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Don't Go Away Mad -- Just Go Away

Politically Incorrect went off the air last week, and I can't seem to work up much in the way of a eulogy. Fact of the matter is, I was never much of a fan of the talk show hosted by stand-up comic Bill Maher and featuring a panel of celebrities and talking heads holding forth on everything from the Middle East crisis to Constitutional quandaries. I think it's because I never really subscribed to the three central conceits of the show: (1) that it's fascinating to learn what movie stars and famous folk think about the central issues of the day; (2) that everyone can express an opinion on any subject; and (3) that Bill Maher is a funny fellow whose talents border on -- if not regularly surpass -- genius.

That last point, I realize, is a matter of taste upon which reasonable people may disagree. A healthy segment of the population may think Bill Maher is the bee's knees, which is their cross to bear, I suppose. Myself, I could never shake the feeling whenever I saw Maher hosting his show or performing his stand-up act that the biggest fan of the man's work was right there on camera. And while one man's comedy is another's "Evening with Carrot Top," I like my comedians to have an air of self-deprecation about them, not to act like calling George Bush dim-witted or making fun of fat people is the comedic equivalent of discovering radium.

As for the other two points, the second one is true enough, so long as you add the caveat that just because someone can express an opinion doesn't mean it's particularly interesting or worthy of your consideration, as a quick glance at the Letters to the Editor section of any major metropolitan daily will confirm. And the first point is just patently ridiculous. I'm probably generalizing here, but there's usually a reason someone like Chevy Chase is making "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" instead of crafting foreign policy, and no, it's not because he failed the civil service exam.

The final episode of Politically Incorrect featured a panel consisting of Maher's favorite guests -- columnist Arianna Huffington, babbling nincompoop Ann Coulter, ex-Mamas and Papas singer Michelle Phillips and one of the former members of Kid 'N Play (Kid, I think, though it might have been Play, or very possibly 'N.) Or, as the panelists are more commonly known around the Michaels household, "You Again?," "Put a Sock in It," "Didn't You Choke to Death on a Sandwich?," and "Bwah?" The topic on this final installment appeared to be "Bill Maher -- Brilliant Satirist or Martyred Visionary?" After a free and open exchange of views, the panel agreed that he was both.

Maher, you may recall, landed in hot water last fall when, six days after 2,800 people went to their deaths, said, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Sponsors pulled their ads, the White House made boo-boo-kitty faces, and Maher's remaining time at ABC looked to be about as lengthy as the lines at EuroDisney. Sure enough, in May, ABC pulled the plug on Politically Incorrect -- doubtlessly because those craven suits at Disney just can't stand a truth-teller.

That was the conclusion of Maher and his amen-chorus during the final Politically Incorrect, anyhow, and who am I to tell them differently, especially when no less a political authority than Barbra Streisand writes in to praise Maher for "empowering" the country. We should simply be thankful she didn't appear on the last broadcast to sing "Evergreen." And I'm certainly not going to contradict West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin who wrote a letter calling Maher's show the "victim of the dumbest brand of domestic terrorism," though I would like to point out to any young people reading us today that the effects of hallucinogens on the human brain are apparently lasting and devastating.

No, I don't want to rain on Maher's self-important parade off into the sunset any more than I want to deprive him of the free-speech martyrdom he's worked so hard to insist that he's obtained. But, since Maher left the airwaves last week by crowing that his audience "appreciates thinking outside the box -- really thinking outside the box, not just talking about it... who don't subscribe to groupthink, who don't care what crosses the line, what is not appropriate," then perhaps I will offer just one tiny, little counterpoint to the mass opinion that our television landscape is the poorer for the combined absences of Politically Incorrect and Bill Maher.

Maybe Politically Incorrect is off the air not so much because of Maher's September 11-related comments -- which, really, were more tactless and clumsily ham-handed than unpatriotic and daringly blunt -- but because his show had become a tedious bore. Maybe the show had fallen off badly since its early days on Comedy Central, booking guests with increasingly less star power and increasingly greater shrillness, exceeded only by the host's own descent into strident pomposity. Maybe "Politically Incorrect" had squandered its early promise of offering something other than another late-night talk show where the guests were on hand just to shill their latest project by becoming exactly that -- only instead of promoting "Mr. Deeds" or "Juwanna Man" or their upcoming "Circus of the Stars" appearance, they were there to pimp the same old party line or tired ideology or the latest copy of their mimeographed newsletter. I'm not really sure which is worse.

And maybe instead of patting himself on the back for mouthing a few risqué one-liners that briefly scandalized a handful of bluenoses, Maher should be kicking himself in the ass for wasting such a prime opportunity.


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