On Wednesday, syndicated radio show host Rush Limbaugh took aim at a familiar target who reliably fires up his millions of right-wing listeners: Bill Maher. The long-tenured host of HBO’s Real Time went on his show last Friday and mocked red state America with his usual mix of rich-guy coastal condescension and middlebrow, sub-Leno zingers.
“We have chef Wolfgang Puck, they have Chef Boyardee,” he said, stifling a laugh. “Our roofs have solar panels, theirs have last year’s Christmas lights.” Maher concluded, “That’s why red state voters are so pissed off. They don’t hate us, they want to be us.”
For Limbaugh, this wasn’t merely an example of an old adversary once again insulting his core constituency. It was emblematic of how all liberals feel. “It unveiled a lot of the thinking about people who are among the elite,” cowed Limbaugh, pulling a reverse Ice Cube.
The irony is that Limbaugh’s aging, boomer-centric audience would probably enjoy Maher’s show these days. In the past month, Maher has stepped up his perpetual line-stepping, joking about a black congressman eating at Popeye’s Chicken, guffawing over liberals whining about Bohemian Rhapsody not having enough “dick-sucking,” and lending his platform to long-time “frenemy” Ann Coulter to make incoherent and racist comments about President Trump’s immigration policy.
The monologue last Friday about yokels from flyover country eating Chef Boyardee is the latest example of Maher’s increasingly lame, anachronistic brand of political comedy. By now, the only people who take Maher seriously as a dangerous voice on the progressive left are geriatric conservative talk-radio fans that haven’t kept up with pop culture since the early ’90s. Among actual liberals, however, Maher is now largely seen as a boor who frequently co-opts talking points from the right about dangerous Muslims and wimpy millennial “snowflakes,” even as he continues to present himself as a cool guy who’s totally down with the right causes.
Maher turned 63 last month. He’s a chauvinistic, straight white male born in the ’50s in a party that more and more is being led by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community born in the late ’80s and ’90s, around the time that Maher starred in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. He’s not representative of where the energy is on the left — he is, in fact, largely reviled by millennial and Generation Z progressives.
He’s not a figurehead. He’s a cautionary tale for what happens when aging, arrogant white liberals mistakenly believe that they are inoculated from turning into grouchy, reactionary old men simply because of their politics. The reality is that Maher often sounds as out of touch as the very Limbaugh-loving middle Americans that he looks down upon.
You might remember that Maher got himself in hot water two years ago for referring to himself as a “house n*****” in an episode of Real Time, provoking a mea culpa the following week. It’s unclear how close came Maher to losing his job, if he was ever in danger at all. But the incident marked a turning point in how Maher was perceived among younger generations that didn’t grow up watching him in the ’90s on ABC’s Politically Incorrect. When Chance The Rapper calls for you to lose your show, it’s safe to assume that you’ve lost the youth vote.
It was also a personal watershed moment for Maher, who seemed to believe that he could say the n-word because his reputation and progressive credentials would somehow “justify” it, because he was one of “the good ones.” How can you be a racist when you support legal weed, amIrightfolks? You would think that such a massive miscalculation would prompt some serious introspection on Maher’s part. A man with a little less self-confidence might have pondered whether he needed to adjust his worldview to better align with the actual world, to finally leave the ’90s behind for the modern age. But there’s no evidence that Maher has done that. He’s only indulged himself with even greater self-confidence. In the meantime, his relevance has evaporated.
When I watched Politically Incorrect as a teenager, it was a pre-Daily Show world where scores of comedians were not yet melding funny commentary with journalistic-style breakdowns of current affairs. Maher, at the time, was unique, and his show was both entertaining and edifying. I liked Maher, and I continued to watch him when he moved over to HBO in the early ’00s. When Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous came out in 2008, I defended the movie to my co-workers at the time at The A.V. Club, who blanched at Maher’s unrelenting smugness, as one of the only mainstream examples of organized religion being critiqued.
I wouldn’t take that position today.
Bill Maher, like Kevin Smith movies, was a vice that I could excuse in my teens and 20s but now seems extremely dated, disconcertingly bro-ish, and just all-around embarrassing. As Maher himself would surely explain, in a gratingly patronizing tone, the whole point of Politically Incorrect was to push the envelope. Though much of the time the show was actually pretty tame, unless you consider Carrot Top and Tom Arnold making jokes about home-schooled kids to be the height of edgy television. But there were other moments from Politically Incorrect that remain genuinely provocative, and not in a good way — like when Maher explained to a black woman that the n-word was acceptable for white people to use because you hear it so much in rap songs. Now there’s an argument you could imagine Rush Limbaugh making today.
When you watch that clip, it seems clear that Maher was always a jerk, rather than evolving into a jerk later on. Now I’m wondering, was he ever funny? As a stand-up comic, Maher is generally respected as a legacy act. But on Real Time, he can be painfully, excruciatingly unfunny. Maher might want to believe that people object to his jokes because they’re social justice warriors who can’t take a shot of unvarnished truth. But the actual substance of his humor doesn’t support that belief.
Here’s some real talk for Maher, who I’m sure can take it because he’s not one of those simpering millennials: Your material sucks, dude. A black guy who likes fried chicken? Gay jokes about Freddie Mercury? Chef Boyardee? You could make up a parody of a hack baby-boomer comedian, and those jokes would still seem too broad to be believed.
And yet Maher clearly finds his own material to be simply hiii-larious! When you watch Real Time, the most annoying tick is when Maher has to stop in the middle of delivering a punchline, because he’s preemptively laughing at his own cleverness. For all of the grief that Jimmy Fallon gets for breaking, Bill Maher is truly a far more egregious offender. Perhaps if Maher took a moment to stop laughing at himself, he would realize how much of his audience is no longer with him.