Bill Maher is a very irritating fellow. Now surely he would say that he irritates people because he is so iconoclastic, shattering entrenched orthodoxies with his rapier wit, but the truth is that Maher is offensive because he has an offensive personality. He seems chronically unable to wipe the smug arrogant smile off his face, which is especially galling because this arrogance is entirely unsubstantiated by intellectual ability.
Even Maher’s humor seems, well, gratuitous and condescending. His is not the wry, gentle wit of Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld. Nor does he exhibit the outrageous, side-splitting humor of George Carlin or Richard Pryor. Rather, Maher employs his trademark sneer to poke snide, sarcastic fun at people, usually people who are markedly less sophisticated or culturally established or economically well off than he is.
“Religulous,” Maher’s documentary film attacking religion, is not exactly breaking attendance records nationwide. New as it is, it comes in close to last among the movies that are showing across the country. When I saw it recently, there were about a dozen people in a theater that seats several hundred. An occasional titter provided the only evidence that this was intended as a funny movie. Sure, the movie does provide some laughs, but as you will see, they are easy laughs that score no real points against Maher’s intended target.
The film begins with Maher standing at Megiddo, which is allegedly the launching pad for Armageddon. Here we get an unsubtle introduction to one of Maher’s central themes: people are going to blow up the world in the name of God. Maher, however, cannot find anyone to actually say that. The best he can do is ambush harmless middle-aged people at tourist sites and force them to confess they think we may be living in the last days. Maher seeks to make the very strained point that these are Christian Bin Ladens who would stop at nothing to usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
Maher’s stance in the film alternates between feigned investigative neutrality and unconcealed anti-religious bigotry. At times he says he is an agnostic, who simply holds the rational position that he doesn’t know what comes after death. But if you don’t know whether there is an afterlife, and even if you have no reason to believe in one, it hardly makes sense to attack those who hold a different view. After all, you yourself are in the dark and they might very well be right.