When it comes to comments on current events, comedian Bill Maher has perfected irreverent indignation to high comic art.
And now he has brought that bemused outrage to Broadway, where his entertaining one-man show, "Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home," opened Monday at the Virginia Theatre.
Nothing seems to astonish him, especially when it comes to politics. So while he gets angry, he knows things could get worse, which may be one of the keys to his success. Plus, Maher is an equal-opportunity satirist. Democrats as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives, all come in for some serious and not-so serious scrutiny.
Yet Maher seems to have special affection for skewering the current Bush administration, while at the same time admiring its ability to control the terms of daily political debate. For one thing, he thinks the Bushies are masters of what Maher calls the three branches of government: the photo op, the marketing and the focus group. And the Democrats are having a terrible time playing catch-up.
"The French stood up to the Bush administration which is more than I can say for the Democrats," the comedian declares.
Maher's show is done simply with minimal production values, although political posters, especially tailored to this material, are used as a backdrop. “Loose lips might save ships," says one. "It's not a new world. We just joined it,” proclaims another in front of what looks like a Sept. 11 memorial service.
"I was the first guy to be Dixie-Chicked," says the stand-up comedian, referring to the country singers who were lambasted for criticizing Bush before the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Maher's late-night television show, "Politically Incorrect," got bounced from ABC last June, and Maher has maintained the show was canceled because of remarks he made following the World Trade Center attacks in which he had characterized previous U.S. military actions as cowardly. ABC said the program was taken off the air because of declining ratings. He now has "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO.
Maher's current evening would fit even better in a comedy club than in a large Broadway house where television monitors have been set up overhead so the audience can see those posters, which are projected far backstage, even more clearly.
Casually dressed, he stands on stage and occasionally takes sips of bottled water and, at one critics' preview, he took a sip of what he said was Jack Daniels and for Coke.
We don't need to watch what we say Maher says, at one point. He certainly doesn't, and, as a result, the laughs roll on.
Late in "Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home," the comedian asked a question. Before he could answer it with the punch line, someone in the balcony shouted an expletive. What was interesting about this exchange was that it was entirely friendly. Maher and the man in the balcony were in accord, though Maher was correct in chiding him for depriving us of the punch line, which was drowned out by laughter at the man's exclamation. But then again, maybe Maher could have gotten the laugh by repeating the punch line. "Victory," Maher's one-person show, falls under the heading of preaching to the converted. At the end of the show, Maher has the house lights turned on and responds to questions. Since the audience seemed to consist of my fellow upper West Siders, there were no questions. People made statements, which demanded not funny answers but assent. I could have told him that my neighbors are not a very playful group. But they are the kind of earnest liberals for whom his material is intended. Unless you're totally in synch with his politics, his humor will likely strike you as a rant. Occasionally, he deals with more general topics. Discussing the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, for example, he says, "No one should die for writing a book - except the author of 'The Bridges of Madison County.'"
At one point, he declares that although he no longer defends the French, he would rather live in Paris than "any town in America where cheese comes only in individually wrapped slices."
As anyone who has seen his show knows, his style is smug, aggressive and abrasive. On stage, he is coarser than he was probably allowed to be on TV. There is a lot of anti-Catholic humor. I find it offensive, but I guess he's entitled to it because he was raised Catholic. He has been doing this show on the road, so perhaps he's unaware of the post-war revelations about the extent of the Saddam regime's sadism. His joke about Hitler and friends as the "Original Axis of Evil" and Saddam and his buddies being merely "the cover group" underestimates Saddam's achievements. But it doesn't matter: the Iraqis were never part of his demographic.
Whenever I watched Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," which I occasionally did only because it came after "Nightline," I found it a puerile mix of inanity and ego.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find Maher's stand-up routine, "Victory Begins at Home," which opened at the Virginia Theatre last night, sharp, vulgar and funny.
