Bill Maher -- whose live round table "Real Time" returns to HBO Friday at 10 p.m./9 Central -- was on Jay Leno’s show Tuesday, talking about the Arizona shootings and other touchy subjects. Do I even need to tell you how it went?
To put it mildly, the man does not do lovable. A lot of prickly-pear comics are hypocrites who hector and ridicule other public figures, then act surprised and hurt when a fellow performer answers a jab with a jab, or when the crowd boos a joke that it finds offensive. (I was kidding! Whatsamatter, can’t ya take a joke?) Maher, to his credit, is not one of those people. He doesn’t just mean it when he says he thrives on disagreement; he takes the provocateur role to vertigo-inducing heights. In the sheer giddiness he displays while pushing people's buttons, he's like a socially competent cousin of Andy Kaufman's "Man From Hollywood" character. I enjoy the nasty-schoolboy giggle that slips out whenever Maher has lost the audience's goodwill. There’s a glint in his eye when he turns to booers and groaners, and a charged moment where you wonder if he’s going to shrug off the negative reaction or fixate on it; Maher, being Maher, usually goes with option No. 2.
"Did you see him on '60 Minutes,' John Boehner?’" Maher asked Leno's audience, referring to the incoming House speaker’s Dec. 13 appearance on the CBS newsmagazine. "We supposedly just had this election where people were very upset about the debt. Are you upset about the debt?" he asked the audience.
"Yes!" a few people shouted.
"Lesley Stahl asks him about this, and she says, 'What are you gonna cut?' And he says, 'How ‘bout ...' -- like he’s got a big hand to play here! -- 'How ‘bout we start cutting Congress? I’m gonna start by cutting 5 percent from my office.'"
A couple of people in the crowd reflexively clapped and murmured their approval. Maher turned to them and shouted, "Morons!"
This is a case where I agree with Maher; I hate the "Now watch me sacrifice, just like you!" shtick that elected representatives do rather that cut military spending or some other sacred area of the budget. But whether or not I'm on the same page with Maher about a given issue, I enjoy watching him provoke audiences. He can be a jerk, and there are often holes in his logic (there always are with pundits). But his personality is at odds with the bland peppiness TV usually requires of talk show hosts and news anchors (what Maher does is sort of a combination of those two roles). He's not slick or packaged. His passion seems to be coming from a real place. And there's never been anybody remotely like him on TV -- not since the '70s, anyway, the last period when talk show guests routinely had actual conversations that went wherever they went, and that often got uncomfortable or downright nasty without devolving into pre-scripted attack dog playacting (the cable news norm).
Maher is American punditry's cranky uncle -- the silver-haired swingin' bachelor uncle who watches C-SPAN the way other guys watch ESPN, subscribes to Playboy for the articles and the centerfolds, doesn't especially enjoy being around kids (although he'll tolerate the ones that happen to be related to him), and has roughly the same attitude toward True Love as the Joe Pesci character in "Goodfellas." ("Why don't you get yourself a nice girl?" his mom asks. "I get myself a nice one almost every night, ma," he replies, "and then in the morning I get right back up!")
His first series, "Politically Incorrect," got kicked off ABC for being too, well, politically incorrect. This is the period that Maher mordantly calls "The events of 9/17" -- the broadcast on which he agreed with guest Dinesh D'Souza (a right-winger last time I checked) that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, as President Bush and his boosters kept claiming, because it took a certain amount of physical courage to personally carry out an airborne suicide mission. “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," Maher said. The virtual horse-whipping that followed gave ABC an excuse to cancel Maher's show.
But if Maher hadn't triggered the network's 'eject' button with his "cowards" remark, he would have done it eventually in some other context. It was only a matter of time before he ended up on cable. Broadcast TV still gravitates toward the idea that television is a "cool medium" where it's best not to upset viewers too much, or for too long. (Gotta sell stuff! Lots of stuff! Otherwise we can't keep the lights on!) Both premium and commercial cable thrive on active personalities. Maher is active -- very active. Maher resents the let's-all-be-friends-and-praise-rainbows-and-unicorns mentality governing modern broadcast TV. He would have been right at home in the era of Mort Sahl and Dick Cavett and David Frost. I can picture him swapping bawdy one-liners with John Simon and Susan Sontag, smoking and boozing and probably wearing a turtleneck.
Just as Johnny Carson was never livelier and more unique than when one of his monologue jokes bombed (double take, wince, tie adjustment), Maher is at his most intensely Maher-ish when the crowd is turning against him – as it did on "The Tonight Show" this week. In his desire to foment disagreement and discord, he’s the anti-Leno. On "The Tonight Show," he summarized combative far-right anti-Democrat rhetoric as "Wouldn't it be fun to kill people we disagree with?" and someone in the crowd booed. "Do you read?" he demanded.
This time next week I might despise Maher again -- he always says or does something that makes me resent him. (I hate how he'll chastise homophobes, then end with a rote one-liner painting all gay men as limp-wristed shopaholic types, and the traces of piggishness that slip through when he talks about women and feminism; you can tell he's about to behave like an ass when he introduces a "New Rule" that begins with him smarmily intoning, "Ladies ...") But then he'll win me back by validating a few of my own beliefs on touchy subjects -- and doing it in a public forum, without fear. Some of his pet topics are minefields that even news programs prefer to avoid: abortion rights, for example, and gun control, and the notion that American politicans should stop habitually genuflecting to people of faith (and ending speeches with "God bless America" and urging the public to "pray" for this person or that cause) because it suggests that you have to believe in God to be a moral person. Maher is an atheist who made a whole movie attacking faith, "Religulous." Is a project like that something that I personally would spend years of my life working on? No. Is it a movie I'm glad exists? You bet.
I'm glad Maher exists, too. He often comes off as a pompous bastard, and his reasoning doesn't always make sense. But it's nice to know there's a genuinely political personality on TV who's not hosting a show on all-news cable, who really means it when he says he enjoys disagreement, and who projects stubborn integrity no matter what.