With the recent political swing to the right in Toronto, first with Rob Ford, then with the Conservative GTA wins in the federal election, you’d think there wouldn’t be much of an appetite for Bill Maher’s brand of comedy in Hogtown. But a packed Massey Hall couldn’t get enough of him last Saturday night. For 90 minutes the master of taking the piss out of the American right-wing was slicing and dicing the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, to a crowd that thankfully doesn’t have to face the prospect of a ballot with any of those names on it, but was still informed enough to understand just how deserving of mockery those targets are. (Curious how Rick Mercer might have done with a set on Stephen Harper and Rob Ford in Texas – I’m guessing crickets, and that’s nothing against Mercer.) To any regular viewer of HBO’s Real Time, some of the wisecracks were familiar. But Maher delivers them with such verve you can laugh at them again and feel like it’s the first time. It’s all still hilarious, and ever so true.
Those of a certain political inclination inclined to dismiss Bill Maher as a “loony leftie” miss the point. His politics, and by extension his comedy, isn’t about left and right, it’s about intelligent and stupid. Maher is, like Aaron Sorkin in many ways, if not an idealist, then at least someone who prefers to be led by smart and curious people and has no patience for the kind of false populism that celebrates the mediocre and the small-minded. Religion is a particular bugbear for him - among the best jokes of the night was a bit about how the West has learned to ignore its religious leaders (in contrast to fundamentalist regimes abroad) and a prediction that the Pope will one day be nothing more than a float robotically blessing the onlookers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. For Maher, looking to the imaginary guy in the sky for answers is the refuge of the foolish, and he saves his most bitter disdain for scheming politicians like Rick Perry who prey on that naivete to win votes. I don’t suspect Bill Maher would have as much of a problem with the likes of Perry and Bachmann if they didn’t parade their faith around like a political prop. It’s when faith is used in lieu of reasoned arguments that gets Maher’s hackles up. These aren’t the William F. Buckleys of decades past laying out their case in thought-out paragraphs spiced with Latin. Today it’s Southern-accented fire and brimstone and the all-consuming, earth-ending threat of gay marriage.
The conservative comedian Dennis Miller, for all his verbal calisthenics and classical references, these days comes off only as sad and angry - not in the rebellious sense, but more in the mold of that kid at the party who was only invited because his mom pulled some strings. Miller’s repertoire has become a tired litany of ramblings about Joe Biden’s hair and Nancy Pelosi’s makeup – he’s mainly upset because his team didn’t win. Bill Maher, on the other hand, remains fresh and inspired because he doesn’t really care which team wins – he just wants both teams to be better. His targets are anyone he sees to be dragging the whole cause down: a refrain repeated often during the show, with a hand covering his face was “I’m embarrassed for my country.” He isn’t afraid to take shots at President Obama either, bemoaning what he sees as a pattern of capitulation to the Tea Party extremists in Congress who are determined to see him fail. But what bothers Maher most is what he sees as America’s hypocrisy-fueled descent into idiocracy; an electorate swayed by celebrity into voting against their own interests time and again, and a political movement that claims to be for the common man but is in fact backed by billionaires and underpinned with a very real, very ugly swath of racism. The fact that he’s out there making jokes about it, even to a foreign audience, suggests that he thinks there is still hope – if the good people can find their feet and their guts and start taking the power back.
You might miss that message amidst all the laughs, and the occasional side ventures into the never-ending mine of the perplexity that is male-female relations. But Bill Maher knows that the best way to serve up wisdom is with a smile. You come out of his show with your sides hurting and your mind thinking. Maybe the way we beat these guys is to make them ridiculous. It’s certainly a lot more fun than hate.