Bill Maher’s Alternate Reality

Photo: Greg Endries/HBO

America is broken, but Bill Maher intends to put it back together again. It’s an ancient liberal proverb now. Maher was there in 1999 when the national obsession with Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties drove a solid year of nightly news coverage, insisting that it isn’t a big deal if the commander-in-chief gets domed in the Oval Office. He was there in 2000 when Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, poking fun at those contested Florida tallies. He was there in the mid-aughts calling people prudish tattletales for blackballing Janet Jackson after the gaffe at the Super Bowl, and documenting the ineptitude of the cowboy president and conservative caucus of that era whose “faith based” political initiatives reserved a special spite for gay and lesbian couples looking for the same protections as heterosexual couples.

A card-carrying liberal who donated a million dollars to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012 and another to the Senate Majority PAC to help Democrats to flip the House during the crucial 2018 midterms, Maher has made it his life’s work to foster an open discourse about the failings of American democracy and the foibles on both ends of the political spectrum that get in the way of progress. It hasn’t always gone so smoothly: Maher’s first late-night talk show, Politically Incorrect, a place where you could see John Waters debating electoral politics alongside Patty Hearst, was canceled in 2002 amid backlash stemming from an episode a few days after 9/11 where the comic and political commentator called Americans cowards for “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away” and commended the courage of terrorists “staying in the airplane when it hits the building.” Maher is a textbook equal-opportunity offender, always apprising us of the faults of the clowns to the left of him and the jokers to the right. He’s been singing that tune since the ’80s. In his 1989 debut HBO special — a half-hour for the network’s stand-up series One-Night Stand, home to early sets by future icons like Norm Macdonald and Gilbert Gottfried — Maher contrasted Reagan-era college revelers and ’60s youth activists: “When I went to school, at least there were causes, and people cared, and there were issues. The biggest protest song I’ve heard in the 1980s is the Beastie Boys singing ‘You’ve got to fight for your right to party.’”

In the 21st century, as host of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, the comic increasingly approaches the quirks of the left with the same zeal that made his jabs at Christian conservatives sting in the Bush years. This has earned respect from right-wing personalities, and it has frustrated people on the left who lurk him begrudgingly, characterizing the shift in Maher’s commentary as your typical case of getting old and losing your edge. To see his name in the news is to brace yourself for a moment of weapons-grade bothsidesism as he couches complaints about one party with criticisms of the other, the better to secure the reasonable median position. This puts him at odds with a left that sees a greater threat in authoritarianism taking root in government and public discourse. So Maher finds himself at a crossroads: He’s unwilling to go where progressives are going, yet sincere in the belief that he can help the left, for whom he is just another contrarian whose need to go against the grain has now set him at odds with his own convictions. And as the left piles on, calling Maher a centrist crank anytime a bit of Real Time goes viral, he points to the backlash as proof people can’t take a joke anymore. “The left has gotten goofier,” he explained in his recent Joe Rogan interview, “so I seem more conservative, maybe, but it’s not me who changed.”

Maher’s new special, #Adulting, his 12th with HBO, tries to make sense of a divided landscape in the same manner he always has: He examines lurid current events under a microscope, darting in and out of the kind of invective you hear on his panel shows, balancing smirking humor and sincere concern. But something’s different about the recipe this time. He’s never been quite so defensive and bitter about where he stands in relation to the next generation. “I guess every generation thinks the kids are crazy,” he mused on the cusp of turning 40 in his 1995 special, Stuff That Struck Me Funny, pivoting from jokes about his parents’ misconceptions about drug culture to talking about the inability of his peers to acclimate to internet culture. That balanced self-awareness is sorely missed throughout #Adulting, an hour devoted in large part to the notion that politics is being co-opted by a lot of kooks who have been empowered by social media to try to bend the law to accommodate personal preferences to the detriment of the left-wing causes they support. “Liberalism is lifting up those who have been forgotten and forsaken,” Maher explains. He feels “Democrats could win every election so easily if they would just stick to the meat and potatoes. Just stick to minimum wage, health care, education, environment. Stay out of the bullshit that gets on social media.” He doesn’t see the contradiction in asking the party of the forsaken to take on fewer causes. That’s just business: “Gender is not binary,” he declares in the special, “but politics is.”

#Adulting is very sure of itself, but it’s not so sure what makes its subjects tick. The special’s core fallacy is the idea that woke leftists picking complicated fights about gender and reassessing the sins of complex figures in American history pose as much of a threat to the future of democracy as people who supported overturning the election in 2020. The right has problems, Maher concedes, but “the drip, drip, drip on your news feed of crazy shit — petty, judgey cancel-culture shit — does seem to hang more on the left, and people are just tired of this. They’re tired of fearing that if they make one mistake in their life, including in their past, it’ll never be forgiven.” It’s a loopy assessment of a time where conservative personalities and politicians pick fights over Potato Head toys, Dr. Seuss books, and Lil Nas X videos to hang the culture wars entirely on the left. Maher admits he’s talking to the only side that’ll listen: “The Republicans do not believe in the emergency of climate change, and they apparently no longer believe in American democracy.” But Democrats are “savable” if the party divests from policy that “sounds like a headline in the Onion.” But his examples all seem pretty sensible to the much stranger current events #Adulting blows past, leaving ample comedic real estate untouched.

