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Bill Maher and the Perils of the Commentator-Comedian

To offend is inevitable for the socio-political commentator-comedian, and to suffer the slings and arrows of backlash should be equally expected.

Bill Maher’s brand of wit is sometimes called “superiority humor”, employing a satirical approach that seeks to burst the bubbles of those over-inflated by authority and ego. Such wit mocks self-delusion, stripping bare the emperors of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction. Power-brokers such as religious leaders and their protective institutions serve as natural targets for such satire, but the everymen and women that blindly follow them are also implicated for their willful ignorance and lack of critical vigilance.

Religion has historically eluded mockery by declaring itself off-limits, a protected species that one should not and must not satirize. As a result, its supernatural claims and moral prescriptions have achieved a “common sense” acceptance that is self-perpetuating and pervasive in reach. Contrarily, assigning itself untouchable makes religion all the more in need of “derision”, argues Maher (Kerry Kennedy. Being Catholic Now. New York: Crown, 2008. p.38), who feels “There’s too many sacred cows, too much conventional wisdom, not enough questioning.”

To Maher, critical humor is more effective than mere criticism when facing such a closed system because laughter penetrates the barriers that have kept us inert, impassive, and unquestioning; it’s an involuntary response to something we may not consciously subscribe to, but that we already know inside. “Laughter”, he says, “is sort of a natural truth detector.” (Interview magazine) Critical humor is rare but essential, for it highlights social reality in environments where truths are often obfuscated. It also taps our collective unconscious where the institutional super egos would prefer rationality be left shrouded and sublimated.

There’s a price to pay for this brand of inquisitive humor and Maher pays it every day as one of the most divisive—abhorred or adored—public humorists in contemporary popular culture. Biting the hand that feeds, Maher regularly cajoles his audiences with prodding insults. Calling the American people “stupid” and saying “we’re not overrun with rebels here, we’re overrun with sheep” does not always endear a comedian to his audience but he refuses to be cowed, implicating the citizenry wherever he see complacency, self-absorption, and ignorance (When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism. Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2002. p.127). As broad segments of the population were parroting George Bush’s proclamation that “they hate us because of our freedom” after 9/11, Maher borrowed John Powers’ counter, “They hate us because we don’t even know why they hate us” (p.23).

Like Mort Sahl before him and Jon Stewart more recently, Maher is a commentator-comedian, performing a role between and beyond the conventional stand-up comic and news editorialist. Receiving and interpreting such a role-straddler is complicated because the newscaster brings expectations of objectivity and restraint, while the comedian revels in exaggeration, absurdity, and emotional play-acting. When morphed together, audiences understandably become confused as to whether they should take Maher’s often outrageous postulations at face value or allow for the comedic license of “I’m only joking”. When the topic at hand is religion—one already guaranteed to stir reaction—the material of the commentator-comedian inevitably comes wrapped in both controversy and ambiguity. For some, this elicits the critical question: does such a messenger help or hurt the message?

When it comes to religions, Bill Maher is an equal opportunity antagonist, sparing none and sparring with all. Popes new and old are heads of a “child-abusing cult”, he posits (“‘Nazi’ Pope Runs ‘Child-Abusing Cult,’ Says HBOs Maher“), while Islam, among its many repressions, forces women to wear “beekeeper suits” (When You Ride Alone. p.55); Mormonism is “by any standards… more ridiculous than any other religion” (Islamophobia Monitor 22 October 2014), Judaism is “insane” and “funny”, and Buddhism includes “crazy whack shit” (“Bill Maher on Israel, uncut and uncensored“, Jewish Journal, 29 November 2012). Each make his job easy because each one “makes fun of itself”, he argues (Interview, ibid). That said, the comedian is far from impartial when it comes to the gradations of scorn and criticism he applies to each; whereas, for example, Mormons largely provide him with comic relief jokes, Islam is treated as an international existential threat.

As noted, Maher often likes to jest that he doesn’t have to ridicule religion as it’s inherently ridiculous, and while he might cite myriad examples of such, the comedian is aware of the significant role that enlightening satire might play in combating if not curtailing the most hazardous elements of religion, particularly those that might impinge upon political decision-making. Contemplating the reality of George W. Bush (or potentially the likes of Ted Cruz or Mike Huckerbee) knowing the nuclear codes, Maher despairs: “This is our country. We gotta get it back from the forces of organized superstition. People like Bush and Palin simply cannot think clearly because they’re in a big, scary, brainwashing cult and it warps their thinking so much that they’re actually horny for the end of the world” (Episode 135, “New Rules”,

Relying on the power of prayer, on scripture, or in “God’s plan” is beyond irresponsible when it comes to matters of world leadership, argues Maher. Such guides are potentially catastrophic, allowing for a fatalistic world view and a resignation into inaction or irrational decision-making. Unlike the large proportion of the US population that feel comforted that the ship of state is being steered by a god-fearing leader that believes in America’s manifest destiny and has the “Christian” moral compass to get us there, Maher has no such faith. For him, religion is not inherently moral and its practitioners’ expectations of reward for doing good make them always vulnerable to narcissistic self-delusion or to a personal salvation motivation. Do we want such leaders at the controls? asks Maher.

Maher’s concerns over fundamentalist extremism do not stop at American Christianity, either. Referencing the recent international Pew polls, Maher expresses particular alarm at the apparent “connecting tissue” between the beliefs of extremist and moderate Muslims, particularly those that sanction and support the atrocious treatment of women, homosexuals, and apostates, each act validated and justified by selected Islamic scripture (“Anti-Americanism: Causes and Characteristics”, Pew Research Center, 10 December 2003). Christians, at least, have learned to ignore the directives in The Bible that they no longer agree with, Maher notes.

