Bill Maher: The power to make you laugh

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A hipster, and a writer walk into a Portland concert hall … Bill Maher visits Portland

It has the power to change your day, or your mood, or your lifelong perspective. It can make you seem smarter, more interesting, and more attractive. People don’t call it “the best medicine” for nothing. Nope, even in the wake of Valentine’s Day, I’m not talking about love; I’m talking about humor. Laughter. That moment when the punchline registers, and your gut teams up with your intellect to produce a hearty cackle or a soft chuckle.

But I’ll stop there with the description, because there’s almost nothing worse than reading a serious article about comedy, written by someone who’s not a comedian, and barely a writer.

On February 13th, Bill Maher came to Portland to perform at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which has the capacity to hold a whopping 3,000 tipsy, liberal Portlandians. That experience alone is worth the price of admission, especially if you’re a cheapskate like me, sitting in (I kid you not) Row Y, and the price of admission is $35 per ticket.

As we sat there — me, my friend who drove up from Seattle, the quirky-cute hipster couple to our right, the older, educated couple behind us — I thought about how strange it was that a group of people gather in one room to hear someone have a one-sided conversation about politics, religion and sex — in that order, and with nobody missing the “taboo” nature of that unholy trinity. And, in this case, with this comedian, a lot of the jokes aren’t stories or observational humor that might very well have occurred in your average office setting.

Bill Maher getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September 2010. It’s outside the W Hotel at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. (Wikipedia)
Bill Maher getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September 2010. It’s outside the W Hotel at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. (Wikipedia)

They’re also not just dependent upon vulgarity for shock value. The set up for many of them rests upon a (perhaps ill-founded) assumption that his current audience watches the news, or at least his show Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO), and has some grasp on the recent goings-on in matters like the political campaigns, especially the debates, because they have been like crack for political-comedy whores. Up until now, I thought watching the debates had mainly been my way of making up for missing so many Saturday Night Live episodes this year. I guess the divine plan here was to make sure I could fully enjoy a Bill Maher joke about them (Blatant heathen sarcasm).

Maher had no shortage of new material: the Bundy fiasco, which garnered mixed reactions from some sensitive Oregonians; Kim Davis and her inability to understand federal law; commentary on Ahmed “the clock kid,” and one extremely funny line about Cecil the lion, to give a few examples without spoiling much. There was also plenty of familiar fare on the irrationality of organized religion, the banality of the pharmaceutical industry, and the ethics of telling jokes about disgraced public figures.

Stepping back for a moment and examining the whole phenomenon as a whole, I think the appeal of comedy — and particularly this brand of comedy — is not just the simple answer (it’s funny), but a more complex yearning for an honest “conversation” where someone tells you what they think with no holds barred. Being sensitive, sugar-coating, and telling little white lies gets exhausting. Once in a while, it’s nice to let yourself be momentarily shocked, offended, provoked or stimulated with no expectation that you react a certain way in order to feel okay about yourself or the speaker.

Enter the laugh.

Growing up, I was painfully shy and overly sensitive, and I’ll be damned if I was able to take a joke — or even get one, much of the time. The idea of someone ‘poking fun’ ranked right up there with using a rectal thermometer or getting two vaccines in the same doctor visit. Basically, I had no ability to filter what might be hurtful from what actually is hurtful. Some people still don’t, and in an age where so many phrases and words and topics have been labeled “offensive” and “politically incorrect,” it will be interesting to see how live comedy continues.

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, a brilliant mind of neuroscience, described humor as the brain’s way of registering a “false alarm,” writing:

 “The common denominator of all jokes is a path of expectation that is diverted by an unexpected twist necessitating a complete reinterpretation of all the previous facts — the punch-line…Reinterpretation alone is insufficient. The new model must be inconsequential. For example, a portly gentleman walking toward his car slips on a banana peel and falls. If he breaks his head and blood spills out, obviously you are not going to laugh. You are going to rush to the telephone and call an ambulance. But if he simply wipes off the goo from his face, looks around him, and then gets up, you start laughing. The reason is, I suggest, because now you know it’s inconsequential, no real harm has been done. I would argue that laughter is nature’s way of signaling that “it’s a false alarm.” Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal.” 

(from A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers)

Why am I inserting a long quote about the overtly analytical theories behind what causes laughter? Because it’s interesting.

I’ll never have Maher’s wit or Ramachandran’s intelligence, but I’m fairly certain that I’m old enough to be able to take a joke. While you would think that going to a Bill Maher show and seeing most of the audience happy for most of time would verify that we can, as a culture, take a joke, I feel obligated to point out two things: (1) People generally sign up for a certain kind of comedy when they pay money to see an established comedian with a very definite niche, and (2) Watch a young Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams.

While it’s not necessarily the goal of good comedians to shock or offend, they generally do, because Ramachandran (I must just like typing his name) has a good point about the intellectual acuity necessary to filter through the “take this seriously” and “realize this is a joke” categories.

In any case, in a month that provided many real alarms, including sobering news of a terminal diagnosis in the family and stressful obstacles in basic housing and transportation, a few hours of laughter was just what the doctor ordered.

Top photo: Bill Maher from his February 12, 2016 episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, “New Rules” segment in which he tells marijuana advocates not to take the limited “legal” access to pot for granted and that politicians should make marijuana use legal throughout the United States because if it’s legal in some places, but not in others,
that isn’t equality. (YouTube)