Halfway through his set at Barton Hall on Sunday, Bill Maher said to the audience, which was mostly composed of older, politically-inclined townies: “You are easily the most lethargic audience I’ve ever played.” The crowd, it had seemed until then, was on his side: It welcomed Maher — a member of the Cornell class of 1978 — like an old friend, cheering and applauding as soon as he took the stage. When the notoriously liberal comedian asked, simply out of curiosity, if anyone was “for McCain,” the Republican candidate’s name met only scattered, hesitant applause, while mere mentions of Obama drew several cheers.
Maher was golden; even through the endless blowjob jokes and trite Bush-bashing, the audience was eating up his routine — so it came as quite an awkward surprise when he decided to alienate the entire crowd because it wasn’t fully appreciating his tepid jokes about corn.
[img_assist|nid=32195|title=Corn … Really>?|desc=Maher managed to hit his stride when focusing on conventional political topics, but went off the tracks when addressing the topic of corn.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Yes, corn. Maher called the crowd “lethargic” at the precise moment his act turned from calling the Republicans “ass-sniffers” to a lengthy discussion of America’s surplus of corn. Maher was lucky that lethargy was the worst response he received, since he was apparently expecting the crowd to lavish him with praise for his tedious reproach of the notorious “corn lobbyists.” Honestly, Bill?
Corn notwithstanding, Maher mostly delivered a solid hour-and-a-half of political stand-up that ranged from wry twists on current events (on New York Governor David Patterson: “It’s not easy having an affair when you’re blind; he used to come home with lipstick on his shoes”) to an irreverent deconstruction of organized religion. Maher hit all the relevant topics, immediately touching on the financial bailout and moving right along to an incredibly amusing, if irascible, critique of Republican vice presidential candidate and “category five moron” Sarah Palin (“And I thought her baby was retarded!”) The best parallel he could think of, he said, to the intellectual schadenfreude of Sarah Palin’s candidacy was when William Hung arrived on American Idol. Responding to critics of a comment he recently made regarding Palin, in which he called her a “stewardess,” Maher offered a wicked apology: “She’s more like an Applebee’s waitress.” It was the type of honest, controversial irreverence that has defined Maher’s career, and the crowd fully appreciated his biased ranting — at least until the awful corn jokes.
Indeed, much like his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian’s act was more effective as political commentary than as comedy. Maher tended to rely more on pandering to the audience’s clear political beliefs than on wit alone. The weakest moment of his act (besides that God-forsaken corn segment) was a rather lengthy digression on why men cheat: to paraphrase, men want pussy, just as women want shoes. While one of the strongest moments was a carefully crafted monologue bursting with examples of GOP sex scandals (“At least when Democrats have affairs they fuck women”). Crafting jokes is not Maher’s strong point, but he is an expert at summarizing the insanity of politics. Where jokes failed, Republican-bashing prevailed, and Maher delivered his reproach of the establishment with effortless asshole-charm. In probably the best bit of the evening, Maher summarized McCain’s health plan as “Go Fuck Yourself Plus.”
In a strange effort at symmetry, Maher began his act with a trailer for his upcoming documentary, Religulous, a systematic calling-out of religion in America, and he wrapped up his act by saying religion needed to be “called out in this country.” During this section, several audience members walked out, either to attend to last-minute appointments or because Maher, in discussing contemporary religion, called Americans “retards” and offered pedantic, jaded critiques of the zeitgeist the audience was apparently responsible for. “Doubt is what serves mankind, not certitude!” he cried, preaching to a choir that had no idea it was even in church. It was patently unfunny, a sharp contrast from Maher’s earlier throwaway gag about Jesus’ probable homosexuality (“Every prayer ends with, ‘Ah, men’”) and an uncomfortable detour from the political remarks that highlighted his act.
After he was done alienating a small section of the audience who believed in the Biblical story of Noah, Maher returned to politics, regaining the crowd’s approval by praising the Bushes for, at the very least, being “wife-fuckers.” It was a welcome return to form. When he’s on fire, Maher knows how to play a crowd. He may be an asshole, but he’s a charming, insightful asshole with a clear understanding of why so many people are upset by the Republicans’ deathly grip on our future. But he can’t blame the crowd for finding it boring when he started talking about corn. It is possible to make corn funny. The late Mitch Hedberg did it. (“You know they call corn-on-the-cob ‘corn-on-the-cob’, but that’s how it comes out of the ground. They should just call it corn, and every other type of corn, corn-off-the-cob.”) But that’s the difference between people like Mitch Hedberg and people like Bill Maher: one group can write jokes, and the other can only make jokes out of things that are already ridiculous.