Real Time with Bill Maher hit the boards running for its eighth season a couple of weeks ago, and I held out great hopes for my favourite fundit program, after a decidedly iffy season last year which ended in confusion.
However, I’m hoping I didn’t speak too soon, as it stalled in what it sought to deliver in the third episode of the season, which aired Friday evening.
A commentator on Bill’s MySpace page deemed the episode ‘caustic’, another friend of mine thought it was ‘quirky’ more than anything else. I thought it just oozed tension, and I’m at a loss to understand why.
To begin with, the guest list was a bit thin on the ground – three guests in the studio, including the one-on-one interview and a satellite interview with a dodgy connection. I think Bill struggles to get people to commit to appearing on the program, and whether that’s the nature of the host or the venue (Los Angeles is as long a flight time from the East Coast as New York is from London), I don’t know.
We’re three programs into the new season, and there’s yet to be a elected politician to appear. The result of this difficulty is that we keep seeing the same recurring guests, almost as ‘regulars’: most of the guests who’ve appeared already are repeat performers.
I approached this week’s instalment reluctantly. Arianna Huffington was a panel guest, and to say I loathe this diehard neocon corporate media whore disguised as a Progressive voice only when it became openly fashionable to hate Bush is being kind. The last time she appeared on the show last season, in the cohorted company of fellow (open) Republicans Darryl Issa and Jack Kingston, that trio so railroaded the discussion sequence that Bill, the host and moderator, was reduced to looking like a cross between a bewildered child at the adults’ table and a confused spectator at a tennis match watching such a never-ending volley that he’d forgotten who had the serve.
I’m still at a loss as to why the media in the US continue to give this intellectual lightweight and parvenue airtime to spout her ridiculous talking points, made only to enhance her own publicity; but then, I remember when Mrs Huffington, minus the ex-husband’s divorce settlement and the Wall Street hedge fund, was merely Miss Stanisopoulous, the daughter of a corrupt Greek politician, trying desperately to be taken seriously as an arch-Right conservative by the truly Progressive, serious British media intelligensia.
They considered her a joke.
Bill’s guests this week, besides the Queen Mother of Media Whores, included Andrew Ross Sorkin, financial correspondent for The New York Times, Sean Penn and (from New York) Michael Moore.
Although his previous two monologues this season had hit the bullseye for which they were intended, Bill’s monologue this week fell curiously flat. He wittered on about Oscars’ week, with the inevitable Sarah Palin joke.
I know Palin was a particular target and bete noire for Bill during the campaign and he eviscerated her shallowness with brilliant panache; from time to time, she surfaced last season, but only when she’d done something to merit newsworthy comment – like resign.
This time, I’m getting the uneasy feeling that Bill’s baiting Palin, almost stalking her with continuous snarky comment and open ridicule, and for a curiously self-serving purpose. Of late, those whom Palin has targeted with her snide and ill-founded observations, have achieved almost victim status – Letterman, Rahm Emanuel, Seth McFarlane and Family Guy – all rose like phoenixes from the ashes of her ignorant remarks and misconceptions.
In short, Palin’s invective got publicity for both Letterman and McFarlane, and even Rahm was seen in a more sympathetic light as almost an arbiter for freedom of speech.
Bill’s not above promoting himself shamelessly, almost by any means. That he compromised himself greatly last season with a blatantly opportunistic editorial, slating President Obama for ‘not doing enough’ a mere six months into his Administration, was all too obvious, especially if one cared to remember that the week previous to that particular editorial (June 16th), he was roundly criticizing the GOP for saying the very same thing about the President. Still, it achieved the end Bill desired – he ran the gamut from Blitzer to Olbermann, starting the Obama-bashin’ fashion that the base of the Progressive Left adopted with a fervour unseen since they campaigned for the man during the election.
A lot of real Progressives today still blame Bill for sounding the hammer blow that created a very noticeable ructure in the Democratic Party.
I think Bill is baiting Palin for the same reason. He’s relishing a response from this woman. He wants her to target him, to point a finger, to Twitter a tweet or sully her Facebook page with a diatribe against big, bad Bill Maher, which would gain Bill a soupcon of sympathy and a gaggle of publicity. Thing is, I get the impression that Palin isn’t much of an HBO fan, and I seriously doubt she’s even heard of Bill. Were I he, I’d leave off Palin. He’s only feeding fuel to her fire, and besides, as a part of his monologue and stand-up, she’s becoming boringly predictable as a reference.
But after the monologue, the atmosphere began to become almost surreal.
Sean Penn was the first guest, booked to talk about his humanitarian effort in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti and to plug the relief organisation he had established for that purpose.
I found this odd, to say the least, especially since one of Bill’s ubiquitous tweets during his hiatus had criticised the continuous news emphasis on the disaster by the mainstream media, to the exclusion of any other news. I understood Bill’s complaint; he’d reiterated the media’s propensity to flog one news item like the proverbial dead horse, but the tweet did come across to many as the whiney complaint of a bored adolescent. The other thing I found odd about the interview was Penn, himself.
