Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bill Maher: A Serious(ly Funny) Man

Celebrities have become increasingly vocal in contemporary society and, as such, their opinions are ringing stronger than ever through the public conscience. Political stance often becomes a defining part of an otherwise apolitical figure’s image: in recent history we’ve seen Oprah and George Clooney, to name just two, come out and staunchly support Barack Obama. Some, such as Al Franken, even go on to pursue political careers of their own. In this light, it’s certainly not unordinary that outspoken comedian and libertarian Bill Maher commands some attention on political matters; however, in an age saturated by opinions, it is important that we carefully consider both who we listen to and why we even listen to them to begin with. By communicating with the public through his standup acts, talk show appearances, and his program Real Time, Bill Maher establishes his ethos as a persuasive political advocate through a uniquely effective blend of comedy and rhetoric.

We live in a time of distractions; our – that is, the American public’s – attention is a valuable commodity in the business of entertainment, and it’s becoming ever more elusive. Many of our generation have eschewed more antiquated forms of news in favor of Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, and the endlessly opinionated “blogosphere.” According to the Washington Post, the number of Americans who pay to receive a newspaper has dropped from 41.1 million in 1940 to 30.4 million in 2009. Internet journalism, however, is on the rise (Ahrens 3).
Two men, one reading a newspaper and one on a computer
This is no accident of course; the nature of our Web 2.0 society glorifies lightning fast accessibility and amusing “viral” videos – a static piece of paper just won’t cut it anymore. Thus, to be heard one must be willing to entertain (or at the very least, shock) to grab the attention of the masses.
Enter Bill Maher, a man who has perfected this formula. According to his website, Maher has been active for seventeen years, using his “combination of unflinching honesty and big laughs” to pick up twenty-two Emmy nominations and write four books (“About” 1). Perhaps the best way to describe him is as a comedian crossed with a cynical social critic. Yes, today’s entertainment industry has quite a few individuals who would fit that bill, but I insist that Maher is unique: in spite of his comedic approach, he takes himself and his subject matter very seriously. All of Maher’s channels of influence – be it anything from standup to news appearances – seek to offer a persuasive opinion about events in American society and elicit laughs in the process. Over the last decade, his main hub of influence has been his television show on HBO.
Maher’s program itself, Real Time, is an extension of his successful entertainment strategy. A balance between monologue and dialogue, the show features Maher talking about current political and cultural events and then deferring the commentary to three guests. These guests represent various points of view and demographics, offering a unique perspective on the topic of discussion. Indeed, guests will often dissent from Maher in their opinions; this fosters debate and encourages viewers to challenge their ideals. While classic journalism seeks to offer raw facts with no biased interpretation, Bill Maher and his show do the opposite: they bombard the consumer with opinionated chatter. This loud and hyperbolic method, pulling strongly in many rhetorical directions at once, is uniquely tantalizing to our ever-waning attention span. Even the set of the show seems to catalyze high caliber discussion. Guests gather around a table that conjures reminiscence of a World War II war room filled with military tension, and tones of black and blue abound. A lack of any overpowering graphics or media encourages viewers to focus primarily on what is being said.
Recently on Real Time, Maher criticized the Republicans and their anti-stimulus, anti-bailout Tea Party movement by accusing associated leaders of having no valid political goal.  He reinforced his point by offering example of meaningful reforms, saying: “The suffrage movement, for example, gained voting rights for women, the civil rights movement outlawed discrimination against blacks, and the gay rights movement brought us the Winter Olympics,” (Maher).

Video courtesy of h/t Real Time and user scottphegley.
The audience, as you can see, erupted into laughter – they were entertained, but Maher also made a powerful point about the exigency of political movements.
What makes Bill Maher such an effective social critic is his ability to establish meaningful, logical statements interspersed amongst blatant comedy; or, perhaps, comedy interspersed amongst rhetoric. This sense of ambiguity is what makes him unique and effective; his delivery is as mercurial as it is seamless. That very “keep you on your toes” methodology is why he has survived and flourished as a public figure throughout his successful career. Admittedly, sustainable fame isn’t always a product of honorable deeds – most Americans probably know who O.J. Simpson is after all. Indeed, I concede that Maher is more often in the public eye for his outrageous and controversial statements, but I believe this reality comments more directly on what we hunger for as a culture rather than the credibility of Bill Maher himself. When one pays closer attention to his vast array of material that doesn’t make the newsstand, I believe it is clear that such backlash doesn’t apply to the majority of his message.
Of course, Maher is a polarizing figure by nature; with vast attention comes inevitable criticism, and he garners a good deal of it with many of his statements. The conservative website Human Events quotes him as calling the Catholic Church “the Bear Stearns of organized pedophilia” and quickly denounces him as a left wing atheist radical. Catholic League president Bill Donahue responds by calling Maher the biggest anti-Christian bigot in entertainment (Andersen 4, 14). Another example comes from Bill Maher’s first – and short lived – television show, aptly called “Politically Incorrect.” ABC canceled the show after Maher described the September 11 terrorists as courageous in contrast with the “cowardice” of the long range warfare America participates in (Gardener).

