Staying in the Game


Just hours after George Bush strode from a fighter jet in full battle drag, Bill Maher ambled onstage before a much smaller but no less captivated audience. The rebel comic of late-night TV has quite a following among people who would rather laugh than cry about American politics. He may not be in Leno’s league, but he’s betting that he can hold his own on Broadway, and this week Maher opens in a one-man show with the oddly retro title Victory Begins at Home. Eat your heart out, Ari Fleischer.

Jackie Mason Maher is not. His show is part social critique, part sex shtick, and (here’s the odd part) a civics lecture to boot. It’s the sort of entertainment you’d expect from the author of a book called When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden. In this coffee-table polemic, Maher argues for a return to the spirit of sacrifice that prevailed in World War II, illustrating his points with makeovers of famous exhortatory posters from that era. This is parody as patriotism, and so is Maher’s one-man show. Though his peeves—the war on drugs, the war on sex, the war on men (a/k/a the threat to truth itself)—haven’t changed, he’s hooked them to a larger idea of what it means to dissent at a time of enforced consensus. Maher’s strategy is worth pondering, if only because his struggle to survive in this craven new world is also ours.

“I was the first one to be Dixie Chicked,” Maher boasts. If you’ve kept up with his career, you know that Politically Incorrect got canned by ABC last year, not long after he made an offhand comment about the fearlessness of suicide bombers. Now Maher has a much less restrictive gig at HBO, one that doesn’t require him to book celebrities who show up with their opinions written on their palms so they won’t forget. The new format has allowed him to create a brisk, engrossing talk show that reaches some 1.8 million viewers. It won’t make Letterman sweat, but it’s a fine demographic for a performer who wants to reach a hip audience. No wonder Maher thinks of his 9-11 ordeal as a liberating experience. But he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to wear the scarlet letter for saying something in bad taste.

“The first week or so was terrible,” Maher recalls. “It felt like a burning X ray going through you—like the whole country is talking about you and it isn’t good. For a couple of weeks I didn’t sleep much, and I knew in my gut it was over at ABC, so I cleaned out my office right away. But then there was this groundswell of support from the left and the right. I had Rush Limbaugh and Barbra Streisand, so I got it pretty quickly that I wasn’t alone on this.”

Maher tried to explain what he’d meant, but that only whetted his critics’ fangs. Maher’s friends advised him to take time off, the usual response to a celebrity scandal, but he refused to withdraw. “This country loves comebacks,” he says. “It loves a performer who won’t go down. So I knew it was important for me to stay in the game.”

That’s just what the Dixie Chicks concluded when they were condemned for dissing the president. First they tried in vain to explain; then they took off their clothes. “I wish I could have posed nude,” Maher sighs. He considers the reaction to that stunt: ” ‘So we don’t like what they said—they have great tits!’ That tells you something about Americans. When you entertain, it covers a lot of sins.”

The Puritans required public confession; McCarthy demanded names. But these days, all we ask of a miscreant is that he leaven his heresy with laffs. Maher is acutely aware that being entertaining is what allows him to stay afloat while skewering orthodoxies. His act is carefully balanced between LOL and listen-up. He spent 25 years mastering this rhythm, moving from comedy clubs to Johnny Carson to his own show on Comedy Central and then ABC. His career has been a fight to be himself—with applause.

“When you start out, all you want is to get a laugh,” Maher says. “You’ll say anything for that. Then, maybe 10 years into it, you’re not saying anything but you’re not exactly homing in on what is you. The watershed is when you have an audience that comes to see you for your specific style. They know what to expect, and even if you say something they don’t agree with, it’s OK. And that level of acceptance is very gratifying.”

In a sense, all stand-up is politically incorrect. It’s where we go to vent our resentment at social and sexual norms. But some cows are too sacred to kick. As long as Maher bashed sex police, drug czars, and feminists, his audience stayed with him. (Of course, his rants about women owed more to Henny Youngman than to Eminem, and even today he sounds like Alan Alda next to a pig-in-a-blanket like Dennis Miller.) But there’s a difference between shilling for “the male agenda” and pushing people to consider the complexities of a murderous act. When Ari Fleischer urged Maher and his kind to “watch what they say,” it wasn’t just about bad taste. It was a move to control dissident speech even (or maybe especially) when it comes with a punchline.

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.

” ‘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.