With the constant barrage of bad news coming out of the White House these days, sometimes it seems like the late-night shows can barely keep up. Night after night, hosts like Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah struggle to find what they hope is a unique comedic point of view on the latest Donald Trump outrage.
But in the year and a half since Trump was elected president, Bill Maher has taken a different approach. Yes, there is still plenty of anti-Trump material in his weekly Real Time monologues, but unlike pretty much every other late-night host on TV, he spends almost equal time holding liberals to account.
One of the biggest criticisms of these types of political comedy shows, even before the Trump era, was that they are simply preaching to their like-minded choir. Just as our Facebook pages reinforce the positions we hold dear, our late-night shows do the same. This is part of what has aided The Late Show’s sprint to the top of the ratings race over the past 18 months. Yes, the news is terrifying, but if we can laugh about it with Colbert at the end of the day, maybe things will be OK.
Real Time with Bill Maher has a different effect, and in turn has been alienating liberals more and more in recent months. But perhaps Maher is performing a more important service for Democrats than they realize. Even if his critiques often come off as “This is why Trump won” moralizing, there is value in acknowledging that Republican incompetence does not negate Democratic mistakes.
Just three days after the 2016 election, Maher had more to say about why the Democrats lost than most prominent progressives have expressed in the year and a half that has elapsed since. The host argued that the liberal insistence on political correctness is at least partly to blame for Trump’s victory. “Democrats have become to a lot of Americans a boutique party of fake outrage and social engineering and they’re not entirely wrong about that,” Maher said at the time.
The Friday after Trump was inaugurated, Maher ran down a list of minor outrages that had inflamed Democrats over the past year—from Steve Martin calling Carrie Fisher “the most beautiful creature” he’d ever seen to Michael Keaton accidentally conflating two films into “Hidden Fences” at the Golden Globe Awards—in an effort to make progressives understand that microaggressions like these “don’t matter at all.”
“What matters is that while you self-involved fools were policing language at the Kids’ Choice Awards, a madman talked his way into the White House,” he said. “What matters is that while liberals were in a contest to see who could be the first to call out fat-shaming, the Tea Party has been busy taking over school boards. Stop protecting your virgin ears and start noticing you’re getting fucked in the ass.”
And then there was the “New Rule” Maher delivered at the end of his show the week Democrat Conor Lamb eked out a victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District special election last month.
After playing a clip from a campaign ad in which Lamb distanced himself from the House minority leader, Maher said, “So this was a special election to replace a Republican who was staunchly pro-life but got caught pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and the Democrats let it become a referendum on Nancy Pelosi?” Instead, he said Lamb’s message should have been, “Democrats support abortion—so do Republicans when they need one for their girlfriend.”
“Learn the lesson that’s staring you in the face every day in the person of Donald Trump,” he added later. “Voters don’t care about how smart you are. Just don’t be a pussy.”
It was a similar argument to the one Maher made after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in a special election in Georgia. “There’s this fake debate, I think, about ‘should the Democrats move left or right.’ It’s not that,” he said at the time. “It’s about how you fight. Have some balls.”
And in response to Michelle Obama’s famous “When they go low, we go high” line, Maher has repeatedly said from now on the Democratic Party’s motto should be, “When they go low, we kick them in the nuts.”
At the same time, Maher has mostly declined to take a deferential stance when he has liberal lawmakers on his show as guests. Last April, he confronted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about the Democrats’ messaging problems. “They’re with you on the issues, but they vote for him. So what is that problem?” he asked, getting Warren to admit that “our side has to acknowledge the anger, and has to say, yeah, people are angry and they have a right to be angry.”
This month, Maher challenged Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) about the Democrats’ reluctance to make Trump’s potential collusion with Russia an issue in the 2018 midterms. “If you can’t make treason an issue, I don’t know why you’re even a party,” he lamented.
