Bill Maher is one of those entertainment figures who seems able to sidestep any controversy. His random drop of the n-word last year interviewing Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse, for instance, would have sunk anyone else (and had Maher’s Real Time been on network tv or basic cable as opposed to premium HBO sponsors probably would have), but he managed to escape it with a heartfelt apology and having black guests, including the legendary rapper Ice Cube, scold and educate him during an hour long show and an unspoken absolving seemed to engulf the stage. Maher has mastered being our pot-smoking, truth-speaking slick Cool Uncle, or so it appears. He skirts over controversies while thumbing his eyes at both sides of the aisles as he brings fire down on Republicans or punches left against SJWs.
Shortly after his show’s sixteenth season wrapped up Maher wrote a brief blog post entitled Adulting about Stan Lee’s death. It was less about Lee as much as about how comic books and those who read them are stupid and how taking them seriously is proof of American culture in decline.
The statement caused massive backlash. As of writing this the blog post has just under 1,500 comments, some less than a day old. He clarified his statement to Larry King, making sure it was understood that he wasn’t bashing Lee as a person, and got his revenge of sorts in the second episode of the current season with his New Rules segment that ends each show with Maher’s message of the week to the audience. It was, again, to make sure people understood the post didn’t slight Lee, but the culture around superheroes and the crazy reaction to his post proved his point. At least, that’s what he wanted to convey, I’m pretty sure. It really just crapped on comic books and those that read them.
I could prattle off a dozen well written and respected comic books, or how making a statement like “I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important,” is pretty dumb considering one of the most prestigious comic book awards are held in France where they managed to strive off their proto-fascist (for now) in their last major election, or how comics are part of everyday life for all ages in Japan where their leader is brilliant and ambitious. But there’s no need to do that since most people reading this will be aware. What Maher is talking about is superheroes, but it’s his conflation of superheroes and comic books where the problems start to show.
I tend to have mixed feelings about his weekly show, Real Time with Bill Maher. On one hand, I enjoy the format. Bill gets great guests for his panel discussions, and regardless of what I’m about to say he tends to be dead on with a lot of things, mainly climate change and the alarming lack of emergency most people seem to feel around it. I land with him on weed and religion, and about 75% of the time I find myself nodding along with his points.
The other 25% is when things start getting problematic.
Watch Real Time enough and you’ll realize as much as he loves to rail against the GOP, he always takes time to punch left against those who criticism him. For a brief period he took a liking to the right-wing’s cutest dog whistle, Social Justice Warrior. And he loves taking a swing at the favored right-wing punching bag, the mystical Millennial, for being too sensitive, too PC, and too [insert whatever that you don’t like here]. He, like many of the shaken mainstream media after Trump’s election, denounced the left’s focus on “identity politics” and how liberals need to chill with criticizing the “average joe” for racism and focus on…well, you know that drill by now.
Watch even more, you start to see how little Maher knows about these subjects. One of Maher’s favorite topic is taking on the unrest at college campuses that the right frames as attacks on free speech. He’s constantly chastising us Millennials about it. Yet roughly three months ago, he had Jonathan Haidt, a professor and writer, to discuss the book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Cool Uncle Bill expressed surprise that the majority of college students now aren’t Millennials, but Gen Z. For someone who likes to dictate what should happen at college campuses it’s strange you don’t know the age of the average college kid. A more recent example was when he commented on the recent, and longest ever, US government shutdown and how it was eye-opening how so many Americans lived paycheck to paycheck. It’s eye-opening to me that he apparently didn’t know this since the vast and growing income inequality has been well documented for at least two decades. How do you campion the average joe when you didn’t even know how much they’ve been struggling?
It’s similar to how ‘”comic books’” are interchangeable to ‘”superheroes’” shows Maher out of touch. Granted, superheroes are still important sellers in the comics industry, but the largest selling comics are from Japan and they don’t mess with superheroes much. Even in America many non-superhero comics have climbed the charts in the recent decade. The medium has long been more than capes and superpowers. It’s akin to classifying books as the James Pattersons.
It’s strange, isn’t it? Of course people are complicated creatures, but it’s amazing how someone can be so right on many issues like climate change, weed legalization and the deterioration of the GOP, but be so incredibly out of touch on other issues like civil rights, college unrest or…well, culture in general. There are times when Maher stops being our Cool Uncle and starts sounding like another stereotype, The Racist Uncle, who revels in disrupting the space around him by saying shocking things and then decrying any pushback as “PC” culture gone mad. He jumps back and forth so much, it feels like it must be by design. Maybe I’m just being played here.
But then I watched his recent comedy special, and it came together.
In it there’s a joke about anal sex, of all things, that stuck out to me. Near the end of the special he muses about the ‘”strange’” sexual habits of younger people, and how he could never imagine asking someone to have sex in the butt, because that’s ‘”where poop comes from.” Of course, it’s a joke, and I’m in no way saying that Bill is completely serious in his mystification. But like all good jokes it’s one you can tell is based on some reality, some bafflement he feels at this strange world he doesn’t quite understand of people actually wanting to have sex in the butt.
That’s when it hit me that Bill Maher is a 63 year old white man who has spent a large part of his life wealthy.
I know, it’s obvious. Anyone can google that information or gleam it from watching his material. But there’s something jarring for someone like me, who agrees so much with a lot of what he thinks, to realize that so suddenly. But more importantly, it’s jarring to think about it for someone who often likes to preach to us with how little he seems to know about modern society and how its evolved.
The truth isn’t as simple that our Cool Uncle Bill was really our Racist Uncle Bill all along. If it’s one thing we Americans have had to face it’s that the people we thought we knew and understood aren’t really who we once saw them as. It’s something, especially those of us stuck in blood red states, have been smashing again from 2016 and onward. It’s that there’s much more overlap with our Cool and Racist Uncles than we ever realized, or wanted to believe.
The truth is, despite how this article seems, I like Bill Maher even with his problematic behaviors and his cluelessness about my generation and how much the world changed in thirty years. He’s dead-on about a lot of important stuff even if he’s dead wrong about others. How do you reconcile these two things?
The truth is I don’t know. I haven’t found the answer with my own family, much less the figures in art and entertainment that cause the same whiplash. The sad reality is that we may be heading for a period when these two things can no longer be reconcilable as life becomes more polarized and less private, that fragile wall between celebrity and real life crumbling more and more. So I have no real solution right now for how to deal with those like Maher and the other entertainers who are so right and so wrong at the same time.
But if I could have a sit down with him at this moment I would probably start by gently putting my hand on his shoulder and saying, “Uncle Bill, I think we need to talk about what a comic book actually is.”
We’ll start there, and I can teach him that. It’ll be up to someone else to explain the butt stuff, though.