By Tom Comi
Some comedy shows try to incorporate political jokes, and some political shows attempt to inject humor — but no show on television merges the two as successfully as Real Time With Bill Maher.
And with so much going on these days politically (including the GOP primaries being in full swing), nothing could make me happier than to see the cutting-edge HBO show return tonight (10pm ET live, with an immediate replay). Some people might label Maher as a comedian, others as a pundit, and others as a satirist. I don’t think he conveniently fits into any of those boxes. What makes him entertaining is his ability to successfully wear so many hats, and it’s also what makes his show different from any program on TV.
Before proceeding any further, let’s put all of the cards on the table regarding Maher’s political leanings. While there is little doubt he leans to the left (sometimes very far left), he has no qualms whatsoever about calling out Democrats and President Obama. He has on many occasions slammed the president for not having the backbone to live up to the liberal agenda he ran on before being elected in 2008.
It’s also fair to say that Maher tends to stack his panel with liberals, but he almost always features at least one conservative to offer the other side of the story. Although he has never purported that his show is “fair and balanced,” he does give the other side more of a fighting chance than Fox News Channel (which coined that very misleading phrase).
With that caveat behind, what you get with Maher every week is a little bit of everything, beginning with a monologue that is purely stand-up. Although I never felt like comedy was his true calling, he does have an edge on other comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart in that HBO allows him to really push the envelope (his bit with Jane Lynch last season was priceless).
The real meat of the show, though, is his one-on-one interviews and panel discussions. This is where he really thrives, and it’s what makes him stand out above the fray. The conversations often get very testy, which is exponentially more entertaining and informative than the alternative of a bunch of talking heads talking at us instead of to us. Maher doesn’t pretend not to have an agenda (can MSNBC and Fox News make that same claim), and most people tune in understanding that to be the case.
I could do without the weekly “comedy” segment Maher insists on injecting every week while his panel sits idly by, and I fully admit some of his causes — such as legalized marijuana and religion (he is an atheist) — tend to override more important issues. He has every right to do what he wants with his own show, but he also needs to know when to put his ego on the backburner and allow his guests to show their expertise.
Speaking of such, in tonight’s premiere the roundtable guests are political analyst Jennifer Donahue, Republican strategist Rich Galen and liberal commentator Keith Olbermann. Journalist Dexter Filkins and comedian Louis C.K. stop by for interview segments. Best of all, we always know that every show will end with “New Rules,” which is Maher’s hilarious rant on topics in the news.
I fully admit that Bill Maher is not everybody’s cup of tea; however, with all of the other political garbage we are subjected to on a daily basis, Real Time does offer a much-needed change of pace.
Credit: Janet Van Ham