Video courtesy of h/t Politically Incorrect and user padraic2001eire.
In light of the fact that he said this a week after the attacks, it is understandable that people found his viewpoint offensive. While I do not necessarily defend his statements, one must understand that Bill Maher is entitled to his perspective. Yes, many will not agree, and he certainly holds some extreme viewpoints, but Maher is an entertainer and a comedian above all who makes a living off of sharing his opinions with the public. What salvages the ethos of Bill Maher is the superior extent of his knowledge and the effectiveness of his rhetoric that others, such as his conservative reciprocal Ann Coulter, lack.
Another crucial element to public ethos in our society is knowledge. As simple of a concept as that may seem, the intelligence a speaker exudes carries a great deal of rhetorical weight. To put it crudely: we believe people who know (or at the very least, sound like they know) what they’re talking about. This concept is particularly important to our generation – the generation of mass information overload. With the sheer volume of opinions we are exposed to everyday, it is important to develop a filtering system. As a result, we’re naturally more inclined to “filter out” those who don’t speak intelligently and instead listen to those who do.
Quote from textBecause he is well versed on the topics he discusses, Bill Maher establishes a strong ethos of intelligence. On a 2009 episode of Real Time, while discussing the decline of the middle class in America, Maher exemplifies this quality by asking poignant questions of his guests and citing many empirical facts about the issue at hand (Maher). Above all, this imparts a sense of respect for the intelligence of his viewers. The information presented isn’t “dumbed down” or “commercialized” to be spoon fed to the masses; Maher is assuming we follow his argument, and that we care about it. As mentioned earlier, Real Time is virtually devoid of graphical clutter so as to foster intelligent discussion. Whether or not one agrees with what he’s saying, Bill Maher certainly does his research, and it shows.
Of course, several objections could be raised against my theory. Some would argue that more conventional and objective news sources offer a more honest view of issues. Perhaps some still would suggest that Maher’s program and the information within is one sided and biased –one blogger even claims that he needs a history lesson (Clark). Finally, this Youtube video (click image for popup link) exhibits Maher at an apparent intellectual disadvantage concerning his view on vaccines.
Bill Maher on Real Time with speach bubble "Say what?"
While those are fair concerns, one must recall the structure of Real Time. More often than not, the guest commentators represent a wide spectrum of political and social viewpoints. Sure, Maher will argue with them, but he always lets his guests have their fair say too. It is because of this concept – intelligent and thoughtful arguments from across the aisle – that any predisposed bias Bill Maher himself may have is sufficiently counter balanced.
Hopefully it is clear that, whether or not you agree with him, Bill Maher is an interesting entertainer who uses both comedy and effective, intelligent rhetoric to make his cases. He may have his detractors, but I believe Maher’s ethos manages to withstand the criticism. No matter what, Bill Maher will certainly continue to be a polarizing figure as long as he manages to stay in the spotlight.
Works Cited
Ahrens, Frank. "The Accelerating Decline of Newspapers." The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 2009. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. <>.
Andersen, Ericka. "Bill Maher to Apologize for Anti-Catholic Remarks." Human Events. Eagle Publishing, 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2010. <>.
Clark, Jack. "Bill Maher Fails His History Test on Afghanistan, War on Terrorism." The Rational Radical. N.p., 25 Oct. 2001. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. <>.
Gardner, Martin. "Bill Maher: crank and comic." Skeptical Inquirer 33.6 (2009): 22. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
Maher, Bill. "About." Bill Maher. N.p., 2008. Web. 6 Mar. 2010.
Maher, Bill, host. Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. 9 Oct. 2009. Youtube. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. <>.
Maher, Bill, host. Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. 19 Feb. 2010. Youtube. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. <>.

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