Penn, florid of face and neck, with a dull, dazed look in his eye, was clearly drunk. More than that, he was a woozy, rambling, incoherent drunk.
To Bill’s credit, his interview questions were flawless. Under normal circumstances, he would have been pushing the right buttons, with the questions he asked. but circumstances were anything but normal. The result was that Penn’s answers rambled on ad nauseam, and he never truly answered any question.
For example, when Penn finally got to the point of his first answer – that the United States needed to give more, more and yet more again to Haiti in an effort to rebuild a viable infrastructure there, Bill, rightly, countered by asking Penn why he sought to concentrate his efforts on Haiti, when there was ample evidence of infrastructural decay in the United States and a plethora of Americans suffering badly as a result of the dire economic crisis.
Valid question; in fact, one many people have been asking in light of this.
This elicited another incoherent and torturously twisted reply from Penn, the gist of which being that by giving – yes – more, more and more again to rebuild Haiti, the US would be a better nation and benefit and learn from the Haitian people. Learn what, exactly, he never specified, and it’s doubtful that he knew. By that point, Penn was just phoning in his replies.
The interview wasn’t without controversy, however. Finally, Bill brought up the subject of Hugo Chavez, a particular ‘friend’ of Penn’s and one whom the actor has defended vociferously. The ensuing reply on Penn’s part is a testimony to the fact that, just because one is an extremely talented actor and icon for a generation, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the person has any great intellect, or even basic common sense.
Bill referred to Chavez, the dictator.
Penn quickly took umbrage. Chavez, he replied, in a pique, was most definitely not a dictator, but a legitimately elected head-of-state. In Penn’s mind, that’s not a dictator.
I disagree. Hitler was legitimately elected. So was Mussolini. So was Bush, allegedly. And elections can easily be rigged to favour the strong man who wants to rule. Look at Italy’s Berlusconi. Again, look at Bush and the Republican techniques. I’m sorry, Sean, this dude’s a dictator and a dick.
Bill then pointed out the fact that Chavez had shut down television and radio stations and newspapers who were openly critical of him, but Penn would have none of that. In fact, he declared, anyone in the United States, and especially in the media, who insisted on calling Chavez a dictator, should be put in prison.
From where I’m sitting, it looks as though Sean’s close association with Hugo Chavez hasn’t been for nothing. That’s a blatant denial of First Amendment rights - so are we to infer that the humanitarian and Academy Award-winning actor approves of a suppression of Freedom of Speech? What a walking advertisement for the Left in the face of the Right. And a blatant one as well.
The other interview came midway through the panel discussion with Michael Moore. It was beset by satellite difficulties, as Moore was attempting to be broadcast from New York City, outside Goldman Sachs. Bill was clearly frustrated by the delay, and Moore was frustrated as well, although by what, it was unclear. It was a tetchy, almost irascible interview, from the beginning, done to publicize the fact that Moore’s latest cinematic offering, Capitalism: A Love Story, was now available on DVD.
As the impending Oscars ceremony served more as a veritable Banquo’s ghost than as a backdrop to this episode, Bill began the interview by reminding Moore that it was Oscars weekend and that Moore’s film hadn’t received a nomination – although he couldn’t imagine why, Bill added for good measure. Clearly a joke between friends, but Moore failed to see the humour and tetchily remarked that, for what it was worth, he thought Bill’s documentary Religulous should have won the Oscar the previous year. (It wasn’t nominated).
Moore then went into a diatribe about the evils of Wall Street and the sufferings of the ordinary citizen in the wake of that, which – for some reason – elicited an irritated response from Bill, in which he noticeably raised his voice. Thereafter, the four-minute clip tailed off with Moore remarking that he’d written a letter to President Obama – understanding that Rahm Emanuel was about to leave – offering him his services as Chief of Staff for the salary of $1 per year and a bed in the White House basement.
In the moments after the interview had ended, Bill made two rather snarky allusions to ‘St Michael’ and ‘the spirit of St Michael’, obviously on the tail end of what amounted to a locking-of-horns encounter, no matter how unintentional that was.
The surrealism of the episode was heightened by the fact that almost nothing of any newsworthy event referenced in the panel discussion. It was patently obvious that the panel was there only as a prop for Huffington to publicise her ‘Move Your Money’ movement in an effort to cripple the four big, bad lending banks.
I find Huffington faintly ludicrous at the best of times. She usually manages to muscle in on any discussion and dominate the proceedings, and this time was no different. Bill began the panel discussion by singling out her ‘Move Your Money’ meme, adding a bit of self-promotion for himself, considering that she asked him to do the promotional video which was released on YouTube.
Now we get to the funny part.
