Bill Maher is the closest any of us alive today will get to fulfilling every definition of the word “iconoclast.” In the Byzantine era, some 700 years after the events depicted in the Bible, iconoclasts were people who literally destroyed religious imagery. Maher — a loudly outspoken atheist — has never personally stood in the Hagia Irene scraping frescoes off the walls, but his 2008 documentary “Religulous” takes plenty of swings at religious belief in all its forms.
In modern parlance, of course, the word “iconoclast” has taken on a much broader definition, describing anyone who looks to poke holes in the status quo. And in that regard, Maher stands head and shoulders above the rest.
He is a sometimes infuriating mix of ideologies, subscribing to no single dogma. Instead, Maher’s political outlook borrows from Ron Paul and Paul Wellstone in seemingly equal measure: He supports the death penalty but would happily do away with the Second Amendment; and he believes in legalizing marijuana and supports the profiling of Muslims by law enforcement agencies.
He stands as the bizzarro image to Donald Trump. Both men pride themselves on saying what others only dare to think. But where Trump is bombastic and reactionary, Maher’s words bear the weight of intellectual savvy and political understanding.
Still, there is nobody working in the weird world of political entertainment today — maybe ever — who has confounded and outraged his own base with quite so much regularity and zeal.
Maher first got his chance to bring his crazed blend of politics and humor to a large audience in 1997. He had been hosting “Politically Incorrect” on Comedy Central in 1993, but the cable channel was still a number of years away from being the draw it is today. So when the show moved to ABC in 1997 (two years before Jon Stewart would take over “The Daily Show”), it was genuinely groundbreaking. Featuring a rotating panel of guests, “Politically Incorrect” was a mash-up of political discourse and easily consumable pop culture. Guests included genuine wonks like Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, politicians from across the spectrum and popular celebrities such as Jerry Seinfield and Howard Stern.
“It was a daily show,” Maher said in a phone interview, talking about the ABC days. “It was a designed train wreck.”
Always intended to be a politics-driven show, “Politically Incorrect” was destined to only be as good as the people sitting in the chairs each night, which led to more compromising on the material than Maher would have otherwise preferred.
“That was driven by guests,” he said. “We had 20 seats to fill (each week). I don’t think there are 20 learned people in America who wanted to do the show. So there are times that you’d see a certain guest on a list and think, ‘Man, if we’re just going to talk about Bosnia, so-and-so is going to be completely left out.’ Of course, sometimes you’d see someone’s name on the list and we’d STILL just talk about Bosnia or whatever, and that guest would just sit there.
“That actually happened once. We had a guest — I won’t name names — but they sat on the stage for the whole show and never said one word. When we finished, they shook my hand and told me that they were a big fan of the show. I thought, ‘You know you were ON it tonight, right?’ I think they just thought they had really good seats.”
“Politically Incorrect” was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards during its run and helped pave the way for the politics-as-entertainment format that Stewart and Stephen Colbert would eventually perfect and elevate at Comedy Central.
Then it abruptly came to an end.
On the Sept. 17, 2001, episode, just six days after the World Trade Center attacks, guest D’Souza disagreed with President Bush’s labeling of the terrorists as cowards. Maher agreed, saying, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building — say what you want about it — not cowardly.”
Advertisers pulled their support, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer publicly denounced the statement, and “Politically Incorrect” was off the air by the following summer.
That statement, perhaps more than anything else, crystallizes what makes Maher such a polarizing figure. It is not as if he was the only person to have made such a statement about the 9/11 attackers. That same week, Susan Sontag wrote in The New Yorker “…if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. …whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.’’
Of course, far more people watch ABC than read The New Yorker, so Maher’s words resonated further. And yet, from a purely linguistic standpoint, Maher’s assessment was completely correct. Deplorable, horrific, unconscionable — take your pick. They all serve as more apt descriptors for the 9/11 terrorists than cowardly. In fact, going by the word’s definition — to be shamefully unable to control fear and thus shrink from danger — the world might be a far better place today if the terrorists HAD been cowards. But, when spoken in a world that is scrubbed increasingly free of nuance (and said at a time when the wounds were still raw and smoldering), nobody cared about linguistics.
