The comedian Bill Maher will pass 20 years this summer as the host of politically minded television talk shows—Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and ABC from 1993–2002, Real Time (which returns this coming Friday) on HBO from 2003 to the present. Maher’s shows have garnered consistent acclaim: eight Emmy nominations for Outstanding Variety Series for Politically Incorrect, eight and counting for Real Time. HBO has rewarded him with more and more real estate: 35 episodes in 2012, up from 20 the year that Real Time debuted. He may have become the most prominent liberal on television.
There is certainly one thing I appreciate about his shows (it is almost the only thing): they give you an idea of what it must be like to have to sit through a Hollywood dinner party. Maher pioneered the practice of inviting celebrities to pose as political pundits. Jerry Seinfeld was a regular guest on Politically Incorrect. On Real Time, the panelists sit at a table, like they’re in somebody’s dining room, trading noisy bromides about global warming or entitlement reform. And while the present show includes a higher proportion of journalists, media loudmouths, partisan hacks, and retread politicians, we are still treated to a steady diet of the likes of Jason Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, and Chelsea Handler dispensing boilerplate progressive views.
Maher must have looked around at his friends one day in 1991 or ’92 and thought—this was half a joint and a couple of drinks into a lovely afternoon, no doubt—these people are every bit as smart as the ones who talk about politics on television. I should give the rest of the country the benefit of their wisdom. Republicans are liars, conservative voters are boobs, the rich should pay more taxes, Democrats need to be tougher: the exact run of received ideas you can get every day from The Huffington Post, MSNBC, and Paul Krugman, which is undoubtedly where the celebrities get them, too. The fact that I agree with most of those opinions doesn’t make it any better. The self-importance with which they are delivered; the air of mutual congratulation; the certainty that not the slightest effort of original thought, not the smallest suspicion of self-doubt, will intrude upon the proceedings; the whole circle-jerkery of it all—these are what make the show so unbearable. Maher debuted a new shtick last season called “Dispatches from the Bubble”—the “bubble” being the enclosed universe of right-wing opinion—but he doesn’t seem to realize how much of a bubble he lives in himself.
Maher is an easy man to dismiss. His monologues are mediocre. He has contempt for his audience and sulks when they fail to laugh at his jokes. He thinks of himself as a champion of science but promulgates the most simplistic New Age views of medicine and health. He is narcissistic, as touchy as a little boy, and has no sense of humor about himself. He gave a million dollars to the Obama campaign and didn’t shut up about it for the rest of the year. Anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot.
But we are all Bill Maher today. His simulated dinner parties aren’t that different from a lot of the ones that I’ve been to myself, or the virtual ones we convene every day on Facebook. Much has been said about the Balkanization of public discourse, how we only ever listen now to people who share our views, and what that means for our capacity to communicate across partisan lines. But we should also consider what it means for our ability to think in the first place. Opposition, said William Blake, is true friendship. Never being challenged leads to smugness, complacency, and mental stasis. Maher is right: anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. And so is anyone who doesn’t.
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