An Iconoclast's Last Days on Late-Night Soapbox

An Iconoclast's Last Days on Late-Night Soapbox
Posted by CN Staff on June 22, 2002 at 23:36:57 PT
By Peter Marks
Source: New York Times 
Just before "Politically Incorrect" joined the ABC late-night lineup in 1997, its host, Bill Maher, got a call from a venerated television newsman whose program would be preceding his five nights a week."I talked to Ted Koppel before I went on the air," Mr. Maher recalled. "It was a friendly conversation. He read me a list of like 12 shows that had had my slot. Rona Barrett had a show. Rick Dees had a show. Tom Snyder, I think." Mr. Maher paused, chuckling to himself. "Maybe he was preparing me."
To the list of post-"Nightline" casualties, "Politically Incorrect" can now be added. Five years after making its network debut, and nine years after its initial bow on Comedy Central, Mr. Maher's lively talk show, in which quartets of celebrities were invited each night to put their two cents in about everything from O. J. to Osama, ends its provocative run on Friday.ABC officials pulled the plug on "P. I." last month and announced that it will be replaced by a program featuring the comedian Jimmy Kimmel of Comedy Central's "The Man Show." (Mr. Kimmel's program will begin in January; until then a half-hour spinoff of "Nightline" will fill the time slot.) "Politically Incorrect" had been steadily drawing a fairly small audience of about 2.5 million viewers a night. But Mr. Maher, 46, said he believes that he simply wore out his welcome. "To them, `Politically Incorrect' was just, ooh, a cool title," he said of the network. "I don't think they really got it, that I really was politically incorrect."A comedian by trade, Mr. Maher had demonstrated a propensity over the years for revealing how incorrect he could be. It is virtually impossible to characterize his politics, except to say that he would easily be elected chairman of the Contrarian Party. On the show last month, he articulated his agenda: "I think religion is bad and drugs are good. I think America causes cancer, longevity is less important than fun, and young people should be discouraged from voting. I think stereotypes are true, abstinence is a perversion, Bush's lies are worse than Clinton's and there's nothing sexy about being old or pregnant."He says that despite their differences on some issues, his biggest fans tended to come from the right. "Those conservatives are the most upset about the show going off the air," he explained, "because they totally get it, that this is like the only place they can go on and air their views."His bruising observations put him on the defensive from time to time. A vulgar comment about Barbara Bush drew a flurry of protests, as did disparaging references to Ronald Reagan and Katherine Harris, who gained notoriety as Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount.By now, most viewers know that he had likely sealed his fate with a remark on his Sept. 17 show. In an exchange with Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative commentator, Mr. Maher offered a scathing assessment of the American response to the terrorist threat from Afghanistan before Sept. 11. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," he said. "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."The words brought censure from no less than Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President Bush. Mr. Maher later tried to explain that his point wasn't that terrorists weren't cowards. In the following months, he tried to distance himself from his remark by frequently sparring with guests who professed sympathy for some of the goals of Islamic radicals. Still, the damage had been done; major advertisers deserted the program, several affiliates stopped broadcasting the show and the host found himself isolated at ABC.More powerful television stars do get away with a certain level of iconoclasm: David Letterman's incessant needling of executives at CBS, as Mr. Maher pointed out, never threatened his coveted late-night perch. Then again, Mr. Letterman never exactly challenged the mettle of the American armed forces. Mr. Maher said he knew there would be a cost for his blunt style atop his national soapbox, and he seems more philosophical than bitter now about having to give it up."The track record for people who have spoken their minds, who were ahead of the curve, is not very encouraging," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he was taping his final shows. Calling Mrs. Bush a nasty name lost "Politically Incorrect" its outlet in Houston; the ABC affiliate there dropped the program."I really wish I had said she was `Thatcheresque,' " Mr. Maher said, a bit wistfully. "I'm not perfect either, and I should have picked a better battle than that one. But still, for the people who watch the show, part of the beauty is I'm not editing myself."A lack of editing, in fact, could have been hazardous to his health. Over the years, Mr. Maher said, he has attracted no shortage of detractors, some of whom have made their antipathy known to him. "I have had many threats, stalkers, death threats," he said. "Security people have had to live in my house. I'm not on the world stage  I'm just a comedian who has a good grasp of politics. But I'm fully aware that I pay a horrible price for speaking out.""Politically