Bill Maher goes for the kill

The Bush administration has given comics plenty of material to work with. Many go after simple things like President Bush’s struggle with the English language, but Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, goes straight for the jugular.

At a sold-out Heinz Hall show this past Thursday evening, Bill Maher brought his classic political satire to downtown Pittsburgh. The comic had many things to say about the Bush administration. An opening joke mocked President Bush’s pro-democracy rhetoric, and continuing his assault, Maher called it the “let’s-not-and-say-we-did administration” in its handling of the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. According to him, Bush’s policy for funding the Iraq war, Katrina, and the Medicare prescription drug plan is to “put it on the card ... not unlike a spoiled rich kid.”

Bush appointees did not escape scathing comments. Maher recounted the story of W. David Hager, who as an appointee to the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs in the Food and Drug Administration advised women suffering from severe menstrual cramps to read scripture as a remedy. Hager was later accused by his former wife of anal rape, for which his excuse was that he missed. Criticizing the policy of encouraging abstinence education, Maher quoted statistics that show the average teenage girl who took an abstinence pledge is four times more likely to engage in anal sex.

After attacking the pharmaceutical industry’s strategy of making up diseases in order to market drugs (shyness is now called social anxiety disorder), Maher prophesized that one day they will come up with a drug for morning erections.

Addressing the issue of religion, Maher declared, “I hate religion, but I’m not against God or spirituality.... Jesus was a great role model; it’s just a shame that Christians don’t act like him.” Poking fun at the Republican Party’s apparent religious bent, Maher said, “Jesus was all about tolerance. He hung out with prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors ... but would have drawn the line at Tom DeLay.”

Maher read directly from Rick Warner’s The Purpose-Driven Life in a lampoon of literally interpreting the Bible with creepy sexual innuendo: “Noah caused God immense pleasure.” President Bush’s open religiosity did not escape a verbal licking. “George Bush believes that God made him President. George Bush is not sure of evolution.... Gravity needs more study too; it could just be angels pulling your pants down.” Figuring out the reason for conservative Christians’ continued support of Bush, Maher joked, “Bush is big with religious people because he works in mysterious ways.”

In between the satire-heavy material, Maher also showed that he can make a joke about pop culture, although always veiled by real news: “A brain-dead woman gave birth to a baby.... I said, ‘Congratulations, Britney.’”

The perception of Bill Maher as a liberal comic, known for his political satire and sociopolitical commentary who goes after the right, is false. Although Maher is certainly no Bush-lover, he has many unflattering things to say about both political parties — Maher called the Democrats incompetent during his show to thunderous applause from the audience. Neither a socialist for attacking Big Pharma nor an archconservative for favoring racial profiling at airports, Maher supports libertarian causes while also being an avid environmentalist. He has broad political views that prevent the label “liberal” from neatly applying to him. Maher is chiefly against the established order, and his comedy serves as a great way to educate the public about the supposed hypocrisy and stupidity of the establishment.

Curiously absent from his material was any reference to the upcoming midterm congressional elections this fall. Not once did Maher comment on the George Allen racial gaffe or the Connecticut Democratic schism. The 2008 presidential election was also an absent topic. Maher’s material, although entertaining, was not new. Most of what he commented and joked about came straight from his television show or book. Jokes about global warming (Surf Idaho!) and illegal immigration made their way into his routine but were given no emphasis; Maher may have been testing new material.

Maher’s style on stage is laid-back, which implies he is not trying very hard to deliver his material because he is confident of its truth. Ironically, he attacked the Bush administration’s own certitude.

In the tradition of Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove, Maher has a knack for black comedy. His political commentary may draw laughter, but as far as Maher is concerned, the educated and politically conscious person should seriously consider crying on the inside, regardless of political orientation. Much of Maher’s material is lifted from real news stories that offer an unflattering picture of politicians, government policy, business, the media, or any other topic he addresses. Maher does not need to put much spin on the news in order to get laughs, and the ultimate message of his very entertaining routine is that America needs to seriously reconsider its priorities.