Few public personalities care less about what the public thinks of them than Bill Maher. The most recent proof: The subtitle of his new book, The New New Rules: A Funny Look At How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. It’s hyperbole, of course, meant to draw attention. And Maher’s “New Rules,” the best segment of his HBO show Real Time, deserves the attention. Whether he’s proposing a new rule about teaching intelligent design or discussing the evolution of condiment containers, Maher is damned funny—and generally right.
Maher’s humor plays off the shortcomings of American politics, culture, and religion, and there’s no shortage of those. The unrepentant maker of Religulous argues against organized religion at every turn: “New Rule: If churches don’t have to pay taxes, they also can’t call the fire department when they catch fire… I’ll use the fire department I pay for. You can pray for rain.”
On government, he’s equally savage. The right takes the brunt of his ire, but Maher, an avowed libertarian, has no qualms about sticking it to our “black Ninja” president if he feels it’s deserved. When the Obama administration capitulated to criticism over a planned presidential address to the nation’s schoolchildren, Maher was incensed. “I love Obama’s civility,” he writes. “It’s positively Christlike… But we don’t need that guy now. We need an asshole.” Then he invokes the C-word—the same one that got him canned from ABC after 9/11. The administration—“what a bunch of cowards.”
Americans, Maher long ago decided, deserve what we get. We can’t moan about gas prices if we voted for “oil-company shills,” ignored all the warnings about gas-guzzlers, and neglected public transportation. We can’t call ourselves Christians if we’re not into the whole “love thy neighbor” thing. And we don’t get to claim “we” killed Osama bin Laden: “‘We’ were watching The Celebrity Apprentice and eating Funyuns in our sweatpants.”
As much as Maher loves to dismantle the serious issues, he’s just as adept at picking apart trivialities. In this, his second collection of “New Rules” pieces, he has opinions about fast food, Red Bull, wine tastings, mustard, and ketchup. (“Someone must make a ketchup bottle that doesn’t make a sound like a fart. If I want rude noises from vegetables, I’ll go to a Tea Party rally.”)
These bite-sized entries are arranged alphabetically by title, all of them tabloid-groaner style—”I Shot The Serif” for a piece about the Gap’s new logo, “Light My Ire” when he addresses lamps with switches on the cords. Addressing consumer peeves, he’s well aware of his chief inspiration. “I’m going to bring back the lamp with the switch where it belongs,” Maher writes. “Or my name’s not Andy Rooney.”
Surely the late curmudgeon disdained Maher’s potty-mouthed, pot-and-Playboy Club worldview. But for these times, Maher plays the contrarian to a T. In his longer essays, the ones that end each “New Rules” segment, he’s often uncannily prescient. One commentary from 2005 warns of the real-estate bubble burst; another, dated April 2011, calls for class warfare. (“As long as we’ve got three wars going, America needs to add one more.”)
“These aren’t radical ideas,” he writes in a bit about how Democrats are the new Republicans. “Shouldn’t there be one party that unambiguously supports cutting the military budget? A party that is straight up in favor of gun control, gay marriage, higher taxes on the rich, universal health care…?” A majority of Americans either agree with those positions already, he claims, or would “if they were properly argued and defended.” Maher would do it himself, but then people might want to have a beer with him.