Media Circus: Incorrectional Facilities

Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," now following "Nightline" on ABC, is a battle of one-liners that can be as fluffy and insufferable as a bad Letterman monologue. So why does everyone treat it like the second coming of Mort Sahl?

Published January 9, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

on his January 6 debut in the coveted post-"Nightline" slot on ABC, "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher wasted no time in tweaking his new boss -- ABC's parent company, Disney. After all, there were those endless commercials to live up to, hyping him as the network's new bad boy (so long, David Brinkley). So, as the night's leadoff example of an incident that "crystallized" the absurdity of political correctness, Maher chose this news item: Disney's announcement that the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland is being changed so that the robotic pirates will chase food, not wenches.

What a cute idea! Everybody has an opinion about Disneyland, and adults' hypersensitivity to kids' fun, and wenches and stuff, right? Well, everybody, apparently, except Maher's guests that night: convicted Watergate felon turned crank talk radio host G. Gordon Liddy, Republican pundit Arianna Huffington, rap star Coolio and actress/comedian Janeane Garofalo. Despite Maher's prodding, the foursome couldn't muster enough enthusiasm for the topic to get a decent argument going. Actually, Garofalo did have an interest in the subject, feminist riffs on "wenches" being a big part of her standup act. But one person's interest does not a four-way free-for-all make, and free-for-all is what ABC's promos (and the "Politically Incorrect" greatest hits special that ABC aired in prime time on New Year's Day) seemed to promise.

Granted, it was Maher's first show in the big leagues after nearly three years on cable's Comedy Central, and there were undoubtedly some fluttery stomachs over that. And the guest mix underwent some late jiggering when scheduled panelist Roseanne came down with the flu. And ABC's relentless promo buildup did reach almost Super Bowl-ian proportions, and who could possibly deliver on that? So, there were some legitimate reasons why the first post-"Nightline" edition of "Politically Incorrect" was anticlimactic.

Still, having watched "Politically Incorrect" semi-regularly over the past three years, I have to say that the shaky, dull ABC premiere episode was no fluke. Maher and his guests are generally off as much as they're on. When David Letterman's monologues go wrong, at least you know you've only got to endure one flopping wiseass until the next segment or the next guest. But "Politically Incorrect" often confronts you with five flopping wiseasses on screen at the same time, and it's not a pretty sight.

In case you haven't seen "Politically Incorrect" on cable, the show is (in Maher's words) a "cocktail party without the booze and the finger food," in which four celebrities who have little, if anything, in common sit around debating the hot button issues of the day with Maher. Monday's lineup was a representatively weird grouping. After dispensing with the PC Pirates, the five went on to a listless discussion about ebonics -- what's left to say? -- and a strange, pointless segment in which Liddy indulged his outlaw fantasies of picking off agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with a high-powered rifle. There was no discussion of Monday's big political story, Newt Gingrich's bid to be reelected Speaker of the House despite his admission of violating House ethics rules.

"Politically Incorrect" has about as much meeting-of-the-minds weight as talk radio, or a presidential debate -- it's just a battle of one-liners that sometimes escalates into a World Wide Wrestling Federation-sanctioned screaming match -- like Sandra Bernhard's in-your-face response to a misogynistic, homophobic Christian author, justifiably included in the New Year's Day highlights special. You can't tell if the guests are really worked up, or just playing to the gallery.

"Politically Incorrect" is clearly entertainment programming, right? So I can't understand the buzz the show has gotten as an Important Forum for Political Debate, with scores of Beltway pols, policy makers and pundits (Representative Susan Molinari, George Stephanopolous, Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic pundit James Carville, to name a few) gracing its postmodern Roman-columns-in-ruins set over the years.

All the buzz certainly can't be because of the intelligence and incisiveness of its political humor. Like HBO's resident political satirist Dennis Miller, Maher is smug and opaque. They both trash everyone, right or left, Republican or Democrat, with equal venom and glibness, so there's no toxicity to their bite. "Politically Incorrect" is no more "cutting edge" than David Frye impersonating Nixon ("I am not a crook!") on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or Johnny Carson dismantling politicians in his nightly monologues -- in fact, it may be less cutting edge. If anything, "Politically Incorrect" demonstrates how political humor has been infiltrated and watered down by politicians and their apologists. Everybody's a comedian now, from the president to the talk radio loudmouth, and this influx of open-mike-night amateurs has lowered the comedy bar. A nyah-nyah jibe at Clinton's junk food cravings (a favorite target of Maher) passes as scathing commentary.

On that ABC highlights special, Maher, who is also the author of the best-seller Does Anybody Have a Problem with That? The Best of Politically Incorrect, described the show's philosophy as "somebody's gotta say it." And that's an honorable philosophy that has served social and political satirists, from Mort Sahl to Richard Pryor to Al Franken, very well. But the same philosophy applies to Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Don Imus; and too often, though "Politically Incorrect" aims high, it becomes just a national forum for professional brats and crackpots. On Monday's show, Liddy's shoot-feds-on-sight schtick was neither funny nor entertaining; it was creepy.

Still, when the vibes are right, "Politically Incorrect" can be a sterling stand-up showcase and "McLaughlin Group" parody (although some of the guests don't get the parody part). Maher has simply found a way to do a late night talk show without doing it in traditional form. Guests still get a plug for their latest movie or book in Maher's intros, and when comedy gods like Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling come on and riff, they're almost always freer and looser and more daring than they are in their own gigs. As comic relief after "Nightline," "Politically Incorrect" will probably do some ratings damage to the second halves of "Late Show" and "The Tonight Show." But as political satire, the show's toppling bowling pins logo, perhaps unwittingly, says it all: Big balls, stacked target.

EXTRA! Three Jeers!

Ah, the dangers of non-digital communication. In its "corrections" column in yesterday's paper, The New York Times blamed "a telephone dictation error" for a mistake in an article about Newt Gingrich. The article "misstated the Republican response to Representative Matt Salmon's suggestion that Mr. Gingrich step aside," the Times explained. "Mr. Salmon was jeered, not cheered."

To prevent any further misunderstandings, we'd like to add that Mr. Mammon was not smeared. Neither was he leered at by lascivious congressional freshmen, nor sheared like a sheep. Mr. Sampan is not feared by Republicans. He does not have a beard. Finally, we must make it clear that Rep. Sam-I-am is neither weird nor, like Ross Perot, eared.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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