Friday, December 15, 2017

The Virtues and Perils of Being an Equal Opportunity Offender: Real Time with Bill Maher

Real Time with Bill Maher recently concluded its 15th season on HBO.

Considering that I was a devoted aficionado of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect show when it ran on ABC in the late '90s and early '00s, I can’t explain why it took me until late last year to get into his HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher this after the show had been on the air for well over a decade. Nevertheless, I’ve made up for my neglect with gusto and now never miss an episode. Since Donald Trump became President, a fact that energizes and enrages Maher in equal measure, Real Time with Bill Maher appears more than ever to be an oasis of intelligence in a U.S. media and television landscape too often dominated by ignorance and superficiality. For those of us despairing of the United States since November 2016, Real Time provides hope that all is not lost there, despite the actions of those deplorable voters who put the ignorant, bullying Trump in their country’s driver’s seat. And yet, it’s debatable if the show is making the slightest bit of difference in changing or bettering the political landscape it’s so intent on addressing. But first, the good things about the show.

One reason Real Time is so gripping, I think, is, as a former co-worker once mentioned, that the show consistently features intelligent guests, either interviewed by Maher or participating in his panel discussions. They're not just liberals, as you might expect, but conservatives, too though not often the sort who support Trump. (Those few Trump supporters who do show up, such as political lobbyist Roger Stone, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and Evangelical leader Ralph Reed Maher is quick to praise them for putting themselves in front of a generally hostile live audience rarely distinguish themselves, being prone to lying, obfuscating and not conceding that their man has done anything but good in America.) The discourse, in other words, is usually elevated, passionate and thoughtful, traits needed more than ever in the U.S. these days.

Maher has his favourites, of course, notably certain politicians (Elizabeth Warren; Al Franken, who probably won’t be invited back on the show now that he’s been forced to resign after accusations, most still unproven, of sexual misconduct), entertainment figures (director Rob Reiner; magician/debunker Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame) and a whole lot of scientists, writers and thinkers, such as Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny), Kurt Andersen (Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History), and Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry) --  the dangerous effects of climate change being one of Maher's foremost concerns. And because he’s well read, Maher usually zeros in the issues that need to be discussed, which these days often centre on the damage President Trump is doing in so many ways.

None of this would be palatable or arresting if Maher weren’t so genuinely funny and biting and since he’s on cable, he is allowed to swear with the best of them. (Politically Incorrect was often bleeped for language, which removed some of the sting from Maher’s utterances.) He’s also not afraid to go for the satiric jugular, including posting fake pics of Trump fellating Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which even by cable standards was audacious beyond belief. But don’t underestimate him just because of this type of salacious jibe. Maher is a genuine patriot who is disgusted with and despairing of what is not going on in his country, especially the evil machinations of the Republicans. Nothing gets his goat more than when a guest or someone in the news compares Hillary Clinton to the Donald or suggests her victory would not have made an appreciable difference in how the U.S. is being run. That’s sheer nonsense, of course, but it is still bracing for Maher to point out the idiocy of such a statement with such vehemence and conviction. (Maher did once write, in one of his books, that there was no distinction to be made between the main American political parties, but obviously he’s come to his senses since then.)

But what distinguishes Maher most from other liberals is his refusal to traffic in political correctness or speak for everyone’s freedom of speech, similar to what the late and much-missed Christopher Hitchens was all about. And like Hitchens – another outspoken atheist – Maher won’t mince words about Islamic terrorism. (That phrase is uttered only reluctantly by most liberals, who may understandably fear that using it foments Islamophobia, but its denial fails to deal with the religious elements/basis involved in the majority of the terror attacks worldwide.) And he will call out those left-wingers who try to shut down conservative voices on campus. He’s neither a hypocrite nor a dupe and his constant hammering at the injustices happening all around him make him a necessary part of the political dynamic unfolding in the U.S.

He did blow it, however, when he interviewed extreme right-wing gadfly Milo Yiannopoulos, focusing exclusively on the fact that Yiannopoulos had been prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley and completely ignoring his racism, homophobia and justification for pedophilia. Maher was almost barred from Berkeley, too, after first being invited, but after a raft of negative publicity his invite was restored. No doubt that experience is why he preferred to cast Yiannopoulos only as a free speech martyr whilst overlooking the man’s vile provocations. As an interviewer, Maher does leave something to be desired, not always following through on a line of inquiry or going off topic too often. (As someone who has interviewed many people, I get annoyed when he doesn’t ask the right questions.)