Yes, there's still abundant ego on display - comedians are rarely shrinking violets - but looking back, I realize the TV inanity came more from Maher's guests than Maher himself.
Small and dapper in a black shirt and black pants, eyes glittering at the prospect of shocking his audience (although he's offering shock therapy to the mostly converted), he visibly delights in a "Peck's Bad Boy" image.
Maher is a self-styled libertarian - and he sure takes liberties. He is also, unashamedly, a liberal. He is also, more dangerously and more refreshingly, a liberal from what he calls "out of the mainstream."
At a time when political satire seems reduced to the patty-cake routines of "Saturday Night Live" or the lifeless jibes of Leno/Letterman, there should be a place for the more acerbic, viciously unfair and wildly prejudiced Maher - especially as he's often outrageously and savagely witty.
I suspect his material for his present show would have been markedly different had the Iraqi war still been a going concern. Here's, he's a little like a fireman arriving at a fire after the flames have been extinguished.
Yet he's smart enough still to get his licks in, remarking that "Saddam Hussein is Hitler like Oasis are The Beatles," or suggesting that terrorists are more likely to be funded by oil than drug money: "After all, Arabs are in the oil business, like Texans."
Clearly more a Clinton man than a Bush groupie, Maher is conventionally tough on Clinton's sexual peccadilloes (while expressing scorn that voters took them so seriously), shows little but disdain for Al Gore and suggests that the Democratic Party has yet to find a live presidential candidate.
Yet in many ways, Maher's better away from politics, where his jokes assume the knee-jerk predictability of always being politically incorrect.
A lapsed Catholic, he gleefully says, "I was raised Catholic, but I was never molested - and I'm now a little offended."
Liberatingly intolerant when it comes to Moslems ("Our culture is better") he says of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie: "No one should die for writing a book - except 'The Bridges of Madison County.' "
There's a question-and-answer session after each show, which depends on the quality of the questions, which were not strikingly bright when I saw the show.
However, when asked about Ari Fleischer's rebuke - "Americans need to watch what they say" - to a remark Maher had made on TV, he disarmingly dismissed it as simply an "unwise off-the-cuff comment, rather like my own."
God bless America, for a land and culture where we do not need to watch what we say - or be afraid to hear Maher say it.
''I think women's sports are boring.''
''I am for mad cow disease.''
''I think no sometimes means yes.''
''I thing Vegas was better when it was run by the mob.''
Bill Maher concludes ''Victory Begins at Home,'' his one-man Broadway show, by reciting that politically incorrect credo. Since Sept. 11 he has become, if not one of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration, at least one of the most contrarian.
He mocks the country's enemies as well as its leadership. ''Bin Laden was the 17th of 55 children,'' Mr. Maher said during his act on Friday. Shaking his head knowingly, he added, ''It's always the middle 20, isn't it?''
When he attacks government policy, as he does throughout his 90-minute monologue at the Virginia Theater (as well as on his weekly late-night talk show on HBO), he does it without any sanctimonious hand-wringing over civilian casualties or cultural imperialism. In fact he supports cultural imperialism. ''Rule of law is better than the opposite,'' he said. And so is ''a free appliance with purchases.''
Mr. Maher is not a humanitarian; he is a libertarian who bears a somewhat vengeful grudge against the administration that helped hound him off ABC. The White House chided him for a remark he made right after Sept. 11 that seemed to impugn the bravery of the American military, and the network later canceled his late-night show, ''Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.'' As he put it, a bit angrily, ''I was the first to be Dixie Chicked.''
But libertarianism, like polka dots, should be worn lightly. It is an épater le bourgeois ideology, the political equivalent of an Oscar Wilde bon mot: ''The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.''
Mr. Maher is clever and provocative, but he is no Oscar Wilde. Beneath his riffs there is a tetchy, self-righteous tone that makes him hard to like.
And a successful live performance usually requires a secret lovability. That does not mean a comedian has to be likable; Jackie Mason and Larry David based their careers on articulating the most virulent, petty hatreds.
