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Ten Years On, HBO's 'Real Time with Bill Maher' Is Real Good
March 5, 2012  | By David Bianculli
 
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As part of its 10th-anniversary celebration, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maherhas been prefacing each show with a short, outrageously entertaining clip from its archives. Based on how good the current installments have been, there will be no shortage of similar highlights to showcase in the future.

The most recent edition of Maher's funny yet informative comedy-based talk show, in fact, was one of his best episodes ever. And how many other current TV shows with a decade or more behind them -- other than 60 Minutes on CBS and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and South Park on Comedy Central -- can boast that?...

Real Time with Bill Maher is stretching its anniversary celebration as much as it can. The show actually premiered on HBO on Feb. 21, 2003, so it'll reach the full 10-year mark in another 11 months. But who cares, when it's doing so well in its pre-teen broadcast years?

Currently, Real Time is televised live at 10 p.m. ET on Fridays. That's 7 p.m. ET in Los Angeles, where it originates, making it relatively easy to lure and book guests, from both show business and politics -- end of the week, early in the evening. And the booking, for this show, is a large part of the magic.

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Friday's show, for example, is repeated tonight at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, and if you haven't seen it, you should. It's a perfect example of why Maher's show, at its best, qualifies as can't-miss TV viewing.

The show opens with a brief blast from the past: a "Real Time moment" from July 30, 2004. Maher is trying to persuade one of his guests, Ralph Nader, not to continue his run as a third-party presidential candidate, because every poll at the time suggests that Nader's candidacy will siphon more votes from Democratic candidate John Kerry than President George Bush, and perhaps cost Kerry the election.

Rather than just make his point, Maher dropped to his knees next to Nader and begged him not to run -- as, on Nader's other side, another Real Time guest that night, Michael Moore, did the same.

Great TV moment. And the show to come --the new, live one -- was just as feisty, just as much fun, and had just as many serious points to make behind all the easy laughter.

Real Time, over the years, has evolved into a tightly structured format, allowing for maximum looseness within each segment. Basically, the elements are:

1) Bill Maher's opening comedy monologue.

2) Maher's live-in-studio, or live-via-satellite, one-on-one interview with a solo guest.

3) Maher's introduction of and lengthy discussion with the week's panel -- a trio of guests, joined eventually by a fourth, on whom Maher focuses attention before widening the conversation to the entire group.

4) That quartet stays seated for the finish, as Maher addresses the TV audience to deliver his week's "New Rules," a list of short complaints followed by a long, signature essay.

And that's it. But when it works, that's more than enough -- and Maher, after all these years, handles the difficult tasks of leading the discussions while watching the clock like a veteran ringmaster.

In the most recent show, the one being repeated tonight, Maher's monologue is strong, as is his Segment 2 interview with Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, who discusses campaign finance reform and the subsequent creation of Super PACs.

Since Maher just made a point of donating $1 million to a Super PAC for President Barack Obama, this conversation is highly, truly personal. Maher, for the sake of making a point both political and comic, really has put his money where his mouth is. And, he says, "It hurt."

Then comes Segment 3, and the initial trio of panel guests: Democratic political strategist James Carville, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and John Heilemann, co-author of Game Change (an account of the Sarah Palin vice-presidential campaign -- a story which, not at all coincidentally, will be presented as an HBO telemovie this Saturday).

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This was where the home-run derby really starts, with everyone hitting it out of the park, reacting to recent news events, to Maher's questions, and to one another. When Maher, a prominent atheist, begins one sentence by saying "I have faith," Tyson interrupts him with a chuckle, saying perhaps he didn't know Maher as well as he thought. But, Maher quickly explains, there are areas, outside of organized religion, in which he does have faith.

"You can have faith," Maher explains, "in things like, 'I know this is going to be a good show.' " And he takes turns pointing at each of the three guests, starting with Tyson. "Because you've been on the show before, you've been on the show before, you've been on the show before -- you were always good. I have faith it's going to be a good show."

And boy, is Maher's faith rewarded. In fact, it's rewarded instantly, as Tyson wastes no time whatsoever in countering with, "You have evidence that it'll be a good show." And the studio audience applauds loudly.

It would rob the resultant discussion of some of its punch, and much of its delight, to do a joke-by-joke, thrust-and-parry recount. So I won't. But when Bob Lutz, the former vice chairman of General Motors, comes on as the featured guest to join the panel (as, he jokes good-naturedly, "the token Republican"), the fireworks really begin.

However, it's not just heat and noise -- opposing sides refusing to listen to one another, and just to shout and outshout until the buzzer sounds. On Real Time, guests get time to make their points, and debate in ways so fluid, and so honest, you wish presidential political debates were handled in a similar fashion.

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When Lutz asserts that global warming is turning out to be a discredited theory, Maher lets him make his point, then turns to his right and says, "We have a scientist right here," and lets Tyson take over, like a two-man team in a wrestling match.

Actually, it was more like that moment in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen pulls out the real Marshall McLuhan from the shadows, just to silence an annoying guy pontificating in line about the media professor's groundbreaking theories. "You know nothing of my work," McLuhan says to the guy, shooting and shutting him down entirely.

Now watch what Tyson does.

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And later, when Maher asks skeptically why anyone would want to continue space exploration in this day and age, Tyson turns on him, too, with a monologue so full of fervor that, at the end, Maher calls him "reverend," and Carville reaches over and raises Tyson's arm above his head, as a referee would do to the winning boxer in a prize fight.

Tyson scored a knockout punch, all right. But so did the entire hour of Real Time, including Maher's final New Rules speech, on not underestimating Republicans at this point in the presidential race.

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And here I will quote a line or two, just to show how serious and funny Maher can be at the same time, in presenting a secular sermon on why, as he says, the "joke candidate" historically often ends up winning.

"Just think about the year 2000... when George W. Bush, the town drunk of Texas, decided he should try his hand at some 'presidentin.'

"And oh, how we laughed," Maher recalls. "He was up against Al Gore, America's one-man Genius Bar. It was IQ vs. Bar-B-Q. But as we know, Bush won. Twice."

And viewers of Real Time with Bill Maher -- we won. Again.

 
 
 
 
 
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