Opinion: The evolution of Bill Maher | CNN (2024)

Opinion: The evolution of Bill Maher | CNN (1)

Bill Maher on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on October 26, 2023.

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of“Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s”and co-hosts the podcasts“Past Present”and“This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Viewmoreopinionon CNN.


Over the past 30 years, Bill Maher has built a brand as a risk-taking contrarian. In an era when comedians like Jerry Seinfeld were offering observational comedy seemingly devoid of political content, Maher offered observational commentary that fed off controversy and political debate.

From the debut of his show “Politically Incorrect”on Comedy Central in 1993,hehas presented himself as a truthteller, beholden to no party or ideology, fearless in the face of the censorious mob.

That reputation got a boost in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when Mahercalledthe US government “cowardly” compared to the attackers for relying on missiles over suicide missions. Stations pulled his show, the White House press secretarydenounced his commentsand several months later, ABCcancelled“Politically Incorrect.”

Keep that story in mind, because it’s important to remember there was a time when Maher could say something shocking. You wouldn’t know it from reading his new book, “What This Comedian Said Will Shock You.” In 24 topical chapters, Maher touches on just about everything — internet influencers, Republican radicalism, marijuana legalization, football brain injuries, fraternities, and most of all, kids these days. Unlike his earlier books, which are mostly highlight reels from his television shows, “What This Comedian Said” has a broader goal: to lay out Maher’s worldview in longform.

Yet despite Maher’s reputation as a provocateur, that worldview is built not on transgression — nothinghere is likely toshock you — but rather a relentless nostalgia for the good old days, before Democrats went “woke” and Republicans went coup-crazy.

Maher lets readers know early on that while the country may have changed, he hasn’t. Annoyed that some critics have detected a conservative turn in his commentary, he pored over the last 20 years of editorials for his current show “Real Time”(whose network and CNN share a parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery)and walked away satisfied that he has remained constant. “Let’s get this straight,” he tells readers, “it’s not me who’s changed.”

Opinion: The evolution of Bill Maher | CNN (3)

Bill Maher, Chevy Chase, Ann Coulter, Naomi Judd, Michael Rapaport appearing on the ABC tv series 'Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher', on the show's 5th anniversary.

He quotes from a 1994 piece he wrote for Playboycalled “The Reluctant Conservative,” in which he confesses he has turned out more conservative than he ever thought, while still believing “that being liberal is what a nation should aspire to, just as it is what a person should aspire to. Liberal means open-minded, willing to try new things, eager to get to the next place.” Looking back on those words, he writes, “I feel fundamentally the same.” And if he feels unchanged from 30 years ago, then something else must have changed dramatically.

If Maher wanted to make sense of what has and hasn’t changed over the past three decades, he should have spent a bit more time focused on his own history. That search would have revealed not only that things haven’t changed quite as much as Maher insists, but also that he and his brand of comedy have played a central role in creating the political culture we have today.

Nostalgic longing for the America of late 20thcentury is the relentless drumbeat of Maher’s book. Lines such as these stand out: “College today is not the college you remember.” “People used to get their news from newspapers.” “Cell phones have obliterated courtesy.” “Nobody knows what words mean anymore.” “The phone ruined dating and p*rn ruined sex.” You could be excused for wondering when Maher morphed into the grumpy “60 Minutes” editorialist Andy Rooney.

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Yet for all this nostalgia for yesteryear, Maher is curiously quiet about his years at “Politically Incorrect.” Bringing up that show, however, would make clear that actually, not that much has changed since the 1990s. “Political correctness” has been rebranded as “wokeness,” but the basic idea — that the left wants to wrest control of politics, institutions and even words themselves in the name of a more inclusive society —remains the same.

Maher’s book, unlike his show and previous comedy specials, now dates the emergence of this problem sometime around 2016. He writes: “Things were easier for me, and it was easier for people to understand me, during the Bush-Obama years. Before wokeness, at first a noble directive to remain alert to injustice, morphed into an ugly authoritarianism, and often in support of bad ideas.”

