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HBO Should Save 'Real Time' But Cancel the Host

By TK and Dustin Rowles | TV | June 6, 2017 |

By TK and Dustin Rowles | TV | June 6, 2017 |

Once upon a time, I watched Real Time with Bill Maher with some regularity. It’s a great format, and it’s maybe the only show on television that features politicians speaking like real-life humans. It also features a panel of politicians and celebrities who actually go beyond superficial politics and discuss actual policy. Many, many years ago, before it was known in the wider world, it’s also where I discovered that — despite his many personal transgressions — Ben Affleck is a ridiculously smart person and of the Affleck/Damon duo, may actually be the more intelligent of the two. To wit:

I don’t watch the show anymore, because Bill Maher is smug and insufferable, and because I hate the idea that a guy who stubbornly clings to old rules while promoting New Rules not only gets to moderate, but gets the final word and treats his own opinion as gospel. It was actually an episode that Affleck was on that hastened my souring opinion of Maher, after Maher expressed a lot of misguided ideas hostile to Muslims.

However, Real Time is one of the few places remaining where people with different opinions can actually have reasonable debates about issues, and Maher has collected a number of great panelists over the years, including many on the right, and he’s done so without resorting to the Jeffrey Lords of the world, although Maher has had Lord on for a one-on-one and made him answer for his wrong-headed opinions.

Mostly, however, I have ignored Bill Maher for the past several years. However, after he invited Milo Yiannopoulos onto the show and essentially let Yiannopoulos control the narrative, and after his casual use of a racial slur last Friday (and the way he made the joke, you know he’s made the same joke before), there’s no use for Bill Maher anymore. Maher has courted controversy in the past, and said shitty things time and again, but this is different, as TK puts it:

I don’t have many rules but one of those rules is, you say the N-word at work, you lose your goddamn job. If any of my staff said that, I’d kick them to the curb. This isn’t outrage culture. It’s being respectful towards your viewers and letting them know that no matter how much money someone draws in, you won’t stand for shit like that. Kathy Griffin is different — there’s an argument to be made about art and being offensive there. But there was nothing prejudcial about Griffin. It wasn’t outright racist. And I know that Maher defenders are going to try to defend his actions as merely using a racist term for effect and it’s not actual racism, but I call bullshit on that. He was way too comfortable with the word. Whether or not he’s actively racist is ultimately irrelevant. He thought that was something he could get away with. HE THOUGHT IT WAS OK FOR HIM TO SAY. To me, that speaks volumes about his character.

In fact, Maher has actually become a liability to his own show. Al Franken, for instance, has pulled out as a guest on this weekend’s program, and according to THR, Maher’s booking woes are expected to continue:

For policymakers looking to up their Q-ratings — and get a sprinkling of Hollywood cool — the Dulles-to-LAX redeye has for 15 years been a journey worth taking. But that may be changing. It remains to be seen if the chill extends to other high-profile politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Darrell Issa, both of whom appeared on the show this season. (Neither would comment.) Some industry insiders expect the booking woes to get worse before they get better. “Commentators will still be interested in the platform,” says one prominent crisis handler who asked not to be identified. “But elected officials will be less interested. They have more at stake — they’re associated with the language used on the program.” Indeed, Sasse was forced to apologize on Twitter for not jumping in to challenge Maher’s offensive comment during the live show.

It’s time to move on, not from a format that can still be very useful, but from the host. It’s time to pass the torch to someone without the arrogance, the sexist attitudes, and the racial and religious insensitivities. Again, TK:

We’re already at Peak White Dude when it comes to hosting gigs. Are we so fucking desperate that we’re willing to not only go to bat for yet another goddamn white dude, but we’re going to accept that casual racism is now an acceptable part of the package? For the love of god, if I can’t have a woman or a minority or both, BARE FUCKING MINIMUM, can we at LEAST have a white dude who doesn’t joke around with the N word? Because that’s ultimately what this comes down to - what we, as viewers and members of society, are willing to accept.

It’s a hard seat to fill, and as Larry Wilmore illustrated, not everyone can master the position of moderator (it helps if you don’t invite a bunch of attention-seeking comedians on). It needs to be someone who can challenge both sides equally, who can hold their own with Senators and celebrities, and who creates an environment comfortable enough for the guests to speak their mind. I actually don’t know who that might be? Hasan Minjah comes to mind. As does Ana Marie Cox and Jon Favreau. Possibly Van Jones. Or Jason Kander, if he’s willing to leave his political aspirations behind. Or even Andrew Sullivan, a guy who has successfully played on both sides of the aisle.

At this point, all I know is that it just needs to not be Bill Maher anymore. “Find someone else to drive the train,” TK notes. “Someone who’s less arrogant and willfully disrespectful and utterly blind to his own responsibility and privilege.”

Ultimately, however, HBO would be wise to save the format, because where else are you going to hear a Senator reveal that John McCain calls Lindsay Graham his “idiot bastard son” in an endearing way?