In response to criticisms of the founding fathers, Maher posits that we would all own slaves if we lived in the 1800s: “Stop flattering yourself that you’re Nostradamus, and you would’ve known things were wrong at a time where nobody else thought that.” He calls Bernie Sanders out for saying the Boston marathon bomber deserves the right to vote but doesn’t say that the senator was responding to an oddball town-hall question about his view that the state shouldn’t dictate who gets to have a say in politics. Maher isolates a 2019 debate take where Julián Castro said he supported reproductive rights for trans women, leaving out Castro’s clarification that he misspoke. #Adulting uses the removal of former A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor to criticize the MeToo movement, saying Keillor was fired for sharing a risqué poem at work: “Oh, we’re getting people for limericks, now?” Minnesota Public Radio’s CEO got a 12-page letter from the accuser’s attorney outlining “dozens of sexually inappropriate incidents” “over a period of years.” MPR also said Keillor’s limerick was about a co-worker who aroused him sexually. Maher mentions people trying to remove gender from birth certificates; really, the American Medical Administration recommended it. But the truth doesn’t support Maher’s thesis that crazies have hijacked politics: “Maybe we shouldn’t let kids make big life decisions while we still have to make choo-choo noises to get the food in their mouth.” Pretending it hurts anyone if some people let their kids pick gender roles is the same kind of governance via belief Maher hated in 2005’s I’m Swiss: “I don’t ask that my opinion be made into the law.” Sharing stories without proper context and clamoring for respect for the founding fathers … These are Fox News plays. #Adulting says Democrats’ messaging is fractured and confusing but doesn’t interest itself in clarity.

#Adulting doesn’t try enough in the joke department, either. Maher calls Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene a “star of Real Housewives of Karen County.” Criticizing Donald Trump for going after John McCain’s war credentials, Maher rehashes a dig we’ve heard a hundred times by now, adding that “McCain’s widow, Lindsey Graham, said nothing.” The crowd goes wild when the comic reflects on the toll the last president took on us: “Have you noticed that Trump, unlike any other president, did not age in office? We did.” It was also a hit when Wanda Sykes said it in 2019’s Not Normal. It’s fascinating watching Maher feel out his audience to find a line that gives them pause. (When a line about abortion draws a nervous laugh, he smiles, saying, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” But when the crowd applauds a messy line about people of color owning slaves in the past and howls when he says R. Kelly’s “music didn’t rape anyone,” he looks taken aback by what they find to be the funniest parts of his stories.) But it’s old hat hearing him fuss about progressives getting too progressive five years into the hellish, protracted cancel-culture discourse. On a recent episode of his new podcast, Club Random, Maher got stoned with model and actor Bella Thorne, and the talk grew testy when he joked about an unwanted genital exchange for trans people. Thorne said she didn’t like that kind of humor, to which Maher responded, “I don’t know if you’re really offended or just worried that you’re going to look offended.”

You’d think Maher, who famously bombed at the 1995 White House Correspondents’ Dinner trying to crack wise about the Democrats and their donors in the room, and whose show was removed from ABC for a joke in the 2000s but who did not appear to face material consequences for dropping a racial slur on his show in 2017, would have a sense of scope about outrage over time and how it dips and dives more like a sine wave than the exponential curve a lot of grizzled comedy veterans paint it out to be nowadays. You’d think Maher, whose ceaseless support for the legalization of marijuana comes up in a majority of his specials, particularly in times when decriminalization was a pipe dream, would appreciate dreamers trying to shift the temperature of the discourse to lay the groundwork for real change. #Adulting doesn’t go out of its way to explain that equal rights being relitigated through a lot of fast moves in the red states and elsewhere in government is the specific bee in everyone’s bonnet, or that social media, perilous as it can be, helps these people find community. Maher’s advice for marginalized groups of this era is to simply log off, cool down, and get more Democrats elected, but that already happened in 2020, and #Adulting is short on ideas for what to do when you rein it in to get the blue team elected but rights continue to retract. In Maher’s old stand-up, he made proclamations filled with the arrogance of a guy who felt he’d thought of angles you hadn’t. In #Adulting, he’s not just detached from the prickly daily realities of navigating gender-identity struggles and rethinking American power dynamics, he wants you to join him. If you can afford to, have at it.

Bill Maher’s Alternate Reality