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« Wisconsin Supremes Get Physical, Maybe | Main | How About Some 2012 Speculation? »
June 26, 2011

Bill Maher Goes After Bristol; NYT Columnist Panel-Guest Describes Heartland As Place of "Low, Sloping Foreheads"

First, at Newsbusters, an attack on Bristol Palin that will probably make your blood boil.

There are two objections to this. The first is that he's of course going after a young woman precisely as no one is supposed to go after Chelsea Clinton, or, for that matter, even Michelle Obama. It's also one of the more vicious attacks, sexualizing her and speaking crudely of her. Hitting her on her two grave sins:

1, being born, and

2, having given birth herself.

The second objection, and this is the one I want to emphasize, is that it's not funny. The reason I want to emphasize this is not because I think lack of comedic talent is a worse sin than a malicious attack on a young woman who never did any harm to anyone. No, it's not that being unfunny is worse.

It's that Bill Maher is proud of going after Bristol, so pointing out how vicious this is is just validation for him, confirmation of how "edgy" and "brave" and "tough" he is. That criticism, for Bill Maher, is praise. As in comment threads, trolls don't care if it's good attention or bad attention; they just want attention.

But let's look at the criticism that's actually deadlier, at least as it actually impacts Bill Maher. He's simply not funny. Nothing he says here is funny.

1. "The shit doesn't fall far from the bat." This is the sort of thing an amateur just sitting around having beers would say, the sort of thing amateurs toss off in casual conversation. It's not the sort of thing anyone immediately writes down and says "I need to get this on TV!"

It's just not funny. It's just the sort of thing you're supposed to say "Oooh, you're wicked!" to. I suppose it is borderline "wicked." I could see an old queen saying it at a Golden Globes party, and getting a smattering of chuckles for it. But no actual laughs. There are only so many ways to say "This is not professional level comedy" and I guess I've exhausted them.

2. How about this one? In Bristol’s new memoir "Not Afraid of Life" - working title, "Whoops, There's a Dick in Me”...

Putting aside this is just offensive -- I want to put that aside, because Bill Maher considers that a feature, not a bug -- this is the sort of thing that 5,000 bloggers say. It is a mildly decent shock-value sort of joke. It's also the sort of thing that amateur bloggers say, amateur twitterers say.

On this one, I'd have to say that this is the sort of thing I might write myself if the target of the joke were more deserving of it and beyond the age of majority.

But here's the thing: While I might write that (and so might 5000 other amateur-grade snark artists), I also wouldn't call it a good gag. I wouldn't say, "This right here is a keeper."

As an amateur level Twitter-cut, this is fine. It might even get a retweet from five or six people.

But is this pro-level?

Every comic tells a mix of good jokes and filler, because good jokes are just not all that plentiful. I get that. I do that too.

But does Bill Maher ever tell a joke that's not filler? That's not just "keep the audience giggling in between the actually good jokes that get a laugh."

Note when he delivers this line he's about to, as usual, start breaking up laughing at his joke.

I assure you that if I told this joke, I could easily manage to keep a straight face. Because it's simply not a good joke. I wouldn't sit there exulting in my awesome crack. I'd realize I'd just gone to filler material, and while that is part of the demands of the job, I wouldn't think I'd just hit a stand-up double, either.

3. This one is almost unconscionable for a comic:

Bristol, just admit it. You were horny, and while we're at it stop claiming that you were on birth control pills that didn't work when you got pregnant. Here's a tip, hon: they're not birth control pills if they're shaped like Fred Flintstone.

Oh dear. Where shall I start?

First of all most of this is just Kathy Griffin style talking rather than actually cracking wise. Fine. Whatever. Bill Maher now aspires to be Kathy Griffin, who at least, I have to confess, has a certain exuberance of rushed delivery that almost conceals the fact that nothing she says is actually funny.

But the Fred Flintstones birth control gag? That is like a 20 year old joke, if not older. That is what we call hack. Variants of that joke have been floating around forever, and at this point, amateurs tell that joke and pros don't because pros don't want to be caught lifting badly aged material.

How old is it? Well I know I've heard this about twenty times. I googled it. The first return for "Fred Flinstones birth control pills" is not even Bill Maher, who's getting a lot of internet references for being a smug, untalented douchebag today.

