Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Happened To Bill Maher?

I couldn't sleep early this morning so instead of tossing and turning and being annoyed about not sleeping, I dragged my sorry ass into the living room and caught up on the last two episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher. And I have one question: What the fuck happened to Bill Maher?

The show seems old. The comedy seems forced. At first I thought it was perhaps since Maher wasn't kicking Incurious George around on a weekly basis that it lost some pizazz, but as I kept watching I realized that the show and maybe Maher just wasn't hitting the mark. Maybe the formula needs some tweaking. Here's the breakdown of a typical show.

Possible Parody Commercial / Opening Credits
Real Time sometimes starts out with a little parody commercial bit during the first minute or two of the show and it's usually pretty good because they have a week to prepare it. Earlier this season, the combination Snuggie and ShamWow! called "SnugWow!" for the couch potato who occasionally spills his drink and is too lazy to get up for a bathroom break comes to mind.

Then after the opening credits roll, Maher does a couple of minutes of monologue with the kind of giggle-under-your-breath delivery that conveys the material is crap and he's hoping for at least one joke to land.

Interview with a Single Guest (sometimes live, sometimes via satellite)
Sometimes Maher has some really informative and credible guests on this segment; Madeleine Albright and Bill Bradley come to mind just this season alone. But on the April 3rd, 2008 episode, Maher brought on Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. Seriously? Joe the Plumber? And he's peddling Joe's book? Here's the list of guests he's had on this segment this season: Ron Paul, George Stephanopoulos, T. Boone Pickens, Steven Pearlstein, Madeleine Albright, Bill Bradley and .... Joe the Fucking Plumber?! [*More on this interview later.]

Panel Discussion

Depending on the panel, this segment can be highly entertaining and informative, as in the case with panelists Salman Rushdie and Mos Def, or incredibly infuriating as in the case with Andrew Breitbart being a complete douche in sparring with, and losing to, Eric Michael Dyson.

Comedy Bit
This little routine is designed to break up the seriousness and take a breather with a little levity. This segment more often than not falls flat on its face, as you can witness by Maher's this-is-so-funny-I'm-laughing-through-the punchline fake giggles. Get rid of this segment, it's the weakest part of the show. It only serves to disrupt what is usually an engaging discussion.

Adds a Member to the Panel Discussion
Out from stage left walks someone peddling a new book or article. If it contributes to the conversation already taking place, it flows nicely as is usual in the cases of a Mike Taibbi or a Dan Savage or even a Christopher Hitchens. When it's a comedy writer like Carol Leifer bringing nothing to the table but a book on dealing with a mid-life crisis? Not so much.

New Rules
Always the best part of the show. It's carefully thought out and Maher hits it out of the park almost every time. Part of the reason is the delivery. Maher knows it's good. He knows it's funny, edgy, witty and he has the advantage of believing he's on right side of the issue. Not the liberal or conservative side, but the correct side. And he sells it.

The bottom line in all of this is that in my opinion, I don't know if Maher has gotten a busier schedule with his road act, or maybe he thinks every debate is going to be like punching Ann Coulter in the uterus, or he's a little behind the 8-ball after doing a documentary, but it seems like he's has gotten slightly intellectually lazy and is having a harder time trying to counterpoint his higher caliber guests. I may not like opinions from guests like David Frum and disagree with his viewpoints, but he's attempting to communicate his ideology and I feel he truly believes his stance and not just spout talking points, and where Maher used to be up on his game with data and politics, it seems that lately he has nothing to add to the debate unless it's about religion (sometimes forcing the debate towards that topic.) Enough already, we get it.

When you don't know what you're going to get from week to week, it can make for reduced viewership. I don't know if this will make a difference for HBO, but Bill Maher is losing his edge and he needs to get it back.

*Regarding the Wurzelbacher interview, since Joe the non-licensed non-plumber came onto the political scene, he has shown himself to be an opportunistic, know-nothing boob with absolutely no factual basis on which to spout his ridiculous opinions, and Maher has been having his fun in not such a nice way at Joe's expense. But when he had Joe in his sights, on his set and had the opportunity to take Wurzelbacher's asinine comments and political stances to task, my stomach turned at the Mickey Mouse sized kid gloves that Maher used on Mr. Common Man.

This could have been Mr. The Plumber's final minute of fame never to be heard from again, but Maher peddled his book, tried to make nice with him with a "Things We Have In Common" list and didn't bother to question Joe on his disagreement with Hillary Clinton's assertion that 90% of the arms being used in the Mexican Drug War are coming from the U.S.

An older version of Maher would have known the answer to that assertion. Maher 2.0 let it slide without a whimper. I didn't think it was possible, but he made Joe the Plumber look good in an interview. If Bill Maher were Katie Couric, we could be looking at Vice President Palin right about now. Don't get me wrong Bill, I'm usually on your side, but you blew that Wurzelbacher interview big time.


chris said...

Great analysis, Carl. It just hasn't been as funny or thought-provoking or insightful this season. I think you hit the nail on the head as to why.

gm said...

I agree, I'm currently watching on Friday, 4/10, and it's a 1/2 hour interview with Ron Howard?!? What about the other 1...2 guests? Topics? If I wanted a biography of Ron Howard, I'd go to the library.

lo said...

We just googled "bill maher breakdown" and found your blog. Our theory has been that he's smoking too much dope. Your analysis is better thought out. The Ron Howard interview, pee-yoo. And ditto Joe the Plumber.

Maher's opening bit is usually lame...then he gets someone on and you nod, hope that it's getting better. Then the panel can make or break it.

Bill's gotten boring. We laugh when he invites us to "carry on the discussion online." Yeah, right Bill.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! I love this show, best open political discussion on TV but I just couldn't believe how he sold out to promoting Ron Howard. Are they low on cash at HBO? Hoping to see the intellectual discussion I've come to expect from this platform back soon. I miss it.