The Magazine

Comedy Isn’t Pretty

The religulous journey of Bill Maher.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Bill Maher’s fans worship him. Some 4.1 million of them faithfully watch his Real Time with Bill Maher, whether at its 10 p.m. Friday time slot on HBO or in its on-demand and digital-recorder formats. Those are niche numbers compared with the weekly 14 million or so for ABC’s Dancing with the Stars but still fairly impressive considering that Maher’s show is on premium cable. Also, he aims for an audience that considers itself many cuts in sophistication above the “mouth-breathers,” one of his favorite synonyms for the “rednecks” (another Maher bon mot) who take in mass-market network fare—and who vote Republican and go to church on Sunday, two other things that Maher can’t stand.

Bill Maher

Newscom

Indeed, HBO has renewed Real Time, which wound up its tenth season in June, for another two years. Its season opener in August drew 1.9 million viewers when you count a replay at 11 p.m. (The numbers aren’t in yet for Maher’s Oct. 5 post-presidential-debate show, where he declared that Barack Obama had “sucked.”) Studio audience members go crazy during Maher’s hour-long combination of pundit and celebrity interviews, panel spar-offs, and monologues that veer between conventional standup and lengthy political editorials. They hoot, they cheer, they clap, they roar with appreciation.

But there is one thing that they almost never do: laugh.

This is strange, because Maher, 56, has been billing himself as a comedian since the 1970s. He started out in a New York comedy club, became a regular on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the Late Show with David Letterman, then launched Real Time’s predecessor, Politically Incorrect, as a daily offering on Comedy Central in 1993, before switching to ABC in 1997. ABC dumped Politically Incorrect in 2002 after advertisers pulled out by the shipload because of a crack Maher made on Sept. 17, 2001, less than a week after the 9/11 mass-acre. Responding to President George W. Bush’s description of the hijackers as “cowards,” Maher quipped:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

Fortunately for Maher, HBO doesn’t have advertisers. Watch the YouTube video of that gag, and you will notice something else: Not a soul in the ABC studio audience that night emitted so much as a giggle. Which points to another fact about Bill Maher: He’s not very funny. 

Here is a more recent sample of the less-than-funny wit of Bill Maher, from his capstone show on June 29 of this year, just before Real Time went on summer hiatus. Maher recommended that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney pick George Zimmerman, slayer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a sidewalk scuffle in Florida, as his running mate against President Obama. Quipped Maher: “Who better than George Zimmerman to personify your campaign theme of ‘I think the black guy’s up to no good?’ ”

Are you rolling in the aisle yet?

Sure, you might hear a few nervous chuckles at cracks like that, as Maher’s studio sycophants gulp past their shock to demonstrate that they’re as hip as their idol. But what you won’t hear, what you almost never hear during an hour of Bill Maher, are the sustained and spontaneous audience bellylaughs that are the earmark of jokes that genuinely tickle the funny bone.

Here’s another sample of Maher, from March 18, 2011, a week after a tsunami and the powerful earthquake that triggered it devastated much of northern Japan: “Sarah Palin finally heard what happened in Japan, and she’s demanding that we invade Tsunami—I mean, she says that the Tsunamians will not get away with this.” Maher pauses for laughs and gets .  .  . a handful of giggles.

Maher: Oh, and speaking of dumb twats, did you .  .  .  ?

Audience: [gasps]

Maher: I let the cat out of the bag on that one, didn’t I folks?

Audience: [ceiling-shattering applause, plus hoots and cheers]

The “dumb twats,” by the way, was a lead-in to a Michele Bachmann joke: “Michele Bachmann is for those who find Sarah Palin too intellectual.” (Maher has also regularly referred to Palin by the twat-synonym c-word in his touring standup act. He claims that it breaks up the audience every time.)

And how about this for yuks? Here’s Maher’s 2006 riff on the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks that supported the invasion of Iraq:

Maher: You can’t call yourself a think tank if all your ideas are stupid .  .  .

