What happens when the applause becomes a big fat boo? For a comic like Maher, who thrives on the acceptance his act provides, this is no rhetorical question. Fortunately the trauma brought him back to the original reason why he wanted to be a comic: He hated the captain of the high school football team.
That feeling of being out of sync with the world is "a lot of what fuels the comedic impulse," Maher maintains. He has always reveled in being the outsider "who can see things because you're not in the picture." When ABC reported that only 14 percent of its focus group agreed with him, Maher was overjoyed. "I told them I'd rather be with those people than the 86 percent who eat cheese in wrapped slices." No wonder he could handle getting Dixie Chicked. It gave him a new way to be incorrect.
photo: Richard Mitchell
Maher's new message is "Don't be afraid to be out of the mainstream."
" 'Out of the mainstream' is the new L-word," Maher says. He sees the danger in this rhetoric, which aims to cast any dissent into the margins. Maher calls it "patriotically correct," and his response is to wrap himself in the flag on his own terms. "My new message is, Don't be afraid to be out of the mainstream," he declares. But he's not about to depart from the consensus fundamentally. Above all, he wants to stay in the game.
A lot of liberals are embracing Maher's stars-and-stripes strategy. But you pay a price for being relevant in a know-nothing age. You can proclaim, as Maher does, that our civilization is "not just different; it's better," but you can't point to the part we've played in making those other civilizations worse. That analysis doesn't come with a punchline. It's the difference between dissent and entertainment.