One the most frightening hours of TV I’ve seen this year had nothing to do with ghouls, murder or mayhem. It was a talk show.
An August episode of Real Time with Bill Maher (Fridays on HBO, 10 p.m. ET) had a robust panel of guests. They were Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. counterterrorism intelligence officer; Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist; Kristen Soltis Anderson, a columnist for The Washington Examiner; Charles Blow of The New York Times; and historian Nancy MacLean of Duke University. MacLean is the author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
There was a lively conversation about Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and where that might lead the U.S. government. MacLean then explained that her book is about radical right-wing elements of big business that are quietly changing the country’s direction. At the end, Maher was both weary and alarmed. MacLean is not a pundit. She’s an academic fastidiously researching a long-game plan for her country. Everybody watching had to be alarmed.
Maher doesn’t get enough credit or attention for what he does on his show. It’s live, lively, serious-minded and unique. He’s funny, an iconoclast and, often, startlingly correct about politics.
Last week, HBO aired The Other Side: Real Time With Bill Maher Anniversary Special. (It is repeated Thursday on HBO Canada, 8:30 p.m. ET, and Maher has a new episode on Friday.) It marked Maher’s 25-year career in political comedy, from Politically Incorrect on ABC to now. While there were plenty of celebrities – Barbra Streisand, Salman Rushdie, Billy Crystal, Sarah Silverman and others – to praise him, what emerged was a picture of a rare, long-time skeptic.
Politically Incorrect, which began on Comedy Central and moved to ABC in 1997, was landmark TV. A half-hour show, it was about issues of the day discussed by Maher and a motley array of guests, usually from showbiz, the arts and politics. It could go lightweight or it could be cruelly perceptive about that place where culture and politics intersect.
Maher knows what “politically incorrect” actually means. In an episode shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he and a guest challenged president George W. Bush’s assertion that the attackers were “cowards.” He also criticized U.S. military policies. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer castigated Maher, saying that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.” Advertisers fled and ABC cancelled the show. (It was replaced by Jimmy Kimmel Live.) Then HBO gave Maher a weekly show he’s had ever since.
Unlike John Oliver and Samantha Bee, Maher is genuinely interested in debate and information. He has brought on Steve Bannon and had a provocative chat with him. He is against fatuous virtue-signalling and mocks it. But he is engaged by the expression of such views and by the pedantic manoeuvres involved. Sometimes he seems to be the only sane person speaking on TV about politics and the larger culture.
Look around the talk-show landscape, across the shows by Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and the weekly outings from Oliver and Bee, and what you see is a desire for unanimity about the awfulness of the Trump era. Look at Maher and what you see is a scold, a critic of unanimity. What he loathes, really, are progressive virtues falsely magnified into a political movement.
He was one of the first to take the Trump candidacy seriously. He said from the start that Trump made the other Republican candidates look weak and indecisive. He takes the pessimistic view that Trump will not be ousted from office by an election or impeachment but will cling to power by any means necessary.
One of the highlights of the anniversary special was a recounting of Maher’s own brush with Trump’s ire. In 2013, while Trump was promoting the idea that president Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen, Maher made a crude joke about Trump’s appearance. “Donald Trump must immediately submit to DNA tests to determine whether he is in fact the love child of a human woman and an orangutan from the Brooklyn Zoo.” It was standard stand-up comedian raillery. But Trump sued Maher for US$5-million. He solemnly announced the lawsuit on Fox & Friends. Months later, he dropped the suit.
In the ceaseless cycles of fast political and social-media reactions, Maher is steadfast and a weekly rebuke to everything. He doesn’t want respect. He’s too quizzical and too much the scoffer for that. But he’s earned it.