Bill Maher’s Biggest Problem Isn’t That His Politics Are Out of Touch

David B Morris
11 min readMay 14, 2024

It’s That His Comedy -And His Philosophy — Always Has Been

Even then, he was behind the times.

I’ve been giving Bill Maher a lot more benefit of the doubt in many of my recent articles when it comes to certain aspects of his political views. Much of that has to do more to my own evolution on politics than any changes in Maher’s viewpoints. That doesn’t change the fact that my original thesis statement on Maher, which made as long ago as the spring of 2020 has never changed.

I wanted to be fair to Maher so I wanted to try and do this in a way that separating his politics from his comedy. That may very well be impossible considering how Maher’s entire career has been in political comedy. However in recent months I have finally managed to put my finger on what may very well be the fundamental flaws in not only Maher’s act as a standup — which I have viewed for more than thirty years — but also how he is an outlier in so much of how late night comedy has worked. And surprisingly, when I put this together with other aspects of Maher’s political identity I have sympathy for him that I didn’t think possible before. But we’ll get to that last.

As I’ve written numerous times I’ve spent a lot of time watching late night comedy over the years and its not until recently that I’ve put my finger on what make Maher’s shows, first Politically Incorrect and then Real Time, so different from everything else that I’ve seen on late night in thirty years.

Jay Leno and David Letterman spent much of their time on the Tonight Show and Late Night putting audience participation and interacting with sidekicks. Conan O’Brien continued this trend with Andy Richter throughout three different shows. Jon Stewart, when he took over The Daily Show, not only made it more political but made his writers part of the act to a greater degree and many of his correspondents, from Samantha Bee to Larry Wilmore to Jordan Klepper found late night success much of which involved the participation of the writers in their shows.

When Maher moved to HBO and late night evolved most of the hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert also involved guest stars participating in many of their bits as well as recurring performers. The Colbert Report frequently used SNL’s Tim Meadows as an African-American Republican, for example. Jimmy Fallon would interact both with his bandleader and guests on both Late Night and when he took over The Tonight Show. Seth Meyers would make writers like Amber Ruffin stars in their own right with their participation. James Corden famously talked to his band and his writers.

Maher by contrast has devoted almost all of his major bits of his show in solitude. From the monologue to New Rules, there have been almost no occasions when anyone else is allowed to have the spotlight on his shows then him. He engages in interviews and panel discussions to be sure, but over time they have increasingly taking on a pedantic and lecturing tone, unlike the ones we have seen everywhere else on Late Night. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert talk with their political guests; Maher talks down to them, regardless of their political affiliation, gender or race.

Almost everyone else who has done work in late night in some point is willing to make some transitions in their act or approach with either the changing of the times or when they find things that don’t work. Real Time is essentially still the same show it was when it debuted more than 20 years ago but, as I’ve mentioned in other articles, it’s become less inclusive and unwilling to change.

But that’s fitting keeping with Maher’s act overall which also hasn’t changed in 30 years. And if today’s young viewers think Maher is out of touch with the average person today, I need to be clear that was true even when he was becoming a breakout comic in the 1990s. This isn’t a matter of Maher’s material aging badly — it’s obvious now how deliberately offensive a title like Politically Incorrect is — it’s that even in the 1990s, his schtick was at least twenty years out of date. And I know this because even as a sixteen year old watching his comedy specials on Comedy Central, I knew that his comedy was dated and out of touch.

Bill wanted to be George Carlin. He never came close.

People who claim today that Maher is a dinosaur because he is a misogynist and a homophobe don’t understand that’s exactly how he was thirty years ago. Even before the term like incel and red pill were even in the imaginations of Americans (even before The Matrix premiered, in fact) that was the kind of comedy Maher preached. Maher managed to get away with in the 1990s because many of the best comedians of that era were white males. The problem is, if you compare his comedy not only to active legends such as George Carlin and Bill Hicks but such lesser and still entertaining comedians like Bobby Slayton and Richard Jeni, there was something off. There was some kind of cheerfulness in Carlin and Hicks and a self-deprecation in men like Slayton and Jeni.

Maher, by contrast, started out arrogant and smug and has never stopped leaning into it. And from the start of his act, you could tell he was a misogynist. I remember when he referred to Thomas’ confirmation to Dynasty and said: “I didn’t know who to believe. They were both such great actors!” Now he never thought Thomas belonged on the Supreme Court but only because he thought he was unqualified. Apparently sexually assaulting Anita Hill was not a disqualifier in his eyes.

This was clear in his decision to defend the accusations against Bill Clinton, first by Paula Jones and later Monica Lewinsky. It was clear in one of his bits on the former that he found Jones description of how Clinton had dropped his pants in front of her without consent as not only amusing but kind of admirable. He made jokes that the reason the world was angry at Clinton was not that he was a sexual predator but because he was married. “We should have a bachelor President. Then we’d root for him to score!” was one of his jokes in a 1995 special.

This has been part of one of the most troubling trends in Maher’s comedy: he has never believed a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault. All of the reasons a woman might have for not being willing to come forward are in his mind excuses or exaggerations. As far as he was concerned Al Franken got a raw deal and he believes that the greatest crime happened when Woody Allen couldn’t make movies any more. No seriously he said he didn’t believe the recent Allen Vs. Farrow documentary “because it only had Farrow’s side.” Allen, for the record, declined to participate in the documentary despite multiple requests. I imagine even if Maher knew that he’d excuse him.

Maher’s act as early as the 1990s was that the problem with society was both the ‘feminization’ of it and the fact that he believed therapy was a racket. He famously made a joke that:

“Thirty years ago if you did something bad you’d go to your priest and he’d say: “Schmuck!” And you’d feel better. And the therapist doesn’t do that. He wants you to come back. The priest isn’t in it for the money. Just the kids.”

