But Only Because I Think I’ve Finally Figured Him Out
Over the last years I have sporadically returned to the nature of Bill Maher, the acerbic and bitter host of HBO’s Real Time. I was going to do what I do with subjects that become more and more tedious and ignore him except for the fact over the last week I’ve had an insight about it from watching his last episode — one that I think that might have a greater understanding of what Maher is. Not so much politically, but philosophically and psychologically.
I watched Real Time fairly regularly the first five years he was on the air, and one thing that I’ve noticed over time is that fewer people show up for his series. In the first couple of seasons after his monologue, he would talk with a guest (either in the studio or via satellite) then go on to his panel of three people. In the early years he would often have another comedian (usually Paul F. Tompkins) give a monologue of their own, then add another guest to the panel before finishing up with New Rules. He got rid of the comic early, which I’m willing to allow was something more about working out the kinks of a new series rather than personal problems, but the fundamental format was the same for much of the first decade. And he was very broad about the guests he allowed — there were as many conservatives as liberal and he would often go into debates with people he was radicalized opposed to. (I vividly remember the back and forth he would have with Christopher Hitchens over the Iraq War.) Even after I stopped watching regularly, it was always clear that Maher really cared about having people with opposing points of view.
This has changed dramatically over the past few years. The guest near the end of the episode has more or less disappeared. The interviews with his in studio guest tend to go on longer, and the panels have shrunk from three people to two. Does this mean that Maher is having more trouble getting people to appear on his show as his views have become more rigid? Is it because he has less patience for people who disagree with him? Or is he becoming more and more in love with his own voice? If I’m being candid, I honestly think it’s more of the last one. There are more unfunny bits to his audience and the New Rules monologues are becoming more rants than anything else. And the guest do seem to be more and more conservative, but I think its less due to the fact he wants to debate them as he wants to berate them. As I’ve mentioned at least once, I think a part of him is truly envious of how so many of the conservative pundits do business: they can say whatever they want, no matter how odious and there are no consequences. I think they are Maher’s kind of people more than liberalism he claims he embraces.
But it wasn’t until his last show that I truly got my clearest insight into Maher. As some of you may be aware Maher tested positive for Covid a few months ago. He got through the virus and seemed fine. Last night, he had an argument with Chris Coons about ‘natural immunity’. “I had Covid…Why should I keep having to be tested for it?” Coons was flummoxed for a moment and I don’t blame him. He just a got look at Maher’s soul and its terrifying.
As we’ve been told for the past two years, the testing process isn’t just for the people who have it; it’s to track the virus so it doesn’t spread to other people. You would think a man whose entire career is based on performing before an audience might at least care a little about passing it on to someone who comes into his studio. Then you remember this was a man who went back to performing before a live audience months before his colleagues in the late night game did so. And a fundamental truth is realized: Maher doesn’t care about his audience except for what they do for him. I’ve no doubt that Seth Meyers hating performing in his attic and John Oliver in a void, but they did because they value their audience’s health more than hearing their laughter. Maher clearly doesn’t.
I’ve often thought that Maher has no empathy at all. He has, after all, made a career of mocking the sensitivities of so many people and not only the ones he has contempt for. Anyone who is offended by anything, no matter how serious, is somehow weak in his eyes. He’ll say in his act that this kind of sensitivity that affects so many people and turns them to vote for Republicans, but he really doesn’t care about what Democrats do either. He made that painfully obvious in a monologue where he openly praised Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema for not allowed the economic bill to go forward — hell, he said they have the right idea. Now I’ve known for years that only reason Maher claims to be a Democrat is because he supposedly hates conservatives. But everything in his act is that of the basic conservative — America was better before, people are too sensitive these days, and everybody who isn’t a white male, should stop whining.
And this actually may tell us about what Maher really is: He basically holds the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, the most pessimistic of the Enlightenment Philosophers. To basically explain what one is like: think basically about the behavior of Gregory House and Matthew McCounaghey’s character on True Detective and you’ll have a pretty good encapsulation of what they are. Maher thinks people are fundamentally bad by nature and that there is no afterlife waiting for them and anything to do to try and make themselves get through life — be it therapy or religion or marriage or even popular entertainment — is basically an evil that is at best a distraction or making everything worse.
And this basically explains a lot about Maher. The only joy he seems to get out of live is performing before an audience. That’s the only thing he seems to do outside of host Real Time. He has no wife and his relationships have not ended well. He has no interest in fathering children. He thinks that comic books have destroyed mankind and he thinks the kinds of films that win Oscars are too depressing. He has no interest in television (he said he’d never seen Breaking Bad) and he doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, even among his fellow comics. Many comedians will advocate for social causes. Maher actually seems to mock those who do. His sole interests seem to be the legalization of marijuana and telling anybody who disagrees with him that there an idiot. I honestly think Maher wants the end of the world to come, for the sole purpose of telling people: “I told you so.” Maher may not agree with the fundamental statement of Leviathan — at least for himself — but he doesn’t exactly do much give an argument why it should be better.
I’m sure there are out there Maher apologists who say we shouldn’t let the same standards apply to him because he is a groundbreaking comedian. Except…he never was. Not in the way Carlin or Pryor or Tomlin were before him. Not in the way Chris Rock and Jon Stewart and yes, Dave Chapelle were after him. Even among his contemporaries Maher barely registers as revolutionary — not compared to Seinfeld, but paling to such now forgotten greats as the late Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks.
Maher just had the good fortune to be on Comedy Central when it was starting out. As someone who remembers that era, I should add Maher’s work on Politically Incorrect was not significantly better than Marc Maron or Stephen Colbert who had multiple series around the same time. His series just happened to be slightly more accessible. Maher is basically a comedian who has been trading off his legacy for the last twenty years — or to use a metaphor once applied to George H.W. Bush ‘born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” For that reason, he has no use for the ones who have come after him and have had to struggle to find their niche exploring tropes he doesn’t have the nerve too. It also explains why so many of the comedians who’ve come after him have little use for him as well.
In a way, I actually think this makes Maher worse than so many of the billionaire evangelists or right-wing pundits he berates a weekly basis. As misguided and horrible these people are to the public discourse, they at least offer some kind of balm to their millions of followers. Maher’s fellow late night comic at least try to offer a modicum of some hope in their monologues about the world, some level of humanity for their viewers to hold on to. Maher basically tells his audience that everything is shit and nothing will get better. And since he fundamentally doesn’t care about their well-being or what they think except for what they do for him, then he’s a bigger hypocrite than the people he berates.
HBO renewed Real Time for another three seasons recently. Honestly, I wonder why. The trope of the aging white male late night host has become increasingly stale over the last few years and the ones who are still involved have made a major effort to keep their acts fresh over the last few years. I do get that Maher does occasionally have a moment where he does seem to speak a certain truth, but it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to do that any more. New Rule: When you rail against conservatives longing for the past and for your next joke, feel nostalgia for how hard it was to find porn when you were growing up…everyone knows who the real joke is.