Real Time with Bill Maher

Bill Maher must feel very alone right now. In a world full of conformist comedians, seeking primetime sitcom gigs, he remains the sole voice of reason. Since the mid-’90s, when he created Politically Incorrect, Maher has been the semi-smug squeaky wheel in an otherwise well-greased media machine. He has questioned authority, championed causes, and cried foul at any and all hypocrites, seeming at times like the second coming of Mort Saul. Maher’s unrepentant candor is admirable, but not as appealing as the good-natured glibness of Jon Stewart. And his desire to confront can be less than amusing.

After his ABC gig (from which he was following some questionable post-9/11 comments) and a couple of clever stand-up specials, Maher found seeming sanctuary on HBO’s Real Time three years ago. Real Time has a more controlled format than PI. Maher starts with a standard monologue, putting the week’s events into proper comic perspective. Then he interviews, via satellite, a political newsmaker, and sits down with his guests for analysis of key issues. Finally, he accents the conversation with a couple of comedy bits, including the always hilarious “New Rules,” before signing off with a carefully crafted statement concerning the “big picture.”

As it incorporates scripted and off-the-cuff comments on the state of the world, Real Time is both helped and hurt by the guests. Last Friday’s Season Four kick-off, after three months off the air, exemplified the latter case. It began with Maher’s bashing of Dick Cheney’s elderly, itchy trigger finger. He milked that hunting accident for all he could, before turning to the growing NSA wiretapping scandal. This led into his interview with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. As Maher pumped him for the non-administration side of the privacy issue, the Senator stated a very well measured pseudo-party line over… and over… and over again. You could sense the host’s disappointment as what should have been a fiery and fun debate was turning into typical Washington dross.

It didn’t get any better with the panel, composed of old school (and just plain old) DC reporter Helen Thomas, former administration aide in Iraq and current Fox News Commentator Daniel Senor, and the usually incendiary comedian Eddie Griffin. The trio instantly began arguing over the war on terror and the newsworthiness of Cheney’s shotgun snafu, but they were making speeches at one another rather than conversing. Turning huffy and quarrelsome himself, Maher tried coaxing them and confronting them — even outright agreeing with them — and still they just anted on, unable to hear each other speak.

The next fiasco of the evening arrived in the form of Fred Barnes, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard and one of Fox News’ Beltway Boys. He appeared on the satellite screen to pimp his book about President Bush. After the announcement of its title — Rebel in Chief — got a snicker from the crowd, Maher called it a “love letter” to GW and Barnes did not disagree. For five painful minutes, Barnes continued his unabashed praise of the President, with Maher unable to get a rise out of him or the audience. Gone are the days when Barnes sparred with John McLaughlin on his PBS roundtable show. Today he was shilling a book and a position, and that’s all that mattered.

After a few more flop-sweating moments with the panel, Maher finally found the funny with “New Rules.” He scored with more Cheney chiding, a hilarious bit about Britney Spears, and a breakdown of the Winter Olympics (“If you are involved in an event that relies on gravity for its purpose, you are not an athlete.”) But while this was all fine, his last monologue reminded us why we watch Maher in the first place: using the wiretapping story as a starting point, he went off on a well-observed and incisive rant about Americans’ obsession with fame.

The sad thing is that Maher frequently has to save the show in precisely this manner. Dependent on the energy and engagement of each week’s guests, Real Time is by definition hit or miss. Usually, the series does hit, with the competing ideologies producing heated debate, lively quips, and outrageous content (this is premium cable, after all). Material can turn scandalous, even scatological. Maher is often the first to drag the focus into the social sewer, and he loves to play the non-PC card. His own political views emerge with lively regularity: a semi-social democrat, he’s frustrated with emphases on “family values” and feels outrage at sloppy fiscal policies and self-serving hypocrisies.

He is not a surefire satirist, though. Granted, this uneven season opener was not typical, but it did show that Real Time with Bill Maher is exactly what its title suggests. With emphasis on the “real,” this time cannot be guaranteed to be “good.”