The proverb “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is credited to Chilon the Wise, the same Greek sage from 500 B.C. who said “Do not laugh at a person in misfortune.” Chilon, no surprise, has never been a fan of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher most likely due to philosophical differences with the show’s host.
On Friday night’s show Maher had his audience cringing with the post-mortem zingers he aimed at two recently deceased (and widely reviled) news figures, wealthy sex predator Jeffrey Epstein and billionaire conservative activist David Koch.
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“And now, some funeral news to report [from] yesterday: David Koch, of the zillionaire Koch brothers, died of prostate cancer,” Maher said early in his monologue. “I guess I’m going to have to re-evaluate my low opinion of prostate cancer. He was 79, but his family says they wish he could live longer, but at least he lived long enough to see the Amazon catch fire. Condolences poured in from all the politicians he owned, and mourners have been asked in lieu of flowers to just leave their car engines running. As for his remains, he’s been asked to be cremated and have his ashes blown into a child’s lungs.”
The laughter from the audience was tinged with an audible discomfort so Maher acknowledged their reaction by doubling down.
“Now, I know these may seem like harsh words and harsh jokes, and I’m sure I will be condemned for them on Fox News, which will portray Mr. Koch as a principled Libertarian who believed in the free market. He and his brother have done more than anybody to fund climate-science deniers for decades, so f— him. The Amazon is burning. I’m glad he’s dead and I hope the end was painful.”
Wow. You don’t hear that kind of commentary very often from major television talk show hosts — well, unless you’re watching Maher. Other comedians may be too conservative, timid, or cautious to take a dig at someone six feet under but Maher reaches for that shovel all the time.
Last week, for instance, his target was Epstein, whose death by hanging in a New York jail cell prevented his trial on sex crimes: “Well, did you see what happened in the stock market this week? I spent more time gasping for breath than Jeffrey Epstein…yes, Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell. And they say America can’t do anything anymore.”
On Friday, Maher circled back to the disgraced financier for another round of stiff insults. It was during Maher’s exasperated riff on the limited mental capacities of President Donald J. Trump, “I don’t want to say he has the mind of a child but today Jeffrey Epstein’s ghost tried to f— him.”
Some in the audience howled, some likely winced, but Maher definitely stirs up a different energy when he treads past the vague line that usually separates corpse wisecracks from socially comfortable topics. Maher clearly recognized and enjoyed the subversive moment. “Gentle good humor, that’s what we do here, gentle good humor…”