But the best comedians also project the illusion that if only a fan who truly understood their jokes could get the comedian alone, they would become boon companions. (Women adored Paul Lynde, for example, precisely because they could fantasize that with the proper coaxing, the maniacally spiteful Lynde would become their confidant and pit bull.)
Even the funniest performers can fall short. In his early days as a stand-up comedian, Mr. David's disdain for his audiences was so evident and crippling that he had to turn to television writing, a career adjustment that luckily led to ''Seinfeld'' and ''Curb Your Enthusiasm.''
Mr. Maher, too, does not give the impression that fans are welcome to banter with him backstage after the show.
''Victory Begins at Home'' is loosely based on the book Mr. Maher published last October, ''When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden'' (New Millenium), a collection of essays and slogans for the current campaign against terrorism that update World War II propaganda posters. (One is ''Loose Lips Can Save Ships.'')
His delivery is smooth and persuasive, and he took command of the stage with the help of only what he described as a ''Jack and coke'' and an electronic teleprompter hung above the audience.
His body language is defiant, not welcoming. Mr. Maher has a large head and a small, trim dancer's body. When he places his fists on his hips, he looks a little like Mary Martin as Peter Pan.
And Peter Pan is a role model. Denouncing fidelity, monogamy and marriage as the mistakes of an overly ''feminized'' culture, Mr. Maher argued against the equality of the sexes' fantasies. ''Yours bore us, and ours offend you,'' he said. His rants about women were the only material that drew hisses from the audience last Friday.
HBO already allows him the freedom to use obscene language on the air, so Mr. Maher does not bring new dimensions to his Broadway act. Even in the question-and-answer period at the end of the show, he bats away questions with scripted jokes that he has already used on television. Asked about Fox News's claims of ''fair and balanced'' coverage, Mr. Maher mugged that Americans actually did hear both sides of the debate. ''We heard from generals and retired generals.''
Mostly, the solo format robs him of a chance to do what he does best: battle wits with actors, politicians and writers. Mr. Maher's ability to tease the ferocious and verbose right-wing commentator Ann Coulter into a stunned silence is a regular comic highlight of his talk show. He plays Lucille Ball to her Gale Gordon.
''Victory Begins at Home'' is best suited to audiences hungry for a longer, more intense television monologue about the hypocrisies and delusions of the White House, Congress and other powerful institutions. Fans who hope to see a different, more intimate side of Bill Maher may be disappointed.
As Bill Maher aptly puts it, he was the first entertainer to be "Dixie Chicked." It was soon after 9/11 and our military had started bombing Afghanistan. Maher, never what one would call a peacenik, had the audacity to observe on his late-night ABC talk show, "Politically Incorrect," that it might possibly take more courage to fly yourself into the side of a building than to drop tonnage on people from the sky.
Ari Fleisher, the president's press mail, responded to what seemed a self-evident remark with this preemptive wet blanket on debate: "Americans need to watch what they say."
Thus, Maher doesn't have a show on ABC anymore, though he does have a more suitable, if less mainstream, showcase on HBO.
And now he is on Broadway, that infamous hotbed of political discourse, letting us watch him not watch what he says at the Virginia Theatre in a very welcome 100 minutes of satirical defiance called "Victory Begins at Home."
Do we wish his pop culture references were as sharp and current as his political ones? Sure. Nobody needs jokes about the O.J. trial or "The Bridges of Madison County" or Liza when each and every new day brings so many critical new absurdities to understand. Are we sorry that most of his generalizations about women are pigtails-in-the-inkwell irrelevancies, stunted in some laddie land where the dating pool seems to stop at the shallow end? What do you think?
But smart talk about fun and love is comparably easy to get these days. What we can't get, except for the four half-hours a week of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, is fearlessness - a willingness to connect the dots in our context-challenged time with incredulity and more than a little wit.