That formulation requires a bit of strategic historical amnesia, though. Maher invokes Black-only dorms several times in the book as a symbol of the excesses of wokeness; perhaps he forgot that he also lamented segregated dorms in 1994 on “Politically Incorrect.” He notes that “how we teach our kids history has become a big controversy these days,” never reminding readers that clashes over how to teach history got so heated in the early 1990s that those fights are still known asthe History Wars.

That context matters, because we know what happened after the political-correctness panic of the 1990s: most people adopted more inclusive terms, schools taught a wider range of US history, conservative politicians and media activists made anti-PC commentary a mainstay of their rhetoric and the political terms that didn’t catch on, such as “womyn,” largely faded from use.

It also matters because the repeated panics over “political correctness” or “wokeness” indicate that such panics have a political utility, particularly to justify rolling back programs aimed at inclusion and equality.

Bringing “Politically Incorrect” into the story would have provided another important context as well. Maher’s show, which first gained a cult following on Comedy Central, then grew so popular that ABCpoached itfor their late-night lineup. The show pioneered a new blend of politics and entertainment.

The lines between those two worlds had already started to blur well before “Politically Incorrect.”

Richard Nixon, as a former vice president and candidate for president,appearedon the variety show “Laugh-In”in 1968; then-presidential candidate Bill Clintonplayed saxon “Arsenio Hall”in 1992.

Opinion: The evolution of Bill Maher | CNN (5)

Bill Clinton plays 'Heartbreak Hotel' on saxophone on June 3, 1992 during a taping of 'The Arsenio Hall Show.'

Yet “Politically Incorrect,” in bringing together actors, comedians and politicians for a shared conversation, had a profound impact on both the production and consumption of political entertainment. The Hollywood set strove for profundity while the politicians sought out laughs. And both chased the top prize on “Politically Incorrect” — the gasp, a sign from the audience that someone had transgressed the boundaries of good taste and acceptable speech and thus landed in the realm of profound truth.

That is Maher’s particular sleight of hand, to designate shock as a marker of truth. Frequent “Politically Incorrect” guests such as right-wing pundits Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham learned this lesson well and made it a hallmark of their careers. The style that came to dominate cable news after the launch of MSNBC and Fox News in 1996 was nurtured first on Maher’s show. “We don’t break stories, we break new ways of looking at stories,” Maher writes in his new book —the precise role of the cable news commentator.

Politicians, too, took lessons from “Politically Incorrect,” finding that voters, like audiences, were coming to prefer politics packaged with humor and offense. It is a lesson Donald Trump — someone Maher abhors —embodies. Maher says as much in the book: “In an age dominated by the professionally offended, we secretly envy the man who’s able to speak his mind with compete abandon, never concerned about the repercussions and never apologizing for it.” And while Maher would blame the professionally offended for making Trump palatable, he should be a bit uncomfortablethatmuch ofhis description of Trumpisawfully close to his own persona on his shows.

Jon Stewart during his first night back hosting "The Daily Show" after more than eight years on Monday, February 12. Matt Wilson/Comedy Central's The Daily Show Related article Opinion: Jon Stewart’s brilliant return

That persona of brave comedian willing to bear censure and censors to speak the truth remains core to Maher’s brand. But it’s a brand that doesn’t quite work anymore, at least not for a comedian looking to “shock you” with the pages of his book.In a political landscape where offense is the coin of the realm, especially on the right,Maher’s persona comes off as tame by comparison.His popular HBO show “Real Time” is less about shock than about Maher and a series of high-profile guests calling BS on what they view as excesses of the left and right.

More than that, though,his cranky nostalgia is too familiar and routine to rousemuch of any unpredictable response. Complaints that kids are too coddled, that pronouns are too confusing, that popular music is “just noises people make during sex and odes to ‘the booty’” — this isn’t sharp cultural criticism or courageous truth-telling. It’s an average segment on Fox News.

Maher has played an important role in shaping the political culture of the US in the 1990s, in ways we still feel today.Maher, the political comedian whose stock-in-trade wasshock,was long ago eclipsed by politicians and pundits who learned to wield attacks on political correctness and wokeness into more than just punchlines.They’re using them to change policy and win elections.It’s Maher’s place in that story, more than any part of his book, that will shock you.

Opinion: The evolution of Bill Maher | CNN (2024)
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