Judge Clark Douglas is a secret dogcatcher.
"I would have loved to attend, but, you see, my legs have gone missing."
Since the mid-1970s, a host of talented British comedians and musicians have joined forces to participate in The Secret Policeman's Ball, a benefit event designed to raise money for Amnesty International. While the event hasn't exactly been an annual affair (it tends to run for a few consecutive years, disappear for a while and then make a surprise return), it's been going long enough to become something of a grand tradition in Great Britain. In 2012, the show moved to the United States for the first time, mixing the usual assortment of British comics with a host of their American counterparts. If you weren't lucky enough to attend that event, this new Blu-ray release of The Secret Policeman's Ball: USA at Radio City Music Hall gives you a chance to enjoy the festivities.
While the event was certainly a success on the most important front (raising money for charity), how well does it hold up as a two-hour extravaganza of comedy and music? The results are decidedly mixed, which is often the case whenever an event is largely comprised of hastily-assembled comic bits (see: every awards show ever). It's a very hit-and-miss affair, but there are enough chuckles and celebrity appearances to make the viewing experience a generally pleasant one.
Most of the best acts are the stand-up comics who actually get to perform 5 or 10 minutes of their material. Eddie Izzard's opening set is on the clunky side (particularly an extended bit in which he offers evidence that God isn't real—true or not, the material just isn't funny), but Russell Brand's closing segment is terrific. In-between, the likes of Jack Whitehall, Sarah Silverman and Hannibal Burress impress with short, distinctive routines. The sketches, on the other hand, tend to be pretty shaky. An early piece featuring Jon Stewart and "Kim Jong Un" (played by Mad TV veteran Bobby Lee) is simply awful, as is a pre-filmed sketch in which Robert De Niro attempts to sell the severed legs of assorted Monty Python members (the script is solid, but De Niro crushes the laughs with his flat delivery). On the other hand, I enjoyed the miniature Mr. Show reunion with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, and a playful SNL-style sketch involving Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis. I also quite enjoyed the pre-recorded appearances from Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, all of whom demonstrate that they haven't lost their deft comic touch.
The music definitely plays a smaller role than the comedy, but what's here is nonetheless fairly enjoyable. You get a couple of folksy tunes from Mumford and Sons, then a lengthier closing set from Coldplay. Amusingly, Chris Martin seems irritated that he's not getting quite the crowd response he expected, though I suppose that's only natural when a stand-up comedy crowd suddenly turns into a rock concert crowd.
The Secret Policeman's Ball: USA at Radio City Music Hall (Blu-ray) has received a stellar 1080i/1.78:1 transfer. This isn't a visually remarkable show—even the sketches sport slim sets and minimal props—but the level of detail is strong throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track only gets a chance to impress during the musical sequences, but it does the job quite nicely, too. Supplements are limited to a behind-the-scenes featurette that offers comments from a handful of the special's celebrity participants.
The first American incarnation of The Secret Policeman's Ball isn't exactly a staggering comic achievement, but it's a pleasant (if inconsistent) way to spend a couple of hours.
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