Wittily Conflicted: A Review of Bill Maher’s What This Comedian Said Will Shock You

Bill Maher has been a major political humorist for over thirty years. After a number of guest spots on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher ran on Comedy Central and then ABC from 1993 to 2002, and since 2003 he has hosted HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. He has also authored several books, the latest of which is What This Comedian Said Will Shock You, a collection of monologues from his present program, updated and edited.

Maher is a traditional liberal who is consistently libertarian on sex, drugs, and free expression (“I’m never for censorship”). While usually upsetting conservatives with his caustic wit, in recent years he has angered leftists as well. His new book claims “it’s not me who’s changed, it’s the Left, which is now made up of a small contingent who’ve gone mental and a large contingent who refuse to call them out for it. But I will.” In fact, echoing commentator and author Dennis Prager, Maher contends that “wokeism in its current form is not an extension of liberalism, it is more often its opposite,” and he compares “today’s Woke Revolution and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution” for their mutual censoriousness and historical presentism.

Though Maher’s latest book has too many f-bombs, several sentences ending with a preposition, and at least one split infinitive, the Cornell English graduate’s prose is generally excellent and often quite funny, with each chapter covering a distinct topic. It is especially endearing to find an author not anchored to one political team. Asking, “When did liberals become the Fun Police?,” Democrat Maher sides with Republicans against helicopter parenting, censorship, educational indoctrination, canceling academically gifted programs for “equity,” seeing “racism” everywhere, racially segregated dorms and graduations and national anthems, “diversity quotas,” men competing in women’s sports, banning various Halloween costumes, and condemning folks for “cultural appropriation.” Indeed, Maher asserts that “Not everything is about oppression. Stealing natural resources from Indigenous peoples: yes, that’s exploitation. But I swear, not one Beach Boy song resulted in any Hawaiian having fewer waves to surf.”

Refreshingly, Maher also rebukes Israel-haters, defunding the police, the Covid lockdowns, “hormone blockers and genital surgery” for children, and over-regulation: “China sees a problem, and they fix it. They build a dam, we debate what to rename one.”

Ridiculing leftist “Guardians of Gotcha,” Maher boldly notes that, “If Democrats had always policed morality as hard as they do now, they’d be down a lot of heroes: no FDR, no JFK or RFK, no LBJ, no Clinton, no Martin Luther King Jr.” Similarly, he observes that “J.K. Rowling used to be a villain to the Right because she wrote books about witchcraft; now she’s a villain to the Left because she has this crazy belief that there’s more to being a woman than pronouns and lipstick.”

Also rewarding is when Maher acknowledges complexity, like being a football fan who does not deny how dangerous the game is. Likewise, though all for gun control, he recognizes that sexual frustration and loneliness contribute to mass shootings, and he skewers Hollywood’s hypocrisy on guns: “It’s funny, Hollywood is the wokest place on Earth in every other area of social responsibility…. But when it comes to the unbridled romanticization of gun violence: crickets. Weird, the only thing we don’t call a ‘trigger’ is the one that actually has a trigger.”

His critique of universities is superb: “Let’s get real about what ‘higher education’ in America really is: a racket that sells you a very expensive ticket to the upper middle class…. And yet, no one knows how to change a tire.” He also chastises the “emotional hemophiliacs” too many colleges produce, observing that:

the people who can’t take a joke now aren’t old ladies in the Bible Belt – they’re Gen Z at elite colleges. Colleges, where comedy goes to die. Kids used to go to college and lose their virginity — now they go and lose their sense of humor…. Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry the Cable Guy have all in recent years stopped playing colleges. That’s right, a Jew, a Black man, and a redneck walk into a college campus and they all can’t wait to get the hell out.

Nor does Maher ignore today’s “panic porn” news media, Facebook, or Twitter, positing how “We all see it – groups of friends out together at a bar or eating in a restaurant and they’re all staring down at their phones. Imagine how rude that would be if, instead of a phone, you brought a magazine to the table and read it.”

Like comic Jimmy Failla’s recent book, Cancel Culture Dictionary, Maher knows that a “Twitter is Outraged” headline merely means “the same three people,” but the only press outlet he censures by name is Fox News – and with not one example of negligence offered.

Still, Maher is the rare liberal with the guts to call out Muslim misogyny and intolerance, as well as declare how “We rewrite science now to fit ideology.” Accordingly, he asks the “body positivity” and “fat shaming” scolds, “Honestly, have you ever seen a fat ninety-year-old? At some point, acceptance becomes enabling.”

Unfortunately, the book’s funniest monologue satirizing American war-mongering is too promiscuously profane to be excerpted, but how touching that Maher humbly dedicates his book “For the writers” and has two pages of acknowledgments, sharing ample credit with his show’s wordsmiths.

