I've always loved stand-up comedy. When I was young, I would stay up late and record the specials on cable, and while I often didn't get the more adult jokes, I still laughed at the way the comedians told them, committing their delivery, pacing, and writing to memory. In the third grade for the school talent show, I did Robin Williams's Live at the Met from memory and knew where to change the words to fit the crowd. The first albums I bought with my own money (and taken away by my mom) were all of George Carlin. One of my favorite shows was HBO's One Night Stand, which featured young comedians who either faded into obscurity or are some of the biggest comics around, like Louis C.K, Norm Macdonald, D.L. Hughley, and Ellen DeGeneres. All of these comedians I would watch over and over even if I had seen them a dozen times, with only one exception; Bill Maher. I've never liked him or his comedy.
There was always something off-putting about him and his personality that took me a while to figure out, but once I did, it was readily apparent. Bill Maher is arrogant without even a pretense of modesty; he's grossly misinformed, and barely veils his cruelty and judgment with the appealing cynicism better comedians have mastered. All of this stands out when you compare him to some of his "political comedian" peers, especially Dennis Miller and Jon Stewart. Whenever Stewart or Miller delivered a joke that was too obscure, complex, or just not funny, they would laugh and look down and quip about the joke not working in a way that put the fault on them. However, Maher has always smirked in an "I'm too clever for you" way and looked askance at his audience and joked in a way that made it the audience's fault for not laughing at his "cleverness."
Of course, being a comedian means often pushing boundaries of comfort and taste, which Stewart and Miller often did with great skill and deftness. Sometimes getting that groan is more appealing to a comedian than a laugh, but those uncomfortable laughs, for most comedians, are a way of talking about those things we don't want to talk about. Miller and Stewart, and honestly most every comedian out there, would elicit these groans and titters in a way that showed the awkward truth of a situation or were just a little too gross or juvenile. However, all the good comedians push that boundary with the audience beside them and acknowledge how dark and uncomfortable the topic is. Maher doesn't push the audience so much toward that line as shove them with a grin. Most times when Maher gets those groans from his audience he scoffs and laughs to himself and says something along the lines of "Aww, c'mon," trying to pass off his offense as playfulness. The only problem is that it's never been playful from him.
Maher also has a long history of offensive commentary about women, religion, LGBT people, and race. His rants on religion cross well beyond valid criticisms to hateful judgment, especially of Muslims, toward whom he clearly is bigoted. His jokes about black people regularly rely on the worst stereotypes of violence, going so far as to say that President Obama wasn't a real black man because he didn't threaten people with a gun he stuck in his pants. He's known for regularly calling women bitches and cunts, and joking that women he doesn't like deserve to be slapped or choked, and he says women breast-feeding in public are just seeking attention. His misogyny is so blatant, even Ann Coulter called him out on his show. Of course, Maher's casual use of the n word is not that dissimilar to the times he's used the word "faggot." During the election he dismissed the issue of bathroom access for trans people as a distraction, and when he had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show, he referred to transgender people as weirdos and was so wholly ignorant about Milo's talking points that he was regularly blindsided by Milo's misinformation.
Any critical viewer of Maher's show will notice that he is regularly misinformed about a wide array of issues. not just ones of social justice nuance and language, but of outright facts -- which brings me back to Jon Stewart and Dennis Miller. Stewart regularly apologized when he went too far with a joke or was simply wrong, and regularly used his apology as an opportunity for thoughtful humor. Miller, during his show Dennis Miller Live, ended all of his trademark opinion rants with the very self-aware phrase "Of course, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong" and regularly made mockery of his own white male privilege.
Never have I seen Maher be earnestly self-depreciating or admit being wrong without a heavy protest from the public. Additionally, Stewart and Miller, while being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, at least have at least exhibited a sense of self-awareness of where they stand at times. Yes, Miller became more conservative after 9/11 and is at times offensive to modern liberal beliefs, but at least there was evolution in his ideas. Stewart also showed a willingness to learn and change by having smart people from the other side on his show to talk and joke. Maher has never exhibited that behavior. He's always been the condescending know-it-all whose comedy is more lecture than satire. This attitude is why the Bill Maher of 1997 is the Bill Maher of 2017 -- a smug jackass who thinks anyone who is offended or disagrees is being "politically correct" or simply a moron. When you have that personality, you can always refuse accountability for being emotionally stunted.
After all these years, that same young comedian I saw on HBO is the same one casually tossing around slurs, entitled thinking, and a refusal to admit that they're not God's gift to the world, which is ironic considering Maher is a rabid anti-theist. Stewart became a legend in the world of comedy and has actually shaped the way we use humor as part of our political discourse. Miller on Saturday Night Live set the standard for a "Weekend Update" host, which few outside of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Norm Macdonald have touched, and his delivery and willingness to play to the smartest in the room instead of the dumbest arguably raised the collective IQ of stand-up comedy by at least 30 points. Maher, however, has always played in these two men's shadow. Maher's Reddit-style "I'm 14 years old and edgy" shtick might have gotten him a TV gig back in the early '90s, but it's apparent that's where he stopped growing and his views remain -- in the shadow of far better, smarter, and dynamic comedians.
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.