Bill Maher and the False Challenge of Edgy Comedy

Edgy comedians often assert that edgy comedy has inherent value. That edginess is automatically groundbreaking and people who don’t like edgy humor just don’t like to be challenged. This logic is nonsense. There might be no better example of this than Bill Maher.

Take this recent piece by Adrian Hennigan who pits Bill Maher against John Oliver as representing two different sides of the left. Hennigan likes Maher more because he possesses the ability to “surprise” whereas Oliver toes the progressive line.

Framing Maher as surprising relies on the false framing so common in the “edginess is good because it’s edgy” argument. It assumes that the PC, woke, mainstream liberal or whatever-you-want-to-call-it narrative is the one prominent narrative and everything outside of it is somehow daring. However, there are other prominent narratives in America and it’s just as easy to cater to them.

Maher, despite claims of originality, does his own twist on the edgy argument, which is approvingly quoted by Hennigan: “John Oliver could do Seth Meyers’ lines, Samantha Bee’s … they all can do each other’s lines. But they can’t do my lines. My lines are different … They only pander to the exact liberal preprogrammed one true opinion that’s already out there. They don’t really ever challenge the audience, which is what makes our show different.”

Politically, Maher is undeniably different from the other late-night hosts he calls out. However, Maher’s views do not escape well-worn narratives shared by many. It’s very unlikely that Maher’s audience is the same as Oliver’s. The political gulf between Oliver and Maher is large. So large, that Maher is in many ways more of a centrist than a liberal, albeit one who supports Democrats. He criticized Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s ‘tax the rich’ dress because he doesn’t believe the rich should be taxed more. Tax increases, especially on the rich, are an uncontroversial mainstay of left politics.

What challenges Maher’s audience is often not challenging to Oliver’s audience and vice versa. Hennigan himself — at least partially — gets this, writing that Maher frequently hurls “scorn… in the direction of the young liberal that [he] presume[s] watches ‘Last Week Tonight’ these days.” It doesn’t surprise him then that Oliver’s viewers don’t like Maher. Here, Hennigan even notes that Maher has a usual shtick just like Oliver: complaining about young people. In this way, Maher is just as predictable.

Maher’s segment inspired by the murder of Gabby Petito is a case in point. Maher took this opportunity to complain about influencers, specifically van influencers like Petito. More broadly, he spent the whole segment chastising young people for not wanting to work and instead wanting to be famous.

This segment is certainly surprising and doesn’t pander to a liberal sensibility. After all, it lacks basic human decency to mock a murder victim’s profession. But is it really challenging anybody, forcing people to consider new opinions? I doubt it. Maher is so focused on criticizing young people that he ignores the opportunity to talk about domestic violence and instead makes the incredibly tired conservative argument that young people are lazy and do not want to get jobs. There is nothing original or challenging here.

Now, this isn’t a complete takedown of Bill Maher. Maybe he makes better points when he isn’t bemoaning young people. Maher deserves credit for bringing panelists on that disagree with him, but neither his monologue nor Hennigan’s piece rely on this to paint the show as challenging. What my argument does do is invalidate the idea that material outside of the liberal norm — so called edgy content — is by definition original or challenging. In fact, it can often be stale, giving the audience a familiar shtick that doesn’t challenge them in the least. Sure, Maher’s content might challenge Oliver’s audience, but they’re not the ones tuning in. If Bill Maher wanted to challenge his audience, he would do a segment on topics like the importance of pronouns or critical race theory.

If you’re still unconvinced, it’s partially these stale conservative opinions that Hennigan believes make Maher challenging. According to Hennigan, one of the ways Maher challenges his audience is that he discusses “the need for Americans to take better care of themselves rather than expecting the state to do it for them, particularly in relation to obesity.” Again, this is a standard conservative opinion in America. And, just like the Petito segment, I would argue that it’s cruel. It’s basically saying, “Oh, you have a problem? I don’t care. It’s your own fault.”

In the end, Maher’s show isn’t really about challenging his audience. It’s about pretending to challenge so that he — and by extension his audience — can pass off unoriginal, often spiteful beliefs as intellectually daring. Whenever edgy comics make claims like Maher’s, they’re often doing the exact same thing. Don’t fall for it.

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