Bill Maher
Live From Silicon Valley

Yahoo! Screen Comedy Channel

By John Wenzel

The headline-grabbing stunt that ended Bill Maher’s first live-streaming concert instantly overshadowed the hour of topical, laser-focused political and religious critiques that preceded it, and that’s a damn shame.

Bill Maher

Love him or hate him, Maher is at the top of his game when it comes to puncturing the guts of over-inflated politicians, and his $1 million donation to the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA – via a cartoonishly-oversized check, no less – served only to blur the already faded line between commentary and activism.

Billed as a “historic” stand-up event, Maher’s February 23 live show from the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts was the coming-out party for the Yahoo! Screen Comedy Channel, which promises similar specials from other big names in the coming months. If you were a Maher fan and had a reasonably fast computer, it was a painless enterprise. Log in via Facebook, sit back and enjoy the free content. For those who missed it, the special is still streaming for a limited time.

Reassuringly, CrazyStupidPolitics boasted the same production values as any stand-up special on Maher’s home network of HBO, just without all that bothersome pay-cable rigmarole. And that makes sense, given that content providers are finally figuring out how to make money from digital delivery. Why should Yahoo! or anyone else sit by and watch Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan offer their latest specials via their websites when they can get in on the action and sell some advertising? It makes even more sense for comics with demonstrated digital audiences, and Maher has a robust one, having passed a million Twitter followers shortly before the Yahoo! special began streaming.

So if you weren’t one of the 2,400 souls to get a ticket to the sold-out show, Yahoo! had your digital “front seat.” You didn’t even need to wear pants, as Maher pointed out in his opening lines. “So if you like something and it’s funny, don’t laugh. Just yell ‘LOL!’ Or turn your face sideways and smile.”

Smirking, coiffed and wearing a sharp, striped shirt, Maher wasted no time digging into the political humor that has made him a reliably provocative presence since the 1993 debut of Politically Incorrect. It’s tough to think of a better marriage of performer, subject matter and timing, since Maher has enjoyed an unusually generous gift in the buffoons currently vying for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s not always leading the national political-comedy conversation, like Jon Stewart or Saturday Night Live, but his devotees are many and rabid, and most of what he says is well-reasoned and honest, if not bitingly funny. Yeah, he’s smug. But that’s part of his persona.

Early on in the special, when a few frustrating digital storms were freezing the stream, Maher went through the list of characters who have at various times led “poor Mitt Romney” over the last few months. As concise and biting an appraisal as any in this early election season, there was Donald Trump, whose casinos went bankrupt: “The only business where people give you money for nothing. Choctaw Indians can make this work!”; Michele Bachmann, “For people who find Sarah Palin too intellectual.”; Rick Perry, the “Bush brother from another mother.”; Herman Cain, who handled his sex scandal “as smoothly as a heroin addict with a cop at the door.”; Newt Gingrich, “a man with the moral compass of an opportunistic infection.”; and finally Rick Santorum: “Sometimes the last rock you look under…”

As the night went on, it became increasingly astonishing that Maher had conjured such a solid, practiced-sounding set from entirely topical subjects. Then again, it’s doubtful it would have been as breezy if the Dems were also nominating someone this year. Would Maher tear into them with such zeal? At least he channeled Dennis Miller in both style and subject matter when he quipped, “The Democrats could not sell a Cub Scout to a pedophile.”

Maher has had a few months and dozens of episodes of Real Time to mine the news, so it’s no surprise the rich vein of politics led to all sorts of other topics like gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights, Mormonism and his takes on Cialis and Snooki – the last of which seemed a bit past their sell-by date. He reserved a particular, Carlin-esque scorn for Tea Partiers, since they’ve managed to keep the “birther” controversy on life support despite it having been killed by hard factual evidence. “The one thing they hate is being called racist,” he said of the group. “The other thing is black people.”

Maher was clearly in his element, loose and happy and acting more physically demonstrative than usual. He may have been preaching to the choir, but it was a good speech, full of rousing calls to arms and unvarnished truth. If only he hadn’t tarnished it by throwing his hat into the same political snake pit he professes to rise above.

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