Bill Maher has always seemed to me to be like that power hitter in baseball who hits a lot of home runs but who strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for a particularly high average.You can usually count on him to say something very funny and perceptive, but you have to endure a lot of whiffs to get there.
One of the ways Maher has learned to spice up a dead moment in his act is through the use of profanity: the shock value of an obscenity can often be counted on to get a laugh, and the use of vulgarity enhances the maverick image of the user. Used sparingly to emphasize a point or to show someone’s loss of control, profanity can be very effective, but used routinely, it isn’t actually witty, or clever, or funny, or smart. It’s like doing a spit take over and over. It gets tired.
Maher has lately made news calling Sarah Palin a cunt in his stand-up act (“there’s just no other word for her”). There’s been discussion about whether it’s appropriate for him to say this generally, or whether it’s appropriate for him to say it because he has some standing as a pundit on talk shows. I have no problem with him using such words, but he should know that when he does, he tells us two things about himself. First, it shows that he’s ignorant. There’s a long and disgraceful history of dismissing female political figures with some sexual remark. It’s ugly, and it ought to be beneath someone like Maher. It doesn’t matter that he’ll call a male politician a dick and claim that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. That’s obviously simplistic; it’s pretty clear that calling an Italian a dago or an Irishman a mick does not equate to calling a black person a nigger. Last fall a study by the Women’s Media Center and other groups showed sexist language like “ice queen”, “mean girl” and “prostitute” significantly undercuts a female candidate’s standing, “doing more harm than gender-neutral criticism based solely on her policy positions and actions.” Does Maher mean to dismiss Palin just because she’s a woman? It’s what he’s doing.
Second, calling Palin a cunt is just not very clever. It does not show ingenuity, or mental nimbleness, or imagination, and it certainly does not show wit. It’s lazy. “There’s no other word for her,” says Maher. Well, Roseanne Barr doesn’t have a word, but a phrase: “a geopolitically-challenged pom pom queen.”
Now that’s funny. And witty. And devastatingly accurate. In short, brilliant.