Review – Bill Maher at Hammersmith Apollo

Funny, but far safer than you’d expect

Bill Maher comedian“We love you Bill!”

If you thought Russell Brand had the monopoly on leftie stand-ups with whooping acolytes, think again. Bill Maher is in town, and though the Apollo is packed, he clearly hasn’t sold enough tickets to warrant doing two shows in one night, as Aziz Ansari and Louis CK have done here in recent years.

What he gives us is a laid-back 90 minutes of super-professional, tight, political comedy that didn’t justify the standing-o it got at the end. Part of the problem with the show is something that is an occupational hazard of being a “controversial” comedian with a big following. I’ve seen Doug Stanhope’s power blunted by the same thing: that they are preaching to the converted. On countless occasions an earnest punchline about Bible bashers, or America’s military budget, or suggesting that Sarah Palin is thick, is greeted with hands-above-the-air applause; disciples exalting their leader.

Even when Maher strays from more conventional liberal doctrine and pokes fun at Islam, there’s little to no dissent. So much so that Maher on a couple of occasions – this is a pet peeve of mine – pretends someone has booed him to create the illusion of tension, when there’s none to be found. As it happens, being of a broadly leftie persuasion myself, there was little I disagreed with, but Maher simply cannot have the same impact here as he can on a TV show that gets chopped up into YouTube clips.

I wonder whether, having not performed over here for so long, he is trying to cover too many bases, playing catch-up. He is at his best when he’s getting his teeth right into an issue, whereas this broad-brush show had the whiff of the generic.

Still, he is a very enjoyable stand-up to watch. His exasperation at everything from “living in the age of the ass” (in reference to the ubiquity of Kim Kardashian’s behind) to America’s endless wars in the Middle East is genuine, and he avoids the obvious pitfall of letting the politics suffocate the comedy.

Some of his best moments happen when he ditches the politics for a second – for instance his idea for starting up a throwback airline that has bugger all security and lets people take fags and guns on board. Or his rendition of a “prophet” returning from a mountain (alone) having apparently spoken to a god or some description (although Eddie Izzard in his prime would have made this fly).

Maher hasn’t performed in the UK since he appeared on Bob Monkhouse’s TV show in 1984, he tells us, and some of his jokes tonight appear to have come direct from 1984 – “the ‘House of Lords’ sounds like a gay bar”, anyone? Not that I didn’t titter to that one I must admit.

He might also want to revisit his decision to finish the show on an extended atheist rant about religion. Clearly this is one of the most divisive subjects to tackle in the US, but in the UK, it feels a bit 2008, when Dawkins and Gervais et al were leading the atheist charge. He presents it as bold and challenging, when in fact it’s irrelevant and feels like far from an adequate closer.

The fizz of controversy, it seems, doesn’t always travel.

Review by Paul Fleckney

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