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.
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 . . . ?
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?]