Incorrect" was built around the personality of its star. (It originally began with Mr. Maher delivering a monologue, but that was eventually cut back and later eliminated.) Each night four figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics, seated to his left and right like junior members of a court, would mix it up. Some nights it looked as if Mr. Maher's bookers had endured a rough afternoon on the phones, filling the chairs with second-tier celebrities and ideologues from obscure interest groups. Other installments could be inspirationally offbeat, as when the host took the show on the road for a week of broadcasts inside a prison. There was a "who do they think they are?" factor, or, as Mr. Maher put it, "Why do we need Pauly Shore on gun control?" Even so, Mr. Maher, enthroned at the center of the action, was able to guide the discourse often enough into funny nooks and crannies. The roots of the show, after all, were in comedy."I did this show because I was bored with mindless celebrities not being able to talk about anything," he said. "Try finding anything like it on any other channel of any substance at all."Mr. Maher doesn't point with pride to any particular installment. He did make some friends, like Arianna Huffington and Ann Coulter, both conservative commentators, and the comedian Christopher Reid, all of whom will appear on the final episode. And though he is not sure of his next move in television, he certainly has no problem accepting all the condolences."It's actually a nice thing getting canceled," he said. "You get so much love." Complete Title: An Iconoclast's Last Days on His Late-Night SoapboxSource: New York Times (NY)Author: Peter MarksPublished: June 23, 2002Copyright: 2002 The New York Times CompanyContact: letters nytimes.comWebsite: Articles & Web Sites:Bill Maher's Official Web Sitehttp://www.billmaher.tvBill Maher- NORML Transcripts Conference Video's NORML To Smoke Pot Incorrect Transcripts: The Drug War
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Comment #4 posted by Nuevo Mexican on June 23, 2002 at 15:43:23 PT
Go for it E.J.!!!
What are the links, we'll all join you! I want to apoligize for reacting rather than responding to you comments here at C-news! I can be a nit-picker and a certain button is pushed, off I Go! But really, if I commented on every thing that you say that I agree with, the list would be way too long! I decided to let our differing viewpoints on Gore (we both voted for Nader, didn't we) pass and focus on unifying with you as a catalyst for change within the democratic party, so as to help them disintegrate faster, or grow a spine overnite! It's one way or another, and I feel the way you do and hope that the slim chance for change grows into a must do situation for them. Once again, I apolagize for being a disrupter, rebel, contradictorian type when it comes to our Gore discussions. Done, over it! Ready to be agreeable to disagreements! I'm learning! Peace!
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Comment #3 posted by E_Johnson on June 23, 2002 at 11:11:11 PT
The Democrats made a mistake ha ha
The DNC is sending out email with a form where you can give your own opinion on their issue. Oh have I ever been using it today. This party is so manipulative. They try as hard as possible to keep the drug war out of their political agenda. They try to control the issue agenda as much as possible to exclude any questions about drug policy.But they opened up a chink in their armor today and I am plunging my verbal sword into it repeatedly with glee.
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Comment #2 posted by R-Earing on June 23, 2002 at 10:38:40 PT:
Only thing that keeps canucks engaged with USA
Without PI,a lot of Canucks are simply gonna ignore the USA.
PI gave us a nice digest of all the crazy stuff going on.
The other more mainstream shows are all so fluffy or agenda driven that they are maddening to watch.Who else seriously questions stuff like the WOD, the WOT,the drug czar,campaign finance reform in a format that people would actually watch?(maybe Michael Moore,but have you seen him on US network TV lately?In spite of the fact he has a best selling book.)I can't wait to see the replacement show! A full half hour of fart jokes,fawning interviews with whoever plays a teenaged spy/assasin/ninja/superhero/werewolf, and lots and lots of praise for whatever crappy,shoulda been straight to video, new movie is in the multiplexes.What a coup for western civilization.Maybe Chris Kattan(SNL) could do political commentary as his "Mango" character?That would really raise the bar.
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Comment #1 posted by Letsgetfree on June 23, 2002 at 06:26:19 PT
PI will truely be missed.
it's such a shame to see it go. In a sea of lies Bill was one person who would give out his version of the truth. I didn't agree with him on some issues (sometimes LOTS of issues) but he is dead on about the drug war. Have u seen his NORML speech? it's awesome. He's right about fat people too. But the thing that is most saddening is that this was an outlet for debate, a thing sorely missing in Amerika. This was a victory for the Empire, which is making fast moves right NOW! We must all watch and u Amerikans better vote incumbents out cum nov.
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