Weekend late nights offer TV programmers a rare chance to let down their hair. After all, by the time 11:30 p.m. rolls around, those who spent the evening watching huggable Christian shows like "Touched by an Angel" should be safely tucked away in their beds, leaving room for more obnoxious and offensive offerings designed to entertain younger -- and possibly more inebriated -- viewers.
But even during a more relaxed time slot, HBO distinguishes itself from its clumsier, more lowbrow cable brethren by catering to our basest desires for blatant hamming, silliness and insults without insulting our intelligence. HBO's flexibility certainly isn't surprising at this point -- shows like "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Six Feet Under" don't just share excellent writing and unique storylines, they share a sense of fun and unapologetic goofiness.
When Larry David swaps bedroom stories with Krazee-Eyez Killa, Christopher expresses shock over Ralphie's toupee while disposing of his corpse, and Brenda responds to Nate's declarations of love in bed by whispering, "Let's pretend we don't know each other," the absurdity of human experience is reflected with a refreshing freedom, a freedom that the networks, with their self-consciousness and censorious attitude, never seem to manage no matter how late it is. HBO stretches the boundaries of this freedom more than ever with its new Friday night lineup, featuring two lively new shows that are sure to get blood flowing to boozy gray matter nationwide.
The network's first good move was to snatch up Bill Maher after he was summarily dumped from his "Politically Incorrect" gig for being -- you guessed it! -- politically incorrect. His crime? Playing devil's advocate in a debate on 9/11, a subject so precious and untouchable that no compulsively outspoken public figure in their right mind would go near it without a carefully worded script in their hands. Covert P.C. forces couldn't have arranged a better frame job if they tried. There Maher was, on live TV, responsible for inciting a spirited discussion of a subject that could render Howard Stern politely comatose.
Still, the death of "Politically Incorrect" wasn't exactly universally mourned. Watching a gaggle of celebrities trade bone-headed remarks about the pressing and important issues du jour is about as fun as discussing the Shallowness of America with a European. No matter how valid their points might be, there's something about facing down a relentless barrage of sweeping generalizations and worn-out clichés that can make anyone feel like, well, like a shallow American. Pretty people guessing at the facts? That's like "Crossfire," but without the experts. Personally, I'd rather watch pretty people swim in the ocean and build shelters and stuff.
Luckily, on "Real Time With Bill Maher" (Fridays at 11:30 p.m. on HBO), our host has replaced the pretty people with a fairly entertaining mix of talking heads and comedians. After an unsteady start, with a jittery monologue and an uninspired discussion on Iraq with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Maher announces, "I feel like this is what my whole life has been leading to, cutting off the riff-raff I used to have on the show, and getting the very best people! 'Politically Incorrect' -- I loved doing that show, but we cast a very wide net. Here, we are not doing that. Very small net. The people you see here will be coming back week after week."
What better way to get us hooked, than by insulting the boneheads? And based on the first manic discussion between author and professor Michael Eric Dyson, fright-wing agitator and author Ann Coulter, and comedian and Daily Standard columnist Larry Miller, life without the boneheads is much more bearable. Dyson makes solid, incisive points without rambling on, Miller throws some good jokes into the mix, and Coulter ... well, she's her usual shrill self. Still, it's fun to see Maher snap at her, "You just make shit up!"
In fact, once he has a chance to spar a little, Maher starts to hit his stride. He does a good job of keeping the show moving forward, and manages to squeeze a few good one-liners into the mix. During a discussion of a possible war with Iraq, he asserts that Saddam Hussein has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden: "It's like we've lost our keys in the garage but we're looking for them in the living room because there's better light!"
In addition to the discussion segment, which quickly covers four or five topics, there's a summary of the week's events by comedian Paul Tompkins, who begins by announcing, "We're at code orange right now, and panic is the new black." Then, to summarize the anxiety America is feeling, he explains that "It's like when you're trying to go to sleep on Christmas Eve if you know that when you wake up on Christmas Day, Santa's going to pour anthrax in your eyes and ears."
Closing abruptly with a solid, as-offensive-as-you-wanna-be stand-up routine by Sarah Silverman, "Real Time with Bill Maher" feels like double time -- the pace is, at times, uncomfortably frantic. Still, by replacing the endless blathering and debate-club oversimplification of "Politically Incorrect" with fewer, more informed guests and faster, more satisfying features, Maher's show has the potential to mature into an enjoyable late-night attraction.
In contrast to the accelerated political talk of Bill Maher's new vehicle, "Da Ali G Show" toys with disinformation at its own leisurely pace. Still, this new offering, which airs directly after Maher's at 12:30 a.m., features a comedian with so much natural talent that everything he touches turns to gold -- gold jewelry, that is. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the outsider seeking more information about American culture using three alter egos: Ali G, a "hip-hop journalist" who repeatedly botches the facts, referring to 9/11 as "7-Eleven" and the U.N. as "the United Nations of Benetton"; Borat, a baffled TV reporter from Kazakhstan; and Bruno, a saucy Austrian fashion journalist. Cohen interviews a wide range of experts, ranging from etiquette coach Helen Pye to former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Incredibly enough, most of those being interviewed seem to believe Cohen's character is a real person.
