Staying Up Late: A New Series

Let’s Get Real: Why It’s Time For Bill Maher to Retire

In my years of writing about television, there have been a few areas that I have not written about even though they are among my regular viewing habits. But now that I, like so many of us, have time on my hands, I figure now is the occasion for me to look at those areas. And one of them happens to be late night TV, which I sporadically but occasionally enjoy.

This is the beginning of a series on late night television: those who I’ve enjoyed, and those I think really are past their prime. I begin this series with one of the latter:

Earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that it’s time for Bill Maher to retire. He’s had a good run — bordering on thirty years — but I think even the most rigorous fan of his would have to admit he has passed his expiration date.

To explain why, I have go back to his early days: when he was one of the biggest voices on a fledgling network called Comedy Central.

At the time, Comedy Central was still little more than every other cable network that starts out; it relied on nostalgia from the seventies and eighties. Most of its highlights were reruns of SCTV, Saturday Night Live and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Occasionally, it would venture into something imaginative — Mystery Science Theater 3000 was one of the great accomplishments in TV history — but it basically relied on reruns, stand-up comics, and clip shows. (One of their major accomplishments Short Attention Span Theater was best known for helping launch an unknown comic named Marc Maron.)

I don’t know if it’s entirely accurate to say that the arrival of Bill Maher’s changed the network’s fate, but as someone who watched Comedy Central almost from its inception as a network, there is definitely an argument to be made for that. When Maher launched Politically Incorrect in the summer of 1993, it was really something that hadn’t been seen before. It was a panel show played for laughs in a world that hadn’t even considered it before. Maher was very good at making a good mix — he would have Patty Hearst and Robert Townsend appear on the same show; have G. Gordon Liddy and Harvey Fierstein discuss the State of the Union, and put Chris Rock a comedian who had mostly been wasted on Saturday Night Live doing his real great material. It was something that hadn’t been seen before, and despite many networks attempts to recreate the format, would rarely gel the same way again.

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It may just be the haziness of my memory, but Maher seemed to have a measure of cynicism without being completely depressing. He truly seemed to be enjoying what he had put together, and he rarely made himself the center of the show. And that level of behavior was maintained when the inevitable call up to network television came in the winter of 1997.

Many comedians have changed their basic behavior when they move from cable to network — I’m still not entirely used to how Stephen Colbert has shifted formats. Maher stayed true to himself. Part of that no doubt had to do with being a little later (ABC was still devoted to having Nightline at 11:30pm, so Politically Incorrect came on after midnight), but most of it was due to Maher’s nature. His personality did change much and his cynicism (particularly at the hypocrisy of the Clinton impeachment, which was the high point of his series) at the political process remained undiminished. But despite that, he always seemed to view things through a steady view. And he might well have managed to maintain that viewpoint had outside events not intervened.

The remarks Maher made and the fallout from them have been told and retold so many times that it is hardly worth repeating them. So I’ll just say this: What happened to Maher in the media and in the country was an absolute kangaroo court and an utter travesty of the 1st Amendment. When Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley write about just how badly the media has pilloried you, you’ve reached a level of unfairness that can not be made right. The show was called Politically Incorrect, for God’s sake! Did our desire of irreverence go out the window after 9/11? Or were we supposed to only joke about the subway in New York?

One can’t imagine that this would’ve had on Maher as a person after that or indeed as a comedian. But having seen a lot of the specials he did on HBO before and after his firing, his general irreverence can be seen as taking a far darker tone. Maybe what happened to him left a bitterness that has never gone away; maybe he was always this dark and being free of a network (particularly one such as HBO whose attitude in groundbreaking comedy pre-dated its original programming by at least a decade). Whatever it was, Maher’s comedy was never the same, and there’s an argument to make that he’s never been anywhere near as entertaining since.

In the next part, I move on to Real Time, Maher’s attitude towards society, and why his time has passed.

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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.

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