The New Rules segment at the end of Bill Maher's popular HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher" means it's time for all the annoying guests to finally shut up and for Maher to let rip his smart, hilarious, irreverent, bawdy jabs at all that's wrong or stupid about America.
Even without the benefit of Maher's comic delivery and his beguiling smirk, his political humor is hilarious on the printed page.
Maher takes aim at large and small targets: George W. Bush and the Christian Right, Muslims, Scientologists, spineless journalists, spineless Democrats, Britney Spears, cell phones, rednecks, Red States, Tom Cruise, Starbucks, Woody Allen and the American diet. He's an equally opportunity offender. He is anti-religion, anti-marriage and anti-parenthood, but pro-marijuana and pro-sex.
Here is a sampler:
"No more cell phones in movie theaters. You're not a cardiologist on call -- you're a putz whose babysitter wants to know where the ketchup is."
"If you don't want the world to think your religion is medieval, stop beheading people. Texans are bloodthirsty and dim, and even they learned to use an electric chair. Come on, Islam. Join the 19th century."
Bush and Republicans supply most of the ammunition, but Democrats take some hits: "With stem cell research properly funded, scientists believe we could do everything from curing Parkinson's to regenerating spinal cord tissue in Democrats."
Maher's "Politically Incorrect" was booted off ABC for his remarks about the 9/1 1 hijackers, which he addresses under a New Rule entitled "MIA Culpa": "If everybody was wrong about the weapons of mass destruction, then somebody has to say 'my bad.'. . . Something is terribly wrong when the only person who's been fired over terrorism is me."
Maher is funny because he's angry; it's the anger at injustice, hypocrisy and sanctimony that crackle on the page. The humor often veers into an unexpected punchline or a dirty joke, but he makes his point.
An editorial-length New Rule, "Hard Cell," uses the Abu Ghraib prison scandal for a blistering critique of American prisons. "Electile Dysfunction" attacks TV networks for their failure to offer complete convention coverage. "Truth in Labeling" is a telling critique of No Child Left Behind and Texas's inflation of its graduation rates by putting struggling students "in phony categories like transferred or enrolled in GED or dating Demi Moore."
Here's one gem, under the heading "Saving Private Cryin'":
"Soldiers have to follow orders. In World War II, there was none of this 'We're not going because we don't have the right equipment.'. . . If your order is to ride a skateboard through a minefield to deliver a Zagnut bar to Donald Rumsfeld, I'm sorry, that's the deal with the army."
It's all very funny, but to appreciate that last joke you have to recall the news incident that inspired it -- Army Reservists refusing to make a fuel run on one of Iraq's most dangerous roads. That's the only problem with "New Rules" as a book -- Maher's humor gets its energy from being current so some material is quickly dated.
But the bigger issues stay current. Here is Maher's take -- "Crude Awakening" -- on gas prices, when people were griping about paying more than $2 a gallon:
"Gas costs a lot because we have to find it, bribe or kill the people who live on top of it ... How come we have cars with global positioning systems, satellite radio and voice-activated Web access, and we still power them with the black goop that you have to suck out of the ground? Hate to tell you this, folks, but gas doesn't cost too much, it costs too little.
"I know, you hear about gas prices being over $2 a gallon, and it makes you nearly choke on your $4 latte. We (complain) about gas, but adjusted for inflation, it's the same price it was back when the pope was a Nazi. And it's not the fault of ExxonMobil, either. That's like Kirstie Alley saying her problem is that Arabs control all the fudge . . .
"So, let me remind everyone of this: The most vulnerable point of Earth is the atmosphere, which acts like a giant mirror, absorbing 95 percent of the sun's energy . . . If we don't protect the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation will fry us like ants under a magnifying glass. I know these kinds of facts aren't in the Bible, but maybe we should think about them anyway."
Polite Musings From a Timid Observer
By Bill Maher
228 pages, $24.95
Jean Westmoore is the editor of NeXt and a regular contributor to The News book page.