But in the face of a “with us or against us” mentality, Maher has never been afraid of jumping the fence. A vocal supporter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Maher has spoken on his current show, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” about the need to educate Americans and help keep them “from seeing ‘socialist’ as a bad word.” At the same time, Maher has angered many on the left with his support of racial profiling and his unvarnished opinion that modern-day Islam needs to undergo a reformation similar to Christianity in the 16th century.
“I think I’ve made great strides on taking liberals to school and reminding them about what it means to be liberal, which is to stand up for the oppressed,” he said. “Liberals can be very lazy, just like Republicans. As liberals, they should stand up for Muslims who are oppressed by other Muslims. Stand up for women Muslims who have to wear the burka. Stand up for gay Muslims. Or artist Muslims who want to write things without fear of jihad.“Being liberal doesn’t mean ‘That person is brown-skinned, so I’m with them.’ It’s about standing up for the oppressed people of any culture. Sharia Law? Stoning of gays and women? Forced marriage? These are not things liberals should be defending.”
After ABC dropped “Politically Incorrect” in 2002, it did not take Maher long to find a new home. The following year, “Real Time With Bill Maher” debuted on HBO. The show follows a format similar to that of “Politically Incorrect,” but since the show is filmed weekly rather than daily, there are fewer guest spots to fill. Consequently, Maher has been able to largely eliminate the need for celebrity guests and instead offers up the political discourse straight, no chaser.
“I think it was an evolution, not a revolution,” he said of the differences in the shows. “There wasn’t that much I was restricted on at ABC. I could pretty much speak my mind, which, of course, is why the hammer eventually fell down.
“Looking back on it, I was surprised that we lasted six years. The biggest issue they had back then was talking about pot, which is everywhere nowadays. But back then it was just such a serious issue. They knew that I was a big advocate for reform, so it was OK to talk about it, but we had to have an advocate from the other side, and we certainly couldn’t make any jokes about it.
“Once, we fought tooth and nail to do a sketch called Harry Pot-head,” he recalled. “We lost. It was just too controversial. Can you imagine that now? A stupid sketch about a stoned Harry Potter knock-off — and we couldn’t get it on the air.”
While the “Real Time” guest list skews more academic than the “Politically Incorrect” crowd, the overall feel of the show remains largely the same. A “Real Time” episode is an exercise in barely controlled chaos, and any guest intent on being heard must have the requisite confidence to speak above the fray and quiet the table.
For his part, Maher does not so much moderate the discussions as channel flip. After two decades on the air and two more performing standup, he is a master at gauging the room. “Real Time” topics last only as long as audience fatigue allows, and Maher sometimes changes the topic mid-rebuttal.
HBO has a smaller television viewership than ABC, but “Real Time” is presented in a dramatically different world than the one “Politically Incorrect” operated in. Mass Internet streaming was a joyous pipe dream in the pre-9/11 world, but now, between YouTube, HBOGo and his own website, Maher’s message is reaching more people in less time than ever before. And while Maher’s willingness to kick over the golden calf still gets people mad, HBO gives him the latitude to do with that what he will.
Take, for example, an episode from earlier this year when Maher joked about singer Zayn Malik leaving the group One Direction. At the end of the bit, Maher made reference to Malik bearing a resemblance to convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. One Direction fans lashed out, alleging that Maher was connecting Malik with the Marathon bombing because of his Muslim upbringing. Maher responded two weeks later with a “Real Time” segment entitled “Explaining Jokes to Idiots.”
