MAHER’S SUCCESS: POKING FUN AT OWN POLITICAL SIDE
Bill Maher can be the leftists’ most outspoken champion and their harshest critic — sometimes in the same breath.
Fellow comedians say that gives his voice more gravitas in these increasingly tribal times. It might even earn Mr. Maher some begrudging admirers on the right.
In recent months on his HBO talk show, “Real Time,” he has defended Amy Schumer against the “professionally offended” for saying her comedic film “I Feel Pretty” trafficked in “fat shaming.”
Mr. Maher also blasted liberals for chasing Republican lawmakers out of public places, referencing how diners tormented Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and his wife during a restaurant outing.
He even invited conservative firebrand Steve Bannon to be a guest on his show. Progressives consider the political operative to be so toxic that he was uninvited from The New Yorker’s fall festival.
Mr. Maher will never be confused with right-leaning comic Dennis Miller, whose razor-sharp retorts and rants typically target Democrats. He is willing to call out cultural offenses wherever he spots them — left or right.
Right-leaning comedian Tim Young says Mr. Maher’s audience is more likely to pay attention to his political punchlines when he occasionally smites his own side.
“When you have someone purely left or purely right, it becomes white noise,” Mr. Young said. “With [Mr. Maher], you never know what to expect.”
Mr. Young, whose new book is titled “I Hate the Democrats / I Hate the Republicans,” often mocks the right in line with Mr. Maher’s approach. It earns him blowback from conservatives, though.
Left-leaning comic Robert Baril said Mr. Maher’s opinions could hold sway over Democrats thanks to his comedic honesty.
“If they’re going to listen to anybody, it’ll be a fellow liberal,” said Mr. Baril, whose recent comedy album is dubbed “Sex and Politics.”
Mr. Baril compares the HBO host to Jon Stewart, who reigned on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from 1999 to 2015.
“[Mr. Stewart] was also left of center, politically. He used politicians’ words against them,” said Mr. Baril, adding that his own conservative father has watched Mr. Maher for years without necessarily agreeing with his stances.
Some liberal comics may resist Mr. Maher’s approach, Mr. Baril said, because they don’t want to “ruffle feathers” while Republicans control the White House and Congress.
“What Maher’s doing is really important. It’s also how you grow as a party and a group. … Without that, you’re not going to evolve,” he said.
Mr. Maher still devotes most of his airtime to smiting Republicans, sometimes in a demeaning fashion. Witness his suggestion that Ivanka Trump cozy up to her father in order to pass more moderate legislation.
Progressive comic Guy Branum applauds Mr. Maher for daring to reconsider progressive talking points.
“I think people being willing to scrutinize themselves and scrutinize their own political party is valuable,” said Mr. Branum, a writer for shows such as E!’s “Chelsea Lately” and “The Mindy Project.”
Mr. Branum suggests that some of Mr. Maher’s stances reflect his self-involvement over pragmatic revelations.
“In recent months, he’s loved to whine that #MeToo has gone too far. … His buddies are getting affected. He’s said nothing about the women who were affected,” Mr. Branum said. “Most of the time you see Bill Maher being critical of something that’s conventionally leftist, it’s something he doesn’t care about.”
Mr. Branum said a better example of a liberal comic reaching across the political aisle is Sarah Silverman in her Hulu series “I Love You, America.”
Boris Epshteyn, chief political analyst for Sinclair Broadcast Group, has appeared twice on Mr. Maher’s “Real Time” show. They don’t see eye to eye politically, but Mr. Epshteyn said the host’s willingness to engage the other side isn’t lost on fellow conservatives.
“In a world where we consistently see conservative viewpoints censored, even disinvited from public debates, Bill sees the importance of engaging with those from all sides of the political aisle,” Mr. Epshteyn said.