation for his efforts.
8:59 – Original Python Terry Jones appears in another pre-recorded video, explaining that all the other Pythons were lying, and he is the only true Python to have lost his legs. The camera pans out to a legless Jones, confirming the truth.
9:01 – SNL stars Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, and Seth Myers take the stage to do an original sketch about free speech. The concept was that two were government agents, and the third was a prisoner getting arrested for saying controversial things about the “supreme leader”. Eventually, one of the agents would say something about the leader leading to a “gotcha” moment, where the prisoner would jump up and reveal himself to be an undercover agent. Simple, but highly effective; definitely one of the highlights of the night. The trio was joined by Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones, who was one of the guy’s wives – before revealing herself to be an undercover agent, busting her husband. Towards the end of the skit, Kim Jong-un, who was promised to be added to a skit, came out to “deliver a pizza” – yet the guy was struck with stage fright. Eventually, all the actors break character and just crack jokes about Jong-un, telling him to get off the stage.
9:06 – Statler and Waldorf appear again, still going on and on about Twitter, yet they seem a little depressed, feeling outdated. Rashida Jones stays out to pump them up and get them heckling again.
9:09 – Russel Brand returns, and is allotted the longest time for a comedian all show, seemingly to allow the stage crew to set up Coldplay’s massive show. He talks more about the common themes of the show, comparing Fox News to the Daily Mail, and wondering why people hate immigrants (“they’re just people who used to be somewhere else”, right)? Eventually, he notes the video screen says “wrap it up”, which means he’s “been talking for a sufficient amount of time”.
9:21 – Beavis and Butthead appear on screen, trying to pronounce Amnesty and to understand the concept of free speech. The two wonder aloud what it would be like if they couldn’t say boobs or bunghole, because, what else would Beavis and Butthead talk about?
9:24 – Sensing it’s time for the main event, Eddie Izzard came out to thank the crowd one last time, and introduce what is probably the biggest band in the world right now, Coldplay. The band ripped through a short set of hits: Viva La Vida, Paradise, and Every Teardrops a Waterfall – while the stage lit up with the moving neon graffiti set up that Coldplay had at The Grammys. Throughout the set, high beam lasers spread out above the crowd and confetti sprayed from the balconies making an extremely memorable visual and musical experience. Not one person was standing – everyone was dancing, swaying, and singing along for the first time all night. If Paul Rudd in the 40 Year Old Virgin was right, and you are gay if you listen to Coldplay, than 6,000 people were gay and proud.
Written By Justin Charles