As a somewhat recent subscriber to Comcast (as of Spring 2006), I can honestly say there were two shows on one channel that drew me to finally get it at the time: The Sopranos and Real Time with Bill Maher, both on HBO.
While both shows made me mad at times, many more times they made me laugh and in the end, were worth the time spent watching. And with Bill Maher, whether or not you agree with his politics, dig his political humor or find him to be controversial at times, the important thing that drives his still popular show is that its commercial-free, hour-long format allows for serious and extended back-and-forth debates of the important issues of the week, always with a lot of humor mixed in, an always active live audience and a rather unique personality as its host.
And so now, after his customary short vacation – a few months, with the exception of a one-off performance in Boston in late July – Bill Maher is back with a brand new season of Real Time, which commenced last Friday, August 24. I will do my best to pick out the highlights of the show, a "fair-and-balanced" assessment if you will, of a show which included Weekly Standard senior writer and Vice President Cheney biographer Stephen Hayes, Michel Martin, host of NPR's "Tell Me More" news/talk show, and actor Tim Robbins. Satellite guests included former Arkansas Governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and New York Times reporter Damien Cave, live from Baghdad.
The opening (pre-show) skit was a riot. Called the "Sadr City Surplus Commercial," Maher, as a "Sadr Ciy Salesman" made comedy out of recent news reports saying the U.S. lost track of some 190,000 weapons given to Iraqi troops in 2004 and 2005: "Sadr City is having a 'Back to Surge' sale. I’m Crazy Achmed … and we’re stacked to the tent poles with thousands of AK-47s from a top superpower at prices too low to haggle. These pistols just fell off a truck, right before it exploded. Hurry, these deals wouldn’t[sic] last forever, just like America’s patience."
After much laughter and applause, the actual show began. Things got off to a rocky start, technically speaking, as Maher's body mic failed to work and he was forced to use a hand mic (like the good ole days) for his opening monologue. It got some laughs and applause, along with a couple of groans, but wasn't the best routine I've ever heard from him.
Pointing out that Bush (presumably on August 22) said the surge in Iraq is working and that we have to beat the terrorists there so they don't "follow us home," the unabashedly anti-Iraq war Maher said the best thing about President Bush is that: "I can take three months off, and when I come back, he’s still making the same stupid speech." After taking vicious shots at Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a recent concert, aging rocker Ted Nugent was at the receiving end of a diss this time, with Maher exclaiming what was most shocking about the controversy: "Ted Nugent still has concerts?! That is astounding."
First guest Damien Cave of the New York Times (live via satellite from Baghdad) battled flies while answering Iraq-based questions Bill Maher poised, such as the morale of the troops (mixed, according to Cave) and insurgents, and responding to Maher's opinion that Sunnis and Shiites will ethnically cleanse out the minorities in their neighborhoods so they can ultimately live in their own separate territories.
One of the most notable and important points Cave made in answering the latter point is that, whatever happens, partitioning Iraq into just three groups (Kurds, Sunnis, Shia) is not likely, given the complexity of the sectarian violence, where you have Shiites killing Shiites in the South, Sunnis killing Sunnis in many areas, and though he didn't say this, the Kurds are driving out minorities up north as well. Finally, Cave said that at home there needs to be more thinking and debate about what our "moral responsibility is to Iraqis" than debate on how our war policy impacts Washington and its constituents.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was Maher's second satellite-based guest. His interview was marked by wishy washy or evasive answers to questions relating to Evolution, which he doesn't believe in, and a tribute to that other former Governor from Hope, Arkansas that ran successfuly to become President. He complimented the Clintons for keeping their marriage together all these years despite their troubles and for raising "a magnificent daughter (Chelsea)" while making a fair point that when it comes to judging politicians on family values, Republicans can't have one set of rules for Democrats and one for his party. This got a respectable, well-deserved applause from the mostly non-conservative, left-leaning audience.
Finally, voters should take note that Huckabee doesn't consider himself to be an establishment Republican or tied to K Street lobbyists, and he ended the interview saying he would get rid of the IRS and overhaul the tax system. Maher then promptly endorsed his candidacy for the Republican nomination saying, "Rudy Giuliani scares the hell out of me, so I hope you win."
