Wellllll it’s been a bit of a weekend, hasn’t it. The quick recap, if you need it: last Friday night, the featured guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher was Milo Yiannopoulos, the loathsome shit-sandwich who’s made such a practice of hate speech, targeted harassment, transphobia, and racism, investigative journalist and frequent Real Time guest Jeremy Scahill declined to participate in the evening’s panel. But Maher defended the booking, insisting, “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night,” though his one-on-one with Yiannopoulos exposed little more than Maher’s chumminess with two-bit “provocateurs.”
It fell to panelist Larry Wilmore to call Milo on his bullshit, and that was basically the show’s takeaway – until the brightened spotlight brought out old interviews of Yiannopoulos seeming to endorse pederasty. Come to find out, conservatives have a line, and “there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age” apparently crosses it! And then the dominoes fell: his invitation to give the keynote speech at the conservative circle-jerk CPAC was rescinded (a particularly delicious twist, considering its attendees’ non-stop tsk-tsking of the “free speech” implications of cancelling or protesting Yiannopoulos’s campus speaking engagements), and his already-controversial forthcoming book Dangerous was cancelled by Simon & Schuster.
There’s a lot to extrapolate from L’Affair Yiannopoulos, and it will be unpacked, here and elsewhere. But let’s not ignore the secondary takeaway here, which is to never forget that Bill Maher is fucking garbage.
It’s easy for the casual observer to think otherwise, based on his CV and profile; he has, after all, hosted shows on three networks over 24 year that have attracted an enviable array of writers, thinkers, entertainers, and politicos. And yet, over the course of that lengthy run, he’s shown an unflagging dedication to not only sparking conversations from guests of all political stripes (which is good!), but using those panels to signal-boost “commentators” whose bread and butter is outright hate and ignorance, like Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, the late Andrew Breitbart, and now Yiannopoulos.
If we’ve seen any evolution over the course of Maher’s television tenure, it’s the degree to which he has himself taken on the smug intolerance of such dubious figures. (There’s not a lot of road separating Maher and Coulter on the topic of Islam, for example.) And as he’s become more of a preening know-it-all, his conversations with the worst of the fringe right have become increasingly troubling searches for common ground. For all his talk of opportunities to “expose” Yiannopoulos on Friday’s real time, he approached the Brietbart commentator, in their one-on-one and in the panel discussion after, less like an interviewer and more like a full-service masseuse.
Sure, Maher told Yiannopoulos, “You’re very wrong about certain things” and warned him, “You should get off the Trump Train.” But the bulk of their conversation was a mutual-admiration society, united by their shared distaste for the greatest of all villains, THE P.C. LEFT, whose limitless power these days is flexed in, um, none of the three branches of our government, hmmm. With the slightest bit of research, Maher could have challenged his guest on the performative fraudulence of his current persona (as Upworthy’s Parker Molloy reminded us this weekend, this was a writer who once warned readers that “vile abuse must be stamped out online,” and insisted that “existing hate speech laws are inadequate for the social media era,” before realizing there was more coin in appealing to the base instincts of the worst among us). Instead, he spent time drawing a laughably false equivalence from political commentator Yiannopoulos and professional insult comic Joan Rivers. Cool comparison, Bill! Step into my office, because you’re fucking fired.
Even worse, in the show’s Internet-only “Overtime” segment, Maher not only failed to challenge Yiannopoulos’s skin-crawling transphobia — he basically backed him up on it. When his guest claimed his habit of misgendering and doxxing trans people was borne out of a belief that “women and girls should be protected from having men who are confused about their sexual identities in their bathroom,” Maher shrugged, “That’s not unreasonable.” A+ GOOD JOB, MR. INTERVIEWER. (There is also, in that moment, a telling slip-up, as Yiannopoulos begins to say “Women and children” and corrects himself. We subsequently learned that Mr. Yiannopoulos isn’t all that worried about what young boys are exposed to.) Taking the cue from his sack of rancid dogshit guest, Maher then puts the question to his panel: “Where do you stand on weirdos peeing?” HAHAHAHA OH ALL THE LOLZ.
But being an asshole is one thing — deliberately allowing the spread of misinformation is another. When Yiannopoulos makes the assertion that trans people are “disproportionately involved in those kinds of crimes,” Maher is left sputtering and looking at his cards, unarmed with the facts of the matter: that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes, as the victims of them. Yiannopoulos used the phrase “involved in” twice in a row, a deliberate wording choice made to obscure victimhood behind scare language and bullshit. Did Maher call him on it? Of course he fucking didn’t, are you kidding me? Only Larry Wilmore objected to this “controversial statistic,” and proceeded, over the course of the quickly-viral segment, do to what Maher should have been doing the entire time: telling Milo Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself.
Any reasonable person watching that interaction couldn’t be blamed for wondering why Bill Maher has had a show on the air for nearly a quarter-century, while Larry Wilmore’s was cancelled after a year and a half; Maher looks ignorant, helpless, and toothless. (It’s also the second week in a row when one of Maher’s panelists has had to do the work of shutting down a schmuck guest for him.) But the entire exchange underscores why Yiannopoulos wasn’t worthy of the spotlight provided by Real Time to begin with. This wasn’t some semi-sensible conservative like Nicolle Wallace or Ana Navarro contributing an altering viewpoint to a political discussion; this was a dangerous liar, using the amplification of a national television broadcast to share a falsehood that could get vulnerable citizens hurt or killed. And Bill Maher chuckled, and called them “weirdos.”
Because he wasn’t there to hold Milo accountable; he was there to rally with him around a common cause. “STOP TAKING THE BAIT, LIBERALS,” he insisted, in their hard-hitting interview. “The fact that they all freaked out about this simple impish British fag — you fucking schoolgirls.” Fag! Schoolgirls! So boomer-straight-white-male edgy! But that’s how this simpleton sees the world, and he eagerly posted the “stop taking the bait” line to Twitter after the show aired. And that was all he had to say for nearly 48 hours, as his new boy toy’s world crumbled around him. At no point did Maher use his platform, and the 6.49 million followers it provides him, to comment on the new revelations about Yiannopoulos, or to clarify the falsehoods he let slide on-air. Instead, last night, he tweeted this:
In a way, this three-day-old joke that would’ve gotten any respectable comedy writer fired from Jay Leno’s staff was the perfect response, because it exposes Maher for who he is. He’s not an intellectual, nor a provocateur, nor a participant in the issues that are so pressing in our culture at this moment. He’s a comedian – and a shitty, hack comedian at that, with nothing valuable to say. And yet, somehow, he has a weekly television podium from which to shout it.