Bill Maher slams politicians for being able to say anything they want because, in his view, the public at large knows nothing.
Of course, the same could be said for Maher, the 59-year-old comedian and political commentator. He too, can say almost anything he wants. But it’s not because his audience knows nothing. Quite the opposite, actually.
But Maher’s crowd, including the one that filled Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, knows him.
They know his liberal views, his idiosyncrasies, his brand of political incorrectness. Which gives Maher the liberty of railing hard on some of the touchiest subjects imaginable – race, religion, sex – and hearing virtually nothing but cheers.
It wasn’t always that way for Maher, but that’s how it is now. The result is a show that’s clever, creative and thought-provoking. But despite its hard-core, deep probing material – most of which can’t be quoted or even summarized in this forum – it’s not necessarily challenging for the audience.
The reason is Maher’s fame: The man is so well known that the bulk of the people who buy tickets for his stand-up shows already know him and like him. Which means Maher can make jokes about religion, atheism and masturbation and get guaranteed laughs.
The host of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and, before that, ABC’s “Politically Incorrect,” Maher frequently boards a plane on the weekends to stand-up shows in theaters around the country. In an interview earlier this month, Maher told me the crowds are typically supportive. (That played out in Buffalo.)
“I don’t have to win them over anymore,” Maher said. “They’re won over. That’s why they bought the ticket.”
The challenge, then, for both Maher and his audience isn’t building a connection or generating laughs. Those two things are a given. For Maher, the task is timeliness: With presidential primary politics running hard, how up to date is his comedy?
And for the audience, which already knows Maher is going to slam conventional religion, the Tea Party, and conservatives in general, can he make them think while they laugh?
On those counts, Maher’s 75-minute set was a success. Dressed in an unbuttoned blue shirt, dark T-shirt and jeans, the silver-haired Maher paced the stage as he threw zingers at most of the 15 Republican primary candidates. Though he seemed to suggest Hillary Clinton was likely to win the White House – no surprise given Maher’s liberal bent – he knocked her around a bit, too, calling her a “boring public servant.” Those bruises weren’t nearly as deep as the pummeling he gave the conservatives, but they were one of a few examples of Maher providing a bit of righty balance to a largely left-leaning set of material.
Maher’s audience is a smart, politically engaged group. Proof: When he joked about Scott Walker – the Wisconsin governor who recently departed the Republican presidential primary – the crowd erupted in laughter that reflected its recognition. They laughed, too, when he joked about former New York Gov. George Pataki being a “large, boring white man.”
Hillary jokes are easy. Trump jokes are a given. But when you can get full laughs for jokes about comparatively more obscure candidates, you know have a smart audience.
In our interview, Maher told me that doing stand-up now is fun. “It’s the last bastion of free speech,” he said. And he showed it in Buffalo: Maher said what he wanted, the audience members laughed at what they wanted, and redirected him at times too. When he talked about Hillary Clinton, several voices called out “Bernie! Bernie!” in reference to her liberal rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
It wasn’t just free speech. It was free-flowing speech – with the comedy mixed in.