Bill Maher Pushes Limits By Stretching ‘Real Time’ To Political Conventions

Bill Maher Political Commentator
Art Streiber/August

Bill Maher grew up with news headlines ringing in his ears. His father was in radio news, and the events of the day made for natural conversation in his house. “I was born into a family of people who talked about the news,” he said. Other talk-show hosts “are not looking to talk about Brexit and its implications, but it’s second nature to me.”

Maher will have a lot to chat about over the next few weeks. He will keep doing his hour-long “Real Time” show on Friday nights on HBO in the weeks ahead, but as the Republican and Democratic conventions break out and occupy the national interest, Maher and his team will do the same, offering live half-hour shows that examine the Republican event on July 20 and 21 and the Democratic confab on July 27 and 28. That means news aficionados can opt for Maher and his often-lacerating analysis of the political landscape (this is a host who has challenged politicians and poked behind headlines in various shows since 1993) rather than tuning to the usual post-show breakdowns on the cable-news networks.

“I think people are going to be watching in record numbers, and afterwards, they are going to hopefully be people who want something a little more than the usual gang at CNN or MSNBC or Fox News,” Maher said Tuesday in an interview. “We’ll be there live,” holding forth from a theater in Los Angeles – with an audience.

His move is one among several by TV’s late-night hosts into the convention field, and speaks to the rise of viewers flocking to something other than the usual routine of anchors and talking heads for their information fix. Seth Meyers intends to go live to cover the end of the Republican convention on NBC’s “Late Night.” Stephen Colbert will do live broadcasts of CBS’ “Late Show” and offer instant reaction to those political goings-on. Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” is sending Trevor Noah and crew to both events, so they will be on the ground as things happen. With that in mind, is there really anything separating Bill Maher from CNN’s Don Lemon or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, except for a few well-placed jokes and a willingness to readily challenge TV standards?

HBO sees enough possibility in what Maher is doing to make it available for free. The Time Warner-owned pay-cable service intends to live stream Maher’s convention shows on YouTube – no small decision in an era when the network is competing more directly with subscription-video outlets like Amazon and Netflix. The shows will also be available on Maher’s Facebook page the day after they air. “I’ve been trying to get that to happen for a long time,” said Maher, who regularly holds a short YouTube “after show” to keep things going after the“Real Time” broadcast ends. “I believe that it’s only good for our show when people see it on different platforms.

The decision to do two half-hour programs in a week when he still has his regular “Real Time” duties can’t be made lightly. “Real Time” is more grueling than the usual late-night fare, because Maher does it live, not taped, and without commercials. Each week, he moves through an opening monologue; a one-on-one interview with a newsmaker; a panel discussion; a comedy bit; an interview with a guest star; and then a signature “New Rules” segment along with an ending editorial – all without the benefit of being able to do a second take. He said he typically spends 10 to 12 hours on his closing commentary.

 “I’m sure I’ll need some sleep at the end of the week, but I think it’s worth it,” said Maher. “For us news junkies, this is what we all live for.”

Production logistics aside, Maher said he simply likes to challenge himself. In 2014, he tried a similar gambit. He hosted a live “Real Time” in Washington, D.C., and then scrambled to get to a different venue in the city so he could do a live comedy concert, also broadcast by HBO. Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore donned sports-broadcaster jackets and offered up a stream of patter as cameras showed Maher working his way in a car through the streets of the nation’s capital.

“You kind of have to just do things before you find out that the barrier is up,” said Maher. “Unless you push it, you don’t know if it’s going to go down.”

He has a rich history of envelope-pushing. In 1983, he recalled, he uttered the word “sucks” while performing on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” on NBC. Producers “chewed me out, but they left it in. The world didn’t fall down. It had never been said on TV before, they told me” he said. Audiences had little reaction. “The next day, Johnny was using it because we just found out that this ‘sucks’ emperor had no clothes. It’s interesting in television. You just don’t know until you do it.”

He similarly skirted the line earlier this year when he lit up a joint during his program.  “We were doing an end-piece about marijuana and I just had it in my pocket,” he said. Even his staff wasn’t aware he was about to do it. The FCC made noise about levying a fine, but, said Maher, the issue “went away, because who gives a s—t any more?’ Viewers, he suggested, often move past certain issues before TV networks and executives.

To do the convention shows, Maher will have to revive old muscles. Between 1993 and 2002, he hosted a half-hour late night show called “Politically Incorrect” that aired on both Comedy Central and ABC. These new programs will follow a similar format, featuring a brief monologue, some rapid response to the events of the night, a panel and some of Maher’s trademark “New Rules” at the end. Guests are expected to be people who have thrived with Maher in the past, and might include Salman Rushdie, D.L. Hughley, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and Michael Moore. While he enjoys the luxury of being able to write and re-write for the weekly “Real Time,” the host said his staff is ready to work on tighter deadlines: “I don’t think it will be that difficult for us to go on the fly.”

 Maher doesn’t think he will have trouble finding things to talk about. At the Republican convention, “it will depend whether there’s a challenge to Trump, which I hope there will be” he said. At the Democrats’ event, he will be watching to see how much of former candidate Bernie Sanders’ platform gets adopted by Hillary Clinton.  And then there are the obvious contrasts between the two: “Bernie Sanders is talking about a path to weed legalization. The Republicans are talking about how pornography is a menace to society. They could not be father apart on these issues,” Maher said.

No matter how much Maher and his staff prepare for this next challenge, some things simply lie beyond their control. What do the host and his producers do if the conventions drag on past the 11 p.m. start time for his live appearances? “I don’t think we know yet. I don’t think we are going to interrupt it. We can’t do that,” said Maher. “Hopefully they will have us standing by, but, yes, we are concerned about that and it’s a legitimate query.” Complex logistics have long been part of the game: Bill Maher certainly has a network willing to broadcast him, but he doesn’t always have a net.