So we forgive Maher his stand-up shtick about Jersey and the less charming quirks of his tough-guy Libertarian persona. We don't have to agree with everything he says to enjoy the relief, the almost giddy pleasure, of irreverent, outspoken talk about the war, the administration, the Democrats, the auto unions and, most of all, oil.
He likes drugs and dislikes religion - the one subject nobody takes on. He observes, bless him, that "you can say religion and get away with anything."
"Victory Begins at Home" is mostly about war propaganda, about how we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the most simplistic techniques. Maher stands in front of a succession of giant posters, some genuine historic ones, but most created from his own ideas by a dozen or so different artists. The posters are from his latest book, "When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden," based on a World War II poster that accused anyone who didn't car pool of driving Hitler around.
As Maher sees America today, "the true axis of evil is the brilliance of our marketing and the stupidity of our people." He identifies Bush administration officials as masters of "the photo op, the 30-second attack ad and the focus group." He worries about "wars that begin under false pretenses." Shrugging out of a pigeon hole, however, he is glad we had macho men in charge when we were attacked. And our values are "not just different" from the cultures we are fighting, "but better" because "the rule of law is better than not."
He stands alone onstage, jabbing both his index fingers at us, a repeated gesture that gives him the unexpected quality of a marionette. But he definitely is pulling his own strings. We appreciate that.
Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher feels your pain. "I was one of the first ones Dixie Chicked," the comedian and erstwhile TV host mused at a preview of his one-man show, Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home, which opened this week at Broadway's Virginia Theatre.
The comment, delivered during an audience Q&A session that is a regular feature of Victory, was the most direct reference Maher made to the post-9/11 faux pas that helped precipitate the cancellation of his late-night ABC talk show, Politically Incorrect, last year. (Maher has since resurfaced with an HBO series, Real Time With Bill Maher.)
For those with short memories, Maher had contested the popular notion that terrorists were cowards, an argument that drew ire from a number of high places, among them the podium of President Bush's press secretary.
"I'm proud I was the guy scolded by Ari Fleischer, told, 'Americans need to watch what they say,' " Maher said. "I think we're a great country because we don't need to watch what we say." He added, conspicuously, "It's not so bad to be out of the mainstream."
Clearly, Maher has been neither intimidated nor humbled by his influential critics. If anything, experience has made his tongue sharper and bolder — though not always to his, or our, benefit. In comedy or social commentary, there is often a fine line between trenchant wit and self-righteous anger. And though many astute points are made in Victory, Maher's delivery, like that of some other humorists who trumpet alienation and thrive on discord, can border perilously on stridency.
Inspired by Maher's latest book, When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism, the show takes aim at political and moral hypocrisy of all shapes and sizes. Unlike many of the self-styled pundits and jesters who have shared time with him on the boob tube, Maher is an equal-opportunity offender, lavishing his disgust on both Republicans and Democrats, the powerful and the passive. No topic is too delicate or divisive for this aggressively libertarian naysayer, from post-feminist abuses to priestly misconduct.
Some of Maher's most eloquent and thought-provoking observations address the damage from religion and moral absolutism in the hands of narrow-minded or manipulative people. But when he approaches other revered conventions — marriage, for instance — his indignation can seem more bitter and willful.
Frankly, I agree with Maher's basic assertions that women can be catty — "Girls hate each other" was how he put it — and that as a group we tend to underappreciate certain male urges considered base in a "feminized" society. But these points might be more effectively and appealingly made by a man who didn't liken his married buddies to slaves, or lament how difficult it has become to distinguish prostitutes from the rest of the gals walking around in flimsy frocks and low-rider jeans.
None of the articulate women or men who stood up to ask Maher questions seemed fazed by such remarks. Several fans noted the comedian's courage, and one even noted that she "would sleep better at night" if he were our president.
I'd advise like-minded theatergoers to be conservative with their praise, though. Too much encouraging feedback could make a guy like Maher lose his incentive to perform.
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.