Early in his most recent HBO special, But I'm Not Wrong, Bill Maher notes that with the economy being what it is and a dollar being so hard to come by these days, if an audience has put out concert coin to come see him, "I'd better be fuckin' good." Well, they get their money's worth. The special, broadcast live on HBO back in February, finds the comic in terrific form, and doing just fine without George Bush to get easy laughs off of, thank you very much. Which isn't to say that he doesn't use Bush for some easy punch lines ("the cowboy for Toy Story"; "President Larry the Cable Guy"), or that Sarah Palin doesn't end up performing the same function ("a spokesmodel from the car show"). But his satire here goes deeper, penetrating the political circus with reasoned thought and full-on disgust.
Maher is, of course, a topical comic, and the drawback of catching his special on DVD is that by the time it makes it to disc, some of the material has dated. Health care reform and the bank bailouts aren't as fresh in our minds as they were six months ago, and neither are the troubles of Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods (they also lead to bits on Eliot Spitzer and Larry Craig that were already stale). But most of his targets--the recession, the Obama presidency, fake patriotism, war, terrorism--are still fresh, and some--the birthers, the Tea-Baggers, and Palin--have only become more relevant.
Commenting on Palin's writing of "TAX CUTS" on her hand while speaking at a Tea Party event, Maher muses, "This is like if you saw the Coyote's paw and it said 'ROAD RUNNER.'" Of the Tea Party activists, he asks, "What freedoms has Barack Obama taken away? I think just the freedom to live under a white president." Of the war in Iraq, he proclaims, "The next time we go to war for oil... get some oil." He compares Obama coming into the White House after eight years of Bush to being "the hotel maid after Led Zeppelin has been in the room." And when examining Republican anti-inellectualism, he posits the question: "When did 'dumb' become synonymous with 'Real America'?"
In reviewing his 2005 special I'm Swiss, Entertainment Weekly called Maher's act "less a stand-up routine than a libertarian rally peppered with zingers." One might surmise that Maher had read that review--more than once, he attempts to slow or end a round of applause by telling the audience, "It's not a rally." And it's not. Yes, Maher is capable of demagoguery, but he's not a demagogue; he's talking about his passions, and sharing his beliefs, but no matter what, the laughs are most important. He's got the full comic's toolbox at his disposal--biting sarcasm, uproarious hyperbole, clever personification, and razor-sharp timing. He brings them all out over the course of the special's 80 minutes.
But he'll punt the jokes to make a point, and his marks don't fall strictly along party lines. He doesn't let Obama or the Democrats off the hook (and his attacks on both would only grow stronger in the months since the show), and towards the end, he goes on a pointed, fairly angry screed on their ineffectuality that is a work of art--funny, pointed, and right on the money.
When he gets to his pet target, religion, he's kind enough to prepare the audience for the material, and even comment on possible walkouts. But he does take the opportunity to reply to the critics of his film Religulous, and to take on not only the Pope, but the Jesus story itself. So yeah, that should alienate some folks. His subtle but ugly sexism also pops up occasionally, and the encore sketch, a "burka fashion show," is full of easy jokes and lazy puns--it would've been fine for a throwaway bit on his Real Time show, but it's a weak closing note for an otherwise fine special.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation isn't terribly challenging--Maher wears a black shirt and blue jeans against a basically monochromatic backdrop--but it's strong; skin tones are good, and the limited saturation is decently rendered. Black levels (never a small element in a performance disk) are solid as well.
HBO continues to produce the best stand-up specials in the business, but I have one pet peeve with them: in spite of the volume of their programming broadcast in 5.1 surround, they continue to put out their stand-up titles on DVD in flat, boring 2.0 stereo. So, you know, it's fine, it's fine, but these specials work so much better in full surround, immersing the home audience into the concert audience. Why not take that step?
Seriously, HBO? Not one extra? No backstage footage? No Real Time clips? Maybe his first One Night Stand appearance, still unavailable on DVD? You got nothin'? Really?
Bill Maher is a smart, funny guy. He's also smug, smarmy, and mean. I think he'd agree with both of those statements. Maher's particular style and personality only grow more entrenched with the passing years, and those who haven't liked him before really won't like him here. But for fans, But I'm Not Wrong is a pointed, thoughtful, and genuinely funny set.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.