Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theater review: Controversial comic Maher pushes all the buttons at Kravis

Bill Maher.

By Bill Meredith

Bill Maher can be‭ ‬--‭ ‬and undoubtedly has been‭ ‬--‭ ‬called many things,‭ ‬including the accurate‭ (‬and printable‭) ‬tags of talk show host,‭ ‬social critic,‭ ‬actor,‭ ‬author,‭ ‬and documentary filmmaker.

But the‭ ‬54-year-old Maher started out as a stand-up comic while attending Cornell University,‭ ‬where he‭ ‬earned a bachelor‭’‬s degree in English that‭’‬s come in handy since‭ ‬1978.‭ ‬The New York City-born,‭ ‬New Jersey-raised satirist used it to deliver a scathingly brilliant‭ ‬90-minute routine‭ ‬Saturday night to a capacity crowd at the Kravis Center‭’‬s Dreyfoos Hall.

Dressed casually in slacks and a T-shirt,‭ ‬Maher entered to the theme music from his seasonal Friday HBO series‭ ‬Real Time With Bill Maher,‭ ‬on which he wears a suit and tie.‭ ‬The early portion of this appearance provided his only tentative moments,‭ ‬as he leaned on lines he‭’‬d already delivered on‭ ‬Real Time episodes while getting a sense of how far he could go without sending hordes to the exits.

Yet this was a younger-than-usual Kravis crowd,‭ ‬and Maher seemed to relax‭ ‬15‭ ‬minutes in as he lit into one of his favorite topics,‭ ‬religion.

‭“‬I‭’‬ve been through the South recently,‭ ‬and there‭’‬s a church literally on every corner,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬Tonight,‭ ‬the devil has come to South Florida.‭”

The crowd roared its approval.‭ ‬Maher is the son of an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother,‭ ‬so both faiths eventually took their lumps throughout the evening.‭ ‬His‭ ‬2008‭ ‬film‭ ‬Religulous became the seventh-highest grossing documentary ever by spoofing all religions with equal aplomb.

‭“‬Evangelical Christians believe in torture more than any other group,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬There's only one group that doesn't really believe in Christian values‭ ‬--‭ ‬the Christians.‭”

He also referred to the Bible as‭ “‬that‭ ‬old book of Jewish fairy tales,‭”‬ and called the pope‭ “‬a big,‭ ‬popular Catholic celebrity who should be a‭ ‬float in the Macy‭’‬s‭ ‬[Thanksgiving‭]‬ Day parade.‭”

Politics provided an even more central theme for the night,‭ ‬primarily President Obama and his Republican challengers.‭ ‬The left-leaning Maher,‭ ‬a self-described libertarian,‭ ‬gave the president both praise and criticism.

‭ “‬Obama finally got legitimized by Middle America,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬There's nothing like shooting someone in the face to do that.‭ ‬I bet Gaddafi is‭ [‬soiling‭]‬ his pants now.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve put him ahead of Charlie Sheen in my celebrity dead pool.

‭“‬But Obama seems like the nicest guy in the world‭; ‬always apologizing for things.‭ ‬C‭’‬mon.‭ ‬You‭’‬re the Jackie Robinson of American politics,‭ ‬and‭ ‬40‭ ‬percent of the country wouldn‭’‬t vote for you if you‭ ‬saved them from drowning,‭ ‬so‭ ‬be‭ ‬the first black president‭! ‬Grow your hair out.‭ ‬Rush Limbaugh always looks like he‭’‬s gonna have a heart attack,‭ ‬so give him one‭!”

The president‭’‬s predecessor,‭ ‬one of Maher's favorite targets,‭ ‬also came up on occasion.

‭“‬The Republicans are upset because George Bush didn‭’‬t get enough credit for killing Bin Laden,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬But that's because he‭ ‬didn‭’‬t‭! ‬Obama got Bin Laden‭; ‬Bush got Wesley Snipes.‭ ‬When Obama invited Bush to Ground Zero after Bin Laden‭’‬s death,‭ ‬Bush turned him down,‭ ‬and I don‭’‬t blame‭ ‬him.‭ ‬That would‭’‬ve been like inviting Sarah Palin to a spelling bee.

