Why I’d Rather Spend More Real Time Last Week
Why John Oliver Will Always Be Funnier — and Smarter — Than Bill Maher
I was planning to write yet another article today excoriating some of more of Bill Maher’s recent actions on his last two shows and his most recent comedy special. But at this point, you’re no doubt as tired as I am about my writing to complain how tired and unfunny he is and even given his recent remarks, I’m not sure there’s anything new to say.
So I’ve decided to try something a bit different. A couple of weeks ago I raved about Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a series I have more or less watched every episode of since its debut in 2014. The more I watch Oliver’s show and contrast with what I see of Maher, the more I see the fundamental difference in their philosophies of both comedy, democracy and the world at large. And since there is a gaping chasm in their approaches to the world, I thought it might be to try and explain why I — and certainly the Emmy voters — infinitely prefer Oliver to Maher.
Both have certain commonalities. Both started their careers as stand-up comedians, both had their breakthroughs on Comedy Central — Maher on Politically Incorrect; John Oliver on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — and both run weekly late night comedy series on HBO. But the similarities end there. Real Time is twice as long as Oliver’s show involves more discussion of events and is a mix of a panel and more traditional interview series. Last Week Tonight is closer to a comedy series that will look current events and then focus on a larger story for the bulk of the episode.
The fundamental difference between Oliver and Maher is scope. Oliver has always believed that his series should fundamentally cover global issues. He has devoted episodes to Belarus, Venezuela, Mexico and The Philippines, even if there is no clear American connection to any of it. He has devoted multiple shows to France, Great Britain and China, each time taking a different look at things. During the Trump Presidency, he may have been the only late night show who would often give what that happened that week the barest amount of attention, even during the impeachment.
Maher, by contrast, will almost only deal with America and almost all of his focus is on that week’s politics which he only blames on Republicans. And while Oliver will often admonish his own series by admitting his show is a depressing lecture, much of Maher’s comedy actually is depressing lectures — to his audience and to his panel usually about the same themes he’s been spouting for twenty years. Maher was joked about George W. Bush being unable to find Iraq on a map. I find it difficult to believe that before this year Maher could find Ukraine on a map, much less know why the situation might be dire there soon.
There is a different approach to their styles of comedies that is at least partly due to their nationalities. Oliver is British, and constantly fills his routine with self-deprecating remarks about the nature of his series, his appearance and the fact that people mock him for his appearance. But his demeanor, which remains calm even when he is exasperated at everything, makes every go down smoothly. He never talks down to his audience and while he gets frustrated with the state of the world, he never forgets he’s there primarily to entertain as well as inform.
Maher’s attitude is that of the arrogant American frat boy who just knows more than the experts do. Everyone is wrong in his eyes — Democrats, Republicans, women, African-Americans, even his own panelists. He alone is correct, and the fact that he has berated Americans for their self-righteousness is an irony he is incapable of seeing. Oliver is painfully self-aware at times — whenever he talks about American racism or imperialism, he knows that he is coming from a place where the pot is calling the kettle black. Maher is only self-aware in the sense that he thinks his self alone is aware.
Oliver does homework whenever he does a piece — he will seek out news footage from every conceivable source. Not just cable news or local news, but foreign correspondence and public news. Everything seems planned out on Last Week Tonight and while that should be tedious, Oliver and his writers have a way of making it entertaining. Maher’s show should be more spontaneous — his shows are recording live and with panelists and interviews you can’t predict what people will say — but you always get the feeling that Maher is to trying to micromanage every single laugh and applause line on his show. Maher needs to be at the center of his series; Oliver only hosts his show.
But perhaps the biggest contrast between the two is their approach to government. Oliver will devote individual shows to some of the largest systemic issues — flaws in the criminal justice system, problems with national health care, immigration reform and the problems with law enforcement. And usually he expresses frustration with both parties — Republicans for taking a draconian measure to so much of it, but just as frequently Democrats for being willing to go along with it.
