June 3, 2002







photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Politically Incorrect: A Eulogy
Maher was one of the few with enough guts to dissent

by Chris Raphael

When ABC moved to cancel Nightline and replace it with Letterman, a furor arose in the public and press. Where was the furor when ABC censored then canceled Politically Incorrect?

In yet another effort to appeal to younger viewers and bring in more advertising dollars, ABC recently canned Politically Incorrect and host Bill Maher in favor of a new "variety" show with Jimmy Kimmel, host of Comedy Central's The Man Show. Politically Incorrect, with about 2.5 million viewers, never took off the way ABC expected, always trailing Letterman (approximately 4 million viewers) and Leno (6 million viewers) for market share. It was just a matter of time before ABC buried the show, which it also brought over from Comedy Central in 1997.

But the final kiss on Politically Incorrect's casket may have been Maher's "coward" comments, and the subsequent rebuke from the White House. Maher became an example of what can happen during those unusual periods in American history when the national discourse is so unified that the public, armed with a twisted truth, moves to stifle speech and the media and government comply.

Let us pause to remember.

In the weeks after September 11, critics wondered how late-night talk shows would change. Predictably, Leno and Letterman told fewer and safer jokes, mostly at the expense of easy targets like the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart was so shaken he cried. But Politically Incorrect, true to form, crashed the somber late-night party. Appearing on Sept. 17 for the first show since the attacks, Maher made it starkly clear his show would live up to its name.

"I do not relinquish - nor should any of you - the right to criticize, even as we support, our government," Maher said. "This is still a democracy and they're still politicians, so we need to let our government know that we can't afford a lot of things that we used to be able to afford. Like a missile shield that will never work for an enemy that doesn't exist. We can't afford to be fighting wrong and silly wars. The cold war. The drug war. The culture war."

What Maher said later in the show, however, is what made headlines. Panelist Dinesh D'Souza mentioned that he didn't think the terrorists were "cowards," as George Bush had described them. Maher replied: "We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You're right."

A few last words from Bill Maher

Appearing on Larry King in January and February to defend his show, Bill Maher let loose a tirade:

"If the theory is that terrorists get some of their money from drugs, well, let's go to where they get their real money from, oil …instead of putting a flag on your SUV, which is just going to put more money in the pockets of people who fund terrorism, change the car, not the flag."

"I certainly worry about naming something the Patriot Act, because that's a form of intimidation...who could vote against the Patriot Act, you know, really? You can legalize crack if you had Patriot Act on top of it."

"We do have this sort of arrogance that [American] lives are worth more than yours. And human life - we're supposed to be a religious country - is human life. It's not an American life. And whenever there is an accident overseas, you always hear, you know, 150 people were killed, two were Americans. Two were Americans! That's what gets us interested in [it."

"You know, the Congressman who said that this was a bank robbery and Enron robbed the bank, and Andersen, the accounting company drove the getaway car? He left out that Congress and the president are the cops paid to look the other way."

"There are 11 dating shows opposite me. You could watch any one of them."

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, says Maher's commentary was alone in its criticism of the U.S. government. "He was the only dissenting voice out there that week," said Thompson. And for that dissent, Maher paid a heavy price.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the comment went unnoticed at ABC until a conservative talk show host in Houston hosted byDan Patrick urged listeners to complain to two of the show's advertisers, Sears and Federal Express, who subsequently dropped their ads. Several ABC affiliates temporarily dropped Maher, including what one would think a key market for the show - WJLA in Washington, D.C.

Maher's "coward" comments, misinterpreted as saying the U.S. military was "cowardly," also found its way to the ears of the White House. U.S. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, responding to a question about the comments, said he had not read the show's transcript. He nevertheless urged Americans "to watch what they say."

"This is not a time for remarks like that," Fleischer said, adding, "There never is."

By admonishing Maher, said media critic Thompson, Fleischer tried to solidify the national consensus and control the press. "Bill Maher becomes this perfect example of what happens if you step outside that consensus," Thompson said. In at least one instance, that strategy paid off: WJLA dropped the show again after Fleischer's remarks, and hasn't brought it back since.

Politicians have long realized the power of late-night television, talk shows and sitcoms as a public relations tool. Dana Carvey's impersonation of President Bush on Saturday Night Live made "points of light" a household phrase, though few viewers actually saw the speech in which George Bush the elder uttered the phrase. Dan Quayle had a running feud over single motherhood with Murphy Brown. Bill Clinton appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show; George Bush and Al Gore have chatted with Oprah.

Maher's show, however, stood out for its hybrid blend of politics and comedy and its ability, in a time of war, to alter the national discourse and step out of line when other shows played follow-the-leader. ABC News noted that a "vein" of Maher's criticism may have been reiterated when President Bush warned Congress that the war on terrorism would be different than Kosovo: ground troops would be used. In other words, America is not a cruise missile-firing coward.

That Maher was able to rankle the political process is a testament to his individuality, intelligence and brash style. A self-described libertarian, Maher defies the two-party punditry system in government on newspaper op-ed pages and on television talk shows - George Wills on one side, Paul Begalas on the other. Maher supported the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he's also cracked jokes about the Bush administration's misguided environmental policies and its crooked energy deals.

It is no wonder that those who rushed to the show's defense include both civil liberties groups and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Maher never fit neatly into a black-and-white world of with-us or against-us, and probably couldn't fit in at all after September 11.

Like all shows, Politically Incorrect had its weaknesses. On one hand, it can be "entertaining to hear the opinions of people who know nothing about a subject," Thompson noted. On the other hand, "why would I care what Fred Savage thinks about something like the war in Iraq?"

"What bothered me was that there was this eagerness to stifle dissension," Thompson said, "that we needed to silence Maher."

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