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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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: 

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