Bill Maher:  Victory Begins at Home
(Photo © Bruce Glikas)
Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home
(Photo © Bruce Glikas)
"Do you ever ask yourself where the terrorists get the money to live in their fancy caves?" Bill Maher explains it all for us in his standup show Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home, now at the Virginia Theatre for a two-week run. This touring show evolved from Maher's concepts for a series of tongue-in-cheek posters inspired by government propaganda during World War II. He pitches his own versions as "What the government SHOULD be telling us to help us fight the war on terrorism." His most pregnant idea is an update of the fuel-economy poster "When you ride alone you ride with Hitler" in which he substitutes Osama bin Laden's name and image in a modern car next to a lone driver.

A standup comic who gigged in clubs and on TV throughout the '80s, Maher got a dream job in 1993 when Comedy Central gave him his own show, Politically Incorrect. For those living under a rock, that show took swipes at cultural sacred cows, won a loyal following, and eventually found its way to a late-night slot on ABC. After several years, Maher was relieved of his duties when he made a comment that was too politically incorrect for The Mouse House -- a.k.a ABC's parent company Disney. Recently reappearing on HBO in an hour-long weekly program called Real Time With Bill Maher, he has published a book featuring his posters (as illustrated by commissioned artists) and text regarding the war on terror.

Maher's humor is entertaining even when one disagrees with his opinions. Unfortunately, his terrific idea for this show is not executed as well as one might hope. Ideally, in an 80-minute monologue format, a comedian has a chance to flesh out ideas and routines that he can only convey as sound bites on television; but, in Victory, we don't get much more depth than can be found in Maher's TV pronouncements. One enters the auditorium anticipating that Maher will crystallize his subversively common-sense approach to the issues of the day and throw the somber, sanitized worldview of the nightly news into high comic relief. Instead, though he hits many of his targets squarely, he does not combine punches so as to deliver a knockout blow.

He does make terrific points about unexpected topics, as in his observation that linking drugs to the funding of terrorism is a convenient distraction from the product that would be hardest hit by a real war on terror: "Drugs don't fund terrorism, oil does." And while Maher is not counterbalanced here by other political voices as he is on his panel-format TV show, he does not go easy on anyone -- Republican, Democrat, or in-between. When asked "What is a compassionate conservative?" during the question and answer session after the show, Maher answered without dropping a beat: "A Democrat."

Pop-culture references dot his delivery but not in virtually every sentence, à la Dennis Miller. After implying that Saddam Hussein became an important figure for Bush to depose only after Osama bin Laden could not be found, Maher jokes that "Saddam Hussein is Hitler like Oasis is The Beatles -- everybody wants to be compared to the greats." Still, Dennis Miller's glee in his own irreverence puts audiences at greater ease than Maher's more sober persona. During much of Saturday evening's performance, Maher had the audience laughing hard and then stopping on a dime to think about something upsetting, in contrast to the kind of fluidity that Miller achieves.

Bill Maher:  Victory Begins at Home(Photo © Bruce Glikas)
Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home
(Photo © Bruce Glikas)
Also, we don't leave the theater with as cogent a picture as expected of what Maher seems to propose in the show's title: an agenda for a fuel-efficient, democracy-conscious anti-terror lifestyle. Slides of the posters from Maher's book, projected on a set designed by Peter R. Feuchtwanger, convey more of his perspective than Maher's references to the irony of American flags waving patriotically from SUVs. Still, the point is well taken when he says of Bush's suggestion that shopping is an important way to combat terrorism, "We were asked to do very little -- and we responded."

During the Q&A period, Maher said of his firing from his ABC job, "I got Dixie-Chicked." Otherwise, his status as a victim of the disturbing trend in which entertainers from one side of the political spectrum are punished for their speech by corporations went unremarked during the show, perhaps out of an unwillingness to burn some bridges completely. Maher did note during the talkback that he was scolded by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to remember that "Americans should watch what they say" during these times of terrorism, adding that "I think the reason this is a great country is that people don't have to watch what they say. I think that's called freedom."

Although Maher doesn't go for broke in this show, he does seem to suggest that we break some of our habits, such as our love of SUVs or our tendency toward political correctness. Bill Maher is thought-provoking in a way that has become increasingly valuable during this age of media conformity. That a comic, rather than a Presidential candidate, has echoed John Kennedy's call for an American moon landing within the decade with his own call for American independence from foreign oil within 10 years is among the clearest signs of our times.