For a party that is currently trying to fight its way back into power after the devastating losses in 2016, these types of tough questions feel more valuable than simply pointing out Trump’s obvious flaws as both a human being and president on a nightly basis.
The problem, of course, is that Maher’s free speech absolutism has steadily lost him credibility among liberals over the years. The host staunchly believes there is no such thing as going “too far” in comedy and often chastises his live audience for groaning at his jokes.
This past week, a line about Trump dressing up his daughter Ivanka as a “hooker” drew some light boos from the crowd, so he turned to them and sneered, asking, “Really? Drawing the line are we? Good luck.”
And on his most recent episode, there were more groans for a joke about Kendrick Lamar winning “one of the world’s most prestigious prizes: the bathroom code at Starbucks.” This time, he told them, “Yes, that’s in support of what you like,” adding, “Fucking liberals.”
Risqué jokes are one thing, but Maher has done real damage to his reputation as well by taking such a hard line when it comes to what is widely considered hate speech. He has been known to give a platform to provocative right-wing trolls like Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos and just this past week invited yet another controversial guest on his show in the form of Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist known for, among other things, challenging the use of gender neutral pronouns.
Reminding Peterson that once upon a time he hosted a show on ABC called Politically Incorrect, he explained that he has always defined political correctness as “the elevation of sensitivity over truth.” From there, he sounded off about a professor from California State University in Fresno who came under fire for tweeting something “nasty” about the recently departed Barbara Bush. In response, the university president said, “This was beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”
“Have we lost the thread back to knowing what free speech is?” Maher asked in disbelief. “Yes, it can be disrespectful, that is covered under free speech, president of Fresno, you idiot! Jesus Christ!”
Earlier this month, Maher managed to alienate his entire panel by denouncing the efforts to boycott Laura Ingraham’s advertisers after she publicly mocked 17-year-old Parkland shooting survivor and activist David Hogg.
“I want to defend Laura Ingraham. I know that sounds ridiculous,” Maher said, before arguing that Hogg was acting as the real “bully” when he rallied his followers to pressure Ingraham’s advertisers into dropping her show. “I have been the victim of a boycott of sponsors,” he added. “I lost a job once. It is wrong. It shouldn’t be do this by team. It should be do this by principle.”
“Interesting how people known for saying racist and misogynistic things fear boycotts…” Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, tweeted in response.
Maher had been referring to the comments about 9/11 that led to the cancellation of his ABC show Politically Incorrect, but Watts was no doubt alluding to the controversy that nearly killed his HBO show last year after the host casually dropped the “N-word” during a conversation with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. Had his show been on a network that relies on advertisers rather than subscriptions, he may not have survived the backlash with his job.
That incident prompted a rare and sincere apology from Maher, but it also marked a breaking point for a lot of liberals who already disliked Maher for his arguably Islamophobic rhetoric about terrorism over the years and were now writing him off for good. A recent article on Vice named Maher as part of an atheist movement that is “veering dangerously close to the alt-right.”
Yet, as problematic as he so clearly is, his absence from the ever-growing late-night landscape would be a legitimate loss.
Maher ended a recent show with a rant that both criticized Molly Ringwald for her New Yorker piece about John Hughes movies in the age of #MeToo and praised The Simpsons for its dismissive response to comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu.
“We’re never finished evolving,” he said. “I hate to break it you, but no matter how ‘woke’ you think you are, you are tolerating things right now that will make you cringe in 25 years.”
The host went on to list examples like beauty pageants and mass incarceration, but he just as well could have been talking about himself. He likely knows that many progressives have already stopped tolerating him, but he’s not done yet.
In his 25 years as a political talk-show host, Maher has never relented in his conviction that everyone—especially comedians—should be allowed to say whatever they want. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in consequences for speech but instead has continually urged liberals to stand up for this essential value instead of succumbing to political correctness.
That’s a point of view that is surprisingly hard to find on late-night television in 2018, and one that should not be taken for granted.