Some years back (okay, 33), when The Big Fix was first published, some people congratulated me on my humor. “You wrote a very funny book, y’know,” they said. I didn’t (know, that is). In fact, I was totally surprised. I hadn’t, for the most part, been trying to be humorous at all. Of course, I didn’t let that on. I was smart enough just to nod and say thanks. I parlayed that into a couple of more books in which I was trying (although perhaps not succeeding) to be a little funnier and into a career writing comedies in Hollywood for some pretty funny people, Richard Pryor and Lili Tomlin. What’s interesting is that neither of these comics was very in funny in private. Pryor especially could be quite dour, a depressed sort taken, as everyone knows, to medicating himself heavily. On stage, however, he was the funniest I ever saw because he was ruthlessly honest about himself and others. I learned from him that that was the essence of the best comedy, just being true to yourself, calling things as you geniunely see them.
In that sense, Bill Maher is the exact opposite of Pryor. I always feel that Maher is lying about what he really thinks and playing to the audience. In fact, he works so hard at it he seems to be convincing himself of his lies in the process, which makes him come across as one of the smarmier figures on television. And not funny at all to me. I can’t bear to watch him, so I missed his recent dust up with Christopher Hitchens, but the transcript says it all. Surely Maher can’t believe Bush and Ahmadinejad are even roughly equivalent in their religious messianism, but Maher’s language, his pandering for a laugh, creates that illusion. He is like the worst sort of Borscht Belt comic, scanning the crowd with a knowing “How do you like those Mets?” or “Take my wife…” (apologies to Shecky Greene – correction, Henny Youngman – who is or was vastly more funny than Maher – in either case), only this time the crowd is a group of wannabe bien pensants bent on applauding themselves for agreeing with this reactionary idiocy. No wonder Hitchens gave them the finger – not that that probably made any difference. One of the salient features of our times is how much noise there is and how few people are actually listening. This is what makes performers like Maher particularly dangerous, taking the most conventional of conventional wisdom and reinforcing it for their docile fandom – liberal pabulum for the new bourgeoisie.
UPDATE: Another comic (exponentially funnier than Maher) is having his problems.