DAVID BIANCULLI

Founder / Editor

ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

Assistant Editor

Contributors

ALEX STRACHAN

MIKE HUGHES

KIM AKASS

MONIQUE NAZARETH

ROGER CATLIN

GARY EDGERTON

TOM BRINKMOELLER

GERALD JORDAN

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
The Many Faces of Bill Maher – How ‘Real Time’ Has Become One of TV’s Most Thoughtful Programs
May 24, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments
 

“I know why you’re happy tonight,” Bill Maher says at the opening of his Real Time monologue each week. 

Maher usually follows that with a quip based on a major news event from the previous 24 hours.

That quip will be greeted with raucous applause, laughter and whoops and cheers from the studio audience, but don’t read too much into that.

As Maher himself has noted — often — his studio audience is easy to please. They’re there on a free, after all, and they’re of a like political mind. You won’t spot too many dedicated Fox News viewers in a Real Time studio audience.

This week, when Maher returns after a two-week break, the host of ABC’s late, still lamented Politically Incorrect will likely riff on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or the presidential primaries — and not necessarily in that order.

That’s not just because his marquee guest Friday is one Bernard “Bernie” Sanders — perhaps you’ve heard of him — but also because, despite the ignominy and suddenness of Politically Incorrect’s cancellation in June 2002, Maher has never left politics behind.

Maher was back on TV the following February, thanks to HBO, and Real Time hasn’t looked back since. It exists in the present. Current events are its raison d’être. Even after 14 seasons and 388 episodes, Maher is more interested in what’s going on right now than what happened last week, or last year for that matter.

That’s why, for some, Real Time is as much a news program as late-night entertainment. Maher often jokes that young people today get their news from late-night TV — or YouTube videos and iTunes podcasts — but, like so much of Maher’s humor, it’s a joke with an edge of truth. Maher’s humor is sharp, barbed and pointed. It’s acerbic and acidic in equal measure, much like his Friday guest.

And, like Friday’s guest, it’s for the converted only. Maher has set an unenviable Emmy record — no wins from 22 nominations — and part of that has to do with the fact that he rubs so many people the wrong way.

Notoriously thin-skinned and prickly when things don’t go his way, he has so far failed in his efforts to get President Barack Obama on Real Time, unlike Sanders, who’s been a recurring presence dating back to Sanders’ early years as a U.S. senator from Vermont.

Rather than simply let it go, Maher has turned Obama’s seeming reluctance into a yearlong campaign to get the president to appear. Maher has complained — on-air and often — that Obama has appeared on virtually every other late-night talk program, including radio shows, podcasts and even fancasts, but not Real Time

He even encouraged a viewer write-in petition at one point, perhaps not realizing that begging the president to appear on a late-night talk show says more about him — needy, insecure and overly sensitive to seeming snubs — than it does about the president.

It’s also shortsighted. Obama’s reluctance, if it is that, is a compliment of sorts to Maher’s style. He’s unpredictable, and when he’s on his game he can be a decisive, probing question-asker: Informed, passionate, sharp as a tack, quick with a quip and capable of turning on a dime. Maher works off a script in his monologues, but he’s at his best when working on the fly.

He’s a contrarian and an insightful commentator, but his comedic ability is more improvisational than scripted. Like most successful comedians — loosely defined as anyone with their own, eponymous TV show — it isn’t only about the jokes but the delivery: Maher’s unique voice, his cadence, his inflection on words, his deft sense of timing, knowing when to punch on a certain syllable and when to pause for effect.

Obama can appear on Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The View, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon or even Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns and reasonably know what to expect.

Sanders and Maher go back to Maher’s early years in TV, and there is already an informal script in place. One imagines the Sanders interview will follow a familiar pattern, with easy-to-guess questions and easy-to-predict answers: Will you back off Hillary? Why should I. Will you drop out of the race? Why should I?

The interview will take place less than two weeks before the California primary, which Sanders may easily win, but the nomination is more-or-less decided already, in Clinton’s favor.

