When Fox News host Dana Perino proposed in January that the outspoken and ostensibly left-leaning comic Bill Maher, 66, might make a good Democratic presidential candidate, the veteran stand-up was only too pleased to shoot down the idea.
In the next instalment of Real Time with Bill Maher – the current events chat show he has fronted on HBO since 2003 – Maher offered his rebuttal in a straight-to-camera monologue entitled “How the Left was Lost”.
Swiftly dismissing Perino’s suggestion that he could run in 2024, Maher joked: “In the space of 20 years, Bush press secretaries have gone from telling me I need to watch what I say... to wondering if I should run for president.”
The remark alluded to Ari Fleischer’s attack on his explosive comments about American “cowardice” in the aftermath of 9/11, offered in conversation with Dinesh D’Souza, which eventually led to the cancellation of his ABC show Politically Incorrect after sponsors pulled their commercials in droves.
Continuing the January segment, Maher reassured his audience: “It’s not me who’s changed, it’s the left, who is now made up of a small contingent who’ve gone mental. And a large contingent who refuse to call them out for it. But I will.
“That’s why I’m a hero at Fox these days. Which shows just how much liberals have their head up their a** because, if they really thought about it, they would have made me a hero on their media. But that can’t happen in this ridiculous new era of mind-numbing partisanship where if I keep it real about the nonsense in the Democratic Party, it makes me an instant hero to Republicans.”
Maher went on: “The same thing happened in reverse to Darth Vader’s daughter, Liz Cheney. Who is now a hero to liberals simply because she recognises Biden did not steal the last election. What a sad commentary on our politics. Where simply acknowledging reality is now seen as a profile in courage.
“People sometimes say to me, ‘You know, you didn’t used to make fun of the left as much.’ Yeah, because they didn’t give me so much to work with. The oath of office I took was to comedy. And if you do goofy s***, wherever you are in this spectrum, I’m going to make fun of you because that’s where the gold is.”
Maher went on to rebuke progressive House Democrats for a string of “woke” talking points that he (and Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity) disapprove of, presenting tweets from “Squad” members Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib to illustrate the rant.
“It’s not my fault that the party of FDR and JFK is turning into the party of LOL and WTF. Members of Congress tweeting things like ‘cancel rent’, ‘cancel mortgage’ and ‘no more policing or incarceration’, declaring that capitalism is slavery, cancelling Lincoln and Dr Seuss, teaching children they’re oppressors and math is racist, making Mr Potato Head gender-neutral and now an emoji for pregnant men…”
While liberals often like to ask what happened to Bill Maher, uncomfortable with his more recent positions and the disquieting thought that they might once have approved of his material, there is certainly a school of thought that the man himself is right, that he is in fact absurdly consistent and that society has changed, not him.
The son of an Irish-American radio news editor and a nurse of Hungarian Jewish stock, Maher has banged the drum for the same pet passions throughout his career and rarely wavered, routinely taking on organised religion, championing animal rights and calling for the legalisation of cannabis (the New Yorker sold pot to pay his way through Ivy League Cornell University, he says).
After graduating in 1978, he became a compere at the legendary Catch a Rising Star comedy club and developed his stand-up act throughout the 1980s until he was given his first TV show, Politically Incorrect, which he hosted for nine years between its debut on Comedy Central in 1993 and its axing on ABC in 2002 after the 9/11 uproar.
The clue was in the name.
Liberals who watched that incarnation of Maher should perhaps not be so surprised by his more recent exploits like the “Woke Olympics” diatribe he launched into last summer over the Tokyo Games, a bit in which he complained that cancel culture had led to a “Stalinist purge” of creatives involved in the tournament and attacked members of the online commentariat who, he said, had complained that the inclusion of surfing for the first time was problematic because it co-opted a native Hawaiian tradition.
“Of all the violations of the woke penal code, cultural appropriation just might be the dumbest of all,” Maher snapped. “Not everything is about oppression.”
Writing recently about the comedian’s fall from favour with Democrats over the course of the last decade, Ben Burgis of The Daily Beast argued, similarly to Maher himself, that the phenomenon was “less explained by his own views than it is by the completely-altered state of America’s political battle lines”.
He continued: “In the 2000s, when Republicans wore evangelical Christianity on their sleeves and focused their energy on opposing abortion and gay marriage, progressives spent more time worrying about creeping theocracy than about structural racism or economic inequality.
“In 2004, if Maher was for gay rights and atheism and legalised weed and he told a lot of rough jokes about the stupidity of George W Bush, that was enough for progressives to see him as one of them. If he talked a lot of nonsense about vaccines and ‘western medicine’, well, plenty of ageing hippies in the Democratic base talked the same way… Was he an Islamophobic warmonger? Who wasn’t?”
