Ezra Klein and Megyn Kelly Joined Bill Maher for This Week’s “Real Time”

As well as Montana Senator Jon Tester

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the February 16, 2021 episode of "Real Time."

Real Time With Bill Maher is a show that can bring together guests from across the political spectrum the way few others can. At its best, this can lead to genuinely interesting policy discussions along with the opportunity to see politicians and journalists interact in unexpected ways. When an episode doesn’t click, though, it can be especially frustrating — and last night’s episode offered a number of missed opportunities. 

Maher’s opening monologue covered the topics you’d expect after a week off — the death of Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Cuomo’s multiple scandals and Ted Cruz’s ill-conceived trip to Cancun — though it felt a little perfunctory. Maher picked up some steam as he began to discuss the Conservative Political Action Conference happening this weekend, imagining a massive banner reading “WELCOME REALITY DENIERS” on Main Street.

At one point, Maher spoke beside an image of the gold-plated statue of Donald Trump that’s been on display at CPAC. It made for a surreal visual, but it also illustrated a familiar trouble with political satire right now: sometimes reality is far stranger than any attempts to comment upon it. 

Maher’s first guest for the night was journalist and podcast host Megyn Kelly. After a short and strange exchange about The Munsters, the conversation proper began with a question from Maher on Kelly’s time at Fox News. Maher asked Kelly if she could work there today, given the network’s rightward drift. Kelly agreed that some of the network’s personalities had become more conservative in recent years, but felt that others — Lou Dobbs was specifically named — had been more consistent.

The conversation shifted directions to Kelly’s decision, late last year, to pull her children out of the private schools that they attended over political concerns. Both Maher and Kelly argued that schools are doing more harm than good in the way they’re addressing institutional racism and other subjects — but the fact that both agreed on nearly everything they discussed made for a conversation that had little in the way of dynamics or momentum. And the way that the segment featured two wealthy white people discussing the best way to address race and racism in America felt more than a little tone-deaf.

For the evening’s panel, Maher was joined by Senator Jon Tester, author of Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America and Ezra Klein, author of Why We’re Polarized. (For those keeping track at home, Maher’s “Days Waiting for Solar” sign made an appearance; it’s now at 1,103.) States came up for discussion first: Tester hails from Montana, while Klein recently wrote about the difficulties California has had implementing progressive policies. 

Is California over-regulated? That was the argument Maher made, which included him citing James Van Der Beek’s explanation for his family’s recent move to Texas. Maher repeatedly invoked the idea of Californians relocating to Texas, while also acknowledging that Texas’s government had not responded well to their own crisis earlier this month. “I don’t know what my question is,” Maher said. “Where would you rather live? Which is worse?”

From there, the conversation turned more broadly to Texas’s politics — including the question of whether or not Ted Cruz’s Cancun trip would adversely affect his political career. Tester shared his thoughts on the way the Democratic Party engages in messaging, and the lack of a sizable infrastructure bill in recent years.

Klein ran with that line of discussion, pointing out that the existence of the filibuster in the Senate has prevented the passage of certain legislation that has wide public support. “It isn’t enough to want government to do good things,” Klein said. “You have to rebuild government so it can do good things.” Unsurprisingly, the panel featured the night’s most compelling television, as both Klein and Maher got to raise their frustrations with the Senate with an actual member of the Senate.

The second half of the panel began with discussion of the pandemic, and a question about it that’s grown in prominence lately: is it okay to start to feeling some ? Klein stated that the country could be in a much better place in 60 to 100 days, though both he and Tester also cited the need for caution moving forward. 

Maher’s comments on air travel during the pandemic led the panelists back around to another facet of infrastructure spending — as well as to questions of defense spending and cybersecurity. The current state of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump’s upcoming CPAC appearance, rounded out the panel — which concluded with Klein invoking the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.

The night’s New Rules opened with a mixed bag of jokes, the highlight of which was probably Maher’s suggestion that the blue-furred dogs found in Russia become the new “it” designer dog breed. The bulk of the segment focused on Maher inveighing against “cancel culture” — touching on subjects from The Bachelor to Abraham Lincoln along the way. Here, the argument sounded similar to ones Maher has made in other episodes lately. The episode did have some genuinely interesting moments — Tester, Klein and Maher debating defense spending and American militarism comes to mind — but stretches of this one felt flat. Will the return of Trump to a public event spark a more engaged tone next episode? For that, you’ll have to tune in next week. 

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