It was a good idea, and for a while, it was well executed, but
all that was several years before the recent demise of "Politically
Incorrect." In July 1993, Bill Maher's brainchild debuted on the Comedy
Central cable network with the guiding premise that politics was too much
fun to be left to professionals.
The show has now been canceled -- another flop for the
I'm sure that to many, it sounded like a recipe for a flop from
the outset to have Maher, a stand-up comedian by trade, moderate a political
discussion among guests drawn largely from the entertainment business. Such
a program, it seemed, wouldn't be weighty enough for devotees of "Meet the
Press" and too weighty for viewers who wanted only to laugh.
And yet his eccentric idea -- pitting serious thinkers against
one another in a comedic environment -- worked initially. Yes, there were
dud episodes, but plenty of others offered crackling conversation, amusing
and even substantive. Where else could one ever find Christopher Buckley v.
But then "PI" moved -- from New York to Los Angeles, later from
Comedy Central to ABC -- and fell apart. The L.A. panelists, mostly
Hollywood types, were less witty and less intelligent than the New York
guests had been. Furthermore, Maher, perhaps drunk with major-network power,
became increasingly prone to over-the-top remarks, on and off the air. In
short, he became a boor.
Some consider Maher more conservative than he really is. Though
he's deviated from liberal orthodoxy now and again -- a few years ago, he
advocated the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts -- the bottom
line is that overall, he's on the left, often wackily so.
Regarding Al Gore's environmentalist tract, "Earth in the
Balance," Maher said in a 2000 interview with the Onion, "I'm a bigger
proponent of his book than he is. I've been saying, week after week, when
environmental issues come up, that his idea to eliminate the
internal-combustion engine in 25 years is excellent."
He's also an animal-rights extremist who, in May, told CNN's
Larry King, "I'm for mad-cow disease ... If there were a few cases of
mad-cow disease in this country, so many lives would be saved in the long
run, because people would stop eating meat, which is an ecological disaster,
to say nothing of what it does to you internally."
When Maher is most vituperative, his target almost invariably is
conservative, be it a person, cause or institution. Many of his blasts --
calling the current President Bush "a lying sack of s--t" and the
Alzheimer's-afflicted Ronald Reagan "nuts" -- are ugly, not funny.
Then there are the anti-religion broadsides that even
he can't call "funny." On "PI" in May, he put it about as simply
as possible: "Religion is bad." In October 2000, Maher said on "PI," apropos
of Halloween and paganism, "I mean, what is scarier than drinking [Jesus's]
blood every Sunday? That's not a spooky ritual? Here, kids, drink his blood,
and eat his body. Like that's not pagan?"
Sometimes he treats the subject more soberly, but it's still
awful. To King, he mused, "As long as there are people who think that [their
religion] is the only way, you're going to have wars and killing and death.
I don't think the hate that comes from the Muslim world comes from religion.
[It] comes from someplace deeper. But the religion gives it a noble
framework to put it in. So, that's why it's extremely dangerous."
And sometimes he singles out the Catholic Church in which he was
raised. On a November 1999 "PI," he declared, "The Catholic Church, which is
people, not God running it, OK, hugely corrupt, did horrible things through
history." And, last month, when a "PI" guest suggested that the pedophilia
scandal, since it would bring about long-needed reform, was "one of the best
things to happen to the Catholic Church," Maher said, "I do, too, because it
will make it go away."
Ultimately, Maher was after mostly the same game liberals hunt.
No wonder Barbra Streisand was a "PI" fan.
In the Onion interview, Maher claimed, "I'm extremely honest,
and ... that will always get lots of people thinking you're a jerk. But
there are people who appreciate total honesty and questioning of the
conformities in our society, and I'm heroic to those people. And I should
A man with that big an ego probably won't be out of the
spotlight for long. I just hope his next show is truer to its name than
"Politically Incorrect," which, at its end, was just more of the same old