Maher’s unwillingness to pull a punch has been his greatest professional asset, as well as his greatest hindrance. Right-wing pundits and political advisers are frequent guests on the show, but conservative politicians are loath to join them. So while untrammeled discourse and lively debate is why people tune in every week, the fact that Maher offers no quarter to guests means that “Real Time” remains devoid of the higher profile Republican guests that hosts like Stewart and Colbert have had with regularity. Even the guests for whom Maher has open admiration are not spared. In the Oct. 16 episode, Maher interviewed Bernie Sanders and peppered him with questions about his viability as a candidate, mentioning a poll that said Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim than a Socialist. In the same interview, he openly pledged his support for Sanders, right before admonishing his audience to get out and vote for Hillary Clinton, should she take the Democratic nomination instead. It is all just another facet of Maher’s iconoclastic paradox.
Just right of left
It is obvious that Maher’s political scale leans to the left. However, rather than self-describing with words like “liberal” or “Democrat,” Maher tends toward adjectives like “realist.”
“Wherever the truth is, that’s where I go,” he said.
That search for truth has led him to his support of the death penalty, his atheism and his loggerheads with left-leaning pundits over Islam and the health of the Democratic party. On that last point, Maher points to the apparent difference in the evolving ideologies of the two parties. The Republicans seemingly have no one to genuinely compete for president, and yet the House, Senate and state governorships around the country are all turning red.
“Look at North Carolina, where Art Pope basically took over the state,” he said. “I called him ‘the Koch brother from another mother.’ The demographics are changing. Republicans are losing ground on Latino and female voters, but they are starting to understand that there is a way to appeal to their base and still get the things they want done, done. So they may actually be conceding the presidency, but they are finding all these smaller ways to hold on to power. The president might be the biggest position, but it’s not the only one.
“Look at Texas. Abortion is still legal in the U.S., but how many abortion clinics are still open in Texas? It’s nearly impossible for a woman in that state to get help. Imagine if the left were able to be as proactive on the issues that matter to them? What if they were able to get the same state-level restrictions passed for gun control? Imagine if you had to drive 300 miles to get a gun, like you do in Texas to get an abortion.”
Expanding the choir
The biggest knock on any pundit or political personality, be it Stewart, Colbert, Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore, is that they are preaching to the choir. Odds are very good that nobody has ever had his or her political mind changed by one of Moore’s films or by listening to O’Reilly rant. Even the recently retired Stewart was often viewed as little more than a mouthpiece for the left, even as he experienced nearly universal respect from professionals on both ends of the political spectrum.
But Maher is too much of a wildcard to be seen as one of the left’s stooges. Clearly, he is no war-hawking Republican, but to simply dip him in blue and call him a Democrat? Far too simplistic. It could still potentially be argued that no one has had his or her mind changed by watching an episode of “Real Time,” but you are far more likely to find people from both sides of the aisle who have at least watched the show and listened to the argument.
Serving as a nice bow on top of all of it — his iconoclastic status, his ability to rile up the people who agree with him most, and his ability to find unlikely allies across political lines — Maher has had a long-running friendship with right-wing champion Ann Coulter. At first blush, it seems like a surprising pairing, but the two have a large amount in common. Both have the intellect and ability to be insightful and effective debaters. Both are, at times, caustic, and both are frequently genuinely funny, though Coulter’s version can be more subtle. But the friendship the pair has (Maher stops short of calling the two close — “I don’t even know where she lives. I think in a compound somewhere.”) is not one centered upon politics.
“We enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “I’ve known her almost 25 years; she was one of the most frequent guests on ‘Politically Incorrect.’ When you’ve known someone that long, you know where not to go. We know not to talk about the issues that will cause friction.
“Republicans are the nicest people, except when you get them on those issues. It’s because they lack the chip in their head to be empathetic to people who aren’t like them. They just don’t have the gene. That’s why they are against any kind of affirmative action or welfare programs. It doesn’t affect who they are as white, middle-class people, so they don’t see the point. So, since I’m a wealthy white guy, Ann and I get along just fine.”
article originally ran in Cityview November 4, 2015