Bill Maher is putting his money where his mouth is. The acerbic, politically-inclined comedian and television personality will be coming to Texas Sunday to play San Antonio’s Majestic Theater, less than two weeks from the day he made national headlines during an unconventional comedy special.
On Feb. 23, Maher released his latest hour-long stand-up performance, CrazyStupidPolitics: Live from Silicon Valley — not on HBO (where most of his previous concert films, as well as his regular talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, have aired), but as an stream on Yahoo.com. Billed as “the world’s first live internet stand-up special," this move toward a new media model might have been a surprising decision if made by most other comics of Maher’s generation (he just turned 56).
Instead, it was a natural progression for a career that has undergone several (forced) evolutionary steps in recent years. Having been exiled from ABC's Politically Incorrect in the wake of 9/11 for expressing views that advertisers deemed, well, politically incorrect, Maher made the move to premium cable, where his weekly program has integrated a web-exclusive post-show segment after every episode since 2006.
Given his proclivity to seek out the most progressive platforms possible for his equally progressive political views, there was perhaps no better candidate than Maher to test the waters of a streaming stand-up special.
Given his proclivity to seek out the most progressive platforms possible for his equally progressive political views, there was perhaps no better candidate than Maher to test the waters of a streaming stand-up special — even if it meant sacrificing some potential profitability for the chance to explore the freedom of the web.
After all, as he is so fond of pointing out, he’s already got plenty of money. The material in this hour-and-change special is pretty standard Maher fare, filled with somewhat predictable potshots at the most prominent figures of the political campaign season and several easy cultural targets (not to mention his old favorite: religion). The show plays like a competent set of greatest hits from recent Real Time monologues, professionally delivered to an adoring crowd that dutifully breaks for applause in all the expected places.
If at times Maher seems on auto-pilot, his audience certainly forgives him. After all, this is his 10th live comedy special, and he certainly deserves points for doing something different with its unusual, even boundary-pushing release. But then, something remarkably interesting happens: In the middle, Maher momentarily stops the show to announce that he is donating a million dollars to Priorities USA Action, Barack Obama's reelection Super PAC. Yes, with an oversized check and everything.
In doing so, Maher has made the decision to publicly position himself as a new kind of media figure. He is no longer merely a mouthpiece for the specific political ideologies that he has espoused on his regularly televised discussions and debates — he has made a substantial and brazenly public investment in aligning his beliefs with that of an actual political lobby.
Now Maher is not only one of the most prominent media figures to openly support the Obama administration, he’s also one of its biggest individual investors. And he’ll still be on TV every week backing it all up.
If speech is money, Maher made a very loud statement indeed. It’s not the same type of statement being toyed with by Stephen Colbert's own Super PAC, which impishly delights in a specific type of system-gaming intended to highlight the absurdity of the current state of campaign finance laws. Anonymity is an integral part of the joke underlying Colbert’s “Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow,” which Colbert (and sometimes Jon Stewart) has deliberately run as a shadowy organization that refuses to reveal its donor list even as it peddles its own million-dollar influence.
Maher, on the other hand, seems to want the personal satisfaction of backing up his barbs in the same way conservative billionaires have been doing since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United by placing his views in direct competition with the other side's dollar.
He has chosen to occupy a gray area that includes both entertainment and action — satire with real stakes. In the future, comedy specials like CrazyStupidPolitics are likely to carry less importance as newsworthy indicators of the online marketplace's emerging viability, and even less relevance as actual works of humor. But perhaps someday we will look back at moments like this for what they really are: Real-time dispatches from the front lines of America’s ongoing culture war.