Maher may open the door to what this says about democracy, which is a more meaningful discussion than anything likely to come up on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, or even CNN Tonight for that matter.

Obama is right to be wary, though, because — to Maher’s everlasting credit — Real Time can easily spin off in unexpected directions. Maher doesn’t mean to lay traps. He’s an entertainer, after all. But his quick mind, coupled with a lively wit and a natural born irreverence for authority, makes him an unpredictable adversary if the conversation suddenly turns down an unexpected alley.

The late Garry Shandling, in his classic Larry Sanders Show, poked merciless fun at late-night talk shows’ penchant for pre-interviews, which set the rules for on-air interviews in advance, by vetting subject matter and rehearsing carefully crafted laugh-lines ahead of time.

It’s hard to imagine Maher sticking to any pre-decided plan, though, no matter who the guest is. He works best off-the-cuff. He is smart enough about TV as a medium to know that what happens live, in the moment, makes for the best TV. There’s a reason Real Time is live, not taped.

Even a panel discussion with a seeming soft touch like Ben Affleck — liberal, impassioned in his beliefs and more likely than not to vote for the same candidate as Maher — can run off the rails if a thorny subject comes up, as it famously did in an October 2014 brawl over Maher’s position on Islam (left). The panel that night included the writer Sam Harris, author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and New York Times two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof — not the kind of guests likely to be seen on The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel Live!

And that’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter if President Obama chooses to appear or not appear on Real Time, no more than Sanders’ appearance Friday is likely to change anyone’s vote.

Real Time is one of the small screen’s most consistently compelling discussion programs precisely because it’s unlike the others. It’s substantive, intelligent, often informed, occasionally controversial and always entertaining for anyone open to different points of view and willing to think about big-picture issues. Maher can be annoying, both in his show-opening monologue and during his show-closing New Rules, but he isn’t given to shrill, 20-minute screeds like his HBO stable mate John Oliver.

Maher’s interviews can occasionally lean toward the soft side — don’t expect any inflammatory confrontation or gotcha questions when Sanders drops by — but even at their softest, Maher’s sit-down interviews aren’t nearly as soft as many of Jon Stewart’s celebrity interviews were when the Daily Show host was racking up the Emmy wins.

If Maher hasn’t won an Emmy by now, he probably won’t. That doesn’t take anything away from Real Time, though. It remains one of TV’s most thoughtful — and thought-provoking — discussion programs. 

 
 
 
 
 
Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 
 Name (required)
 
 Email (required) (will not be published)
 
YMPHL
Type in the verification word shown on the image.
 
 
 Page: 1 of 1  | Go to page: 
3 Comments
 
 
Bains
Obama likely has good reasons for not showing, other than those mentioned by Alex.

Other than the hosts' misogyny, Israel apology, PC exaggeration, extreme Islamophobia, overall strident atheism, anti-vaccine and NGO anti science, misinformation...yea, sometimes he is funny. I do watch it, but don't confuse it for thoughtful. The guest are sometimes thoughtful, that I give this show.
May 24, 2016   |  Reply
 
Graham
I haven't noticed the anti-vaccine stuff, but I think the writing had been exceptionally subpar this season.
May 25, 2016
 
 
 
Norma
I love Maher and I love Oliver's screeds too, especially the screeds! What I don't love are some of the right-wing-nuts Maher has on. But I guess they illuminate their ridiculous positions for all to see and they get push-back. They can be supremely annoying. Long live John Oliver!
May 24, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Elise
Haven't gotten HBO for awhile and certainly miss Real Time. Although I must admit, his show has become a little too formulaic and monotone. It's always the same things he's preaching about. And he tends to be closed minded about certain issues. Like Islam. He's so wrong and bigoted about that!! That said, I agree with him on so many issues and his voice is a necessity to keep folks on top of the issues of the day.
May 24, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
 
 Page: 1 of 1  | Go to page: