NEW YORK – At the first U.S. Secret Policeman's Ball, American and British comics took turns on the Radio City Music Hall stage to showcase the foul-mouthed joy of free speech.
The benefit concert Sunday night brought a U.K. tradition across the Atlantic for the first time in its 36-year history. It was started by Amnesty International and Monty Python's John Cleese, who gathered comics for a gala to fundraise for the human rights organization. Musicians like Pete Townsend and Sting would later join.
The last Secret Policeman's Ball was in London four years ago, but the tradition was renewed stateside Sunday with the same guiding ethos of celebrating free expression by ridiculing despots — whether they be international dictators, fictional characters like the Ball's namesake or maybe just more daily life demons like — as Paul Rudd cited — high-priced sushi.
"It's not a hostile takeover," insisted Russell Brand, speaking on behalf of his British countrymen.
In a 2 ½ hour show, which was streamed live by EpixHD.com, that featured dozens of performers, the only restriction on speech was the "Wrap It Up" sign, which hurried the loquacious Brand from the stage.
Aside from the night's two musical guests — Coldplay and Mumford & Sons — the event mainly congregated comics. From the American side, there was Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, David Cross and most of the cast of "Saturday Night Live." The U.K. was mainly represented by stand-ups, including Eddie Izzard, John Oliver, Jack Whitehall and Micky Flanagan.
The culture clash was fodder for comic examination. Stiller and English comedian David Walliams analyzed the different meanings of various words between the two countries. Whereas they differed on words like "dentistry" and "obese," they found commonality in their dim view of CNN host Piers Morgan.
Stewart took the stage with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (played by Rex Lee of "Entourage"). Kim pleaded to be allowed to join in the fun, trying out knock-knock jokes and demanding to be added to sketch. (He later made a cameo as a pizza delivery boy.)
Taped videos were played from three members of the Pythons — Eric Idol, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — who each made far-fetched excuses and claimed to be "the sixth Python."
The protested impediments to free speech took on unlikely forms. Silverman lambasted the refusal of an old boyfriend to be told "I love you" after six weeks of dating. Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Seth Meyers traded places in an interrogation sketch where each was guilty of offending "the Supreme Leader" — who could only be assumed to be "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels. For some, even Fozzie Bear was "the man."
Statler and Waldorf, the ornery old critics from "The Muppets," observed the show from their customary position of the balcony, dispensing their usual negative reviews. Rashida Jones ("Parks and Recreation") applauded their right to "speak to power," which in their case could mean Fozzie Bear's act.
"You are what Amnesty is all about," said Jones.
But for Statler and Waldorf, the night was a discovery that, in the time of social media, they are but two voices among the many critics on Twitter — a 21st century means of free expression.
"It's a young curmudgeon's game now," said Statler, meekly gazing at a cellphone.
There were few moments where politics intruded on the proceedings, but the Ball did feature one unusual comic who earned a standing ovation.
Burmese comedian Zarganar Thura took the stage, he said, not to tell jokes, but to thank Amnesty. Thura had been serving a 35-year sentence in a Burmese prison for "causing public alarm" after speaking to foreign media. After three years in prison, he was released last October in an amnesty that freed about 200 political detainees. A nominally civilian government has replaced a long-ruling military junta in Burma, but Thura said that 25 percent of the country's parliament is filled by military officers.
Thura suggested another 25 percent of parliament seats be filled by comics: "That way, half the parliament would be crazy."