Lest you think this is a rehash of that old "Daily Show"/Tom Green/"Jackass" formula, wherein an ironic hipster does his very best to make an ass of his unsuspecting victims, think again. Cohen's approach is far more nuanced and far more entertaining -- you really have to see it to believe it. He doesn't merely provoke, he absolutely inhabits his character the way only the best comedians can (Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph and Danny Hoch spring to mind). Obviously he sells it, because those he interviews seem to buy it completely. Still, the joy doesn't come in their being duped. If anything, we enjoy the participants' personalities just as much as Cohen's alter egos, and we applaud them for gamely cooperating with his antics.
And cooperate they do. For some reason, most of the interviewees seem more likely to comply with Cohen's characters' requests than they would if he were a regular journalist. Not only do they play along, but they apologize for misunderstanding, even when he's describing something raunchy or rude. In one such scene, Ali G grills Former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh about a particular law.
Ali G: "What exactly is the law of cutting the cheese? I don't know what they call it here. You know, whoever smelt it, dealt it?"
Thornburgh: "I don't know if there's any law that covers that."
Ali G: "Is the definition, 'Whoever smelt it, dealt it,' or is it 'Whoever said the rhyme, committed the crime'?"
Thornburgh: "I understand what you're saying! Criminal liability can attach to a person who does an act ..."
Ali G (helpfully): "The one who cut the cheese."
Thornburgh: "A person who aids or assists the person ..."
Ali G: "The one who smelt it."
Thornburgh: "Or the one who agrees on a plan to do the criminal act."
Ali G: "The one who dealt it!"
As juvenile as such questioning might be, with Thornburgh's unknowing collaboration, the interview evolves into a brilliant scene that's more bizarre and spontaneous than anything a comedy writer could invent.
Cohen's skill at improvisation isn't just impressive, it's mind-boggling, and the best moments in the show come when he's building off some bit of information he's just stumbled on. For example, when Ali G is given a tour of the U.N., he spots a seat with the name "Jordan" on it. He quickly asks his tour guide, "Isn't it stupid letting one sportsman have his own seat no matter how powerful he is? It's ridiculous, letting one person have the same power as a whole country!"
Later, Borat, Cohen's TV reporter from Kazakhastan, manages to stay completely in character through an impossibly deadpan interview with a representative from a dating service.
Borat: "I will love her, we will be as one, I will give her television, remote control, a red dress ..."
Matchmaker: "So you're saying you have a good life, and back home you can provide for her a good life ..."
Borat: "But if she cheat on me ... (pause) Why you laugh?"
Matchmaker: "I think that's sweet! Keep going."
Borat: "But if she cheat on me, I will crush her."
Matchmaker: "You will crush her? Well, honey, that's not going to qualify you with our membership, if you're prepared to crush a woman. You can break up with her, and divorce her, but you can't ... No crushing."
Borat: "If possible, she must have plow experience."
Matchmaker: "You're not going to find an American woman with plow experience."
Borat: "Maybe just one year plow experience."
The amazing thing about "Da Ali G Show" is that each segment seems funnier than the last. Cohen goes from discussing his sex life at a society dinner in the South, to asking an etiquette coach how much to tip a prostitute, to demanding that "Boutros Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali" explain why Disneyland doesn't have a seat in the U.N. As juvenile as any of these antics might sound, they're both outrageously funny and fascinating to witness.
The most absurd moment of the show, though, comes when Bruno the fashion journalist somehow convinces P.R. guru Paul Wilmot to give deaf children a message about safe sex without using any words. The resulting frantic gesturing by Wilmot is, truly, beyond words.
If Cohen exploits negative stereotypes, he does so to positive effect. Somehow seeing his exaggerated characters interact with regular people reinforces the real difficulty of honest communication between cultures, and we wind up with sympathy for both sides. When we watch Ali G describing the plot of "Barely Legal III" to a former attorney general, we relate to Ali G's impulse to provoke, but we also sympathize with Thornburgh's eagerness to play along with someone he doesn't completely understand. We see ourselves in the provocateur and in his hapless victim.
This isn't just an accident. "Da Ali G Show," for all its rudeness and button-pushing, treats its guests with an impressive degree of compassion. Aside from a few cruel fat jokes and an inability to resist the urge to ruffle a priest's feathers, Cohen manages to stay on friendly terms with most of his guests, sensing when to push them and when to back off. Most guests genuinely appear to be having a good time, despite the fact that they're being duped.
There will be those who say that the purpose of these shows is to shock the viewer. Clearly, though, the goal of "Da Ali G Show" is not to shock, any more than Monty Python or Archie Bunker's "All in the Family" or "Seinfeld" had an explicit goal to shock. True comedy arises from the experience of looking at the truth about ourselves without fear.
Programs like "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "Da Ali G Show" reflect that HBO's freedom, as a paid "premium" channel, isn't just the freedom to say "fuck" or to show some hooker's bare ass on TV. It's the freedom to highlight the ways we miscommunicate, offend and condescend to each other, and the freedom to take the risk of showing the humor in anything and everything, regardless of what a few oversensitive viewers who stayed up past their bedtime may think about it.