Hollywood Bill Maher has always seemed to relish coming off as iconoclastic to the point of being unpleasant; in certain ways he's the anti-Jon Stewart. But if Stewart's "Daily Show" has gotten demonstrably angrier at the Bush administration since the post-Katrina fiasco, Maher's been there all along. His whole arc on TV, in fact, is woven into Sept. 11, into what was permissible to say then and what is being said now.
Four years ago, Maher made that indecorous comment on his ABC show "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" when, responding to panelist Dinesh D'Souza's point that the Sept. 11 hijackers were being mislabeled as cowards, Maher said: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
The comment, which came six days after Sept. 11, Maher's first night back on the air, was subsequently blown up as unpatriotic, and Maher, by the following May, had lost the only thing he had to lose: a five-night-a-week pulpit in late-night TV. Now he's at HBO, in his third season as host of "Real Time With Bill Maher." In these days of multitiered media, where you can have a second and third and fourth act, it's harder to be a martyr a la Edward R. Murrow or Howard Beale. A pay cable network is probably where Maher belongs (he can punctuate his outrage with profanity, and without commercials his panelists don't have to talk in misshapen, 20-second sound bites). When he preaches now, Friday nights at 10, only the choir is listening.
But without advertisers and jittery affiliates as a countervailing force, Maher has oddly been put in the position of slamming the Bushies while trying to create a level playing field for discourse about the administration. It's what makes his show different from the rest.
Earlier this month, on one of the best hours of raw television about the Katrina disaster I've seen, he repeatedly shushed his audience when they sensed his every laugh line about the administration's bungling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, and he later came to the defense of a more conservative guest, Jim Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute.
"He is holding up - he's holding up his end against us and all of you," Maher chastised his audience, when they laughed at a Glassman point about tax cuts strengthening the country. "So, you know, give him a little credit for that." He seemed to be taking care of that which is rarely taken care of on TV: a discussion. It can be hard to know whether Maher is doing this out of a true commitment to balance or as a strategy to keep his show from sliding into a continuous, and easy, mocking of the right. The "Politically Incorrect" format has often tended to create a three-against-one, let's-gang-up-on-the-conservative dynamic.
Certainly Maher's main talking point was clear: that the federal government's response to Katrina had happened, pointedly, on Bush's watch; the previous week, he had already characterized the situation as Bush's Waterloo.
"You can't believe - you can't tell me that if this had happened under Clinton's watch - he (wouldn't) have been all over this like white on rice," Maher told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a Republican guest via satellite. "He would have been better at handling this during sex than George Bush was." Scarborough kept saying he would wait for the laughter to subside before responding.
These sorts of comedy shows aren't supposed to take care of the opposition. And pundit cable shows rarely bother to.
Stewart, unlike Maher, bathes in the roars that go up at his every broadside at the administration. But with the media actually doing a credible job on Katrina, "The Daily Show" has made a perceptible transition from lampooning the fatuousness of field reporters to bashing the administration head-on. "Meet the F**kers" is what "The Daily Show" has been calling segments on the administrative and PR scrambling in Bush's Department of Homeland Security.
But "The Daily Show" has always been at its best as a media watchdog, sending up how disingenuously those charged with informing us are informing us. Stewart himself was never more resonant than when he went on CNN's "Crossfire" last October during the presidential race and beseeched Tucker Carlsons of cable TV to "stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America" by adding to a cacophony of spin and counter-spin and stoking argument where analysis and discourse might go.
Stewart's humanity came through. Maher's not huggable like Stewart. It probably contributed to why ABC had little appetite to defend him when Maher ran afoul of the post-Sept. 11 thought police four years ago. Now the rage that Maher dared to express has come full circle - it's in the mainstream. In the last two weeks his studio has felt like a kind of emotional ground zero, a place to start again. Even if that place is now available in something like 80 million fewer homes than it used to be.