I’d like to nominate Bill Maher to replace Conan O’Brien in 2009. Ever since the Bush-by-way-of-Disney-owned ABC network cancelled its only viable late-night show in years, Maher’s Politically Incorrect (for living up to its title, no less), basic and premium cable have become the only viable alternatives for dissent in the talk world. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert continue to skewer Washington and the still-acquiescent media with easy-to-swallow satirical barbs in tidy 30-minute blocks, Maher is tackling politics more directly within the traditional late-night talk show structure on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher: intro monologue, string of celebrity guests, sit-down interviews, and the occasional sketch for comic relief. Now in its fifth season, the live show wouldn’t seem out of place opposite—or following, since I doubt Maher would ever return to ABC—The Tonight Show or The Late Show with David Letterman, and it would be a much-needed dose of reality on network TV.
The current season of the show has been less charged than in the past, and I partly chalk that up to the fact that most of the country seems to be on the same page (or at least the same chapter) when it comes to Real Time’s most common topic of debate: Iraq. Following the ’06 election, there have been few Republicans who will publicly defend Bush’s war, much less do it on such a liberal-leaning show, so the few existing disagreements have been less than fundamental and more detail-oriented or just downright residual. On a recent episode, openly-gay Massachusetts representative and frequent Real Time guest Barney Frank irrationally lashed out at the increasingly objective Republican pundit Joe Scarborough, resulting in a brief skirmish that resulted in Frank looking like a high school geek firing back at a bully a week too late…and at the wrong person.
Maher’s ability to corral his troops seems to have slipped a bit, as some guests’ nonsensical or inarticulate diatribes have been followed by awkward silences and abrupt transitions rather than the comedic ease he exhibited in seasons past. Granted, it’s live TV, but the panel doesn’t work when the moderator is the most outspoken, eloquent one there. Perhaps everyone’s exhausted by the subject matter, or perhaps everything’s been said. But that’s when inventive casting comes into play. Real Time needs more inspired pairings like the accidental one of Roseanne Barr and Deepak Chopra on last week’s episode. Barr livened things up all on her own, even if she did blindly tear into David Kuo simply because he “hung out” with “them” (Kuo is a former Special Assistant to Bush), but the episode took an exciting, fascinating turn when, never one to sit still or bite her tongue, Barr turned Maher’s one-on-one with Chopra about life after death into a group discussion on the supposed forged documents that led to the war in Iraq.
While Maher’s final “New Rules” segment is always deliciously derisive, his opening monologue, which attempts to copy the late-night blueprint, is usually the weakest part of the show; thankfully, this season of Real Time has largely done away with the often unfunny introductory sketches. Maher is best when the formula gets mixed up (that is to say, when his weed gets laced with angel dust), which is probably why he’ll never be welcomed back on network television. Then again, Rosie O’Donnell has brought a similarly uncomfortable but necessary unpredictability to The View. And any show where Deepak Chopra openly refers to himself as a “profit” and where Maher is given free rein to call the ever-wise and surprisingly funny spiritualist a “fool” deserves to be seen by more people than Jay Leno’s milquetoast idea of comedy and social commentary.