‭“‬People like to say,‭ ‬‘Remember how you felt after the‭ ‬9/11‭ ‬attacks.‭’‬ Yeah,‭ ‬remember when we started making stupid decisions like invading the wrong country,‭ ‬and getting me fired.‭”

That reference was to Maher‭’‬s ABC‭ ‬show‭ ‬Politically Incorrect,‭ ‬which was canceled due to‭ ‬“low ratings‭”‬ after living up to its name in‭ ‬2001.‭ ‬Six days after‭ ‬9/11,‭ ‬Maher criticized the United States government for not preventing the attacks,‭ ‬and referenced the dedication of the hijackers who successfully killed themselves along with thousands of U.S.‭ ‬citizens.

‭“‬I‭ ‬hope some of this is offensive‭!‬” Maher railed at one point.‭ ‬He then raged against Palin‭ (“‬Stupid people used to at least realize they‭ ‬might be stupid before America got Palin-ized‭”‬),‭ ‬Michele Bachmann‭ (“‬For people‭ ‬who find Palin too intellectual‭”‬),‭ ‬Arizona‭’‬s immigration laws‭ (“‬They now have a law that you can‭’‬t fry beans more than once‭”‬),‭ ‬Donald Trump‭ (“‬That curiosity from the‭ ‬’80s‭”‬),‭ ‬and Newt Gingrich‭ (“‬The moral compass of an infection‭”‬).

Another prospectively offensive reference involved Obama and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

‭“‬Even after seeing his birth certificate,‭ ‬some Republicans still say that Obama just‭ ‬seems foreign,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ ‬“Well,‭ ‬John Boehner‭ ‬seems feminine to me‭! ‬Mention the American Dream and his lip starts quivering‭ ‬like a gay guy watching‭ ‬‘Rent.‭’‬ ”

Some of Maher‭’‬s leftover ire was saved for the Tea Party movement.

‭“‬The tea-baggers hate being called‭ ‬racist,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬The other thing they hate is black people.‭ ‬They're cranky,‭ ‬independent bed-wetters who named themselves after a gay sex act.‭ ‬And I know there are some union issues right here,‭ ‬so I want to know:‭ ‬Why isn‭’‬t the Tea Party on the side of the unions‭?”

Maher was invoking the current dispute between the stagehands union and the Kravis Center,‭ ‬which resulted in‭ ‬100‭ ‬or so picketers protesting in front of the performing arts center‭ ‬Saturday.‭ ‬Union activists had tried unsuccessfully to get Maher to either cancel the show or perform elsewhere.

A few of the evening‭’‬s lighter moments also included local references.

‭“‬You have to vote for your own economic interests,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬That's why Republicans want to repeal the estate tax.‭ ‬But there's a reason it‭’‬s called an estate tax‭ ‬--‭ ‬because it's for people who have estates‭! ‬You know:‭ ‬Palm Beach types.‭ ‬But of course you need some help around the estate,‭ ‬right‭? ‬Well,‭ ‬my father had some help around the house in New Jersey in the‭ ‬’60s‭ ‬--‭ ‬me‭!‬”

“And you guys sure have bigger cockroaches here in Florida.‭ ‬But you call them palmetto bugs,‭ ‬right‭? ‬That sounds better‭; ‬more like a drink you‭’‬d order in a bar.‭ ‬Cockroaches must have great publicists here.‭”

Like his comic hero,‭ ‬the late George Carlin‭ (‬especially in the latter half of his career‭)‬,‭ ‬Maher knows how to draw laughs out of otherwise taboo subjects through his cynical writing and often perfectly‭ ‬timed delivery.

Despite a slow start,‭ ‬this performance was arguably‭ ‬funnier than any of Maher‭’‬s nine HBO stand-up specials,‭ ‬four books,‭ ‬his string of TV and B-movie appearances,‭ ‬or even the bulk of his‭ ‬intermittently great‭ ‬Real Time episodes.

Give the devil his due.

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