Live: The Secret Policeman's Ball Speaks Freely At Radio City Music Hall

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The big finish.
The Secret Policeman's Ball: Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Russell Brand, Eddie Izzard, and many others
Radio City Music Hall
Sunday, March 4

Better than: Watching the Lohan Saturday Night Live on DVR.

Going to a live show that's actually meant to be broadcast on television can be a deadly proposition—commercial-mandated downtime, feeling trapped in the venue, reshots. But last night's Secret Policeman's Ball, the American debut of the long-running Amnesty International benefit organized by Monty Python, was a speedy, frothy affair with a few standout performances by comics from across the pond. Packed with celebrities (Liam Neeson! Jon Stewart! Paul Rudd! Statler & Waldorf!) and designed for the Twitter age, the show moved along at a crisp pace, with the comedy touching on the idea of speaking freely both bluntly and abstractly.

The night started with a blessing of sorts from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who noted to the assembled (and those watching on TV) that "the noble and honorable thing to do [was] to find [the night's performers] funny"; from there Eddie Izzard took the stage, and while his ruminations on there not being a God (the proof: Hitler not having his head flicked off by a giant Monty Python-style hand) seemed to make the audience a bit nervous, his extended riff on why Latin is a dead language had them back in his hand. And the show sped on, with British and American comedians cycling into and out of the spotlight, Statler & Waldorf providing the requisite amount of heckling, and Monty Python members appearing via video to provide the same excuse about why they weren't present.

The Brit comedian Jack Whitehall gave a bravura performance that segued from an extended appreciation of the Nokia 3310 ("stopwatch, calculator, and Snake—fuck anything else") to an extended, breathless impersonation of the loopy tautologies spewed by Tyra Banks during each episode of America's Next Top Model. Micky Flanagan gave an impassioned speech about the demise of "fingering" that could double as the lyrics to "Kids" in an XXX remake of Bye Bye Birdie (there has to be one coming soon, right?); Bill Hader gave just the right amount of cocked-eyebrow creepiness to his impression of Wikileaks' Julian Assange during an interview with The Daily Show's John Oliver; and Hannibal Burress's brief monologue, which touched on the travails of having a slightly left-field first name and the five stages of grief one experiences when one has to crap on a plane, inspired guffaws.

Some of the bits fell flat. The first half of Sarah Silverman's monologue, which drew an analogy between being imprisoned by anti-free-speech forces and being upbraided by a boyfriend for saying "I love you" six weeks into a relationship, was telegraphed from the get-go and sounded more like a pitch for a romantic comedy about a wacky human-rights activist's doomed love life than anything else. Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers, and Rashida Jones performed a sketch in which government agents quadruple-switched each other in order to stay in line with their "Supreme Leader," and it came off kind of like an overly distended performance at an improv night... until "Kim Jong Un" (really, Entourage's Rex Lee) came in, completing a gag from earlier in the night in which he'd spared Stewart in exchange for a role in the show, and awkwardly held a pizza until he was hectored off the stage by the four pros.

But Russell Brand, who appeared twice during the show, was a marvel. First he and fellow Brit Noel Fielding tag-teamed an explanation of Amnesty International's purpose that led to the pair kidnapping an audience member who hadn't yet poined up the organization's membership fee. His eight-plus-minute monologue near the show's end, though, that really put a cap on things; he was manic and hilarious, flopping around and dashing around the stage riffing on American newspapers' proclivity toward putting datelines in all-caps and the Daily Mail's fearmongering. At one point, while reminiscing about his stint hosting the Video Music Awards at Radio City in 2009, he called out popular culture as a whole: "It functions to prevent synaptic connections from occurring in the mind... a pink pony trotting through our brains, shitting glitter." (Or whipped cream.) When he was informed by the show's producers that he had to wrap things up, it felt almost too soon, like his free-associative riffing could have gone on for another hour or two.

Reggie Watts's two-song set was highlighted by an appearance from "Paul McCartney" (the audience gasped when his name was uttered, but "Paul" was really British comedian Peter Serafinowicz), who came out to perform a very convincing non-song about being unprepared for the evening, full of subtle melodic inflections that sounded like they'd have been right at home on Memory Almost Full. Mumford & Sons's high-speed take on Americana rang impressively throughout the hall, and by the time they'd reached their third song the audience was up and dancing. They also had me wondering if British acts only break wide on these shores these days if they're operating in an American idiom. (See also: Adele; Amy Winehouse.)

Coldplay, of course, is operating in a more British Isles-y idiom, but they broke through in the now-kinda-old days of 2000. The heirs to U2 closed out the show and opened with "Viva La Vida," all grandeur and swooping strings, the music's crash implying that their shows at the Izod Center this summer will be more than sufficiently arena-rock. But "Paradise," the three-song set's midpoint, had not one but two false starts, with Martin noting that he'd made a mess of things on live TV. Was it a comedic riff on their slightly off performance of the same song on the Grammys? Was it an actual screwup? Was Chris Martin trying to deflate some of the next-Bono pomp that surrounds him so tightly, it even affects the cadence of his banter? As the confetti fell and the breezy "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall" filled the hall, I still wasn't entirely sure, but that was part of the enjoyment.

Critical bias: I'm a sucker for accents. And "Viva La Vida."

Overheard: "It's just a young curmudgeon's game now."—Statler and Waldorf, lamenting the passage of time and the rise of social media. I feel you, guys.

Random notebook dump: How do you have Statler & Waldorf and Beavis and Butt-Head in the same show but not have them meet up? Torches need to be passed!

Set lists:
Mumford & Sons
Little Lion Man
Ghosts That We Knew
Roll Away Your Stone

Coldplay
Viva La Vida
Paradise
Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall

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