Bill asked Andrew Sorkin, author of the book Too Big to Fail about what he thought of the idea of a mass movement of people taking money from the big four bad boys and placing it in locally-owned banks and credit unions. Sorkin remarked that he thought, in principle, Huffington’s idea was a good one; however, there were drawbacks to her idea:-
First, if everyone ‘moved their money’ from the big guys to the small fry, the banks that formerly had been too big to fail, would ... fail, and that wouldn’t be good for the economy. Secondly, many of the so-called local banks weren’t actually independent entities, themselves. Many were part and parcel of the very organisation Huffington sought to scupper.
(Huffington’s always out to scupper someone or something which effected a perceived slight on her fragile ego. Her vendetta against Clinton in the late 90s came as a result of her husband having lost a Senate race to Barbara Boxer; her vendetta against Tim Russert came from Russert’s wife having outed Michael Huffington in an article years before his sexuality became common knowledge; her vendetta against newspapers arises from the newsprint media failing to consider her a viable and reliable journalist, in her own right. So I can only surmise that her vendetta against the big banks comes from some kind of cashflow problem, which they can’t help her remedy – or at least more from that than out of any concern for ordinary people).
Thirdly, Sorkin concluded, these small local banks and credit unions weren’t entirely clean, themselves – that they employed a stringently vociferous group of lobbyists, whose job it was to nobble Congress, and were, in fact, more opposed to the President’s idea of regulating the banking industry than the big guys were, themselves.
At that moment, Huffington chose to suffer from a bout of selective deafness, because later, in her internet newsrag, she trumpeted the fact that Sorkin had given a pontifical blessing to her ‘movement’ and agreed with her entirely, although he actually didn’t ... such is her arrogance.
That moved the discussion onto the plight of the middle classes, where Huffington held forth on the fact that anger directed at Wall Street was a unifying factor between the middle class and the Teabaggers (and, in doing this, somehow managed to make Michael Moore sound like teabagging material). There followed a five-minute discussion between Huffington and Bill about the sufferings of the middle class and how the government and financial crisis was failing them.
I’m sorry, but I was mightily offended by what amounted to a dinner party discussion between two faux liberals talking about a demographic of people of whom one had actually forgotten he was ever a part and of whom the other had no real contact in her daily dealings. It was a moment straight out of a grotesque Goya painting of two narcissistic egoists paying pithy lip service to the plight of the little people and giving themselves congratulatory pats on the back for having noticed that a problem exists.
Frankly, it was insulting.
This led further into an unusual discussion about an American reality television program, Undercover Boss, which Bill, in a rare moment of realising that he was born a son of the working middle class, found insulting to ordinary people, and which Huffington, surprisingly in her Zsa Zsa-plays-Lady-Bracknell mode, found enlightening.
The whole discussion was pointless, with respect to current events. It was an exercise in publicizing Huffington’s latest venture, an opportunity for Bill to reiterate and reinforce the fact that he really, really did like President Obama, but he wished he could have acted tougher last year – the same old same old complaint he’d whined about since June 2009, only not as forcefully. (Earlier last month, in an interview clip with Joy Behar, I noticed the best-seller Game Change on the shelf in Bill’s office. He’d do well to read and digest the content of this, because ‘No-Drama Obama’ is the President’s schtick).
The New Rules weren’t Bill’s best, and the editorial was a bit of fluff, which, in other circumstances, might have been funny; but in these current times, came across as Bill’s Marie Antoinette moment.
It was an extollation of Hollywood’s virtues as an industry that was entirely American and didn’t come cap-in-hand to the government asking for help. (Of course, it never dawned on Bill that the film which won the Oscar last year was not an American film, or that most films aren’t actually made in Hollywood these days, mainly due to excessive costs). He excoriated the Republicans’ current triviality of promoting their two rising stars (yet another reference to Sarah Palin) as having been a local beauty queen and a nude male centrefold. Hollywood deserved the big party that accompanied the Oscars, as ribald, rambunctuous and excessive as it could be, and the public be damned in its criticism. (‘Let them eat cake, anyone?’)
One of the core messages of the editorial was the fact that any celebrity in the town who openly admitted to being a Republican, was usually of the naff, z-list variety: the late Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson or Fred Grandy, whose chief claim to fame was having played Gofer in The Love Boat.
Amongst the ueber-cool A-listers, only Democrats could be found.
Forty-eight hours later, that left me wondering on what list Bill, whom I love dearly as a fundit, when he’s thinking for himself and not aiming to please others for his own plaudits, could be found ... not the ueber-cool A-list, if this tweet, made in the early hours of Monday morning, whilst moving amongst the exalted at an Oscars’ after-party:-
"Actors are just the bestest people in thw world! We are so lucky to be sharing the earth with them!! Fuck!!!" (Typos are Bill’s).
Sarcasm? Heavily laced. Bitterness? A smidgeon. Jealousy? More than just a bit.
Billy, I love the bones of you, and for that, I’ll rate this episode 7 out of 10, but – damn! – it must be a heavy chore being Arianna’s Gofer. You’re much better than that.