Blessed with Glenn Beck and the Birthers
Bill Maher hits Eugene in real time
By Rick Levin
Standup comedian-cum-political commentator Bill Maher is an unlikely smashup of contradictions: average guy, swinging bachelor and unrepentant pothead; rabid anti-religionist, eco-advocate, supporter of gay marriage and the death penalty; foulmouthed advocate of common decency and an unbending moralist who never shouts; and, finally, a promulgator of cultural common sense — at least most of the time — in an era of mass incoherence. He is Lenny Bruce, Mark Twain, Larry Flint and Edward R. Murrow packed into one wisecracking package. No — Maher isn’t brilliant; he’s just smart, in the way Jon Stewart is smart.
On his HBO talk show Real Time, Maher sometimes comes across as a bit of a jerk, though it’s also hard not to admire the guy — especially if, like him, you find the world sorely lacking in plain talk, political savvy and a reliable bullshit detector among its media icons and talking heads. Maher is fearless in his commentary, an equal opportunity ass kicker, be his target Jesus freaks, conspiracy theorists, Bush or Obama. Maher’s previous show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, was axed by the network when, on a Sept. 17, 2001 episode, he pointed out that the terrorist who piloted the planes into the Twin Towers might have been a lot of things, but they weren’t “cowards.” If his timing was atrocious, the point remains intuitively obvious to the most casual of observers — which, in a nutshell, is just the sort of funky, neo-Socratic irony that gives Maher’s humor its gleeful gallows kick, like a noose snapping taut on the downward plunge of our collective insanity. He’s not for everyone, surely. But for fans, his brand of take-aim troublemaking can be downright cathartic.
“Hilarity,” Maher answered when asked during a recent telephone interview what folks can expect from his stand-up act, which hits Eugene on Friday the 13th — an oddly apt day, considering Maher’s obsessive war against superstition of any sort. “They should expect enlightenment and hilarity,” Maher added in a mock-pompous tone. “I take stand-up very seriously. It’s just a lot more pure and a lot more passionate. You can just let it out for 90 minutes. It turns out to be a very different animal than what they see on TV.”
Does this mean his hyper-drive politics will take a backseat to the rat-a-tat routines and perambulating punch lines of more traditional stand-up? “No, of course not,” he said. “That’s the heart of it. There’s a lot going on now. A lot of folks were concerned when Bush left office,” Maher added, speaking of comedians who sensed the helium hissing from the carnival balloon they’d been whacking around for eight long years. Maher, however, said he was “thrilled” when the 43rd president was constitutionally evicted. “I was bored,” he said. “That’s a lot of dumb jokes. It was just time to turn the page — not only with Obama. As I made mention on one of our recent Real Time shows, when Republicans are out of power they are even funnier than when they’re in power.”
As an example, Maher cites one of his favorite political piñatas, the far-right lunatics of the Republican Party. “We’ve been blessed with the Glenn Becks and the Birthers,” he said. “It’s just a rich time for stand up.”
That said, Maher can’t be accused of uncritically basking in the glow of Obama’s victory. “I feel like a lot of people have caught up to what I was saying a few months ago,” he said. “We’re all happy he got elected still, [but] where’s the delivery on ‘change we can believe in’? [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid looks like a revolutionary compared to Obama. He may have a knock-out coming in the 11th round; it’s still our job to hold his feet to the fire.”
Maher said his audience Friday should expect “brand new” material culled from a surplus of his pet sources. “There’s plenty to say about the economy, war, national security … I don’t quite understand what Obama’s doing about that one either,” he said before rattling off a few more. “Religion, party politics, cheating politicians. There’s plenty of good stuff.”
Bill Maher. 8 pm Friday, Nov. 13. Hult Center $39.50-$75.