Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Commentary: TV's Maher gets off to shaky start in new season

Comedian Bill Maher.

By John Thomason

The seventh year of Real Time with Bill Maher (10 p.m. Fridays, HBO) began on a clunky note.

The opening monologue Friday of the comedian/provocateur’s first show since November yielded only a couple of memorable quips, comic gold hidden among pyrite bombs like, “Sean Penn showed up in a rented huff,” to the Oscars because of the tight economy. When the joke was met with the proverbial crickets, Maher explained the premise – “’Cause, you see, he’s always in a huff!” – which added little to the sporadic ripples of yuks from the live studio audience.

Credit it to off-season rust, I guess. But Maher should have had a lot of material to work with in his downtime – the inauguration and transition, Rod Blagojevich, Roland Burris, Michael Steele, Obama’s cabinet, John Boehner’s House floor temper tantrum, Rush Limbaugh’s resurgence, the never-ending Minnesota Senate battle and the octuplet mom. Few of these issues were addressed, even in the panel discussion that followed the monologue, and we got an opening riff that sounded like something that was stumbled through during the writer’s strike.

Then there’s the perpetual question we’ve been hearing about since Nov. 4: How will comedians deal with President Obama? If you read most stories about how late-night comedians will be able to thrive in a post-Bush environment, you’d think Dubya’s exit from the White House was tantamount to a comic apocalypse, with jokester after jokester walking on eggshells trying to avoid any accusation of an “ism,” their delicate ribbing of Obama hardly extending beyond a parody of his speech pattern. And most comedians are liberal, so there’s less of a desire to knock somebody on your own team.

But you can’t say Maher is buckling under the pressure of finding humor in the Obama administration. About Obama’s stimulus and mortgage bills, Maher quipped in Friday’s season opener, “He’s only been in office a month and he’s already dropped a trillion (dollars). Is that black enough for you?” – a reference to the ludicrous criticism early in Obama’s campaign that he “wasn’t black enough.”

You won’t hear that on The Daily Show or David Letterman, and it’s the reason Maher remains such a popular and influential force on television: He says what he wants and is beholden to no one, a tendency that leaves some audiences gasping in their seats at certain off-color or deliberately button-pushing jokes. He doesn’t toe any party line, covers the news without a filter of tastefulness isn’t afraid to discuss, and show, what most media shy away from.

Good luck looking elsewhere for guests such as Republican congressman Ron Paul and Lebanese-American activist Brigitte Gabriel, whose organization American Congress for Truth focuses on threats from Islamic fundamentalism. Maher had Gabriel on to discuss a Pakistani-American television entrepreneur who beheaded – yes, beheaded – his third wife. Irony alert: The guy founded a television station aimed at debunking backward stereotypes about Muslims.

You won’t find that story, or flame-throwing guests such as Paul and Gabriel, on most mainstream media outlets, and you can say the same for many of Maher’s past panelists and guests (like Cornel West, Ralph Nader, Mos Def, Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Salman Rushdie, Janeane Garafalo and Richard Dawkins).

But the best part of the Maher’s first broadcast? There was not one mention of that New York Post cartoon that has caused such an uproar amongst the same leftie hypocrites that railed against GOP opportunists for turning Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” quote into a faux controversy. Over on MSNBC, the increasingly reaching Keith Olbermann did four segments in three days last week on the in-poor-taste but clearly non-racist cartoon, turning his manufactured-outrage odometer to 11 and giving Rupert Murdoch oodles of free publicity.

Maher, we can only assume, understood that the story was really a non-story, and that there were more important things deserving of his viewers’ time. So we were treated to an all-female panel of intellectuals (journalists Tina Brown and Chrystia Freeland and Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters) discussing, with applaud-worthy profundity, the economic crisis better than anyone I’ve heard this side of Paul Krugman.

That’s why we stick around with Maher, even if not all of us agree with everything he says. We come for the comedy and stay for the information. In a time with viewers are getting their news from comedy shows (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert) and comedy from their news shows (Olbermann, Rachel Maddow), nobody strikes a better balance of infotainment than Maher.

Let’s just hope this week’s monologue rises once again to last year’s gold standard.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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