Real Time with Bill Maher

Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect was an unwatchable mess of crosstalk cacophony. Yet, I would repeatedly try to endure it for a few minutes each night, until someone set a new low for inanity or the free-for-all shouting match made my muscles knot. Politically Incorrect made me cringe like I do when comedians bomb badly. I occasionally do stand up comedy myself, and it hurts too much to empathize with failed humor, even accidentally. Still, Bill Maher is one of the few comics carrying Bill Hicks’ torch, playing the angry everyman. And so, I’m always willing to give him another chance.

With his new HBO series, Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher appears to have learned from his previous mistakes: it is a provocative, dead-on, and hilarious political roundtable. Much has changed between network and cable. Even the arrangement of the chairs suggests that Maher and his producers have decided to rein in the previous anarchy. The host still faces his guests, but they sit in three chairs alongside one another, allowing for a more civilized panel discussion, rather than an across-the-table grudge match.

The furniture arrangement indicates the show’s more structured pace. Maher interjects more often, to referee among the participants, patting them on the ass before sending them off in their respective corners or using the stalemate as a means to segue to an entirely different topic. As well, participants who do well get to come back (rather than the constant rotation of guests PI). This means that Arianna Huffington, a mix of class and sass, has become a flawless staple.

Still, despite Huffington and other good choices (Ann Coulter and Janeane Garafalo), the mix needs some tweaking. Surprisingly, Dennis Miller is a lame guest. Not only does he prefer to use canned stand-up material rather than spontaneous reaction, but he seems pathetically unable to take an insult, though he is generous in doling them out.

Aaron McGruder has easily been the worst guest so far (4 April 2003). His comic strip, The Boondocks, is occasionally funny in a dull razor kind of way, but in person, he proved humorless and crazy. At one point, he suggested that George Bush was a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, because he believes in capital punishment. Although such a daringly mad aside might be funny if delivered with an undercurrent of irony, McGruder spat it out with his perma-scowl, acting as if it was an insurmountable chore to eke out his huffy judgment. This show will do best if Maher sloughs off the dead weight. People who aren’t quickdraw wit slingers are the bane of a show based on conversational agility.

And so, to ease the burden on the panel discussions, the show offers other segments. Maher now takes phone calls, e-mails, and audience questions. He also recites weekly “New Rules” (basically, a list of things that piss him off) and breaks for guest comics, musicians, and even a few bona fide “experts” on topics like the verification of weapons of mass destruction. Comedian Paul Thompkins contributes a Daily Show-like segment, ostensibly reporting on a topical controversy (the Confederate Flag, Democratic Presidential hopefuls, anti-war celebrities), but actually skewering hypocrisies and platitudes with deft and unforgiving sarcasm.

Other, occasional performers are culled from the most talented and edgy intellects out there. Sarah Silverman’s premiere episode stand-up performance, which included an extended series of Holocaust jokes, would never in a million years make it in the lowest-common-denominator world of network talk shows. By bringing exposure to acts who aren’t afraid to burst the comfort bubbles of viewers, Maher goes much further than he ever did on Politically Incorrect.

My only possible reservation about Real Time is that Maher hasn’t yet found many conservatives who are funny, articulate, and able to be both on cue. (Might I suggest Jonah Goldberg?) Sometimes, the conservative guests appear to be little more than piñatas for the solidly liberal panel. Then again, it’s his show, and it’s not like conservatives don’t have entire radio and television networks devoted to churning out lapdog propaganda. Maher is an endlessly witty and incisive barstool observer of culture, and with Real Time, he finally has an uncompromised platform for telling his truth. But it’s HBO, so it gets to be his fucking truth.