Bill Maher – Palace Theater (Albany, NY), 11/10/13

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Bill Maher has made a name for himself as a guy that tells it like he sees it. He is not afraid to share his opinions, even when they run contrary to the majority or are bound to get people upset.  He seems to revel in speaking about the two topics that you aren’t supposed to discuss with company: religion and politics. He’s smug, but that partially derives from his assuredness of his convictions and his belief that he is speaking truth to power. I’m sure that it also partially derives from the fact that he’s kind of an arrogant ass. I’ve never met Maher, but something tells me that he can be a real jerk when he wants to be.

I say all this as a fan of Maher; I’ve been watching him off and on since his days of hosting Politically Incorrect. As a political scientist, I can’t help but to be drawn to someone who talks a lot about politics and who, unlike a lot of people, seems informed about the subject. Everyone thinks they know politics, but Maher is actually educated on the issues. He might not always get it 100% right and you may not necessarily agree with him all the time (though I do tend to share a similar world view), but he at least knows what he’s talking about. As an actual Constitutional scholar, I always find it hilarious when people go to Facebook to try to “educate” the public about whatever the issue of the day is. Some people should have spent more time in my Introduction to American Government courses. I don’t catch Maher’s newest show, Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, as often as I used to, but it’s always entertaining when I do get the opportunity to watch it. He has people with all sorts of political ideals on the show and uses a good mix of scholars, politicians, activists and celebrities. It’s all generally pretty respectful and funny and you get exposed to a lot of different ideas, even if Maher is pretty confident as to which ideas are wrong. Maher definitely leans to the left, but he’ll give the Democrats a hard time on the show when he thinks that they are screwing up.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I got tickets to see Bill Maher when he rolled into town. I was sure that he would touch on politics and religion as they are the subjects he has been the most active in recently, but I didn’t know if he would also do some general stand up. Before he became a political commentator he was just a regular comedian, so I was curious if that would be the focus of his road show. I figured whatever the subject, it would be entertaining.

While I enjoyed Maher – he is funny and has good delivery – I was a little disappointed at the end of his show. He focused almost exclusively on politics and religion, which in and of itself was fine, but the material didn’t feel very sophisticated or fresh. The first 40 minutes was spent making fun of Republicans, which is kind of low hanging fruit when you have targets like Sarah Palin and the tea party. I’m pretty sure that I could have gotten up there and made the same basic jokes. I’m not saying that there isn’t humor to be mined, just that it felt like a lot of these jokes had already been made. Palin has said plenty of odd things, but is she even relevant anymore? Jokes about the fact that the head of the RNC (Reince Priebus) has a weird name were topical in 2011 when he was elected. Now – not so much

Part of the problem is that the world of politics moves pretty quickly and a lot of the jokes he was making have been done already by shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. These shows are on almost every night and can stay more current. Perhaps if you don’t watch these programs or much late night TV, these jokes would seem less stale. But for someone like me who keeps up on things, goes to a lot of comedy shows and is an avid Twitter follower, I just didn’t find much in most of his act that I hadn’t heard before. Newt Gingrich’s marital issues have been covered ad nausea; I was expecting more on Obamacare or more recent issues. Maher briefly touched on some of these things, but the bulk of his act was on how stupid the Republicans are. Some of the jokes were still amusing and were delivered with Maher’s trademark aloofness, but it wasn’t anything that I hadn’t heard many times before.

I was also surprised that the show was so one sided; though I know that Maher is more sympathetic to the Democrats, I thought that there would be at least a little material on those on the left as well. I identify with the left, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do ridiculous things as well. I don’t expect it to be equal time necessarily, but a little balance would have been nice. The audience was clearly lapping up his material on the Republicans, but I think that they would have found just as much humor in other targets as well. I can laugh at my own party; politics by its very nature is kind of ridiculous. The one two punch of focusing only on the Republicans and observations that no longer seem all that novel or innovative resulted in a show that didn’t quite live up to its potential. I wouldn’t have cared so much about the lopsided focus, however, if the material had been sharper.

It is not all that surprising, however, that the section of his act that I enjoyed the most was his discussion of religion. Having watched Maher’s documentary Religulous, I was well aware of what his views are on religion. However, since this is a topic that gets a lot less coverage, the jokes didn’t feel as well-worn as the political material. A lot of the jokes were somewhat predictable if you are familiar with Maher’s background, but still novel enough that they were the funniest of the observations that he made. It was smart of his to close out the show with this material as I thought it ended the night on a high note.

The audience for Maher appeared to have self-selected themselves as those who would be the most responsive and enthusiastic to his material. In some ways this lowered the level of difficulty for Maher, as pretty much anything he said was going to be greeted with applause. People like to have their world view reinforced and he seemed to do that for most people. I’m not sure that he couldn’t have just stood on stage and said “Republicans….am I right?” and brought the house down. There appeared to be only one woman who had a problem with anything that Maher said, though that may have been the booze talking. She piped up one too many times and Maher finally shot her down, which was appreciated since she was super annoying and distracting.

I’m not saying that I failed to laugh at all during the show or that I didn’t have fun. I confess that I chuckled several times throughout the night. But for someone who does such a good job of keeping up on current events, his act just didn’t seem that current. Maybe I’m just not the target audience for his stand up; for people that don’t watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, the topics covered might have been more salient and less a rehash of material done by others. To me, making jokes about Donald Trump’s hair is just kind of lazy and hackneyed and I expected more from Maher. This tour seemed more like preaching to the choir than any sort of sophisticated observations. That’s fine, but not what I was looking for. I go to a lot of comedy shows so perhaps my expectations have been raised by the more cutting edge material that I’ve seen. Maher joked that this tour was a way to recoup money that he lost in a bet, but that might not be too far off. Though his delivery was solid and he was generally entertaining, the material felt like a guy recycling his act from 2010 for a payday.

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