I have a love/hate relationship with Real Time with Bill Maher.
(full episodes freely available on HBO and iTunes)
There is much to love; often he has a great combination of people on his panel from both sides of the political aisle, he doesn’t shy away from topics if they are difficult, and often the serious part (with jokes) at the end of his “New Rules” segment closing the show is incredibly well written and brings interesting or clear perspectives to hot-button topics.
For example, on over-arming the police:
Gun rights in America:
Religion and Atheism:
And yet… he also annoys the hell out of me more than occasionally. When it comes to science and reason he is a big fan; as long as they unequivocally agree with his perspective. But sometimes when he talks about chemical additives, he gets a little trigger-happy when a guest is trying to make a nuanced argument. Science is sometimes nuanced; sometimes you might be right, but the evidence isn’t in yet… and until the evidence is in, it isn’t science… sorry. Sometimes the evidence might contradict you, and that is tough to swallow, but you cannot sit on a high horse on climate change the one moment, and then be a disbeliever when it turns out that not all chemistry is evil. In for a penny…
The other theme that makes me cringe is when he paints every Republican with the same broad brush. He likes to talk about how he respects serious Republicans, but for some mysterious reason the ones he gets on his show are never those. It reminds me of the West Wing episode where a moderate Republican makes a point (to Josh from memory): if you don’t work with moderates, only radicals will be electable.
I’m as left-leaning as they come… but if you cannot have a respectful disagreement with someone who holds a principled view not your own without yelling at them, I can with 99% accuracy tell you who the radical in the conversation is. Hint: it’s not the person you are yelling at.
That is not what bothered me most in the most recent episode of his show though.
He had a predominantly left-wing panel, with Carly Fiorina the only Republican. She clearly was too careful for this episode. Possibly presidential ambitions have something to do with that. And I know very little about her principled beliefs, so maybe she chose her silence wisely.
One thing I wish she had jumped on more forcefully though was the purposeless sexism at the table at one stage. When presidential candidates came up, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were mentioned on the Democratic side, and it somehow segued into a tasteless joke about a double ticket and Bill asking Salman Rushdie “What Happens in your Fantasies?” to which he thankfully said nothing.
She somewhat timidly tried to make the point that she was the only woman around the table trying to point out the obvious, but it seemed that nobody got her hint. I have also noticed that women panelists on his show are much more prone to being talked over than their male counterparts. And political macho-culture is no excuse here, these are not weak or timid women that just allow it to happen. They just get ignored.
This is a popular show.
Predominantly about politics.
Women are in politics.
Sexism is a real problem.
And bad taste is just bad taste. It wasn’t even anywhere near a clever joke.
And then towards the end of the show when Jay Leno decided to hug him and tell Bill everyone loves him… clearly longer than Bill was comfortable with (Bad Jay! No Consent!)… he snapped back with a “Get Off me Homo”… which is not the first time he’s used a slur like that either.
I am conflicted.
I dislike the way he comports himself on a show that is otherwise an interesting exchange of frequently well-informed perspectives. I dislike that when there is so little good political debate available he makes it so hard for me to watch his show without feeling dirty afterwards. But as he says; it is his show, and he doesn’t have to listen if he doesn’t want to.
Most of the time it is no worse than other panel shows.
But when it goes wrong,…
…every once in a while…
…it makes me want to curl in on myself.
I’ll probably keep watching like an addict looking for his next hit… but I will keep a hot shower and a stiff drink on stand-by.