Russell Brand, Jon Stewart, Stars of 'SNL' Take the Stage at Secret Policeman’s Ball: Concert Review

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Amnesty International
Russell Brand
Comedy and music stars collaborate for a great cause, even if not all the jokes land. 

The Amnesty International benefit, held in the U.K. since 1979, drew a slew of A-list performers for its first U.S. bow.

The first-ever U.S. edition of The Secret Policeman’s Ball was held Sunday night to commemorate Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary, proving once again that political repression and human rights violations can’t stand in the way of good laughs – even on these shores. A heavyweight line-up of British and American comedians and musical acts Mumford & Sons and Coldplay delivered a nearly three-show that was broadcast live on EPIX and will be shown this Friday night on the UK’s Channel 4.

Although the worthiness of its cause is undeniable, the evening was a bit rocky on the entertainment side. It says something when Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets more laughs in his videotaped introduction than did many of the top-flight acts onstage.

Cultural differences between Brits and Americans formed a running theme, as well as, not surprisingly, free speech. But the humor naturally took off-kilter turns, such as Sarah Silverman complaining about how she wasn’t allowed to tell her boyfriend that she loved him. She also delivered a typically scatological routine about her biological origins, reminding the crowd, “Wherever you live, whatever you believe, we all come out of penis holes.”

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Jon Stewart opened the show with a skit in which North Korea’s “Kim Jong-un” (amusingly played by Rex Lee of Entourage) demanded to take part in the show. John Oliver, roaming the aisles, interviewed a sleazy “Julian Assange” (SNL’s Bill Hader). Alt-rock group “The Amnestones” -- featuring Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig, among others -- sang a protest song with no lyrics.

The irrepressible Russell Brand made two appearances, first in a bit with Brit comic Noel Fielding in which he snatched a woman from the audience to make her a “political prisoner” and later in a funny, wide-ranging monologue that went on so long he had to  be signaled to wrap it up.

Many of the skits were short on laughs, including one involving an “Anonymous” meeting that was mainly notable for a surprise appearance by Richard Branson and another reuniting David Cross and Bob Odenkirk that fell totally flat. Somewhat better was a sketch featuring Seth Myers, Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Rashida Jones as dueling interrogators.  

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British stand-up comics fared better: Only Eddie Izzard, for instance, could garner laughs with a lengthy monologue about the ancient military commander Hannibal. The less well-known Jack Whitehall killed with a killer Tyra Banks impression, as did Jimmy Carr and Mickey Flanagan with profane rants that were as hilarious as they were misogynistic.

The Muppets’ curmudgeonly Statler and Waldorf fulfilled their usual role by acidly commenting on the proceedings from a side box, while three of the former members of Monty Python -- Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones -- provided comic videotaped apologies for their absence. (John Cleese, who created the event in 1976, wasn’t heard from.) One of the evening’s few serious moments featured Liam Neeson introducing Burmese comedian Maung Thura Zarganar, who was imprisoned for criticizing the government. 

The show’s musical portions were terrific if frustratingly brief. Mumford & Sons roused the crowd with bracing renditions of “Little Lion Man,” “Ghosts That We Knew” and “Roll Away Your Stone.” Coldplay opened their three-song set with a pounding “Viva La Vida,” with Chris Martin commenting, “We take pleasure in being the least funny act you’ve seen all night.”

It wasn’t quite true, though, since it amusingly took three tries for the band to start “Paradise.” They rallied for their final number, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” which ended the evening in typical rock concert fashion with blinding laser flashes and bursts of confetti falling onto the crowd.

Twitter: @THRMusic

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