The man may abhor organized religion, but Bill Maher’s new solo show on Broadway bears a suspicious resemblance to a revival meeting. Onstage Maher preaches his gospel — acerbically mocking the methods and motives of the Republican party, the gullibility of the American people and the various cultural pieties he despises — while the audience says amen, in the form of applause that erupts regularly at his wryly delivered zaps.
Just as churchgoers know what to expect from their pastors, and are in some ways as familiar with the material as the man himself is, the audience at the Virginia Theater will already have heard much of Maher’s subdued ranting in some form on one of his TV shows — his material stretches back to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, after all. This smart and smooth but unsurprising mixture of punditry and punch lines could also be called “Bill Maher: Greatest Hits Live!”
It’s a no-frills evening. The only decor is provided by the series of faux-propaganda posters Maher himself devised for a recent book, which loom behind him and are sometimes used to segue from one topic to the next. Maher is dressed casually in a tailored shirt and black jeans, and sips from a bottle of water and a tumbler of dark liquid that was refreshingly revealed, in the Q&A that concludes the show, to be Jack and Coke. (Maher will be the first to tell you he isn’t a Diet Coke kinda guy.) His delivery is appealingly laid-back and seemingly spontaneous, although his eyes return regularly to the large prompter affixed to the mezzanine, on which notes can be seen scrolling as he works his way through his litany of soft-boiled outrage.
The material, as expected, is mostly politics, or what passes for it in the current climate. He devotes much of the evening to discussing the recent war and the war on terrorism that spawned it, pointedly marveling at the ability of the Bush administration to “change the subject” whenever it suits them. “The Joker is not the Riddler,” he says, referring to the way the war on Iraq was sold — and bought — as a rational response to the events of “nine-one-one,” as Maher calls it. “Now we can’t find Hussein,” he adds, “who was the guy we went after when we couldn’t get Bin Laden.” He gets one of the biggest laughs of the night by comparing this process to Hollywood casting, wherein you aim for Keanu Reeves and you get Pauly Shore.
The entire apparatus of the Bush government comes in for scattershot sniping. Maher concisely describes the three branches of the current government as “the photo op, the attack ad and the focus group.” The “war on drugs” is wittily savaged as another diversionary tactic — and one of the reasons “the rest of the world hates us.” Behind him a poster depicts impoverished Colombians, their fields decimated by American planes spreading pesticide, all because Americans can’t stop indulging in cocaine.
Bush-bashing aside, Maher isn’t really the type to tar the whole country with an imperialist brush. “Our values are better,” he says plainly. “I’m sorry, civilizations are not equal,” he adds, as a poster behind him shows the Statue of Liberty wrapped head to toe in a burka. (An idea for Christo?) He’s pro-profiling, in airport security at least.
In the Q&A, which provided most of the more politically incorrect segments of the evening, Maher opined that while the loss of Iraqi life in the war was unfortunate, he was sure that more Iraqi civilians died in a week under Hussein than during the war — a startling statement considering no reliable estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths have yet been release. And in one of the more surprising revelations of the evening — which seemed to nonpluss large segments of the audience — he practically dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state.
The evening meanders freely, with Maher making plenty of brief cultural digressions in between assaults on the powers that be. His screed against religion — “Say religion and you get away with anything” — is often very funny, with the Catholic Church providing a natural focus. Confessing to a Catholic upbringing, he jokes, “I’m kind of offended I was never molested.”
But his swinging-single propagandizing seems a rather calculated way of tempering his nerdy smarts with macho bluster. The schtick about the “feminization” of the culture has its obscurities, for example. Sure, you could argue that “sensitivity” is a trait we associate with the female, but is “truth” one we associate with masculinity? It feels dated, too: For a litmus test of how sensitive the culture has become, trying tuning into the nightly three-ring circus of humiliation that network television is happily engaged in. Then again, I suppose you could argue that taking pleasure in ever more finely shaded forms of degradation illustrates sensitivity of some kind.