Brash comic sees no morality in D.C.

In the early 1990s, Bill Maher, a stand-up comic best known for working the Johnny Carson and Steve Allen shows, published True Story, a semiautobiographical novel about a rat pack of comedians kicking around the East Coast during the comedy boomlet of the 1980s.  One of the
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Bill Maher

comedians in the book — Maher’s name for this character is an expletive — is given to streaking during other comedians’ acts as a sort of professional calling card.

Since the publication of True Story, Maher’s career has vaulted off the improv stage, but he’s still playing the role of the naked provocateur, if what he streaks these days is more satire than skin, more political than perverted. 

Now comes New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer, a compilation of the impolite and brassy jokes, riffs and spiels that have made up the “New Rules” segment on “Real Time,” Maher’s Friday-night show on HBO. The only material here not reprised from that show is the foreword, in which Maher puts on his Moses beard and explains he’s handing down these strictures from Hollywood-on-High because “it seemed about time that this “structureless” society of ours got back to the idea of rules, limits, and boundaries.” 

Most of his “rules” are potshots at the usual fears and freaks and lack any political sting. Maher doesn’t do airplane food, but he does zing room service, cell phones, O.J. and Starbucks. Sometimes these jokes are even funny, and sometimes they’re amateur night in Kansas City (“New Rule: Cornbread isn’t bread. It’s cake.” Who knows? Maybe the whole writing staff had a funeral?). 

Many of his new rules are unprintable in this newspaper, but here are a few for the kids: 

• “Priests should be allowed to marry. What better way to ensure celibacy?” 

•  “I don’t care how big or flat it is, it’s still just a TV. Congratulations — you just paid $10,000 to watch ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’” 

• On the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt affair: “Let the two best-looking people in the world have sex with each other. We all knew they’d end up together — we’ve been to high school. He was just waiting a respectable interval for her to shed that Billy Bob smell.” 

It’s when Maher ditches the low-rent observational yucks and turns political that his act really gets going. One of the new rules is called “Have It Yahweh,” and like it or loathe it, it’s vintage Maher: “God is a waffler. Pat Robertson said God told him that Iraq would be a bloody disaster. But the same God told George Bush it wouldn’t, which so surprised Robertson, he almost dropped the pennies he was stealing off the dead woman’s eyes. But why is God talking out of two sides of his mouth? Flip-flop … God: wrong on defense, wrong for America.” (Maher takes another swing at Robertson with a rule titled “Devout of His Mind.”) 

Before “Real Time,” Maher hosted “Politically Incorrect,” which ABC dumped after the comedian averred that whatever one might say about the Sept. 11 hijackers, you couldn’t call them cowards. Conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza was on the panel that night and agreed, but D’Souza wasn’t responsible to the advertisers, so it was Maher who lost his job. It was in response to Maher’s comment that then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer darkly warned the American people to bite their democratic tongue and “watch what they say and what they do.” (“Something is terribly wrong when the only person who’s been fired over terrorism is me.” Maher writes in New Rules). 

Anyone who finds the time to get through New Rules — and for that you’ll need a plane ride of at least Washington-to-Baltimore duration — will be enlightened on at least one other point: why the supercilious guy in the flashy Hollywood threads is a rock star of the new left. Here’s Maher talking about values in one of the monologues: 

“Let’s examine what ‘moral values’ are. Because I don’t think religion always corresponds with moral values. … When we talk about values, I think of rationality in solving problems. That’s something I value. Fairness, kindness, generosity, tolerance. … When they talk about values, they’re talking about things like going to church, voting for Bush, being loyal to Jesus, praying. These are not values.”