When comedian Bill Maher decided to start a tradition of doing two shows in Hawaii each year, his aim was to become “the Don Ho of New Year’s,” an annual tradition for fans of comedy — OK, liberal fans of comedy.
The danger as the custom nears a decade is that the show could become stale or taken for granted. Tuesday night’s show at the Blaisdell Concert Hall provided plenty of evidence that neither is happening. The last few seats sold the day of the show, and the packed house saw maybe the event’s best iteration yet — a two-hour-plus collection of big laughs, genuine surprises and comfortable traditions.
Maher’s work is dependable. He can be polarizing even within the progressive subset — mocking the so-called over-PC “cancel culture” — but he is who he is. If you like his work, he delivers, consistently. On this night he was a bit preachier than usual — ironic for someone so opposed to religion. His main focus of the night seemed to be imploring Democrats not to blow this year’s presidential election and joking (warning?) about the civil war he thinks will result if Donald Trump is voted out but refuses to leave office.
Maher ran through most of the remaining Democratic field — he didn’t waste time on Tulsi — and noted their flaws. For someone who supported Bernie Sanders four years ago and who enjoys the role of outsider, he was surprisingly supportive of Joe Biden, downplaying some of the accusations of unwelcome touching and the former vice president’s unwillingness to back Medicare for all.
With Maher as reliable as he is, the variable each year is the guests. He has been bringing two a year with him for five years. Some years have been better than others, but this year’s happened to be two of the best yet, up there with Dana Gould’s set in 2016 and Jeff Ross’ in 2015.
Bobby Slayton, who goes by the nickname “The Pitbull of Comedy,” is a true veteran, a comic whose celebrity among his peers surpasses his name recognition with the general public, even though he’s built himself a decent career as an actor as well.
Slayton trades in a lot of the same “politically incorrect” humor Maher does, but where the HBO talk show star dabbles, the raspy-voiced Slayton dances around in it, splashes it up in his audience’s faces and revels in it as it washes over him.
The old-school approach somehow works, even in these more careful times. There were fewer moans and groans than you’d expect from the audience as he worked again and again off racial and gender stereotypes, a gasp here and there, but always, ultimately, laughter.
For example, Slayton came up through the San Francisco comedy scene doing a lot of “Asian humor” — two of his best-known bits are about communication issues for Jews eating in a Chinese restaurant and the lack of variety in Chinese haircuts (which spun off from the restaurant piece and is reminiscent of Hawaii’s own decades-old joke about rice-bowl haircuts). He joked Tuesday about how that humor might not fly in Hawaii with our large Asian population, but he took a shot anyway with a one-liner about the benefits of having an Asian girlfriend that relies on the old racist notion that all Asians look alike. It didn’t get a huge laugh — it’s not one of his better jokes — but after being taken aback, the audience laughed and moved on.
Maybe it’s because we’re used to mild racial humor after decades of exposure to Frank DeLima. Maybe it’s because Slayton jokes about his own Jewish people as well and doesn’t come off as someone who looks down on people who are different from him. Maybe it’s just because his jokes are funny.
Maher’s other announced guest this year was Sarah Silverman, who is the opposite of Slayton in many ways: She’s found a level of fame reached by few comedians. Where Slayton has a gruff delivery and raw subject matter but has developed a sweetness over the years, Silverman has a deceptively innocent delivery that belies her sharp tongue and sometimes dark material.
Silverman opened with humor about being Jewish — by ethnicity not religion — and much of the rest of her act shot off of that, such as a joke about the English translation of the title of “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler’s book, which is “My Struggle.” The genius was not just in her punchline (“Is there a more Jewish title than that?”) but in how she got there, as she started by asking the audience if they knew the name of Hitler’s book and did some very enjoyable crowd work on the way to her payoff.
Beyond the announced guests, Maher has often been good for some surprises. Sometimes they come in as small a form as Michael Moore and Sean Penn introducing Maher, as they did six years ago. On this night, the cameos were big.
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder returned for a 15-minute set to start the show. He opened with the solo song “Guaranteed” from his soundtrack to the film “Into the Wild,” which he said came at the request of Penn, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film and was in the audience.
Vedder then grabbed an ukulele and Silverman joined him on stage to sing “Tonight You Belong to Me, which Steve Martin sang in his film “The Jerk.” Silverman said in an interview last month that Martin was one of her inspirations to pursue an entertainment career.
That all built to first-time Maher guest Joe Walsh of the Eagles, who dueted with Vedder on the Who’s “The Seeker” and offered a quip about the British band’s guitarist who wrote the song (“I stayed up two weeks one night with Peter Townshend.”)
Vedder and Walsh returned to cap the show as it ends every year, with a performance of the Charlie Chaplin composition “Smile,” though the comedians left that to the professional musicians this year.
Vedder did not appear on the bill a night earlier at the Maui Arts and Culture Center, though the Valley Isle did get appearances from residents Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson during Maher’s traditional reading of’ “’Twas the Night Before 4/20,” which they are mentioned in.
Assuming Maher returns next year — he says once the year starts he is counting down the days to his next visit to Hawaii — it will be interesting to see if he cooks up anything even more special for his big 10th annual Hawaii tour.