But that brings me to two realities, only one of which Maher can take the blame for, that undermine the effectiveness of what he does most weeks on the tube. One is the fra- boy antics that he and some of his male guests are prone to. When one female guest, conservative Amy Holmes, inadvertently uttered a phrase ("going down," I believe) that could also be seen to have sexual connotations, the sniggering by Maher, Jillette and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome was right out of high school. (That Maher was also extremely uncomfortable when interviewing Eddie Izzard, the British comedian who is also a transvestite, suggests that the host is a bit old school when it comes to less common sexualities.) And, truth be told, many women on Maher’s panels let the men overwhelm them, simply because women have never been conditioned to dominate conversations the way men have. I don’t think Maher and company shut the women down on purpose, but there are too many occasions where the female guests don’t get their say. It was also unnecessary and childish for Maher to slam Trump (and others) for being fat. There are any numbers of reasons to castigate President Trump but his weight is not one of them.

One thing that Maher shouldn’t have been raked over the coals for was was his lame joke about being a "house nigger," uttered in reply to something Republican senator Ben Sasse had said. To its discredit, HBO, Maher’s network, instantly apologized for his joke and censored it from the show’s repeats after its initial live airing. More significant was Maher’s own apology (or rather non-apology) the next week on the show. It was clear that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong – and he hadn’t, because as a stand-up comic, which is his main job, he was doing what ballsy stand-ups always do: shock people with bold language – and was obviously pushed into issuing an apology he clearly didn’t believe. (If he hadn’t recanted, he’d probably have lost the show, such are the censorious, politically correct times we live in.) More telling was black actor Ice Cube’s response to Maher as a panelist on that follow-up show. "I love your show, but you been bucking up that line a little bit. You got a lot of black jokes . . . Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker." He then asked, "What made you think that it was cool to say that?" I don’t necessarily agree with Ice Cube but it was an illuminating example of the host's being challenged where it hurt – and he didn’t like it one bit. It also illustrated that even Maher’s guests sometimes think he pushes the envelope in a non-productive way.

Elizabeth Warren and Bill Maher on Real Time with Bill Maher.

The other reason Real Time may not be such a success is something that is completely beyond Maher’s control and that is the deep divide between conservative and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, which allows both groups to pretty much ignore each other (when they are not at cross-swords). All credit to Maher for having the other side on his liberal show as often as he does – I doubt right-wing Fox News attempts to do that – but he is hampered by the refusal of most conservatives to even appear on his show, as he’s indicated is the case. It likely doesn’t help either that he is known to shut their comments down when they do appear if he really hates what they say. I understand how angry they can make him, but it doesn’t allow for as deep a discussion as could be had. I also wish he (or HBO) would let some of his panels run long, instead of cutting them short so he can wrap the show up with his funny photo captions routine ("New Rules") and his strong and memorable editorials. Can’t the show sometimes run longer than an hour? It’s not commercial TV, after all.

More to the point, Maher is on an elitist station that is subscriber-based and I doubt very many folks on the right would bother to subscribe to HBO, not just because of Maher but in opposition to all the freewheeling, uncensored fare the network is known for proffering. At least dial hopping on network TV once meant such a viewer might alight on ABC, when Maher worked there, and, perhaps, stay with the show and absorb some of what he and his guests were saying. But this is an impossibility with cable fare, which you have to deliberately choose to view. It’s also why Jimmy Kimmel, on ABC, could make an impact with his impassioned pleas to save Obamacare – his own experiences as the father of an ill infant informed this view – in a way that Maher simply could not, as Kimmel is on the public airwaves, which all Americans, of course, receive for free.

In the panel discussion on Maher’s last episode before his winter break (incidentally one of his best all season), reporter/writer Carl Bernstein (of All The President’s Men fame) opined that at least during the Watergate era everyone, right or left, tuned into the same news shows and read the same publications – and others more to their leanings besides – so they would hear others’ voices much of the time. It meant there would be some bleeding of opposing ideas and impact, therefore, on both sides of the political aisle. That type of connection is no longer the case, so Real Time with Bill Maher, for all its virtues, cannot matter as much as it should. The people watching the show agree with almost all the people appearing on it and with its host, too, so there can’t help but be an element of smugness and self-satisfaction on hand. It doesn’t diminish its intelligence or necessity, but it also means that to no small degree it’s operating in a vacuum. I’ll keep watching and enjoying it, but I won’t fool myself into believing it matters as much in the grand scheme as Bill Maher no doubt hopes it does.

Real Time with Bill Maher returns for its 16th season on January 19. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he began teaching a course on fact-based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He also finished teaching a course in October on The Exciting and Provocative Cinema of Israel in London, Ontario.

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