And to be clear Maher was opposed to organized religion even then.

He held this truth to even greater extremes when it came to alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ve never forgotten, much as I want to a line in that same routine:

“Alcoholism is sad, but drunks are funny. You argue about the lives destroyed. What about Dudley Moore? What about Foster Brooks?”

He is commenting on Moore’s most famous role as Arthur and Brooks, who was a comedian who took on a drunk act for years and was basically retired when Maher was performing. This speaks to another theme for Maher: the worst thing that a problem with society can do is interfere with a man’s ability to earn his living. It’s like arguing that the Soviet Union was a terrible place for liberty but it kept Yakov Smirnoff employed.

Even his views on alcoholism as a problem were dismissive:

“It’s a disease. Who wouldn’t want to get stewed at 3 in the afternoon?

That’s not what real alcoholics go through, of course, or for that matter drug addicts. But that doesn’t bother him either:

I know drugs are a problem, but they haven’t exactly hurt my record collection.”

That’s the kind of empathy towards societal issues Maher has shown his entire life as well as the kind of blinding insights he thinks he’s capable of.

Maher’s attitude, even in the 1990s, was that he was the most bizarre kind of grievance comedian. His grievance was that everyone else had too many problems and his alone were the ones that mattered. That he was a white, cis male leads to a conflict of an interest that was obvious to me even twenty years ago.

And he always had contradictions that were within his own self-stated philosophy. Maher has spent his life claiming that he is a libertarian where the philosophy is, you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else. But that blatantly contradicts New Rules where he lectures the world on all the things that bother him. His libertarianism seems to be I should be able to do and say whatever I want, and everyone else should stop complaining.

I’ve written in several of my political articles that, like Maher, I have major issues with how the left not only views America but how determined they are to get their agenda completed no matter how impossible it may be or how many people it pushes away. But where I differ from Maher is that I acknowledge that the lion’s share of the grievances that most of the coalition have are legitimate and that many of them have faced bigotry and persecution for having these views. Maher only sees them through his own lens, either because he is incapable of it or because of his own implacable view of the world. His attitude, most notably to the transgender community but to basically so many of the minority coalitions, has been to shut up, you’re bothering the rest of us. He basically thinks if you are suffering from prejudice or trauma from the world, keep it to yourself.

And for a man who believes everyone else is complaining too much and acknowledges that the world is a terrible place, he takes a dim view of all the approaches that people might do to feel better. It’s not just things like religion and therapy he thinks are rackets but he’s been screaming at everything Hollywood has put out for decades. Not just the comic book movies, which he insists led to the rise of Trump, but also the serious movies that come out for Oscars. He thinks social media is a waste of time (I’m with him there) but he’s never really liked sports or most other relaxation. Indeed, I could give a long list of what Maher’s hates but after thirty years, aside from marijuana being legal, I don’t think he likes anything.

Or, for that matter, anybody. Maher has famously been both anti-marriage and anti-children in his act and has never had any long-term relationships. He has no family I know of and I don’t know of any friends. He has always been vituperative to the industry that has been so good to him and he’s even held his fellow late night colleagues with scorn. He famously excoriated Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart for their march involving unity in 2010 and his attack on the overweight so outraged James Corden that Corden called him out in the media. Even the people he invites on his show he barely seems to tolerate. He only treats his studio audience with something resembling respect and maybe its only because he doesn’t think he can afford to isolate them.

But all of that actually brings me to the reason I feel sympathy for him. Maher has proudly called himself an atheist his entire life. But he’s also getting older which means he has to be considering his mortality. And if you don’t believe in an afterlife, which Maher says he doesn’t, then he has to consider his legacy.

And he doesn’t really have one. As I said he has lived his entire life with no real regard for a long-term human connection so he doesn’t really have one. All he has is his TV show and the impact it made. And whatever impact it has, it’s negative. Maher’s comedy has always been dated and offensive even thirty years ago. Politically Incorrect is going to be known more for how it got cancelled than anything it did when it was on the air. And there’s never been anything revolutionary about Real Time, not the way that The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight are or the same impact that Samantha Bee or Desus and Mero made recently. All Maher’s show have ever been are an hour of a privileged white man lecturing his guests and his audience on what his view of the world is and why everyone else’s is wrong. (By the way Bill, if you wonder why Fox News keeps quoting your show even though you insist you’re not a conservative, this is a big tell.)

That’s the reason I think Real Time is on the air even though its more of a relic with each new show. It’s not that Maher has anything new to say or anything funny. It’s that as long as Maher keeps doing his show, he has a purpose and a reason to go on. He needs Real Time more than anyone else. His entire life has been devoted to the stage and the camera. He has nothing else but that.

I think beneath the smug veneer and chuckling he does on stage; Maher is a very sad man. He’s devoted his entire career in television to his persona and its never been particularly likeable. Maher’s entire act is devoted to promoting a way of life that never existed except in his own mind and a political and life philosophy that is untenable even on an individual one. Maher isn’t raging against the dying of the light; he was raging even when it was focused entirely on him. And the battles he’s chosen to fight all his life were not only the wrong ones but as silly as the ones that he rages so many of his targets for fighting.

That’s the reason I feel sorry for Maher. He was an anachronism when he started his career and now he’s a relic. He’s not even the last of his breed because he was always an outlier. Maher has been fighting a one-man battle against society his entire life. And he can’t concede he lost because he never really knew what he was fighting for. I don’t think the world will miss Bill Maher much when he finally departs or even that his cause was ever a noble one. But we need to understand that he was never a monster, just someone who found his niche early in life and couldn’t bring himself to change even as the world around him was.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.