Bill Maher begins a new season of his HBO smirkfest Real Time on Friday night, so The Washington Post splashed a Maher profile all across the front page of the Style section. Perhaps it’s a complete coincidence that the entire back of Friday’s Style section is an HBO ad for the show’s debut. (Washington Post spokesman Kris Coratti responded to us Friday: "There was absolutely no communication between the newsroom and the advertising team on this.")
“WHY IS THIS MAN SMIRKING?” screamed the headline. Freelancer Jeff Weiss oozed an introduction: “You see the smirk and the jig is up, the Jell-O is jiggling, the joke’s on you. If there’s a Cooperstown for comics, Maher will be bronzed with that self-satisfied smile and a spliff between his lips.”
Weiss reports that Maher told him he had a journalist tell him you’re supposed to say three bad things about your interview subject. But Weiss wasn’t really interested in being negative. Even the negatives were positive:
Yes, Bill Maher is smug. He often lacks empathy, particularly when confronted by the craven and dim. Perhaps only Keith Olbermann rivals him as the subject of comments that go something like, “I agree with him, but ....”
But calling Bill Maher smug is like complaining that Larry David is too neurotic. Maher uses arrogance as a form of renewable energy, occasionally windmilling it toward his audience or politically hostile guests. It’s part of the schtick, a reflection of intellectual bona fides, ruthless confidence and intense preparation. At times, it can resemble Andy Kaufman in the wrestling ring, taunting Memphis hayseeds that “he’s from Hollywood, where people use their brains.”
Weiss was roughest in recounting Maher’s TV and movie career (“D.C. Cab”), and then noting when he became a historical figure:
The “Real Time” era will inevitably be the one for which Maher is most remembered.
Launching in 2003, the same year of the Iraq invasion, the comic found an ideal foil in the Bush presidency and the jingoism of the age of Freedom Fries. His guest bookings trended less toward Hollywood actors and more toward political wonks, authors and public intellectuals. The aegis of HBO afforded maximum liberty to confront popular orthodoxy.
“[Maher] can step outside the noise and clutter of what’s going on in the moment, challenge the conventional wisdom, and speak truth to power,” says his longtime friend and frequent guest Arianna Huffington. “His passionate nature and ability to be wildly entertaining make him a first-class satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. He’s fearless, witty, and hates hypocrisy and injustice.”
This is a cute game that liberal journalists play. It’s Maher versus the “popular orthodoxy.” As if Maher isn’t exactly what the liberal-media establishment considers all the right views (except on the Muslims, which we’ll address). But it’s truly bizarre that Weiss and Maher’s other oozing allies want to claim Maher displays on TV a “genuine curiosity” about views different than his own, or that he’s “ideology-free” in his HBO snarkathon.
Another regular guest, the astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, lauded Maher’s ideology-free approach, which allows for freer panel discussions.
“Unlike so many other talk shows, especially those with pundits that lean conservative, [Maher] actually wants to hear what his guests have to say. Nobody is left wanting more time to speak,” deGrasse Tyson says. “I’m convinced that this derives from a genuine curiosity of views that differ from his. In fact, his film ‘Religulous’ was a personal fact-finding mission to understand the minds of religious people.”
This is just complete baloney. Even The Village Voice dismissed Maher’s movie as an "adolescent case against religion." More importantly, Maher wasn’t honest with the religious targets in his movie: "We never, ever used my name,” Maher told Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times when asked about how interviews were arranged. "We never told anybody it was me [sic] who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it ‘A Spiritual Journey.’”
But Weiss and the WashPost truly lose their marbles to laud Maher for making the “15th-highest grossing documentary of all time,” like that isn’t like praising the tallest dwarf:
The success of 2008’s “Religulous” reconfirmed the appeal of Maher’s brand of witty skepticism: grossing over $13 million to rank as the 15th-highest-grossing documentary of all time. He mentions anecdotally that he’s converted few people politically but remains constantly deluged with appreciation from people who he helped (no longer) see the light.
“I could speak to someone about religion for five minutes and” — he snaps his fingers — “get them,” Maher says. “I’m not trying to go out there and convert people, but it’s just so glaringly stupid — such an obvious intellectual embarrassment and an obvious myth from the pre-science era.”
...“Over the last four years, he’s become much more anti-religious and, specifically, anti-Muslim,” says Rabia Chaudry, a Maryland-based fellow at the New America Foundation, who recently wrote an open letter to Maher in Time magazine. “He’s basically assumed the same perspective that you’d expect from someone in the tea party.”
But Maher steadfastly maintains that all religions aren’t created equal.
“Muslim people get it the hardest — as they should. Almost every day, there’s an atrocity committed by Muslims, where if it was any other group, it would be a much bigger story in the paper,” Maher says. “Israel isn’t perfect, but they’re held to a different standard than everyone else. If Hamas had the means, they’d kill every Israeli — nor are they shy about saying it. The moral center of the conversation should be: What would you do if you had the means?”
The willingness to breach lockstep left-wing politics gives Maher a bizarre form of political street cred: Alienating both sides lets him be a self-described “honest broker.”
Again, Maher’s “honest broker” spiel collapses when you consider his brazenly dishonest film-making technique. Weiss concludes by letting Maher brag that he’s the dangerous pundit that can force the amoral left-wing extreme into the mainstream. “I certainly don’t think I’m changing America, but you do what you can,” Maher said. “I try to inject thoughts into the dialogue that people aren’t into yet and eventually become mainstream. I’m never the mainstream guy; I’m more the pioneer who gets the arrows.”
PS: By contrast with the man behind the 15th-largest documentary, the maker of the second most-successful documentary, Dinesh D’Souza, has been only briefly dismissed in the Post pages, as in his latest movie review, titled “D'Souza's straw men, on the march in 'America'.” Or the gossip column: “Dinesh D'Souza - the conservative scholar-activist behind the controversial anti-Obama documentary '2016' - lost his job as president of a small Christian college after acknowledging he's got a new girlfriend ...although he's not yet divorced from his wife.”
It might be because D’Souza didn’t buy a full-page ad from the Post?
[Updated Friday at 1:29 pm with Kris Coratti response]