The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the legendary British charity event benefitting Amnesty International, is taking up residence at Radio City Music Hall on March 4. It’s scheduled to feature a smorgasbord of American and British comedians, including Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Russell Brand, Reggie Watts, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wiig, Peter Serafinowicz, and Noel Fielding. The New York Times reported this morning that the show will air on the cable channel Epix and stream online at EpixHD.com.
The Secret Policeman’s shows date back to 1975, a time before Live Aid or Comic Relief when the idea of a celebrity benefit gala was still a bit novel. Amnesty International was a fledgling organization, founded in 1961 to draw attention to prisoners of conscience and other human rights violations. The charity was struggling to make ends meet when Peter Luff, the director of the British arm, noticed a donation from one Mr. John Cleese. Luff contacted the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star, asking if he would help put on a charity show to raise money and awareness for Amnesty’s cause.
Cleese jumped in head first, bringing along his fellow Pythons, as well as other British comedy groups like Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies. The first such benefit, a run of three shows entitled A Poke In the Eye (With a Sharp Stick), was held in 1976. The gala featured some new material from the performers, alongside classic “greatest hit” sketches from all the groups. The opening sketch of the first ball is one of the most famous Flying Circus sketches of them all.
The show became a regular occurrence, eventually adding musicians and a new generation of comedians. The 1979 benefit, the first under the Secret Policeman’s Ball name, featured then up-and-comers Rowan Atkinson, who later went on to Blackadder and Mr. Bean fame, as a well as young alternative comic Billy Connolly, recently voted the most influential British comic of all time.
Amnesty continued producing comedy and music galas through the 80s and 90s, including the “Conspiracy of Hope” and “Human Rights Now!” rock tours in the US. Musicians included in the early shows included Sting, Eric Clapton, and Bob Geldof, who would credit the Amnesty shows with inspiring his Live Aid and Live 8 concerts. Even Bono, the do-gooderist of them all, was influenced by the shows, telling Rolling Stone, “I saw ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball’ and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed…”
All of the balls were recorded and released as records and films. A DVD set, The Secret Policeman’s Balls, is available in the US, featuring most the galas from the 70s and 80s as well as some fun behind-the-scenes footage for the hardcore comedy nerd. Here’s a taste from 1989, when John Cleese and Michael Palin returned with an updated dead parrot sketch.
In 2001, Eddie Izzard coordinated an Amnesty Gala called We Know Where You Live, a direct descendant of the Secret Policeman’s Balls. The name Secret Policeman’s Ball was resurrected in the mid-2000s in London, and shows in 2006 and 2008 brought together current stars of British comedy like The Mighty Boosh, Graham Norton, Mitchell and Webb, and Russell Howard, alongside international comics like Sarah Silverman, Tim Minchin, and Chevy Chase.
Alongside the Secret Policeman’s Balls, Amnesty International has maintained a close relationship with the British comedy scene. In 2010, Amnesty put together a comedy podcast during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, featuring interviews with current comics alongside clips from classic Amnesty shows. The festival also regularly includes a Stand Up For Freedom show, and a friendly-but-not-really Critics vs. Comedians soccer game, billed as “such a grudge match they had to get Amnesty International to referee.” Recent campaigns have focused on persecuted individuals such as the imprisoned Burmese comedian Zarganar. Here’s an episode of Amnesty’s YouTube news show from the most recent festival.
Next month’s New York show is being organized by former Daily Show EP David Jauverbaum, a fan of the iconic British shows who told the New York Times that he hopes the American event will bring the same energy and spirit of the classic shows to a new generation. For his part, Cleese has thrown his support behind the new show as well, and has some wise words to inspire us all.
I used to think humor was a luxury, but at the last election Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert taught me it was a necessity. The Secret Policeman’s Ball was — and is — a coming together of the very best comedy talent of any generation to celebrate their art, remind audiences how important free speech is, and highlight just how much vital work Amnesty International does to protect it. I implore you to support it.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City who loves comedy and writing and things that involve both. She still gets unreasonably excited when she gets a mention on Twitter.