Bill Maher’s once robust contrarian streak has shriveled over time.
By Matt Hanson
I used to love Bill Maher. This may be because I grew up in the ’90s, but I remember how excited my friends and I were about new episodes of his program Politically Incorrect. This also might say more about our misspent youth, but catching an episode of what Maher once called “the McLaughlin Group on acid” was a subversive, irreverent thrill. It wasn’t every day that you could see a political talk show that was willing to put Pamela Anderson, Christopher Hitchens, Gene Simmons, George Carlin, and Anne Coulter together.
PC culture was a relatively new phenomenon, so Maher’s libertarian-inflected banter felt fresh and subversive, particularly when he openly bragged on air about smoking pot, scoffed at religion, and vociferously defended Bill Clinton’s right to have morally questionable non-sex in the Oval Office. There was an appealing — though in retrospect somewhat smarmy — quality to Maher’s self-proclaimed embrace of political incorrectness. There was a whiff of smugness in the declaration, glimpses of a barely hidden streak of self-congratulation. The first rule of contrarianism is not to make a big deal of your contrarianism — having to remind everyone how independently minded you are is to miss the whole point.
Throughout his TV and standup career, Maher clearly enjoyed portraying himself as a ballsy truth-teller, a free thinker who pushes back against the snobbery of the left and the pervy pieties of the right. Ironically, that swashbuckling style has moved across the political spectrum. Nowadays, the politics of pissing off the squares has become an interest of the right. Decades ago, the hippies and Yippies gleefully thumbed their noses at convention; now it’s Trump supporters who revel in perpetual obnoxiousness.
Tabloid/Cable News TV has become the dominant mode of political discourse. There was a more innocent time when office water coolers bubbled with arguments whenever Bill Maher made an ass of himself on national TV via ABC. Shortly after 9/11, Maher insisted that the hijackers (whatever you thought of them) couldn’t be labeled cowards because they flew planes into a building. He followed this up suggesting that “we” were the real cowards, lobbing missiles from thousands of miles away. There was a kernel of truth in the first part of Maher’s remark, but only a bit — the shrillness, pointlessness, and knee-jerk outrage overshadowed the possibility of insight. Maher was subsequently booted from ABC. It wasn’t exactly cowardly to say what he said, but it damn sure wasn’t brave.
Nevertheless, back in 2003 I was excited when I first heard that HBO gave him a new show called Real Time. Those were the worrying early years of the Bush administration and I was newly politicized. Dissenting public voices were desperately needed. Conservatives whine about the media’s liberal bias, but the truth is that the fear of sounding partisan keeps the chattering classes in line. This reluctance to challenge conventional wisdom makes Bill Maher look like Lenny Bruce by comparison. Especially after the Bush administration’s horrific “liberation” of Iraq, the country needed a resilient comedic voice to take the administration to task. This Maher did, but usually on the safest (i.e. most obvious) topics, preferring to perpetually hit the easy punch line about Bush being a dumb redneck Jesus freak from Texas — long after it stopped being provocative.
Real Time’s live format quickly fell into a routine: opening with a mediocre monologue peppered with exasperated complaints about the news, followed by an interesting interview guest whom Maher usually interrupted or talked over, and then a panel discussion. The week’s guests could still make for good TV: celebrities bantered with the likes of Madeline Albright, Cornel West, and Rick Santorum. Eventually, hopes Real Time would provide fearless opinions and radical passions came to naught: you could see the guests tossing off their clearly pre-prepared, safely risqué one-liners into the camera.
Maher’s antagonistic relationship with the studio audience grew especially tiresome. He reflexively gibed and kidded his liberal supporters, assuming the worst when they groaned at his punch lines, pouting and scowling as if the real problem wasn’t that the material wasn’t as funny and risky as he assumed, but that everybody was really just too much of a ninny to laugh. It’s especially annoying when you consider the fact that Maher never fails to laugh at his own jokes.
As for the political commentary, Maher is right about many important topics — the urgency of climate change, the stupidity of the Iraq War, the necessity of free speech, the right to one’s own sexuality, taxing the 1%, etc. Ironically, his ’90s era libertarianism has now morphed into agreement with the spiel of such populists as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Was this opportunism, or a change of heart? In any case, a master of realpolitik he is not — it’s easy to see him pulled out of his depth when a real policy wonk is on the panel. Real Time is a comedy show that includes commentary — thus it will always skew towards the joke. And that is fine, but along the way Maher has been mistaken (by some) for a serious political analyst. After all, he must be smart — he’s on TV!
At this point, Maher’s once robust contrarian streak has shriveled. Witness the infamous debate among Maher, Ben Affleck, and Sam Harris about Islam. Maher brought up a dubious poll claiming that a majority of Muslims condone violence against apostates. It was left to Affleck, of all people, to call the statement out for being “gross and racist.” Mahler’s dubious data point offered little useful information about the beliefs of Islam or about the conduct of the majority of Muslims worldwide. Instead of sensing the dangers of painting a group of people with the poison brush of stereotype, Maher couldn’t resist complaining about liberals being afraid of looking “judgmental” in the face of worldwide terror, a sentiment that not only doesn’t add much to the conversation about radical Islam but echoes some of the rhetoric of the fringe right.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with tweaking the hyper sensitive, self-righteous left, but Maher does it for the wrong reasons and at the wrong times. Witness his needless (but highly publicized) interview with Milo Yiannopolous back in February. The slippery former Breitbart editor prattled off a series of non-sequiturs; Maher spent half the conversation stewing about how needlessly upset liberals had become over the supposedly harmless comments of “a British imp.”
If only outrage were that simple. Milo’s record was more than impish: not only was he a Breitbart editor (which is creepy enough), but he led a Twitter brigade to trash the new all-female Ghostbusters movie on social media, with particularly vile sentiments directed at Leslie Jones, the only black cast member. Milo’s career took a sharp downturn shortly after the interview, but Maher’s credit-hogging claim that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” didn’t ring true. It wasn’t Maher’s interview that held up Milo’s loathsomeness to scrutiny; it took someone else digging through Milo’s unsavory back pages to find his indefensible remarks.
Maher is often quite good at bringing diverse guests onto the show, which made his recent blurting out of our culture’s most forbidden word (which will be deleted by HBO in subsequent broadcasts) less shocking that was disappointing. It wasn’t just white privilege, obliviousness, or the knee-jerk reaction of a veteran comic. It was just another irritating example of Maher’s becoming much too comfortable in his self-appointed role as America’s wiseass of choice. Blurting out stupid things — blithely discarding sensible filters — is what happens when you’ve begun to believe your own hype. Or like Trump, you are too self-adoring to admit any boundaries.
To his credit, Maher apologized for his gaffe, and he had an earnest discussion about the word with Michael Eric Dyson and Ice Cube. One good thing about liberals is that when they say something offensive, it turns into a conversation; when conservatives do it, it turns into legislation. If anything, Maher’s bumpy first half of 2017 shows how badly he needs to rally as a comedian. His rather sudden summer hiatus might be a good time for him to stop and take stock.
Whether he intended to be or not, Maher has become a voice of cultural authority, a witness for the resistance. People look up to him as a liberal spokesman: of course, this says more about the sad state of the left (public intellectual division) than about his intellectual daring or comedic skill. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, postmodern political battles will be won and/or lost on Cable TV and social media. The left can’t afford to give an inch of territory in what has become a war of words waged across multiple platforms. Now, more than ever, we need Maher to up his game, stop laughing at his own jokes, and finally get real.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.