The Secret Policeman’s Ball – USA
The Secret Policeman’s Balls have been happening since the 1970s – star-studded musical and comic spectaculars performed for the benefit of the international human rights organization Amnesty International. Created by Monty Python member John Cleese, the shows merged rock stars and comedians to raise money for the charity.
The series pretty much exploded in the 80s, with The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979), The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981) and The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987). These shows had many classic British comics – such as The Pythons, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Jennifer Saunders.
However, these shows were best known for their music, with soundtrack albums featuring rare acoustic performances by the likes of Pete Townshend, Sting, Phil Collins, Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Duran Duran, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed and Kate Bush.
The shows have continued periodically through the years since, though often not using the Secret Policeman title. The name was revived in the 2000s, of which The Secret Policeman’s Ball – USA was the third. Also it was the first held in the United States – Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan to be precise – with a star-studded mixed cast of American and British comedians and actors. The show, which also played on cable, was a mix of standup monologues, comic skits and heartfelt tributes to the good work of the charitable association.
Unlike the previous shows, the musical acts were limited, with Mumford & Sons getting one song here and Coldplay closing things out with a three-song set. Reggie Watts and an awful mock-folk band called The Amnestones featuring Kristin Wiig and Fred Armison also contribute a song apiece, though the Amnestones’ tune can’t exactly be called legitimate music.
While it is a very worthy cause, the regular pauses in the show to ask for donations for Amnesty International slow things down every single time. It feels like watching PBS on Pledge Week. And I get that the show, on TV, at least, was something of a telethon. But the video serves a different purpose and gains money for Amnesty in a different way, so they could have cut some of the hard sell. It is particularly distracting on the periodic times that this TV special mentions the toll-free number to contact to donate, a toll-free number which is not included on the video version. I understand why it is not: almost two years later, the number would probably be out of service even if it were still there. So even if you wanted to give, you are sort of out of luck.
Many of the Pythons also appeared in short video tributes. Ironically, John Cleese, who originally founded The Secret Policeman’s Ball, is the one surviving performing member of the troupe who does not make one of these short videos. (Python illustrator Terry Gilliam also does not put in an appearance.) These quick videos are amusing, if a little bit silly – each of the Pythons claims they would be their had they not lost their legs. Sadly this joke is taken beyond its small amusement quotient when right after the special, there appears a mock infomercial with Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Kyra Sedgwick and Annette O’Toole selling off the Python legs, a gag which falls spectacularly flat.
However, any comedy show is going to have its ups and downs, and The Secret Policeman’s Ball – USA does have some fine moments, like a hysterically out there set by Sarah Silverman, a wacky opening monologue by Eddie Izzard, a showdown between Jon Stewart and Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (played by Rex Lee of Entourage) and a couple of inconsistent (but mostly amusing) rants by Russell Brand. There is also an amusing set of short bits by the heckling Muppets Statler and Waldorf.