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Funny as Hell

By John Murphy

Posted 10/10/08 at 8:12 AM

There’s a segment of the Tonight Show called “Jaywalking,” where Jay Leno asks regular Joes (“Joe Sixpacks”?) simple questions about history, politics, geography, etc. Considering the answers he gets, you’d think Burbank a social experiment gone wrong.

Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect, adopts the Jaywalking method in his new movie, Religulous. Only instead of a few blocks over the course of an afternoon, Maher has scoured the world for several months to find the choicest examples of religious idiocy to prove that religion is idiotic. So as to not show his hand, Maher saves his thesis statement for the end of the movie: “Faith means making a virtue of non-thinking.” Because he’s taken an hour-and-a-half to strew the screen with straw men, non-thinkers in the audience will nod their heads in agreement.

There’s only one snag: a sneer is not an argument. Proving that religion is false because some of its practitioners are stupid (or edited to look that way) is no proof at all. Among scores of others, Maher interviews an anti-Zionist rabbi, the curator of a Creationist museum, the members of a truckers chapel, and a bling-wearing reverend. It’s easy to see that they make idiots of themselves (the reverend, wearing an expensive suit, fumbles to recall the Bible passage about a certain camel and a needle’s eye). But if art lies to tell the truth, to paraphrase Picasso, Maher manipulates truth to tell a lie. A filmmaker could interview Albert Einstein for two hours and easily cut the footage to make him resemble a slobbering idiot (Larry Charles, the director, is particularly fond of the “Stunned Reaction Shot,” where an interviewee looks suddenly befuddled by one of Maher’s zingers.) Here’s the thing: making Einstein look dumb would not, in fact, be an argument against the theory of relativity.

The point of Leno’s “Jaywalking” is to be funny, not to prove that people are stupid. The point of Religulous is to prove that religion is wrong because people are stupid and Bill Maher is funny. If it were that simple, then I’d say score one for Maher. A shame, then, that real arguments require real thinking.