While that contextualising rings true, it is also undeniable that Maher has been re-energised of late by shifting focus towards his grievances with Democrats and performative virtue-signalling on Twitter, which has coincided with a turbulent period for America in which he might equally have spent his ire on the GOP’s shameless pandering to Donald Trump.
But perhaps he felt the late night field was crowded enough on that score, with Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Jimmy Kimmel all staking out similar terrain in recent times.
It should be said that Maher was vehemently anti-Trump himself long before the latter’s ascent to the White House and even went on The Tonight Show amid the Obama “birther” nonsense of 2013 and challenged the real estate mogul to produce his own birth certificate to prove that he was not, in fact, part-orangutan in exchange for $5m (the Apprentice host did so and launched a short-lived lawsuit when Maher refused to pay up).
To his credit, Maher later correctly predicted that Trump would falsely cry foul over his defeat in the 2020 presidential election and that an eruption of violence would be the result.
However, like Trump, the comic has insisted on using the Sinophobic slur “Wuhan virus” to describe the coronavirus, denying that doing so was racist, and railed against the media’s addiction to hysterical “panic porn” coverage of the pandemic, risking downplaying the seriousness of the situation at a pivotal moment for the vaccine drive (despite expressing scepticism about inoculation in conversation with Larry King during the bird flu scare of 2005, Maher himself is vaccinated against Covid-19).
That hit-and-miss record in relation to the 45th president actually neatly parallels Maher’s general run of form as a combatant in the culture wars.
At his best, he can pull off something genuinely provocative like the Real Time segment “White Shame” from September 2019 in which he slammed the posturing, self-flagellatory manner in which caucasions profess embarrassment about their race on social media, diagnosing a “weird self-loathing going on among white liberals” that manifests itself offline as patronising African-Americans at parties (fruitful territory also explored by the likes of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm).
The host rebuked his targets by reminding them, “You can’t be more offended than the victim”, and proposed that, if their guilt is really as heavy a burden as they claim, they should begin paying out reparations for slavery personally in the form of an annual “Honky Tax”.
When he is in less strident mood, he also has a nice line in fatherly advice.
“We’re never finished evolving,” he said in April 2018, responding to revisionist attitudes towards aspects of John Hughes’s 1980s teen comedies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. “I hate to break it to you but, no matter how ‘woke’ you think you are, you are tolerating things right now that will make you cringe in 25 years.”
Having said that, his habit of wallowing in crude generalisations can cause him to come across more like a scolding, Facebook-pilled uncle ruining Thanksgiving, as in his “OK Zoomer” piece responding to last November’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.
A smug attack on teenagers, Maher appeared to see no difference between the two sub-cultures he generously defined: idealistic environmentalists inspired by Greta Thunberg and feckless, Instagram-obsessed Kylie Jenner wannabes with a sideline in cryptomining.
How far Maher is prepared to go in taking the sword to groups once assumed to be his allies remains to be seen.
Burgis accuses him of “more or less explicitly” joining the Intellectual Dark Web and, like fellow controversy-magnet Joe Rogan, he has certainly made a point of inviting its denizens like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson onto Real Time, apparently in the interest of championing free speech, challenging their opinions and granting them the platform they customarily insist they are being denied outside of conservative media ghettos.
“If I banned everybody from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I would be talking to myself,” he said during his notorious February 2017 interview with Yiannopoulos, who flippantly expressed sympathy for child abusers during their discussion and subsequently lost his editing role at Breitbart News, his book deal with Simon & Schuster and was booted out of CPAC.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Maher told The New York Times of that scandal, taking credit for his guest’s downfall. “You’re welcome."
So what are we to make of this man in 2022?
On the other, he has endorsed racial profiling at airports and branded the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment “McCarthyite”, inflammatory interventions even if his intentions were tongue-in-cheek and aimed squarely at baiting the complacent.
The “ridiculous new era of mind-numbing partisanship” he so despises likes to pigeonhole people politically and, in many ways, Maher’s impassioned resistance to that impulse is refreshing.
In doing so, he is arguing for a messier, more contradictory, more conflicted, more nuanced and more honest spirit of public discourse, a reasonable request in what often feels like an age of unreason and rabid tribalism.
But in joining lesser talents in attacking the whininess of online wokery, he is surely squandering his energies in picking unwinnable fights about nothing and playing into the hands of both his own critics and of those who so cynically make a cushy living out of sowing division for mass entertainment.
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