As for the panel itself, consider it well-balanced, with the left-leaning Tim Robbins on the left, Stephen Hayes literally and politically on the right, and NPR's Michel Martin in the middle. Rather than dissect every topic discussed, I will instead break down some of the highlights and points of contention, especially ones the studio audience reacted to the most.
First up was Maher's questioning of race as an issue in the Michael Vick dog-fighting case. Martin was happy to disclose that her husband is the lawyer for Vick before the discussion took off; she then went on to say why race is indeed a factor, calmly stating: "[When] you have a bunch of white folks in front of a courthouse in the capital of the Confederacy with signs saying 'Castrate Vick,' that pushes a lot of people’s buttons. It just does."
The crowd dug that before Martin made another excellent point that people should be upset at Michael Vick, but where is the outrage about the four
African-American kids in a Newark, NJ schoolyard who were lined up and shot (all but one, fatally) in the backs of their heads by a bunch of criminals, two of whom are allegedly illegal immigrants from Peru and Nicaragua? Maher didn't think much of her comparison, saying it's "apples and oranges." Hayes didn't think it was a stretch. What do you think?
Discussing the news that Mother Teresa had a long, private battle with her faith in God, Maher half-jokingly – or was he serious? – took that to mean she went from being on God's side to being an atheist (which is not the case, of course). But discussion and short laughs quickly turned into arguments, where the host was all alone is not believing that "serious" religious people can have doubts about their faith at some point in their lives.
He thinks having doubts about your religion is the "opposite of faith." But Tim Robbins argued that even Jesus had his doubts. And at this point, it was clear to me that not only was Michel Martin the one driving this debate, but she was the surprise star of the show. Maher let out "Wow" after "Wow" as the NPR host made her case for doubts being part of one's faith; she recounted that the Methodist Church founders had their own crisis of faith just like Mother Teresa.
Finally, it was only a matter of time before the lone conservative on the panel got everyone riled up over a subject he's written plenty about, Iraq. The back-and-forth got testy to the point where an angry Robbins wanted Hayes to apologize for being partly responsible for the war, based on Hayes writing a book saying that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Not only did Hayes stand by this claim, he read a quote from 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean saying: "[T]here is absolutely no doubt in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda."
Now I did what any serious journalist would do and trace that quote. Guess what? Further research backs up Hayes, as Tom Kean made that statement alongside Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton on July 22, 2004 while discussing the 9/11 Commisssion report. But hold on! Even piecing together all the various instances of Iraqi contacts with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden pre-Iraq war adds up to a weak relationship, at best, as many experts in and outside the Bush administrated have written. But the Kean quote Hayes cited stands accurate, as written, nonetheless.
When Robbins said that the American people never would have supported the Iraq War had they known all the facts, Hayes shot back that opinion polls showed Americans supported the war by as much as 75%. Maher and Robbins didn't agree, but at least in the first month of the war, a USA Today/Gallop poll bears that exact number out, which stated in March 2003 that 75% of Americans thought it was not a mistake to fight the war. Of course, nowadays up to 60% of Americans polled (in USA Today, NYT, etc.) now think it was a mistake to invade Iraq.
And so it was a lively debate between the four of them for the rest of the show, but not too heated to the point where anyone embarassed themselves (a la Christopher Hitchens from two seasons ago, who gave the middle finger to the audience). Time really did fly by and before you knew it, it was time for the always entertaining and show-closing New Rules segment, in which Maher made fun of the likes of Victoria Beckham, said "America Hasn't Got Talent" for having a ventriloquist as its winner, and did a rather serious and at times humorous commentary regarding the hazardous, 17 million+ Chinese-made toys that were recalled from the U.S. in recent months. And on new rule "Stop saying Barack Obama isn't black enough!," Maher has fun with that stereotype, saying: "I like his stand on the issues. But can he dunk?"
Overall, early production issues aside, it was a very good, constantly entertaining inaugural episode for what is sure to be a season filled with nothing short of hot-button topics and lively exchanges between familiar newsmakers, celebrities and newer faces, and of course, the always edgy Bill Maher.
The next episode of Real Time with Bill Maher is Friday at 11pm on the East Coast. Check HBO.com for more info on the show, transcripts and other air times.