Here’s what drives me crazy about Bill Maher and his “Real Time” show:
The guy couldn’t do an interesting interview if his life depended on it.
And it regularly drags down what is otherwise a consistently interesting show.
OK, I take that back: On his special edition last Friday, Maher had Bill Moyers as his guest for a half-hour. Seemingly transformed by having a great journalist on, Maher actually asked cogent questions. It was compelling, informative TV.
To get to the Moyers’ interview, however, you had to sit through Maher’s half-hour with Jay-Z – a debacle in which Maher acted like a tongue-tied fanboy, quoting lines from Jay-Z raps to his hero, without actually asking questions. Or asking questions that were meant to be straight lines for Jay-Z quips – which is Maher’s usual M.O.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Maher’s. I admired (and laughed at) his audacious movie, “Religulous.” I think his stand-up is smart and perceptive. And I enjoy his contrarian spirit and highly attuned bullshit meter on “Real Time” and its predecessor, “Politically Incorrect.”
But if Maher’s going to have high-powered guests on to discuss complicated issues, then he should have his producers write him some actual questions. Or get someone who knows how to ask questions for a living to write them. I’m available, if they’re stumped.
Because when Maher has five minutes of airtime with a heavy-hitter like former FDA head David Kessler or TARP overseer Elizabeth Warren or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, why waste it with the kind of banal chitchat that Maher usually falls into? Maher’s approach is either to be the fawning admirer or the in-the-know peer – but, in either case, he rarely asks a question that actually evokes a thought-provoking answer – or asks a question at all.
Rather, his approach is to make a statement – assuming that the guest will continue that thread or argue with him in some way. It’s as if Maher is an essay question on a final exam: “Topic: Healthcare. Discuss.”
Granted, five minutes isn’t much. But it can be a whole lot more interesting and informative than Maher is making it – particularly given the rarity of TV appearances by some of these guests and the audience that Maher is reaching. Why waste that chance?
I use my own 17-year-old son as an example. He never reads a newspaper – but he wouldn’t miss “Real Time.” He’s never heard of Fareed Zakaria or Michael Pollan and he wouldn’t even consider watching “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” to hear them. But he tunes in regularly to Maher and comes away, at a minimum, knowing who these people are. What an opportunity – squandered.
Yes, I know – it’s a talk show and talk shows have conventions, one of which is the pre-interview. When Letterman or Conan or Kimmel or any of the rest of them sits down with a guest, the guests know ahead of time what questions will be asked – and the host knows how the question will be answered.
But Maher’s is supposed to be the anti-talk show. He positions “Real Time” as a venue for dialogue, discussion, debate. And most of it is fascinating exactly for that reason.
So step up, Bill. I know you’re not a journalist or an interviewer – but you’re talking to people who have things to say that need to be heard, to be drawn out of them. Five minutes isn’t much but it’s plenty of time to say something sharp and incisive – if the right question is asked. If a question is asked at all.
It’s a simple enough fix and would absolutely raise the level of your show – and your game.