Brand steals show in first US Secret Policeman's Ball

Mar 9, 2012

The American comics are slick, while the Brits are on hilariously filthy form

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Amnesty International

What you need to know
The Secret Policeman's Ball is a long-running series of British comedy galas which raise money for Amnesty International. Monty Python comedian John Cleese helped stage the first one in 1976.
Last weekend, the event celebrating Amnesty's 50th anniversary was held for the first time at New York's Radio City Music Hall. The event will be broadcast on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.
The transatlantic line-up includes British comedians Russell Brand, Catherine Tate and David Walliams, American satirist Jon Stewart, Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, the Muppets, and American comedians Ben Stiller and Sarah Silverman. There were also musical performances from Coldplay and Mumford and Sons.
What the critics like
The American comedians are slick, well-scripted and savvy, says Laura Barton in The Guardian, while the British performances have an "irrepressible joie de vivre and an exuberant filth, that's arguably better suited to the occasion". The 23-year-old young Brit Jack Whitehall is a revelation, but the evening belongs to Russell Brand whose two sets are "freewheeling, contagious and delightful".   
The Ball is more than a prize fight between stand-up superpowers, says Alice Jones in The Independent. The evening toys endlessly "with the idea of whether comedy really can make a difference". Brand is the stand-up stand-out, while the scripted elements overseen by David Javerbaum of The Daily Show reflect the "satirical programme's searingly self-reflexive wit".
The Ball shows that political repression and human rights violations can't stand in the way of good laughs, says Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter. The British comedians tend to fare better: Jimmy Carr and Mickey Flanagan offer "profane rants" that are as hilarious as they were misogynistic.
What they don't like
The speedy, frothy affair has a few standout performances by comics from across the pond, blogs Maura Johnston for the Village Voice. But at the live event, "some of the acts fell flat". Eddie Izzard's ruminations on God made the audience "a bit nervous", and the first half of Sarah Silverman's set was "telegraphed from the get-go".
The evening proved a bit rocky on the entertainment side, says Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter. "It says something when Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets more laughs in his videotaped introduction than did many of the top-flight acts onstage." The show's musical sets are "terrific if frustratingly brief".

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