Finally breaking free from the ad-mad world he always hated, Bill Maher has brought his attitude to HBO … and it’s a good fit. Angry and sarcastic all over again — and finally able to use profanity — the former “Politically Incorrect” ringleader still has the government on his mind and now gets an extra half-hour to spout. Tucked away on late Friday nights, show benefits greatly from being a once-a-week endeavor rather than a daily undertaking but could do better with its panelists.
As opinionated as he is (and boy, is he), Maher is still a comfortable presence; as a host, he’s smooth and polished, without stumbles and without many “down” moments. The biggest drawback is his feisty personality; he doesn’t particularly care for people who don’t agree with him, and, let’s be honest, why should we listen to a comic when it comes to international relations?
But Maher has a way about him; he’s a natural for a talker that breaks down current events. In this case, that would be war, and his first outings have been all Iraq all the time. Like a “Nightline” for standups, Maher blends patriotic debates with comedians and the literati, and, for the most part, it’s a mix that doesn’t appear anywhere else. For as much as David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien poke and prod the Bush administration, their significance always changes when an A-list star comes on to hock a movie.
Via a quickfire opening dialogue, interviews, panel discussions and a feature segment, Maher covers the D.C. landscape. Debut episodes — “Real Time” bowed on Feb. 21 — have featured, among others, Dave Matthews, Larry Miller, Ann Coulter, D.L. Hughley, Eric Idle, Sarah Silverman and pop-ins from fellow HBOers Chris Rock and Larry David. To be expected, when the leftists speak about peace, Maher and the audience are roused; when it’s the conservatives’ respective turn, everybody acts like they’ve just shot a puppy.
In addition to “Real Time’s” blatant one-sidedness, there are some things that need some work. Gapped-tooth Paul Tompkins has a lengthy bit every week (usually pegged to the terror situation), and it just isn’t very funny. Smarmy and self-righteous, Tompkins doesn’t connect with the audience, nor do his barbs have any user-friendly elements, the kind that make “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update so popular. And are Hughley, Miller and Coulter the most important voices he can find?
But as for the overall approach, it’s hard to nick any latenighter that actually tries to say something and doesn’t have a sidekick or a bandleader. From the Twin Tower reconstruction efforts to duct tape mania to his ceremonial kick in the ass after ABC dumped him, Maher alone is ready to take on the universe, and that’s a gutsier fight than most.
Show is taped on the CBS lot.