The last time Bill Maher headlined at the Chicago Theatre, he had Ann Coulter along for, forgive me, balance. That, it felt, was a rivalry born in mutual expediency, a mock political debate for the 2009 Speaker Series. Just as Coulter's conservative bona fides have always been open to question — the extremes always being more lucrative for the provocateur — so was Maher's apparent antagonism toward her. More alike than either of them would have cared to admit, this odd couple surely were headed out together for a post-show drink to spend some of the suckers' cash, leaving everyone behind to scream at each other across the aisle.
This time, no Coulter, more bucks for Maher, who wrapped up the TBS Just for Laughs festival with a more-than-ample, two-hour solo stand before an impressively large and enthusiastic crowd. There were no funny videos, no opening act, no HBO clips, nothing beyond a music stand and verbal red meat for the liberals of, he said, a "no-brainer city." He intended that as a compliment to Chicago, the implication being that other cities on his personal touring circuit required some brain power to discern if they were, in fact, cities. But it took us a moment to catch his drift.
Mahler likes to drift in general, although one had to admire his ability to sustain so a long a monologue, a reasonable portion of which felt fresh. His material is, of course, mostly political and timely. His takedowns of the scandals surrounding the tea party and the Internal Revenue Service were amusing (was it really that surprising, he noted, that the IRS would take a closer look at an organization dedicated to its destruction?), as were his jabs at the worldview of John McCain, an avuncular man for whom Maher formerly had some affection.
Like most political comics, Maher needs his paper tigers — Donald Trump, most notably (one assumes he was not staying in the man's hotel). But Maher is, fundamentally, a deconstructionist most adept at undermining those who believe in a godly center to our motley time on earth. There's a world weariness to his tone flowing from his sense, as he put it, that Republicans are crazy and Democrats are disappointing.
A lot of the comedians who poke fun at Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney (in whom Maher said he saw nothing but 1950s naivete) are handsome, A-lister types. But Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and, on this same stage two days earlier, Seth Meyers feel a lot like politicians themselves. Maher is more the hippyish outsider. Increasingly so. He's more of a sensualist than those peers, wallowing more in the pleasure of words but also looking more like a weary road warrior lampooning an America that he does not expect to change. There are sharper political commentators now, but the one thing Maher does better than anyone is understand the pervasiveness of expedient choices.
Maher did not go after Democrats much (he knows his crowd), but he did point out their rush to get behind gay marriage, just as polls in favor hit 51 percent. Maher is a cynic, and his best comedy is witheringly sardonic. He plays Eeyore — well, Eeyore after a few tokes — especially well.
There was plenty of demand; most of the headlining shows at this summer's Just for Laughs attracted big crowds. This is the power of festival marketing: Maher on his own would not normally fill such a big venue. What seemed to be missing this year, though, were events that felt distinctive. As annoying as Vince Vaughn's macho-fest show was last year, the bill was, at least, unique. As funny and well-organized as the Just for Laughs marquee attractions mostly were, they felt more like standard road stops rather than the kinds of curated comedic extravaganzas that would motivate someone to jump on a plane for Chicago.