Bill Maher isn’t a satirist. He’s a caricaturist.
Maher proved that during his June 2 performance at the Paramount Theatre. The audience engaged in quite a bit of clapter, a term “Saturday Night Live” head writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers coined to describe crowds’ cheers and applause for political humor, but Maher’s best comedy came from his characterizations.
Maher entered the Paramount stage to the theme song from his HBO series “Real Time with Bill Maher,” but much of the comic’s content was far more cutting than what he delivers to his television viewers. He wasn’t there to be agreed with, he was there to entertain at any cost, even if that included standing on an Iowa stage and taking a shot at federal subsidies for corn farmers.
The show felt like a longer episode of “Real Time,” yielding an uneven result for fans: it’s more Maher, which is good, but without the panel discussions to spur the flashes of spontaneous brilliance the comic exhibits. Maher was funny – many of his bits spawned from kernels of opinions he delivered on “Real Time” – but some of the material, a mix of new an old, lacked life.
Where he shined was serving as the audience’s microscope on America. During his performance, Maher magnified his United States; a place where the Republican Party sees President Barack Obama as a dice-shooting crack dealer eager to hand out food stamps, views defeated presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a Ward Cleaver clone who tells knock-knock jokes and fears First Lady Michelle Obama as the second coming of Blaxploitation idol Cleopatra Jones. Bill Maher’s America is a subpar disco that no one’s even trying to enter, a reference to how migration from Mexico has dropped to a net zero.
Sharp commentary like that, often accompanied by unprintable language, elicited palpable discomfort from the robust Paramount house; even though they knew he was kidding, the audience was restrained in its reactions. The result was an approximately 90-minute long tug of war between Maher and his crowd, to whom at one point he said he enjoyed being able to appall. Audience members thunderously cheered Maher’s fact-based thesis statements. He humorously walked the crowd through his logic and those in attendance were largely on board until it led them to a place they were palpably uncomfortable ending up, like a graphic and arguably tasteless hypothetical moral question involving former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and a young Donald Trump.
But Maher, who said he enjoys doing stand up in part because the stand-up stage is the “last bastion of free speech,” always got the crowd back on his side and exited the stage to a standing ovation.
Liberals also passed under Maher’s powerful lens. Once there, he painted Democratic politicians as a spineless crew shamelessly allowing public opinion to dictate their positions and called Obamacare “too capitalist.” He also dreamed aloud of a day in which the president would aggressively challenge the Right, in which the president would become, in Maher’s fantasy, “Django Unchained.”
The comic’s stage presence peaked when he inveighed against religion, a topic with which he has become synonymous because of his vocal distaste of it. Maher’s voice grew louder and inflections more noticeable as he spoke about faith, which at one point he mocked as a “purposeful suspension of critical thinking.” The comedian sprung to life when he spoke on the subject, challenging the intellect of people who characterized atheism as “just another religion,” as his delivery ironically veered close to that of a preacher.
“Atheism is a religion the way abstinence is a sex position,” Maher proclaimed.
Maher’s set struck a balance between crisply delivered one-liners – he poked at former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, calling her a MILF, a “moron I’d like to forget” – and exaggerated yet honest observations about the country.
At the Paramount, Maher demonstrated that he’s part Jonathan Swift, part Johnny Carson, and all funny.