King of the Bigtime Talkers: Bill Maher on HBO

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

Published 4 months ago -

Bill Maher rubs me the wrong way. I get him and John Oliver back to back from my cable provider and it turns out that the two of them together are more than I can take. Oliver likes to say “Fucking this” and “Fucking that” a little too often for my taste, gratuitously working his HBO free speech license to death as he chirps away in his overwrought way, and also tends to be a little tedious when he gets onto an “issue,” but on the whole he is generally funny enough to keep me tuned in for a while. Maher, on the other hand, is just a little too smug for my taste. I have always maintained that America’s problems are not the product or fault of incompetent or wrongheaded politicians but a direct result of the values and character of the American people. Maher shares these values and plays the system for all it’s worth – in his case to the tune of something like $100 million on a current $10 million annual salary according to Celebrity Net Worth – so he is not in the end very different from, yes, Donald Trump himself as far as getting to the top is concerned. Both are entertainers (Trump, properly speaking, a provider of recreational facilities) who have benefitted from an insane system where work is rewarded for its economic value instead of for its social value, so that someone who “delivers” monologues and someone who delivers golf courses can make a hundred times more money than someone who delivers milk, though the work of the milkman (not to mention the teacher and the nurse) has considerably more social value than the work of both Mr. Maher and Mr. Trump, since without milk we would get malnutrition while without entertainment we would only get boredom. Both Maher and Trump are also frontmen, Trump lending his name to buildings he hasn’t built and Maher reciting monologues he hasn’t written. They are therefore both the beneficiaries of a system whose bottom line is twice as much poverty and five times more violent crime than in Western Europe and, according to doctors’ estimates, 20,000 deaths a year as a result of inadequate medical care under the American health care system. This holds true no matter who the president is.

Maher’s commentary therefore boils down to making fun of public figures whom he doesn’t like. Ostensibly he doesn’t like them because he holds them responsible for America’s ills, which they are not, any more than he is, nor are they competent to cure them. No one is. As Mr. Maher is not empowered to arrest or prosecute wrongdoers and his views do not have the slightest effect on how America is governed, his commentary has absolutely no value or meaning other than its entertainment value since there is nothing really there aside from the wisecracks, worked up during the week by the ten gagwriters, including Maher, who are listed on the show’s website, though it is impossible to say which jokes belong to whom. Call it a committee thing then. Maher is already laughing before he opens his mouth. The committee feeds Maher his lines and he delivers them with panache. That is his talent. The studio audience responds with whoops, shrieks, cheers, applause and riotous laughter. Maher also hosts a panel and guests. The panel members laugh at all his jokes and the camera usually focuses on the one who is laughing the loudest. On the other hand, when he has an amusing guest, the camera focuses on Bill doing the laughing. All this is standard talk show procedure. The idea is to give the viewing audience the feeling that they are watching the wittiest people they are ever likely to encounter who are having the time of their lives listening to each other make witty remarks.

Trump is naturally Maher’s prime target. This takes in his entire family. I can’t really figure out the source of his animosity toward Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. If anything, they are moderating influences in the White House and should be encouraged by Trump critics who profess to care about America. One therefore senses more than a little personal resentment. Maher has had a few caustic remarks to make about Kushner’s wealth, unearned and poorly managed in his eyes, as if making your money telling jokes and using it to buy a piece of the Mets is more commendable. Or maybe it’s just the rich father thing that Maher resents, which would take in Ivanka as well, subscribing to the great American ideal of making your own way through hard work, which in Maher’s case consisted of doing stand-up comedy before he was able put together a team of gagwriters and go national. Or maybe he resents Ivanka’s somewhat icy glamour, which intimidates or annoys certain kinds of men. I’m aware that he professes to dislike them because he regards them as unqualified to give a president advice, but all presidents receive advice from people who are unqualified to give it and those who have been more qualified than others have not done any better. Who does he think got America into its wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan?

Maher’s smugness pervades an entire subclass of commentators living the American dream while debunking it, for it is precisely all the things they profess to despise that have created the economic order that enables them to live high off the hog, which include poisoning the environment, bullying other nations into giving America an economic edge and tolerating an unreasonable concentration of wealth in a country where around a third of the population is hovering around the poverty line. In a sane society someone telling jokes would not be making more money than someone digging ditches, which incidentally was the case in the Middle Ages. Add up the salaries of the show’s gagwriters, including Maher, and you could probably take a thousand American families out of poverty. Maybe Bill can make a few jokes about that.

Fred Russell’s latest book, Aerial Views: Three Sci-Fi Satires (Wapshott Press/Storylandia 23), takes a look at contemporary American society from a distance of 500,000 years.

Get the book! The Satirist - America's Most Critical Book (Volume 1)

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