In their “Rally To Restore Sanity” in 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert echoed many by calling for an end to “the culture wars” that have dominated American politics since the ‘60s. However, there are still liberal-leaning TV hosts eager for duty on the front-lines, as HBO’s Bill Maher makes clear in his new book The New New Rules: A Funny Look At How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Asses.
The book is named for the weekly monologue on Maher’s TV show, where the comedian gives a series of ‘new rules’ which advocate the ending of political and pop culture trends that irritate him before transitioning into a longer spoken word essay that wraps up the episode. In the introduction, he writes that “there are no [new essays] here but a lot of them bear repeating. They take three minutes to read on air, but I spend six or eight hours over the course of the week writing and editing them to get a show-ender that, I hope, makes a unique point and does so in a funny way.”
The essays, set off on darker paper than the rest of the book, are a devastating and surprisingly non-ideological critique of modern American culture.
In 2005, Maher presciently warned about the housing bubble while noting that “if there’s one thing Wall Street has taught us, it’s this: don’t spend money you don’t have. Spend money other people don’t have.”
And while he’s been a strident critic of both the Bush and Obama administrations from the left, he has little sympathy for the public, which he ultimately blames for its decisions: “[Bush] asked this generation to sacrifice the things he knew we wouldn’t miss: our privacy and our morality.”
The America Maher depicts is lazy, entitled and hypocritical, a country where people eagerly purchase cheaply-manufactured foreign toys made with lead paint, “a country that’s literally being killed by the stuff that makes objects shiny.” He points out the absurdity of a society of prescription drug users waging a War on Drugs “that has always been about keeping black men from voting by finding out what they’re addicted to and making it illegal—it’s a miracle our government hasn’t outlawed fat white woman yet”.
However, the essays’ thoughtful nature stands in sharp contrast to the rest of The New New Rules, a list of one paragraph jokes that make Maher seem like a more vulgar version of Jay Leno.
Leaving no cliché unturned, he makes fun of fortune cookies and noisy children while imagining bumper stickers for parents whose kids aren’t honor students. Many of his one-liners are directed at easy targets like Bristol Palin and hillbillies “too stupid too know better”. The effect is not so much preaching to the choir as it is pandering to its worst prejudices.
Of course, that’s what happens you have to churn out 15-20 bits a week for a TV show. Some just aren’t going to be as fresh as his crack that “the Maserati in front of the Olive Garden doesn’t say ‘this is a classy restaurant’ it says ‘some coke dealer wants spaghetti’”.
The real question is why Maher felt the need to include so many jokes intended to stretch out a monologue in the first place. With most of the book’s pages nothing more than one or two banal observations and a visual aid, its vast number of new rules seem like an attempt to pad its length in order to justify enough pages for a hardcover edition.
In the end, Maher’s message in The New New Rules is obscured by what appears to be a cynical money grab—unless that was the real point all along.