Maher on the other hand has never viewed any of these things problems so much as wedge issues — anything that might hinder African-Americans, women, LGBTQ+ or Latinos — as something that will keep white working class voters from voting Democratic in elections. Oliver has on at least one occasion pointed out that most of those white working class voters haven’t voting for Democrats in more than half a century. Maher either doesn’t know that or just as likely doesn’t care.
Oliver believes that is the job of the government to do something to solve all of the problems that are plaguing America. Maher is just as adamant that is not government’s job to do that because they will only screw it up. The only reason Democrats should win election is to stop Republicans from winning because they will make things worse. Oliver has spent much of Last Week advocating for progressive candidates because he believes America needs to follow their policies. He repeatedly has castigated Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema for obstructing the flow of democracy. Maher has just as often considered them the voice of the people — by which he means himself. Oliver has been a frequent critic of Joe Biden, both before and during his campaign for the Presidency, and just as harshly during it. Maher advocated for Biden a full year before he ran, I suspect only because he wanted to beat Trump.
I think the clearest difference between Oliver and Maher’s political philosophy could be illustrated in how they end their shows every week. After showing how badly a particularly system is broken, Oliver will explain what needs to be done to fix it and to an extent what his audience can do to help fix it. He understands that the system is frustrating and how badly it is broken — on last night’s episode, he expressed a great deal of sympathy and empathy for those same voters — but for all his pessimistic approach, Oliver wants to believe that the people can change things. He will show evidence from around the world that change is possible. It may not last long, but it can be done if we do the work. One could see Oliver as believing in the John Locke school of thought: that man is basically good and deserve the chance to right things.
Maher, as I have mentioned before, is fundamentally a believer in Thomas Hobbes and that is illustrated in how he ends the show with ‘New Rules’. I have no doubt his fans view his comic approach to how society should run as hysterical. To me, as the years have gone by, it indicates a far darker part of his philosophy. Hobbes believed that man was essentially evil, and the absolute sovereignty was the way to go. ‘New Rules’ indicate how Maher’s believes man in every way is institutionally flawed and that if he alone were in charge, this is how things would be.
This may sound like I’m overreaching, but keep in mind this is a man who fairly recently advocated the strengths of China as a nationality over the US. Sure, China was a dictator and human rights abuser, but they could sure get things done when they didn’t have to bother with democracy. Oliver has constantly demonstrated how horrific China’s policies are and what a danger they are to the free world. To Maher, who doesn’t see nuance and certainly doesn’t have it in his comedy that wouldn’t change his opinion. Maher’s approach to all the people that are suffering because of the problems Oliver talks about is — vote Democratic or things will get worse. And if things do get worse for them, he’ll shrug and say: “Stop complaining about bad things are for you so I can go on making my living complaining about bad things are for me.”
Finally there’s the fact that Oliver spends at least some of his series trying to change things and is willing to do things. Even in his actions for entertainment, Oliver is willing to make donations to charitable organization, food banks and organizations that fight diseases. Maher has spent his entire career doing nothing for anything or anyone except the legalization of marijuana.
The question: “What do you stand for?” may be one we are all tired of hearing, but its pretty clear what Oliver stands for. He advocates for issues, he believes in the people and he’s willing to use his platform to try and change things. Maher, as we have seen in his career as a comedian, not only doesn’t advocate for change, he openly mocks and berates those who make any effort to. This is keeping with the Hobbesian view that life is supposed to be miserable and if you try to feel better during it, you’re not doing it right. (Witness his recent online encounter with Bella Thorne where he mocked her for going to therapy.)
Perhaps that is at least part of the reason Oliver has won five consecutive Emmys and Maher has one of the longest streaks of going winless in history. Maher wants to be part of the system but he has spent his entire career berating it and the world around it. Oliver will mock it as much as the next comedian but he does it gently. Both men have no problem biting the hands that feeds them. But there’s a difference between a nip and constantly ripping off the flesh. Both men agree we live in dark times that are only getting darker. But Oliver keeps trying to light a candle, even against gale force winds. Maher not only just keeps cursing the darkness, he’ll try to help blow out the candle.