The top return is still a site called FilmThreat, which, in 2009 -- 2009! -- was already noting the joke as something grandpa might be likely to say.

The impact of the [Flintstones vitamin] commercials was significant and Flintstones Vitamins are still being sold – and their current audience are the sons and daughters of those who first used the product in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, having vitamins designed after cartoon characters became such a recognizable commodity that Rodney Dangerfield famously riffed on the concept with his classic wisecrack “”Kids are doin’ it so young these days, they’re makin’ birth control pills shaped like Fred Flintstone!”

I am not knocking Rodney Dangerfield or anything. But I'm not sure that joke was really solid when he first told it -- but at least when he first told it, it was fresh, not extremely dated old-man-being-funny-at-the-Elks-Club B-material.

I tried to Tweet to pro comics last night if any of them would actually say Bill Maher is funny. Only one comic responded -- Stephen Kruiser -- who would only say "Bill Maher was a notorious joke thief when he was doing stand-up. 'Nuff said."

Guess so. Guy's resorting to watching Rodney Dangerfield Young Comedians Specials on BetaMax for his material.

No one else replied. Now, look, maybe no one saw the query. But I think some of them did. And I think they didn't respond for three reasons:

1. Professional courtesy. No comic likes being cut on publicly and most avoid that, except in a Comic War sort of situation. Only Carrot Top and Gallagher routinely get "Not funny" public disrespect from comics.

2. People actually know Maher and he's been around forever (seriously, he's almost as old as Jack Benny by now) so why start up shit with someone in your social circle?

3. HBO is the second-most important venue for comics (after the Tonight Show, but ahead of Comedy Central) and Bill Maher apparently is fellating most of the executives at HBO so you don't burn down bridges you one day hope to cross. If comics say Maher isn't funny, then they're saying the HBO executives who think he's a scary-talent do not know their jobs, and you don't do that.

But while only Kruiser would offer criticism of Maher, not a single working comic stepped up to vouch for Maher being funny.

So this is the routine Bill Maher actually came up with with a staff of pro-writers. First, a joke that doesn't scan and isn't funny when you do put it together, second, a blogger-level quick crack, and three, a joke that was probably hack when Rodney Dangerfield first told it and, to the extent it hasn't been repeated all that much, it's because it was never really the sort of strong joke that gets repeated and copied very often.

Maher has writers. I assume these are funny men. So why is the show not funny? Why can't even his writers save him?

I think the answer is that he doesn't even know what's funny. I think he probably discards decent material for not having "The Maher Edge," and by "The Maher Edge," I mean not being funny.

I think his writers have probably quit even trying to pitch him good material and instead just save that up for their own stand-up or spec scripts, and meantime just throw Maher crap like "The shit doesn't fall far from the bat."

Actually sort of halfway funny in an awful way is David Carr from the NYT, except he gets laughs by making a Nazi phrenology joke, of course at the expense of those in Middle America.

It's a decent joke because it's so awful and shock-value, again, referencing Nazi phrenology. (Skull-shape classifications which proved, for example, that Aryans were above Slavs who were in turn above Negroes who were in turn above Jews, who of course were kin to animals.)

Would any conservative be permitted to get away with positively referencing Nazi phrenology as a solid science of racial classification?

I doubt it.

Really just a nasty crack, something that's left on the table only because there is a taboo about making jokes about Nazi phrenology, and an odd thing for the, ahem, "civility" brigade to be saying.

But, while the joke is "awful" in a moral sense, it is not awful in a comedic sense. It's halfway decent. There are a lot of factors that make up a joke, but three big ones are:

1. Novelty

2. Unexpected reference/shock value/taboo implication

3. Oddball specificity of detail

It's got those. It's not just calling someone a "Mongoloid" or an untermenschen to be exterminated, as Hilter famously cracked wise at the 1933 Staadt Comedy Festival. It adds a new little wrinkle in calling someone a Mongoloid. It adds the new wrinkle of Nazi phrenology.

So, even though the joke is morally and racially suspect, I have to confess: David Carr, a columnist with no comic experience or chops whatsoever, is funnier than alleged professional comic Bill Maher.

At least Carr actually does manage to surprise with a genuine shock/taboo joke.

Bill Maher's Fabbo Comedy:

Actual Bill Maher hilarity.

Not actually Bill Maher, but on his level.

digg this
posted by Ace at 01:52 PM

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