Audience: [confused murmurs—what’s a think tank?]

Maher: You know, it’s a shame what
happened to think tanks. They used to produce valuable apolitical analysis, but partisanship crept into many of them, and the Bush administration doesn’t just come up with something as stupid as: If we leave now, they’ll follow us home. No, they have someone from a think tank say it first. It’s a way to lend respectability. The same reason a titty bar has food.

Audience: [dead silence]

This is supposed to be a comedy show? And yet, when that segment went up on YouTube, whoever uploaded it wrote, “Bill Maher is so funny on this one .  .  . that you have to take your hat off to him.” Which leads to a second in-
escapable conclusion about Bill Maher: He’s funny because his admirers—who include, among others, nearly all of the press—say he’s funny. It’s hard to find a published interview with Maher that doesn’t slide down the greased chute from fawning to outright groveling. 

Here is Kevin Manahan of Newark’s Star-Ledger (Maher grew up in New Jersey), writing public-relations copy for his hero on May 17: “[H]e’s a standup comedy star .  .  . he’s making tens of millions of dollars eye-poking Rush Limbaugh, lampooning Fox News pundits and shaping American political thought on his HBO show, ‘Real Time.’ .  .  . Maher is one of the left’s top pests mainly because his verbal noogies sting.” 

Manahan loved that Maher said on Real Time that Ann Romney “has never gotten her ass out of the house to work,” and he coaxed Maher into characterizing the GOP candidate’s wife as a bathrobe-clad couch potato of the kind who tells her children to “[s]hut the (heck) up” so she can take in another soap opera. Mike Ross of the Edmonton Sun, reviewing a July 6 performance by Maher in that city, was somewhat more detached, conceding that Maher’s act was “one long liberal polemic” containing not “a single thing .  .  . that was in any way controversial” to his Canadian fans, who seemed to be as smitten as his American fans. Nonetheless, Ross felt obliged to sum up Maher’s shtick as “hilarious.”

(A sample of the hilarity: “Mitt Romney is no Stephen Harper.”)

However, it is Rolling Stone, where several extended interviews with Maher have appeared over the years, that walks away with the gold for journalistic obsequiousness. Here is one of the “questions” that Rolling Stone writer Tim Dickinson lobbed to Maher in 2011 as gently as the coach at a kindergarten tennis camp: “But even smart people don’t seem to be connecting the dots—that the GOP’s agenda is to finance tax cuts for the rich on the backs of the middle class.” Was that a question or a keister kiss? Here’s another: “Do you have any hope for us responding to global warming in a way that’s meaningful?” And here’s a third, as Dickinson yet again planted his lips on Maher’s hindquarters: “You’re prodigiously well informed on your show; is that a testament to your own news-junky-ness or the skill of your staff?”

Maher’s “comedy” isn’t really comedy at all; it’s an exercise in confirmation bias. What is to be confirmed is Maher’s (and by extension the audience members’) intellectual and ideological superiority over the rest of us. Hence the large percentage of Maher “jokes” that amount to little more than calling someone stupid and waiting for the dutiful guffaws. The targets—Republicans, Southerners, and Americans in general—form a series of concentric conservative circles, with Sarah Palin as the bull’s-eye. Maher’s use of the word “stupid” and its variants and synonyms, such as “rubes” and “knuckle-draggers,” is prodigious: “America is a stupid country with stupid people who don’t pay attention”; “The dumbness is dragging us down”;  “Toothless Tuesday” for the March 6 GOP primaries; Republicans as “mental patients.” 

In 2001, while Politically Incorrect was still on the air, the childless and never-wed (although reportedly linked romantically to dozens of women ranging from porn stars to—and it’s unlikely that this rumor is true—Ann Coulter) Maher famously likened retarded children to dogs. “They’re sweet. They’re loving. They’re kind. But they don’t mentally advance at all.”

