Judge Michael Rankins is never wrong; ask his mom.
"You can't change the world in a day, but you can try to get the smell of stupid out of the furniture."
"What does Rush Limbaugh do for a living? He scares white men as they get into their trucks for lunch."
What does Bill Maher do for a living? He scares the people who aren't listening to Rush Limbaugh.
Facts of the Case
"The Pope has a Facebook page. That's true—I'm not making that up. The creepy thing is, under 'Relationship Status' he put, 'It's Complicated."
On stage before a live audience at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina, topical comic Bill Maher works out his frustrations with conservative politics, religion, social issues ranging from racism and sexism to health care, and yes, even the Obama administration.
Hey, it's cheaper than therapy.
"I will show you Obama's birth certificate when you show me Sarah Palin's high school diploma."
Humor is usually simple to grade: If you laugh, it's funny; if you don't, it isn't. Topical or political humor—Bill Maher's stock in trade—is trickier to evaluate, because the reviewer also has to ask an additional set of questions: If I laugh, is it because the comic is funny, or because I agree with his or her views, or both? If I don't laugh, is the comic not funny, or do I simply not embrace the philosophy being expressed?
In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer goes both ways (no pun intended) with Bill Maher. From a sociopolitical perspective, Maher and I come from similar directions. When it comes to religion—one of Maher's favorite whipping posts—we could scarcely be further apart. The fact that I laugh at both Maher's right-wing bashing and his faith-bashing in relatively equal measures indicates that the man is funny, more often than not.
"…But I'm Not Wrong" finds the humorist in top form, meaning that viewers who enjoy his edgy liberalism on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (or who fondly recall Politically Incorrect, the late-night network series that made him a star) will like his work here. Those who don't "get" him elsewhere probably won't be converted to the Maher cause by this material.
What's interesting is that Maher appears, in this special, to be striving to address the one charge frequently leveled at him even by those who share his views—that his comedy too often veers toward the mean-spirited. It's not that Maher takes it easy on his pet issues in "…But I'm Not Wrong"—he is, after all, the comedian who made the phrase "politically incorrect" a job description—but he does seem more conscious of his image in these 80 minutes than he frequently shows. He offers a friendly warning before launching his trademark anti-religion diatribe, acknowledging that "I usually do not introduce topics, but believe it or not, even at this point, people walk out when I talk about this." No one would rightly accuse Maher of going soft, but perhaps maturity has begun to catch him from behind.
Maher makes short work of his easiest Republican targets, in particular Sarah Palin, John McCain, and the second President Bush. He also gets in a few deft jabs at the current occupant of the Oval Office, though these tend to be more of the affectionate variety. (Maher is certain that the Obamas are bringing marital sex back to the White House—"Michelle, how would you like to [enjoy coitus with] the most powerful man in the world tonight?"—but he wishes the President would feel free to "black it up a bit" with a rapper-style entourage and "a black-light poster of Pam Grier where Teddy Roosevelt used to be.")
From a performance standpoint, Maher seems more uncomfortable and less focused when unfettered with microphone in hand than he is when seated behind the moderator's desk. He exhibits the nervous habit of laughing—constantly—at his own jokes, which is one of the worst offenses a stand-up comic can commit. (See: Mandel, Howie.) His rare attempts at physical comedy—i.e., his imitation of former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer having sex with a prostitute—also show that Maher's comedic gifts are better suited to the talk show format than the stage.
Where Maher shines, however, is in his writing. Many comedians' material only succeeds when spoken by the comic in question. In Maher's case, most of his funnier bits are just as funny on the page as they are in his mouth—a testament to his skill at wordcraft. While Maher isn't quite the language magician as, say, the late George Carlin (or Dennis Miller, back in those long-ago times when Miller used to be witty instead of bitter), he's definitely more talented in this regard than his flippant banter with guests on his TV program might suggest.
The exception to the above: An ill-conceived encore sketch at the end of "…But I'm Not Wrong" entitled "The Muslim Dior Fashion Show," in which a pair of barefoot models wearing burqas parade around the stage as Maher reads soggy and obvious anti-Islamic wisecracks off index cards. Sometimes, Bill, you are wrong.
HBO goes wrong, too, with its barebones DVD presentation of "…But I'm Not Wrong". The transfer, both visually and aurally, works as it ought—we never lose Maher in the shadows, despite his black-shirt-over-indigo-jeans ensemble, and we can always hear the punch lines just fine—but there's nothing added here to incentivize a purchase. Zip nada in the extra content department. We couldn't even get, say, an episode or two of Real Time as a bonus? Come on, HBO, you've gotta give the people something.
"Did you see this? [Sarah Palin] wrote 'TAX CUTS' on her hand…This is like if you saw the Coyote's paw, and it said 'ROAD RUNNER.'"
If you laughed at that line, you'll guffaw loudly and often during "…But I'm Not Wrong", though the replay value of Maher's routine alone may not justify the cost of purchase. If, on the other hand, that joke makes you reach for your rifle, your Bible, and your American flag, you're probably not buying this disc at any price.
Bill Maher's guilty, but he's wearing that badge proudly. HBO's guilty, but they don't care once the cash is in the bank. Everyone gets time served, plus a five-point penalty for the shocking lack of additional content. We're adjourned.
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