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What person smokes a ton of marijuana, loves animals but doesn’t like kids, digs girls and sex but never wants to get married, rejoices in using dirty words, hates fat people, likes the beach, and enjoys shocking us with wisecracks about religion and hillbillies? It’s probably a teenage boy. But what if that person is an engaging, well-read 57-year old man? Then it’s probably Bill Maher.
For the record, I agree with about 98-percent of the political opinions Maher regularly presents on his HBO television show, Real Time With Bill Maher, a program I never fail to watch. The man can be both hilariously funny and dead-on brilliant. And he’s got courage; he’ll make comments that other performers, even daring ones, wouldn’t dream of making. But there are three things about him that drive me up the wall.
First, because he’s a professional comedian, he’s constantly trolling for laughs, no matter what the context. Even when he’s conducting a one-on-one interview with a serious guest about a sobering topic, he can’t help himself; he feels compelled to interject joke after joke. You want to scream, “For crying out loud, Bill, let your guest talk!”
Second, he’s too needy. He’s an applause hound. The man will come to a complete, screeching stop in the middle of his monologue if even one audience member—some guy in Row 19—is clapping his hands. At moments like these you wish Maher were more like Jimmy Kimmel, who knows how to keep it going. You want to scream, “Bill, please continue talking!”
And third, Maher is more or less “anti-union,” which is profoundly disappointing. While he can be depended upon to plug all the usual left-liberal causes (gays, ethnic minorities, women, anti-war, anti-empire, pro-environment, anti-corporate, anti-gun, pro-choice, et al), you never hear him offer any support (much less praise) for the American labor movement. You want to scream, “Bill, what the fuck?”
It’s hard to tell if Maher’s anti-unionism is the product of ignorance or inattentiveness, or, more pointedly, is the result of some personal prejudice or vendetta. There is no shortage of irony here, because Maher himself is a union member. Maybe his dad disliked unions, and he is merely honoring a family tradition. Maybe he has a lingering beef with his own union. Maybe he’s confusing today’s democratically-run Teamsters with the mobbed-up Teamies of the 1950s. Who knows?
A couple years ago, Maher railed against the California school teachers’ union, accusing them of refusing to “allow” administrators to fire substandard teachers. That was his bold claim: That the big, bad union wouldn’t “allow” schools to fire unqualified teachers (Really? The employees can tell the bosses what to do??). He went so far as to blame the teachers’ union for many of the flaws in California’s educational system.
Although I wrote HBO a letter, meticulously pointing out (with irrefutable statistics) that school teachers across the country—both union and non-union—get fired at about the same (low) rate, I never received a reply.
Again, I’m a Bill Maher fan. I enjoy him. He makes me laugh. In fact, I’ve actually learned some interesting things by watching his program. I only wish he would end one of his shows with a salute to organized labor, acknowledging it as the only American institution dedicated solely to the welfare of working men and women.
C’mon, Bill, we don’t care how many righteous hits off that bhang it’s going to take, but you definitely need to chill out, get your head straight, get your shit together, and say something nice about the AFL-CIO.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union president. firstname.lastname@example.org