When Time Stops Being Real

Published on September 23rd, 2011

A new contributor, Colin, brings us his thoughts on Bill Maher.

There has been a lot of analysis of Sept 11 and it’s long-term effects on the West recently. Without the attacks, maybe there’s no invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. One could argue without the terrorist attacks, there is no Arab spring and no President Obama. What I know for certain though, is that September 11 made TV suck more than ever. 9/11 ushered in an era where the division between broadcast and cable TV would widen, with detrimental effects on American political dialogue and what I watched at 12:05.

Scott Carter, a writer and producer of Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher’s late-night talk show that ran from 1993-2002, said that the show was modeled on the salon style conversations Maher would host in his living room in the early 90s. As an up and coming comedian in New York, Maher would collect his comedian friends and other intellects to discuss the issues of the day. I imagine Bill Maher with a Krameresque pile of hair, as Bill Maher seems to exhibit the worst of modern trends whenever you see pictures of him in the past. Beers and joints were certainly consumed. Maher was able to replicate this easy-going, imbibed atmosphere on network TV for 9 years.  The set was dark, hardwood floor, with comfortable antique chairs. For a debate show, it was markedly relaxed compared to the ones that are more common on today’s cable networks such as CNN’s “So You Think You’re America’s Angriest Talking Head” or MSNBC’s “Shut The Fuck Up.” The show is a YouTube hit, full of politicians and celebrities saying things with candor, that they may wish they could take back, Bill Maher included.  It’s a shame that the show didn’t survive to see its 10th birthday.

The show also reflected bad trends in television, like the period where ABC made all of their marketing look like Home Improvement ads.

It was comments Maher made about September 11 that brought an early demise to his show. It was easy to label the terrorists involved in September 11th cowards. They attacked soft, civlian targets without mercy. Maher though is a nuanced guy, and that’s what makes him entertaining. With the exception of vegetarianism (pro) and marijuana rights (pro pro), Maher’s opinions are flexible.  Not the flip-flopping of convenience seen so often, but more glacial, shifting with age, experience and unfolding events. While extremely critical of the Bush/Cheney era, you could never say that it’s because they were Republicans and he is Democrat (because he’s not that.) Maher would argue that he has read books, and they have not; that he accepts new evidence and they do not; he is not in debt to lobbyists and donors, and they are. Bill Maher was being Bill Maher when he compared American policy with the terrorists’ methods. “We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly.” Too soon, maybe, too false, not likely. This level of nuance was too murky for broadcast television, and by extenstion, most of America at that time. Huge advertisers like FedEx and Sears pulled their sponsorship immediately. Maher’s comments became the subject of national discussion, culminating with the White House Press Secretary ominously warning Americans to “watch what they say.” Real Time was left with little of the support from affiliates or advertisers required to run in late prime time. The show didn’t make it back for the next fall season. The Jimmy Kimmel show now occupies its time slot.

But Maher survived. By 2003 he had signed to do 13 episodes on the premium cable network HBO. No commercials? Perfect! No advertisers! Maher was free to go into any subject, curse anything and have controversial guests seldom seen on network (Jack Kevorkian, killer of the old and infirm and, Chris Hitchens, a British essayist who has turned from Trotskyist to supporter of the Iraq invasion, and has also had himself waterboarded.) Bill Maher’s new show was called Real Time and is on HBO weekly at 11pm on Fridays. The show tinkered with the Politically Incorrect format and took one or two seasons to settle on its on style but is now a runaway success, going for over 30 live episodes a year, tripling its production. Maher opens each show with a monologue not unlike most late night shows. The strength of the show is in the one on one interviews, along with the lively panel discussions that follow. Need more proof that this show could only exist on cable? Zach Galifinakis both smoked a joint and injected heroin live on air. Ok, maybe he mimed the heroin one.


While a tremendous fan of Real Time, I am nostalgic for a time when Politically Incorrect was on a network, free for anyone to stumble upon and engage in. Instead of Leno’s tedious monologue, or a random blonde actress promoting her movie on Letterman, you could see Whoopi Goldberg defend Vietnamese communism. Granted, the replacements are no short stacks. Stewart and Colbert have created an entirely new space for satire, where politicians and celebrities are subject to face-skewering and lampooning daily. But it isn’t always the place to find deep discussion amongst intellectual rivals with some extra juice from Carrot Top (who actually did bring a lot to the debate.) Between the two shows, there is only 42 minutes of air time, with the emphasis on comedic bits, as opposed to tough conversations with comedic breaks. And Stewart’s constant refusal to give a full throated defense of his show as a voice of a cynical, politically ambiguous generation Y and the millenials disappoints. While many think that The Daily Show would be like going into the lion’s den for politicians, it’s nothing compared to Real Time. Stewart still has been accused of throne sniffing multiple times, with an infamously soft interview with John Kerry during the 2004 elections. He has friendly relations with Bill O’Reilly (seemingly his journalistic antithesis), and is likely never to challenge a guest so much they shut down the interview and vow never to return. Bill Maher did just that with Senator Allan Simpson, on the ridiculously sensitive subject of Matthew Sheppard, the gay man beaten to death by two hetero men. Bill Maher manages to scrap with people of all walks of life without coming off as cantankerous or one sided, which takes courage. He once threw an audience member out when their 9/11 truther tinged heckling got out of hand. Say what you want about him, but he is not cowardly. And TV these days is full of cowards.

The island-set Survivor debuted in 2000 and its franchises were some of the top rated shows in the country as Politically Incorrect was run out of town in 2002. Instead of discussing Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, we were discussing Richard and Rudy’s alliance on a no name island somewhere. Soon, zillions of hours of TV time were being filled with “reality” programming. There was still some serious dramas being made, but not for broadcast, which most Americans have better access to than a doctor. The Wire, profiling crime-ridden Baltimore has been hailed as the best television show all time. A detective in that show is trying to get some wire taps on gang members. When he confides in his superior that the judge won’t approve the wiretaps for these drug gangs, the superior simply adds “Mohammed” to all the suspects’ names, and the wire tap warrant is approved. An amazing illustration of crime fighting in modern America, showing the direct effects of the fear generated by September 11th. Most Americans missed these vignettes though, as they happened on HBO. The Sopranos too make similar points, but again, on premium cable. It’s not just drama and Bill Maher that have fled. Science programming is much better consumed online than any free channel. If you don’t believe me, go looking for a TED talk on NBC, ABC or CBS.

Reality TV is unreal and deleterious, so much so that we have two meanings of “reality” now. When we use “reality” in the context of the television genre, the definition is the opposite; heavily edited video footage. And what is a better opposite of heavily edited footage than real time footage?  Bill Maher’s show is the true reality. Bill Maher hosts a salon of the bright and controversial in real time; it’s a shame this salon is no longer open to the public. The only salon we can all sit in are singing competitions and badly run kitchens.



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