Alas, as quick and savvy as Maher is, and though he agrees with conservatives on many more issues, he refuses to recognize how the totalitarian Left poses by far the biggest threat to personal liberty and reason. So he praises European socialism but ignores how badly it has eroded free expression. He envies how giving birth “in Finland costs $60,” yet forgets socialist countries’ way higher tax rates and lower quality healthcare. He hails U.S. federal government “programs that do work, like Medicare and Social Security,” albeit neglects to mention both are broke and we are $34 trillion in debt. Though he defends Western civilization and condemns the Left’s perverting colleges into indoctrination camps, he will not acknowledge that the oppressor versus oppressed mindset is cultural Marxism or that it is leftists who want to destroy Western culture and Israel. Nor will the fanatical atheist confirm the many Judeo-Christian reasons why Western countries are the planet’s most free, democratic, and successful. Nor does his book concede the profound religious differences between enlightened Israel and its too often barbarian enemies.

For someone who prides himself as always logical and factual, Maher’s critiques of the Right come off as far more emotional than rational – he just tosses primitive insults based on outmoded stereotypes, such as dismissing Ayn Rand with jokes but no substance. Plus, while he routinely castigates “Republicans,” he rarely labels left-wingers “Democrats.”

Adept at highlighting others’ double standards, he appears blind to most of his own. So he deplores white liberal self-flagellation while ridiculing “white lameness,” “A lame, white f#@&ing loser,” and Caucasians in general in ways he never does with other races. Similarly, he is appalled that most states let juveniles marry – right after he defends rock star David Bowie giving a fifteen-year-old booze and drugs and then taking her virginity. But that is okay because the girl “was a more-than-willing partner, and he was a gentle and knowing lover.” I see. In the same sexual vein, the reader learns it is cool when hip Democrats like JFK and Clinton commit adultery, but disgusting when Donald Trump does it.

Likewise, Republican Presidents “Reagan, W. [Bush II], and Trump all ran up huge debt,” but Democratic Presidents Obama and Biden get a pass for together running up far more debt. Maher furthermore lumps the late talk radio king Rush Limbaugh with a list of supposed right-wing censors who got him fired from his ABC show when Limbaugh defended his rival at the time.

Maher repeatedly makes sweeping assumptions with no evidence, as when he states that “The best thing you can do for the Earth is to not have kids,” citing Thomas Malthus’s long-discredited 18th century theory “that population grows exponentially but water and food do not.” However, the last fifty years of capitalist prosperity around the world has enabled us to produce more food than we need, despite major population increases.

Other factual misstatements abound. Maher extols marijuana while ignoring the avalanche of recent studies documenting its harm, and he claims “‘states’ rights’ is always code for taking away rights” despite all the states that have legalized weed, the lottery, same-sex marriage, abortion, and parental choice schools. He further asserts that “the police attract bullies like the priesthood attracts pedophiles” despite most officers being honorable amidst such dangerous work and data revealing a tiny minority of priests to be pedophiles. He also claims career criminal George Floyd died from “murder” by police, forgetting his massive overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine. And today’s public school teachers apparently do not even get “a living wage.” Really, Bill? Have you missed all their recently reported salaries (and with summers off), especially in big cities where teachers’ unions prevail?

The book reserves a special venom for “Chreeestians,” particularly “Republican Catholic moralizers who pine for a return to the Middle Ages,” about whom the book bizarrely asserts, “Clearly, your side is winning.” Yet he gleefully reveals that the percentage of Americans “who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ has risen from 5 percent in 1972 to 15 percent in 2005 to 32 percent today. You’re welcome.” Maher appears so enraged at Christianity that I suspect he was emotionally scarred by religion growing up, and he at last confesses, “I have nothing against Catholics, except my entire upbringing.”

Perhaps the top reason he abhors Republicans is because he has drunk the whole pitcher of climate change Kool-Aid. But who is he to insist we dramatically downsize our energy consumption, considering his rich lifestyle? Though he admits the hypocrisy of climate warriors flying private and using gobs of energy, he blithely writes that we all would if we could. Huh?

Maher has a severe case of TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome), actually stating that President Trump does not read, and neither did Reagan nor Bush II. Really? Even after the exhaustively investigated Mueller Report found zero collusion between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia, the comic remains convinced that the Russians somehow got Trump elected. Furthermore, Trump is “the worst president ever,” but Maher cannot be bothered to tell us why.

The author continues to contend that the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot was “a right-wing coup” that involved “killing cops” despite being history’s first “insurrection” without a single gun and the only one where the sole person killed was an unarmed, petite female Trump supporter shot by a Capitol cop. Yet Trump is the terrible threat to democracy: “George W. Bush was not my idea of a good president, but I never worried that he was going to lock up his political opponents.” But while Maher cannot name one political prisoner during the Trump administration, a slew of January 6 protesters has languished in jail for years without trial, and did Trump not leave the White House in 2021? Meanwhile Maher’s party tries to strip Trump’s name from the ballot and imprison him on bogus political charges – in the name of saving democracy. This is because Trump is somehow just too dangerous for never conceding his 2020 defeat. But when did Hillary Clinton concede her 2016 loss?