Maher directs his most sustained—and repetitive-to-the-point-of-tedium—barbs at religion, specifically Christianity (possibly because he was raised Roman Catholic until his teen years by his Irish father). Hence, “jokes” of this ilk: “At least half of the [Ten] Commandments are stupid,” or “We’re talking about a religion with a talking snake!” (Hasn’t that “talking snake” bit been rattling around on atheist websites for years?) Or how about this one: 

You can’t be a rational person six days of the week and on one day of the week, go to a building and think you are drinking the blood of a two thousand-year-old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith. That makes you a schizophrenic.

In a June interview on Real Time with guest Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic New York Times columnist and author of the recently published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Maher quipped that religion “is by its very nature anti-intellectual.” His studio audience could hardly contain itself, hollering and clapping at this jest. One of Maher’s oft-repeated historical fancies is that religion “causes most wars.” Whenever conservative guests on Real Time point out—as S. E. Cupp (an atheist, by the way) did in June—that actually the biggest bloodbaths of the 20th century were prompted by atheistic philosophies such as communism and Nazism, Maher simply counters that those ideologies were “state religions.” 

Um, isn’t “atheistic religion” an oxymoron?

Maher’s hoped-for coup de grâce against faith was his 2008 documentary, Religulous, directed by Larry Charles, the director of Borat. Maher, Charles, and their crew traversed America and elsewhere, telling lies in order to get interviews (as they later admitted), hiding Maher’s involvement in the enterprise, and telling subjects that they were making a serious feature to be called A Spiritual Journey. (One pastor they talked to said he had been under the impression that he was participating in a PBS show.)

Although Religulous featured a couple of swipes at Jews, Muslims, and Scientologists, it was essentially about, well, how stupid (that word again!) Christians are. Religulous pokes fun at a guy who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando who can’t explain the theological doctrine of the Trinity very well. Also, a group of Missouri truck drivers who meet in the back of a semi to affirm their faith. Their interviews—consisting of such Maher witticisms as “This man lived inside a fish for three days?”—are interspersed with clips of smart-aleck New Testament professors asserting that the Virgin Birth and other items of Christian belief are so much hooey. 

Religulous winds up with a five--minute harangue by Maher delivered at Tel Megiddo in Israel—a site that is identified with Armageddon in the Book of Revelation, where good and evil are prophesied to do battle at the end of time. Against a background of vintage clips of nuclear mushroom clouds and other havoc supposedly prompted by the Bible, Maher pours it on: “Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. .  .  . This is why rational people, antireligionists, need to come out of the closet and assert themselves.”

Religulous scraped together about $13 million in box-office revenues, which made it the highest-grossing documentary of 2008. Of course the competition that year wasn’t exactly boffo: Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, exploring the raindrops-on-the-roof oeuvre of the avant-garde composer; The Garden, about people growing vegetables in a community garden in South Central Los Angeles; and Fuel, a diatribe against America’s addiction to oil. Had Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America—which has taken in $33 million since its release earlier this year—been in the running, Religulous’s claims to blockbuster status would have looked as fatuous as the Holy Land Experience. Still, Maher was incensed that Religulous wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. But Garden was nominated—perhaps due to Michelle Obama-fueled community-garden chic—and the Oscar went to the British documentary Man on Wire, chronicling Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974.

“We weren’t even considered,” Maher griped to Rolling Stone’s Dickinson. “Of all the bodies that are irrelevant, the documentary division of the Oscars has to be close to the top of the list.” That was three years after Religulous’s release. This year he was still at it. In a January segment of Real Time, Maher defended the Stop Online Piracy Act (even though Congress had already shelved the bill) on the grounds that Internet users were illegally downloading copies of Religulous instead of paying for them. The blogger Ace of Spades quipped: “Bill Maher has millions of fans who think he’s hilarious. It just turns out that they’re all dicks.”

