Bill Maher: Back for More
A Sharp Wit Hones His Commentary on HBO
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page C01
Obviously the main difference between HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and TV's other topical talk shows -- serious, funny or both -- is Bill Maher. Of all the comic commentators, Maher is the gutsiest, boldest and least inhibited. And yet he avoids the cheap exhibitionism of the professional provocateurs who run rampant and riot on cable networks and talk radio stations.
What you might call a crowded braying field.
On Maher's show, the wit is wittier, the barbs are barbier and the devil take the hindmost. In fact the devil once did take Maher's hindmost, in a way. ABC fired him and canceled his show "Politically Incorrect," predecessor to "Real Time," after Maher made remarks about the 9/11 terrorists that some people considered offensive.
The remarks were unwise and are best forgotten. But the good thing is, the experience hasn't tamed or intimidated Maher. Some people will always consider something offensive. It's a mark of distinction that Maher and "Real Time" probably irk and irritate as many viewers as any other show on television. But it's responsible irking. It's irritation that often contains illumination. And Maher can be proud of that.
"I don't think anybody does our kind of show with the kind of raw honesty we do," Maher said recently from his home in Los Angeles. "I don't think I ever have a lot of competition in that field -- people who are willing to say things that get you booed." Asked to comment on TV's most overpraised series, "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, Maher begs off. Host Jon Stewart, he says, is a friend. But "The Daily Show" hasn't nearly the chutzpah of "Real Time," and Stewart looks into the camera begging, pleading to be loved. He sometimes looks as though he's either kissing the lens or using it as a mirror to fix his lipstick.
On Friday's season premiere of "Real Time," not all the highlights were verbal. Late in the show, Maher joined guest Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11") on the studio floor so they could both beg Ralph Nader, on their knees, not to run again. Nader just grinned that evil grin of his. Okay, not evil -- but increasingly annoying.
"The first time, I never blamed Ralph for Bush winning, though I know a lot of people did," Maher says. "But this time, everybody I know who voted for Ralph last time is not going to vote for him this time. We all got a little reality slapped into us by George W. Bush. I regret that vote now. I see it as a bratty thing to have done."
A certain amount of brattiness, of course, is essential to "Real Time." Like Maher's earlier show, but to less radical extremes, it features quirky and quixotic guest lists. In addition to Moore and Nader, Friday night's show had former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) and rapper Andre 3000 from OutKast.
Still there are guests whom Maher and his producers find ungettable. "John McCain won't do my show," grumps Maher. "He wouldn't do my old show and he won't do this one. We haven't been able to get John Kerry so far. Those are the two main ones who stand out as politicians. The other one is Noam Chomsky. I've been chomsking at the bit to get him on but can't seem to do it. Maybe he doesn't do TV.
"I think we'll get Kerry this year. Bill Clinton we never had on. He was president during my last show, mostly. I don't know if we've ever tried hard enough to get him. I think he's one of the people we'll go after full-force this time. With the old show, I could see why some people were reluctant to do it. When you're stuck on a panel with Carrot Top and Danny Bonaduce, God knows what they would say. Even if I behaved myself, you never knew who else you were going to get stuck with.
"The old show there was always the pressure to book what they call a 'face,' but I think [HBO Chairman] Chris Albrecht said, 'I don't think people care about that on a show like this.' And I agree. This is a show people tune in to hear good conversations."
Maher loathes Bush and sounds like a liberal Democrat on many issues -- but not all, which helps explain how he's able to get prominent Republicans, including hard-core conservatives, to come on the show. On Friday night, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), wearing by far the night's best necktie, became a punching bag for most of the others, unfortunately. At one point Maher scolded the audience for being too mean to Dreier.
But then Dreier is a big boy and wasn't all that sympathetic. Spewing an obviously rehearsed line, Dreier told Moore, "Your movie is as much a documentary as Pravda was a newspaper." Cute? Moore admits his movie is a personal tract as much as a documentary, Pravda in fact was a newspaper, and, perhaps most important, Dreier had to admit he hasn't even seen Moore's film yet.
Probably never read Pravda all that often, either. But at least Dreier had the guts to show up on the program.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company