In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, political and cultural commentators are a dime a dozen. There is no shortage of people willing to go on TV to offer their take on society, just as there’s a mountain of think pieces about "What This All Means" available on every corner of the internet. Everybody has an opinion, and now more than ever, they have the means to communicate it to the world.
Commentary has become an industry unto itself, which makes Bill Maher’s career all the more impressive. There are very few straightforward political or cultural commentators who enjoy as prolific and influential a career as Maher has since breaking out in 1993 with Politically Incorrect (and later Real Time With Bill Maher); moreover, there are few comedians who have managed to remain culturally relevant for as long as Maher. And when you combine the two groups, Bill Maher is in a class by himself.
In fact, Bill Maher is largely responsible for liberal political commentary as we know it — his wry, sarcastic, take-no-prisoners take on politics and society was groundbreaking for its time, and other comedians have built their careers following in Maher’s footsteps. Without Maher, one could argue, there is no Jon Stewart, no John Oliver, no Stephen Colbert, no Samantha Bee, no Larry Wilmore, no Trevor Noah. Bill Maher’s contribution to the political discourse in this country has been nothing short of groundbreaking.
But we don’t need him anymore.
Maher has built a reputation as The Reasonable One™, the guy who can connect with people on both ends of the political spectrum and facilitate sane, rational discussion on a variety of issues. Maher refers to himself as “practical,” meaning he will take whatever side of a debate makes the most sense to him. It’s what made him valuable, once upon a time — it was refreshing to see a commentator with ideological flexibility, one who would take positions on an issue-by-issue basis rather than blindly adhering to party politics.
More often than not, Maher tends to fall on the liberal side of a debate, which is why the left has adopted him as one of the leading liberal voices in the country. This speaks more to the overall quality of the left’s arguments than it does to Maher’s so-called liberal bona fides, but I digress. In any event, I’m not one for ideological purity tests; Maher is free to believe whatever he wants. That’s not what bothers me about him.
For one thing, he’s the embodiment of the smug, condescending intellectual elite that the right has railed against for the past two decades. It’s not enough for him to disagree with his guests; he has to humiliate them. In Maher’s world, being wrong is an unpardonable sin, and the price you pay for being on the losing end of a debate is to have your intellect — and in some cases, your sanity — called into question.
Maher likes to position himself as Switzerland, the neutral party observing heated debates with a raised eyebrow, a smirk, and a witty rejoinder always at the ready. But more often than not, he’s already made up his mind on a given issue long before it comes up for debate, and guests on the other side of that issue are little more than lambs to the slaughter. It’s not uncommon to see three or four panelists — and Maher himself — taking turns intellectually piledriving the lone dissenter.
In some cases, it’s deserved, as it was when alt-right dipshit Milo Yiannopoulos took his Please Pay Attention To Me tour to late night. (It’s unclear why Maher thought Milo would be a worthwhile guest, but the cynic in me can’t help but think Maher had him on for the ratings.) In other cases, the scorn is misdirected. Maher largely does his best to remain professional, but his disdain for those with whom he disagrees is palpable, and he often can’t resist taking a quick potshot at a guest’s worldview if it doesn’t align with his own. Even when he’s right, he’s still intolerably self-satisfied about it.
Real Time with Bill Maher purports to hold up a mirror to some of the more outrageous elements of our society, blending humor, satire and political commentary to skewer our worst impulses. Alas, Bill Maher isn’t funny. He is the human equivalent of a Twitter account whose bio reads “TRIGGER WARNING: PC-FREE ZONE, SNOWFLAKES.” The term “politically incorrect” might have been catchy back in the mid-90s, but nowadays it’s little more than shorthand for “I think being ‘edgy’ means acting like an asshole. And if you object to my being an asshole, I’ll just dismiss you as being overly sensitive.” For proof, we need look no further than Maher’s recent “house n****r” comment, another example of Maher’s too-clever-by-half approach to comedy colliding with his need to be viewed as the one guy who will speak his mind, consequences be damned. He is the thinking man’s Andrew Dice Clay.
Take religion, for example. Personally, I’m not religious, and I abhor the current political practice of using religion as a justification for short-sighted, bigoted or just plain idiotic policies. I believe in the separation of church and state, and I’ll oppose any breach of that firewall. But apart from the encroachment of religion on legislation, I could care less what someone’s religious beliefs are — if they’re not impacting me personally, what right do I have to tell someone else that what they believe is wrong or stupid? There have been no specific polls that address it, but I would imagine that many non-religious Americans share my view of religion.
Unfortunately, Bill Maher isn’t one of them. Maher frequently uses his show to cosplay as every freshman philosophy student who read The God Delusion or Karl Marx and can’t wait to tell everybody what a sham religion is over spring break, as though a belief system that — in its purest incarnation — simply asks its adherents to be kind and decent to one another is a direct assault on humanity. Maher also made Religulous in 2008, a documentary that begins as an earnest attempt on an atheist’s part to understand religion and its effect on individuals but quickly devolves into a sneering, get a load of these idiots attempt at cultural satire. (Apparently, Maher failed to recognize the irony of making a film that, in part, mocks the slavish and public devotion to one’s religious beliefs.)
There is nothing Bill Maher does on his show that isn’t already being done by his late-night counterparts. John Oliver frequently takes deep (and evenhanded) dives into complex political issues, outlining what they are and why we should care; Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah offer the same sarcastic, biting cultural commentary; Stephen Colbert does all of this, albeit in a more apolitical fashion. Between them, these hosts cover all the same ground that Maher does; what’s more, they do it better, more humorously, and without Maher’s patronizing attitude and propensity for outrage-baiting quips that fall flat as often as they succeed.
There was a time when Maher’s voice was a genuinely unique and refreshing part of the political discourse, but his schtick has worn thin. America is more polarized now than at any point since the Civil War, both politically and culturally, and the rift between liberals and conservatives deepens with every passing day. Perhaps now more than ever, there is a need for political and social commentary that invites honest, well-intentioned debate from both ends of the spectrum. Unfortunately, Bill Maher can no longer provide it.