This leads to a third fact about Maher: He is exceedingly thin-skinned, and he never seems to forget a slight, real or imagined. In Religulous, he comp-lains for no apparent reason that no one had told him until he reached age 13 that his mother was Jewish. (Her maiden name is Berman—couldn’t he have guessed?) In 2006, he was still licking his wounds over the fact that no one had chuckled at his 9/11 one-liner about cowardice. In an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he scolded America for its deficient sense of humor in
the wake of the massacre. “When is the right time to make jokes about it, and what kind of jokes can you make?” 

Maher’s title for his piece, incidentally, was “When Can We Finally Be Funny Again?” Picking the scab, and getting in a dig at ABC for firing him, he explained that when he had said “we” on that fatal night, he had really meant “American society as a whole,” but “it was not hard for people who never liked me to begin with to pretend that I was calling the military cowardly. I wasn’t.” He was still picking the scab during his inaugural show for this season on August 31. Maher complained to guest Dinesh D’Souza that “the White House” under George W. Bush had “kept the heat on” him, forcing ABC to cancel his show.

In April 2011, Maher flew into a Twitter rage over an Onion tweet made shortly after President Obama produced his birth certificate proving that he had been born in Hawaii: “Afterbirthers Demand To See Obama’s Placenta.” An hour later Maher angrily tweeted: “I see The Onion stole my placenta joke that I did in Feb 2010 HBO special.” It turned out that the joke-theft was likely the other way around: The Onion had actually published the quip in August 2009 and was recycling it by way of a link that Maher, in his snit, had apparently neglected to click. The Onion’s then-features editor Joe Garden tweeted: “Bill? We don’t watch your show.”

Occasionally, Maher’s brand of humor manages to offend even the most dedicated admirers. After his “dumb twats” crack about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in March 2011, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Women’s Media Center finally decided they had had it. NOW communications director Lisa Bennett wrote a blog entry on March 22 telling “supposedly progressive men”: “Cut the crap! Stop degrading women with whom you disagree and/or don’t like by using female body terms.” Women’s Media Center spokesman Yana Walton said, “Bill Maher’s misogynistic comment about Sarah Palin hurts all women.” 

None of this seemed to faze Maher. By June 24, 2011, on Real Time, he was going after the Palins again, sniping that daughter Bristol Palin’s memoir, Not Afraid of Life, with its recounting of her 2008 out-of-wedlock pregnancy with her son, should have been titled “Whoops, There’s a Dick in Me”: “Oh, the Palins, I tell you—the sh–t doesn’t fall far from the bat.” For good measure, Maher called Bristol’s mother Sarah a “ditzy beauty queen” with “uninformed opinions.” On September 23, 2011, he referred to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as “the blonde twink.” He waited for an audience reaction, got a couple of nervous titters, and then added, “I’m sorry—I meant Madame Curie.” One of Maher’s liberal guests, Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman and also a blonde, jumped on Maher about the “blonde twink” comment. 

“It’s not because she’s a woman,” replied Maher. “It’s because she’s dumb.” (Megyn Kelly is a graduate of Syracuse and the Albany Law School, where she edited the law review.)

Maher’s strategic response to accusations of sexism has been to: (1) blame Fox News, which is what he told Rolling Stone’s Dickinson; (2)  invoke the First Amendment’s free-speech protections (what he told ABC News’s Jake Tapper in a March interview in which Tapper asked Maher to distinguish between his using “c—” in reference to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh’s calling free birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut”); (3) maintain that Palin deserves it because she is “a public figure” who “gives as good as she gets”; (4) point to the artistry of comedy, in which the c-word is part of “a carefully crafted routine” that generated “one of the biggest laughs in my act” (Maher to Tapper and Dickinson); (5) insist that the c-word is actually gender-neutral and can be used with reference to either sex (Maher to Dickinson: “It’s a word that talks about a specific type of person—and it can be a man or a woman”);
(6) blame the vast right-wing conspiracy (Maher to Tapper: “In general, this is an obvious right-wing attempt to dredge up some old sh–t about me to deflect from their self-inflicted problems”).