The book’s only credible observation about Trump deserves attention:

Here’s one way to explain Donald Trump: in an age dominated by the professionally offended, we secretly envy the man who’s able to speak his mind with complete  abandon, never concerned about the repercussions and never apologizing for it. Whereas the rest of us really live two lives…. Trump’s enduring popularity with his fans is largely because Americans are so sick of politicians who are ‘inauthentic.’

To his credit, Maher bemoans how “The twenty-first century in America has been a political nightmare because the partisan hate has reached a fever pitch.” He also is big enough to allow that “there’s ample crazy on both sides,” and he concurs with comics Kat Timpf and Jimmy Failla’s recent books that it is awful how “Both sides like to cancel people they don’t agree with.” Most commendably, Maher even pleads that “we need to find a way to love and respect each other again.”

So how ironic that Maher continues to be a notable purveyor of political hatred with his new book’s crude, stereotypical insults at half the country while ignoring most of the hate coming from his own party. Though excoriating Trump for supposedly pushing “the wrong lessons of life: be quick to anger, never let go of a grudge, see the worst in people,” is that not describing Maher?

Despite declaring “nobody likes a snob,” this comic’s cultural classism may explain why the Ivy League-educated, rich liberal really prefers big government Democrats. You see, “Americans are dumb.” We are so thick that “we have to figure out how a country can solve any problem if so many of its people are so intractably, astoundingly, mind-numbingly stupid…. This country just might be empirically, verifiably too f#@&ing dumb to continue as an ongoing enterprise” since “the median voter is a white person in their fifties who didn’t go to college.” He even favorably quotes Meryl Streep’s character from The Giver: “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.” And Maher is pro-democracy?

At least he does not hide his rank elitism: “I know, gross – who would date someone who works at McDonald’s?” He especially recoils with disdain at those he sees as less educated, low I.Q., Christian, and Republican. Sighing that “You don’t even need a high school degree” to serve in Congress, he sneers that Colorado Republican “Lauren Boebert didn’t get one, and she sits on the Budget Committee. If she wasn’t in Congress, she could probably get a shift at a truck stop, dusting the jerky.”

Plowing the same snotty furrow, “A job in Congress is just so much better than racking the weights at CrossFit, which is what [Georgia Republican U.S. Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene did before she set her crazy eyes on the prize.” You see, “Republicans try to out-hillbilly each other” since the “vernacular that the Republican base understands” is “nursery rhymes.” Worse, the GOP is actually “the party of Putin” since Republicans like Russia for being so white. Got it?

Acting like a sour, severely constipated version of Thurston Howell III, Maher dismisses red states as “flyover states,” and boasts, “They don’t hate us – they want to be us…. We have orchestras, theater districts, world-class shopping and Chef Wolfgang Puck; they have Chef Boyardee.” Just like how “Back in the day, flying was a joy” before it got ruined by having to share planes with all the hoi polloi.

But Maher’s most complete contempt is for southerners since we are “the Waffle House states,” supposedly the only ones guilty of slavery, and we now have “voter suppression” despite our spiking voter turnout rates, especially among minorities. Furthermore, he finds a new “art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas” to be absurd because it is “five hundred miles away from the nearest person who would ever want to look at art.” As for Dixie’s elected officials, “I know it’s counterintuitive, but apparently the governor of Florida reads.” Lamenting our partisan divide, he informs us, “In some families, even siblings have stopped speaking to one another, which makes it hard to get laid in the South.”

To be fair, who thinks Maher likes any part of what he berates as “this hateful, spiteful country”? Whatever his prejudices, he is often just mean. For instance, despite having fun when Texas’s junior GOP U.S. senator was enough of a good sport to come on his show, Maher now thanks him by asserting “everyone who’s ever worked with Ted Cruz hates him.” Worse, he blatantly gaybaits that South Carolina’s Republican U.S. senator and confirmed bachelor “Lindsey Graham would volunteer for the anal probe.” Maher may pronounce how “no one can do hate like a right-wing conservative,” but his raw rants sure fooled me.

What This Comedian Said Will Shock You is certainly very readable, thought-provoking, and often humorous, and it is especially endearing when a prominent member of the chattering class has the courage to satirize both sides of our poisoned partisan politics, however unevenly. But as compelling and amusing as Maher’s commentary can be, there is an ugly anger clothed in cartoonish arrogance that makes the comic’s cries for tolerance ring hollow. Perhaps I just take him too seriously. This book can be enjoyable, but understand it does not hold all its targets to the same standard of fairness and decency – not remotely.

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