Bill Maher, the host and star of HBO’s long-running hit show, “Real Time,” brought his stand-up comic act to Sacramento last Saturday. The atmosphere in the lobby of the Community Center Theater before show time was electric. It had the feel of a highly anticipated rock concert, although many attendees were of the senior citizen variety. But there were many younger folk as well. In that regard, it was a very diverse audience. (Not so much regarding ethnicity, however; I saw very few people of color.)
Maher made his entrance about ten minutes late (which definitely distinguished this night from a true rock concert, when headliners often delay their appearances by as much as an hour). He had a small binder that he placed on a music stand. It appeared to contain notes that he referred to intermittently. He used a hand-held microphone that was clearly audible throughout the large theater. And he had an enthusiastic capacity audience in stitches for most of his 75-minute act.
As might be expected, most of his jokes were at the expense of Donald Trump, who is also a constant foil for Maher on his TV show. He began with at least 45 minutes on a series of only slightly exaggerated takes on Trump’s various offenses, as he (and almost the entire audience) perceives them. He made fun of Trump’s apparent inability to read, mocking how slowly he read the teleprompter at his recent State-of-the-Union speech. He compared him to a child in a variety of ways. He mocked Trump’s apparent lack of interest in his job (claiming he considered it “boooring”). And he occasionally acted like, and even sounded like, Trump, to the delight of his audience.
As a stand-up comedian, Maher is something of a cross of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Al Franken. His language is as foul as Bruce’s, and he also addresses sexual issues with the same unstrained zest that made Bruce famous. He may not get as graphic as Bruce did, but he is very comfortable referring to sex acts and comparing human conduct to sexual behavior. Masturbation, for example, was a topic he delved into on Saturday, and he did so unabashedly (and to the delight of much of his audience.)
And he is also a social commentator in the mold of Sahl. His jokes often touch on the state of human existence. Indeed, stripped of its humor, much of Maher’s standup routine could comprise a philosophical thesis. That thesis would be a mix of existentialism and humanism. Maher is clearly not a fan of much of the work of humans in making the planet as increasingly uninhabitable as, in his view, it is becoming.
Much of his humor pokes fun at innate human flaws and frailties. He did an extended riff on children (claiming that he assiduously seeks to avoid being in their presence at all times), and he made clear that he has no desire to be a parent or to take up the responsibility of raising other parents’ children. And he hit religion hard, essentially calling it an insult to human intelligence. On Saturday, he attacked Mormons (the easiest of targets in his view), Catholics (the faith in which he was raised), and, to a surprisingly lesser extent, Muslims, only vaguely referring to his outspoken antipathy to Islam.
Maher also offered critical thoughts about the younger generation that he refers to as “millennials.” He regards them, essentially, as spoiled brats who are illiberal in their intolerance of contrary perspectives. He related on Saturday how he had been invited to give a commencement address at U.C. Berkeley, the home of the 60s free-speech movement, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that movement. But he was subsequently uninvited when the students found out that he was, indeed, going to “speak freely.” Maher is a social liberal (he calls himself a libertine), although, surprisingly, he didn’t include an extended series of jokes on marijuana (his oft-proclaimed drug of choice) on Saturday.
But Maher, as he performed on Saturday, at least, is perhaps most like Mr. Franken, who, before he became a politician himself, essentially campaigned for Democrats even as he did his standup acts. Similarly, Maher enthusiastically promotes the Democratic Party and the issues he thinks the Party should be advocating. (It may be more accurate to say that Maher promotes the Democrats as clearly preferable to the Republican Party, which he openly disdains.) He wants to defeat the Republicans in this year’s mid-term elections and to oust Trump in 2020 (assuming he isn’t gone before then). And he made a point of urging a big get-out-the-vote effort, sounding very much like a politician when he did.
But Maher is also more than willing to make fun of, and even offend, anyone, as he warned at the beginning of his routine last Saturday. And Democrats are not spared his barbs. He clearly thinks they should be more willing to fight dirty, which is how he portrays Republican tactics. The refusal of the Republican-controlled Senate to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee (Merrick Garland) in the last year of his presidency particularly galls Maher (as it does most Democrats). Maher would like the Dems to adopt similar tactics, and he makes no bones about it.
He hates what he regards as the Republican ploy (probably more easily identified with the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh school of journalism) of lying about the truth and then claiming the other side is lying when it produces irrefutable facts that expose the lie. But he also wishes the Democrats were willing to be similarly aggressive in pushing their perspectives. It is, of course, a dangerous way to fight back, and Maher doesn’t go so far as to counsel lying. But he clearly wants to defeat what he regards as an evil agenda, and he sees the Democrats as lacking the necessary will to vanquish the wicked.
In sum, Maher is a comedian on a mission. His goal might well be to transform the attitudes in the country that led to the election of Donald Trump. But on a deeper level, he seeks a liberal society, one that would respect diversity of thought and is willing to laugh at itself.