Risky. It was a word I had heard more than once attached to the decision to bring in comedian Bill Maher as the Meliora Weekend evening entertainment. Maher isn’t your typical comedian or the usual political satirist. Unfortunately, that served more to hurt his performance than enhance it when he came to UR this past weekend.

On Saturday night, Maher opened in his usual uncensored style. Some jokes were crude, others more mainstream, but in the beginning, they were generally funny. At one point, in a rant against conservative law makers, Maher tackled their desire to cut government spending, even on things as seemingly innocent as restoring bridges.

‘Those liberals,” he said with a faux scowl, doing his best conservative impression. ‘Always wanting to cross the river.”

Maher did hit the mark many times in the first part of the show. But as the first 30 minutes of talk elapsed, he seemed to run out of material. He reverted instead back to what are quickly becoming the timeless classics of liberal satirists Bush, health care, Bush, Republican blunders, Bush, Clinton. Don’t some of these jokes have expiration dates?
Soon into the show, however, he got to the meat of his routine: Americans are stupid. It’s a theme we can all chuckle at when Maher is ridiculing Joe the Plumber a seemingly mythical, comical figure for his ignorance about health care. Maher took it a step further, however, when he began talking about how faith is foolish. Apparently at that point, there was only so much people could take. Literally. As Maher’s show hit the hour mark on Saturday night, at least 20 people had gotten up to leave.

I, meanwhile, was sandwiched up in the rafters, where the person on my right constantly complained about the unoriginality of his routine and the person on my left sat stone-faced, unsmiling throughout almost the entire show Maher finally got her to crack a grin when he took a particularly well-aimed jab at Clinton.

As for me, I was wrought with a surprising emotion &- sympathy. Maher knows no limits. He pushes people to think, to consider aspects they otherwise never would have. And while he made me laugh, while his Pakistani fashion show was entertaining, what bothered me was that I left feeling more sympathetic toward religious people than enamored by a hilarious critique on religion’s adverse effects.

Perhaps this was because Maher didn’t attack the principle of faith or even really that of the church. He poked fun at these concepts, but the true target of his ridicule was instead the churchgoers who chose to believe. And it seemed to be a theme throughout the show on Saturday night never the organization, always the patrons.

‘I don’t hate America,” he said with exasperation at one point in the show. ‘I hate Americans.”

But while most comedians undoubtedly would agree with that proclamation, Maher’s act on Saturday night crossed the line from joking commentary to condescending deprecation. Other comedians joke about how they have escaped the ‘shackles” of marriage; Maher thinks he’s better because of it.

Was I taking this too seriously? I couldn’t help it. I knew he was a comedian. I knew his reputation, and I had heard his stand-up before. But on Saturday night, Maher wasn’t just making fun he was pushing an agenda. And doing it the wrong way. Underneath the facade of jest was a man who just considers himself superior and an act that left much to be desired.

There were good points points that made me question just how sane society is. Watching political satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, never do I feel uncomfortable, perhaps because they stick almost solely to the political realm. Sure, they bridge the gap occasionally on social issues, but really, their place is in politics. Maher, conversely, challenged people’s individual choices and how the decisions you think you are making on a personal basis aren’t really so personal after all. Not necessarily a bad critique, but Maher’s delivery was off.

During Saturday night’s show, that meant Maher unsurprisingly, given the title of his recent mockumentary, ‘Religilous” spent a hefty portion of time on religion.
For example, he explained how one might claim to have a personal relationship with God. But that relationship with God fuels a church that slaughtered millions during the Crusades and that just told millions of Africans in a region where AIDS runs rampant that it was blasphemous to use birth control.

This means that, according to Maher, despite the fact that you think you are making a personal choice by attending church on Sundays and having a relationship with God, you are actually perpetuating a cycle of death and destruction.

A little hard to swallow? No doubt even for someone like me, who isn’t religious at all. Again, it isn’t necessarily a bad point, but on Saturday night, it never came down to what he said, but instead to how he said it.

Maher claimed at one point that ‘I can tolerate ideological differences.” Well, I call bullshit on you, Mr. Maher. His delivery on Saturday, somewhat ironically, was nothing short of righteous.

And I couldn’t help but wonder is he just as bad as the right-wing politicians he criticizes because he, like them, believes not that his opinion is right, but that his opinion is fact?

Maher’s show consistently crossed the line from critical to condescending in almost Michael Moore-like fashion &- is that the most effective style?

I suppose it only matters if you think Maher’s routine was pushing an agenda I happened to think it was.

Still, we listen. We chuckle. Perhaps though, it is like the Atlantic Monthly once said about a famous satirical novelist: ‘We laugh in self defense.”

Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.

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