The strange thing about Bill Maher is that he clearly once was, and still can be, genuinely funny. As Maher himself has pointed out, standup may be the most brutally demanding of entertainment forms, in which audiences exhibit no patience with comedians who cannot make them roll on the floor. Maher, along with hosting his television shows, has spent more than 30 years on a bare stage with a microphone doing improv. And you can still occasionally see flashes of his comedic talent on Real Time. Here’s a sample from one of Maher’s running-gags, “New Rules”: 

If you’re buying your cat the new Fancy Feast appetizers, you’re not pampering her. You’re dating her. And while you’re trying to decide between the tilapia and the wild Alaskan salmon, she’s eating a dead bird.

Now, that was funny. So was the skit he did on June 3, 2011, in which he and Glee star Jane Lynch read aloud, deadpan, the text of one of the graphic Facebook sex chats that former New York Democratic representative Anthony Weiner exchanged with Las Vegas blackjack dealer Lisa Weiss. (I’m not being partisan here; I would have laughed just as uproariously had the perp in question been, say, Newt Gingrich.) Many of Maher’s tweets, even his political ones, display an inventive and good-humored (if often left-leaning) merriment mostly missing in the heavy-handed audience-pandering on Real Time

Here’s a tweet from June: “Obama press conf today said Congress shld be more bipartisan. Palin: ‘No way congress shld be having sex with men and women! N-U spells NO!’ ” Maher’s respect for fellow practitioners of bare-stage routines undoubtedly underlay his quixotic kudos to Clint Eastwood’s empty-chair routine at the Republican convention: “[H]e .  .  . killed,” Maher said. That’s the highest praise that one comedian can pay to another. 

Mocking Obama’s performance against Mormon opponent Mitt Romney at the October 3 debate, Maher said, “Obama looked so dead, Romney tried to baptize him.” When the studio audience groaned its rare displeasure because Maher had tweaked its White House idol, Maher chided, “You f—ing liberals, let me tell you something—you gotta get on the reality page.”

It may be hard to believe this from the man who plans to stump for the Democrats with a series of pre-election concerts on campuses, and who donated $1 million to Priorities USA Action (that’s the super-PAC that ran the ad accusing Mitt Romney of making a woman die of cancer), but Maher once identified with the Republican party, albeit its libertarian wing. He was genuinely politically incorrect.

“I like the Barry Goldwater Republican party, even the Reagan Republican party,” he told Rolling Stone in 1999. “I want a mean old man to watch my money. I don’t want a Republican to be funny. I don’t want him to be charming. Because government is a sieve that takes as much money as it can and gives it away, usually needlessly.” Compare that with the Maher of 2012, who used a February segment on Real Time to dress down conservatives such as Arizona’s GOP governor, Janice Brewer, for daring to “disrespect” President Obama.

At some point in the history of standup comedy—and maybe it began with Maher’s hero, George Carlin—certain comedians who had once been genuinely funny, as Carlin was early in his career, decided that the point of their routines was not to generate laughs but to vent political rage to the like-minded. The Carlin curse has afflicted an entire generation of liberal-activist comics, rendering them deadly: Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho, to name a few. Their “humor” goes by the sobriquet “edgy,” which is a shorthand way of saying “preaching to the leftist choir.” 

Maher likes to tell the story of how, when he was 13, his father stopped taking the family to Sunday Mass because he didn’t like the Catholic church’s position on birth control. There is an irony there because in some ways Maher is a Catholic priest manqué. Like Catholic priests, he has taken a vow never to marry, and he uses his stage appearances essentially as a pulpit, except that the sermons rail not against sin but against conservatives, the evils of religion, or whatever else.

In Maher’s church, as in all churches, you’ll see plenty of devoted and enthusiastic worshippers. But you won’t hear many laughs.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.


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