Classicists consider satire the highest level of comedy because it engages an intellectual paradox few can deftly negotiate: the satirist must make hatred joyful and still project the ghost of optimism, reminding the audience that behind acid ridicule reside nobler motives of social reform. The satirist is misanthropic, but his distaste for humanity stems from disappointment, not spite. The satirist is furthermore oddly sanguine because he somehow believes that language can turn disappointment into enlightenment, progress, or at least reflection. With the recent exit of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher becomes (perhaps) American TV’s last “pure”, sanguine satirist, a mock-heroic figure who somehow finds himself trapped within the format of a weekly commercial talk show.
I’ve followed Maher’s career for a few decades, from the occasionally witty Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death through his standup routines and Politically Incorrect, which was unjustly cancelled (in 2002) because Maher questioned the courage of American pilots who drop bombs from a safe height onto brown-skinned people. (The comment could only be controversial for network television, which kowtows to advertising—George Carlin once mocked America’s “Nintendo pilots” and no one batted an eye.) The talk show format doesn’t always do Maher justice, however; his ideal genre is the righteously indignant monologue (with which he ends each show), rather than the chatty roundtable, which can descend into triviality and irrelevance.
If Maher sees himself as a lone bulwark of reason in a puritanical country still balking at Enlightenment values, the talk-show format of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher tends to gravitate toward unenlightened left-right binaries. After an opening standup routine and a more or less “straight” interview with a newsmaker, the show settles into a “panel” format that pits Maher’s antireligious, Voltairean hero against a trio of politicians, elite journalists, or political hacks who engage in partisan bickering. With few exceptions, Maher commands most of the show, trying to play off the binaries without becoming entangled within them. As if confessing that the left-right stalemate inhibits a true dialectic, a socially progressive entertainer or celebrity is brought out at halftime to sit by Maher’s side (sitting in opposition to the political hacks) to provide moral instruction. In the episode of 14 August, the progressives were activist and musician Talib Kweli and social justice nun Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking), whose selfless motives indeed make the trio of politicians and hacks look like politicians and hacks.
I have no idea how guests are booked on the show, and I suspect Maher tires of giving platforms to witless technocrats and political insiders who need to push their latest, bromidic trade books. Usually, the token Republican panelist frustrates most egregiously. I can recall no episode of Real Time with a Republican guest who was worthwhile, insightful, surprising, or challenging (“enlightening” is too much to ask). Admittedly, Republicans are short of fascination: even those invited on the show, and who presumably have time to prepare, are little more than matted haircuts and rehearsed talking points.
The 14 August episode featured Doug Heye, a former RNC Communications Director and Eric Cantor crony who now does god-knows-what at the Harvard Institute of Politics (Harvard and especially Princeton often warehouse political insiders and Congressional retirees). Unsurprisingly, he had nothing to say, but his form—that is, his very presence—is his primary meaning. Nearly reasonable conservatives like Heye or regular Steve Schmidt (also a ubiquitous talking head on MSNBC) must regularly appear to remind liberals that Republicans are indeed performing the “autopsy” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus claimed was needed after the Romney debacle.
Notably, the Republicans, amateurishly straining in their political rhetoric, stumbled upon metaphors of death to describe their own predicament. In addition to “autopsy”, one continually hears that Republicans are conducting a “post-mortem”—an unfortunate choice of metaphor considering that a dead body can never be resurrected, even if one “enlarges the tent”, “changes the narrative”, “reaches out to communities of color”, “listens actively to disenfranchised voting blocs”, or does whatever various catchphrases suggest. At least a “Republican vivisection” would hold out hope that the conservative body might leap off the operating table in a last-ditch display of protest. Perhaps they believe their corpse can be reanimated by artificial means, which would explain the domination of gameshow host Donald Trump, who now prowls TV’s countryside as a rampaging, Frankensteinian fabrication, cobbled together from the ideas of old, failed campaigns.
But the “autopsy” metaphor doesn’t merely lack the optimism the satirist takes for granted. It’s also an incorrect metaphor on its face, the product of bad spin doctors. Literally, an autopsy is the act of seeing with one’s own eyes (“auto” plus “optic”), but Republicans, always short on empathy, need to see themselves through others’ eyes. They’ve far too long seen the body politic blankly, trusting their own perceptions of themselves, just as they’ve trusted in feel-good nationalism and the deified, Alzheimer’s-addled Reagan. Swift, one of Maher’s inspirations, once described satire as “a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” I am not sure if this always holds true—Maher, often striving for objectivity, verily points out his own biases and limitations—but Swift’s definition of satire certainly has the ring of the Republican autopsy, which explains why Republicans have become walking caricatures, no longer needing satirists to point out their lifelessness.