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The Joke's on Him: Bill Maher could use a lesson in civility from Michael Moore

Reposted from:

John Podhoretz's review of Religulous, Directed by Larry Charles

It is the thesis of the new nonfiction film Religulous that religion is a "neurological disorder," and that "belief must be destroyed so that mankind might live." This is the creed of Bill Maher, the stand-up comedian turned talk-show host, who appears in virtually every frame. In the last 10 minutes Maher and his director, Larry Charles, literally turn into fire and brimstone preachers as Religulous becomes a raging secular sermon about humankind meeting its end in a flaming furnace.

Maher stands in the midst of rubble in Megiddo, the hillside in Israel that the book of Revelation calls Armageddon, and consigns humanity and the planet to destruction either from nuclear weapons or ecological disaster if silly people do not cease their demented belief in divinity. Call it "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Godless."

I suppose the irony of Maher the Atheist calling down nuclear hellfire on believers, as Jonathan Edwards threatened unbelievers with eternal damnation over 250 years ago in his astonishing sermon, is intentional. But it is far from certain. In my experience, when comedians decide the moment has come for them to speak seriously, they instantly transform into the most earnest, humorless, and irony-challenged people on the face of the earth.

As his film concludes, Maher seems genuinely to believe that he has, in the preceding 100 minutes, made an unassailable argument that religious belief is not only stupid and mindless, but apocalyptically dangerous. And like Al Gore in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, Maher clearly thinks he offers such an airtight case that Religulous may actually save the world.

Becoming mankind's savior would be quite the career advance for Maher, who spent years as a second-rate comedian on the brick-wall circuit. He had a bit of luck when, in the years that any comedian on the planet could get a television show, he found himself hosting a nightly chat session on the then-unwatched Comedy Central in which political pundits sat cheek by jowl with comics even less talented than Maher discoursing uncomfortably on subjects of the day--and earning only a scowl from Maher if any of them got a laugh, since he was the host and the laughs were all supposed to be directed at him.

Now, 15 years later, his chat show is on HBO, and he still scowls should anyone else dare to say anything funny that wasn't scribbled down for him by his ghostwriting team.

Maher's boorish conduct on his own shows is nothing, however, next to the behavior on display in Religulous. His method in Religulous is to interview people who are far poorer, far less sophisticated, and vastly better mannered than he, and as he does so, to laugh at them, tell them that their deepest beliefs are the sort of nonsense he gave up when he was 11 years old, and then press ahead with another question intended only to expose their idiocy.

As he does this, his interlocutors freeze, slack-jawed with disbelief, and then gamely attempt to go on because (a) that's what their mothers taught them, and (b) there is a camera in their faces and they've figured out that if they let Maher have it, he is just going to make them look worse.

I don't think I've ever seen someone conduct himself as rudely--either on film or in real life--as Maher does here. (Maybe Michael Savage on the radio.) True, Michael Moore makes fun of the yahoos he interviews, but he doesn't do it as he interviews them. Rather, he waits until he is in the editing room. Perhaps Maher is braver than Moore, although I doubt it; on the evidence of his conduct in Religulous, he just seems like a jerk.

Of course, the faithful he shows us are nothing more than caricatures. The movie spends 10 minutes in a Florida amusement park called The Holy Land Experience, in which the crucifixion is reenacted, with Christian rock music, seven times a day. Maher insults the obese worshippers at a church inside a trailer parked at a truck stop, then finds a former Jew for Jesus--obese, naturally--to insult--inside the man's ludicrous religious trinket store.

He makes mincemeat of a Puerto Rican guy who claims to be the direct descendant of Jesus Christ, and a onetime member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes who wears $2,000 lizard-skin shoes and can't properly quote the Bible. The only rabbi who appears is an anti-Zionist Hasid who attended a Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran sponsored by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And throughout, whenever he wishes to dip into religious history, he does so by using snippets of Hollywood Bible movies.

Making fun of religious kitsch is the easiest thing on earth, because that kitsch is an uglification of something beautiful, a literalization of something abstract. But then, so is Religulous, which takes rationalism and reduces it to mere crassness. Maher's own towering vulgarity on the subject of faith--the most powerful and meaningful force in the history of human existence--is nothing more than a mirror image of religious kitsch. It cheapens, lowers, and distorts, and reflects not righteousness in the service of truth, but self-righteousness in the service of Narcissus.

John Podhoretz, editorial director of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.



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