- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

New Rules: Polite Musings from a timid observer

by Bill Maher

Rodale, $24.95, 229 pages

Reviewed by A.G. Gancarski

As Leonard Cohen sang many years ago, “the rain falls hard on last year’s man.” Somewhere, this reviewer suspects, Bill Maher is getting rained on right now. The cover of his new book shows him standing with his arms folded, grinning smugly as if to say that posing like an ironic, disaffected hipster is still acceptable in 2005, when even David Brooks claims we are locked into a Hobbesian reality. Mr. Maher’s very ‘90s posture, sadly undercut by visual evidence of a Botox regimen and liberal airbrushing, suggests almost poignantly the cruel march of time.

From the looks of things, Bill Maher is both worn-out and scared to death of his inevitable obsolescence. For one thing, comedians don’t last forever, which is why the smart ones step away from the limelight at their peaks — Mr. Maher’s contemporary Jerry Seinfeld, for example. Likewise, social commentators often lose their relevance before their careers end. Mr. Maher dabbles in both fields, on his hit television shows over the years, and elsewhere. And some would argue that he is the best of his generation at fusing the often apolitical world of comedy and the political realm. Those people, one suspects, would be those most likely to buy this book and think that Mr. Maher’s “new rules” for how society should operate are timely, true, relevant and a rollicking good time.

And still others would respond to the claim made above by pointing out that Mr. Maher’s work, as often as not, fails to rise above a base level of kneejerk puerility and perhaps they would add that not only is Mr. Maher overrated as a humorist, but that his brand of commodified edginess has little original or new to say in 2005. If such malefactors wanted to prove such a claim, “New Rules” provides abundant evidence.

The operative gimmick of this book fairly reeks of superficiality: Mr. Maher provides short riffs on a topic that was newsworthy some time back, presenting many newswire photographs as either space fillers or visual evidence. Sometimes he uses the gimmick to take unwarranted cheap shots. An unflattering picture, for example, of Mary Cheney leads him to make some off-color remarks about the vice president’s daughter’s sexuality. One suspects that Mr. Maher wouldn’t be so quick to make remarks of similar callousness about prominent lesbians on the left, as that would leave him wide open for charges of homophobia. But Mr. Maher has built a career on the knowledge that the cheapest shots are often the easiest.

When not courting libel suits, his routine here comes off as weirdly irrelevant and superannuated; for example, a riff on how drive-in movies are no longer needed in 2005 because teenagers have alternate sexual outlets reads like recycled material from Mr. Maher’s 1980s standup routines. Likewise, his “observational humor” about the pointlessness of fans of a cancelled Star Trek series petitioning to get the series back on the air seems a bit past its sell-by date. That said, in Mr. Maher’s defense, I was unable to find a single mother-in-law joke or Polish joke in the entire book.

Those buying this book should be advised that not a paragraph goes by without some desperate, paint-by-numbers attempt to “work blue.” One extended meditation on teenage sex, for example, can’t seem to get through an entire sentence without some graphic obscenity designed to demonstrate how “with-it” the aging comic is. In this bit, as in many places in the book, Mr. Maher finishes with some barbs directed toward every Hollywood liberal’s bete noire, the Christian right and speculation as to the sex lives of their children. Classy stuff.

Of course, Mr. Maher’s better off dealing with sordid would-be social commentary than with the political end, where he makes the predictable Bush-bashing motions that can make any hack a literary darling in certain circles. For it is where Mr. Maher deals directly with President Bush that he exposes how out of his depth he is when dealing with real policy issues. His take on the necessity of stem-cell research early in the book vainly tried for gravitas — but even there, he couldn’t resist taking a shot at Mr. Bush as being incapable of “bridging the gap between ethics and science.” One wonders if Tokyo Rose is on Mr. Maher’s writing team.

There are a few bits here that likely lose luster due to being confined to the printed page, and there are also a few actually decent quips. But on the whole this reads as a cynical cash-in, marketed to well-off middle-aged leftists who like their comics to be edgy but not too edgy. With Jon Stewart having long since eclipsed Mr. Maher in terms of cultural relevance, it could be said that Last Year’s Man is headed into a long cold winter of career eclipse.

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