It was a good idea, and for a while, it was well executed, but all that was several years before the recent demise of "Politically Incorrect." In July 1993, Bill Maher's brainchild debuted on the Comedy Central cable network with the guiding premise that politics was too much fun to be left to the professionals.
The show has now been canceled, another flop for the professional left.
I'm sure that to many, it sounded like a recipe for a flop from the outset to have Maher, a standup comedian by trade, moderate a political discussion among guests drawn largely from the entertainment business. Such a program, it seemed, wouldn't be weighty enough for devotees of "Meet the Press," and too weighty for viewers who wanted only to laugh.
And yet his eccentric idea - pitting serious thinkers against each other in a comedic environment - worked initially. Yes, there were dud episodes, but plenty of others offered crackling conversation, amusing and even substantive. Where else could one ever find Christopher Buckley v. Sister Souljah?
But then "PI" moved - from New York to Los Angeles, later from Comedy Central to ABC - and fell apart. The L.A. panelists, mostly Hollywood types, were less witty and less intelligent than the New York guests had been. Furthermore, Maher, perhaps drunk with major-network power, became increasingly prone to over-the-top remarks, on and off the air. In short, he became a boor.
Some consider Maher more conservative than he really is. Though he's deviated from liberal orthodoxy now and again - a few years ago, he advocated the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts - the bottom line is that overall, he's on the left, often wackily so.
Regarding Al Gore's environmentalist tract, "Earth in the Balance," Maher said in a 2000 interview with the Onion, "I'm a bigger proponent of his book than he is. I've been saying, week after week when environmental issues come up, that his idea to eliminate the internal-combustion engine in twenty-five years is excellent."
He's also an animal-rights extremist who in May told CNN's Larry King, "I'm for mad-cow disease...If there were a few cases of mad-cow disease in this country, so many lives would be saved in the long run, because people would stop eating meat, which is an ecological disaster, to say nothing of what it does to you internally."
When Maher is most vituperative, his target almost invariably is conservative, be it a person, cause, or institution. Many of his blasts - calling the current President Bush "a lying sack of s-t" and the Alzheimer's-afflicted Ronald Reagan "nuts" - are ugly, not funny.
Then there are the anti-religion broadsides that even he can't call "funny." On "PI" in May, he put it about as simply as possible: "Religion is bad." In October 2000, Maher said on "PI," apropos of Halloween and paganism, "I mean, what is scarier than drinking [Jesus's] blood every Sunday? That's not a spooky ritual? Here, kids, drink his blood and eat his body. Like that's not pagan?"
Sometimes he treats the subject more soberly, but it's still awful. To King, he mused, "As long as there are people who think that [their religion] is the only way, you're going to have wars and killing and death. I don't think the hate that comes from the Muslim world comes from religion. [It] comes from someplace deeper. But the religion gives it a noble framework to put it in. So, that's why it's extremely dangerous."
And sometimes he singles out the Catholic Church in which he was raised. On a November 1999 "PI," he declared, "The Catholic Church, which is people, not God running it, OK, hugely corrupt, did horrible things through history." And, last month, when a "PI" guest suggested that the pedophilia scandal, since it would bring about long-needed reform, was "one of the best things to happen to the Catholic Church," Maher said, "I do, too, because it will make it go away."
Ultimately, Maher was after mostly the same game liberals hunt. No wonder Barbra Streisand was a "PI" fan.
In the Onion interview, Maher claimed, "I'm extremely honest, and...that will always get lots of people thinking you're a jerk. But there are people who appreciate total honesty and questioning of the conformities in our society, and I'm heroic to those people. And I should be."
A man with that big an ego probably won't be out of the spotlight for long. I just hope his next show is truer to its name than "Politically Incorrect," which at its end was just more of the same old thing.