Yet, as much as the comedian is horrified by the human rights violations currently taking place in the name of Islam, he is just as frustrated with western liberal silence and apologism in the face of such behavior. Multiculturalism and cultural relativism, he argues, have made us so fearful of being called racist or Islamophobic that we have turned a blind eye to conduct we would never tolerate in our own hemisphere. On this point he offers a challenging analogy: “They chop heads off in the square in Mecca. Well, Mecca is their Vatican City. If they were chopping the heads off of Catholic gay people, wouldn’t there be a bigger outcry among liberals?” Maher sees as absurd that we would fight so vociferously against civil rights violations at home yet when worse occur overseas the violators are tolerated as just “different”. (“Bill Maher on Paris“, Real Clear Politics, 8 January 2015).

When addressing fundamentalism within the US, Maher’s commentary usually takes on a more comedic tone. In one sketch on his talk show Real Time With Bill Maher, Maher addresses the credibility and legitimacy of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and of fundamentalist colleges in general. “Target serves pizza but it doesn’t make it a restaurant”, he jokes. At the heart of his comedy here is a serious point about the consequences of “mix[ing] up the things you believe, religion, with things we know, education”. In the resulting semi-supernatural world, gay aversion therapy is called psychology and praying away hurricanes is meteorology. Falwell’s institution of “learning”, Maher concludes, is undeserving of either the designations “University” or “liberty”. (“Bill Maher Says Liberty University is Not a Real University“, by H. Scott English, Inquisitr).

The comedian is understandably more animated when dealing with situations in which religion is (in)directly responsible for human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, he has consistently been regarded as public enemy number one by the Catholic League, the head of which, Bill Donohue, has even threatened to punch Maher out! Regarding the perennial problem of child sexual abuse among the priesthood, Maher strikes the following analogy: if the Pope was CEO of a chain of daycare centers where employees were caught molesting, “he’d be arrested faster than you can say ‘who wants to touch Mister Wiggle?’” (Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor. Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America. New York: 12, 2008. p.361).

As the above material indicates, restraint and diplomacy are not traits Maher values highly—at least for his comedic persona. Such subtlety deficiencies are often laid bare on his talk show, causing many a stir, sometimes a controversy, and once even costing him his job, as in September 2001, immediately after 9/11, when he rocked the national(istic) consensus by agreeing with a guest (Dinesh D’Sousa) that the terrorists, despite their heinous crimes, had not been cowardly. Soon after, that show, Politically Incorrect, was canceled by ABC.

More recently, the comedian shared his views on Islam with the panel on Real Time, saying that it is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.” In response, guest Ben Affleck called his words “gross” and “racist”; then, before you could type “flame-thrower” on your computer, social media exploded in a frenzy of support for the Hollywood activist as Maher was eviscerated by hordes of horrified liberals.

Word of Maher’s critical outburst promptly reached Berkeley, California, where a group of students gathered a petition in an effort to cancel the invite given the comedian by the University of California to address the upcoming commencement ceremony. Unperturbed, Maher pointed out the irony of such a strategic attempt to silence satire emanating from Berkeley, then celebrating its 50th anniversary as the birthplace of the student free speech movement. Maher succinctly suggested that this current crop of students should “find out what liberalism means and join up.” (“Petition All You Want, Bill Maher Will Speak at Berkeley“, by Sally Kohn, Vanity Fair, December 2014).

In the mi(d)st of this furor, Maher was invited to discuss aspects of his comedy aesthetic at the Student Union of Oxford University in England (video below). There, he explained that his intentions are never to just offend, and that he would willingly apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, though not necessarily for the material itself. Yes, there are boundaries to his humor, he concedes, but such restraints must never be due to fear of the consequences. To offend is inevitable for the socio-political commentator-comedian and to suffer the slings and arrows of backlash should be equally expected and accepted, he recognizes. Ultimately, the quality humorist must have a point at the heart of the provocation, as well as the intestinal fortitude to stomach the anonymous trolling, twitter terror, and even death threats that come with the job package. Whether the archer or the target, Maher’s philosophy is the same: “Not every joke is fair… but what’s more important is to laugh at yourself.”

Criticized by (some) liberals, despised by (most) conservatives, and enemy to (almost all) religious institutions, one would expect Maher to be lovingly embraced by secular humanists, but even cordial relations with some of them are growing increasingly strained. A number of “freethinking” groups are weary of the public face of atheism always taking the form of the white, elderly, upper-middle class male. For all their trailblazing activism and intellectual contributions, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher present a limited image to and for skeptics. Moreover, their abrasive tone and occasional intolerance, impatience, boorish machismo, and dogmatic aggression have proven a PR liability, despite the recent “rise of the nones” in Pew polls on religious affiliation. Some would like to see more diplomats and less snide firebrands of the Maher and Dawkins mould.

It’s perhaps revealing that Maher is bluntly dismissive whenever asked if he will run for public office. What would the campaign slogan be? he asks. “Religion is bad, drugs are good?” (“Bill Maher on Palin, Pot and Patriotism“, by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, 20 April 2011).

Whether via his roving reporter travel film, Religulous (2008), his weekly talk show, Real Time, or a stand-up routine that sees him consistently criss-crossing the country, Maher has stated that his mission is to start conversations about religion that are long overdue. As one of the premier contemporary battleground issues in the culture wars, Maher regards religion as “the last great intellectual frontier… the last taboo” (Kennedy p.37-38). Whether or not his caustic comedy—with its put-downs, brashness, and abundance of stereotypes—succeeds in sparking such cultural debates or in closing them down constitutes the prevailing conundrum for the commentator-comedian, and for critical comedy in general.