TV | October 10, 2020 2:16 pm

Bill Maher Ponders the Election on a Somber “Real Time”

An intense exchange with Keli Goff made for the episode's highlight

Bill Maher
Bill Maher comparing politics to an obscure 1970s Disney movie.

What happens when real-world events effectively lap satire’s ability to make light of them? That was the conundrum that Bill Maher faced when he took to the stage on October 9 to deliver the opening monologue of the latest Real Time With Bill Maher episode. “When Trump gets sick, he goes to Walter Reed,” Maher said. “The average American goes to Duane Reade.” He dutifully proceeded through the week’s other events — a fly in Mike Pence’s hair! The unexpected return of Ken Bone! — to mild laughter from the audience. Which isn’t to say that Maher’s humor was lacking, necessarily; it’s more that the current state of American politics feels surreal enough that satirizing it is nearly impossible.

Maher’s guests for the episode offered an interesting range of ideologies and backgrounds, however. First up? Rep. Adam Schiff, there to speak about his work on the Protecting Our Democracy Act, designed to prevent abuses of executive power in the future. Maher brought up a topic that he’s returned to repeatedly on the show as of late: namely, whether or not there would be a peaceful transfer of power should Joe Biden win the upcoming election. 

From there, Maher raised the question of the Constitution, and whether it was preferable to amend the existing document or seek to create a new one entirely. Schiff made a solid argument for the incrementalist approach, commenting that he wasn’t sure if he trusted some of his conservative colleagues with creating a new document that worked for all Americans. In terms of potential reforms, Schiff did express his frustration with the Electoral College, to applause from the audience.

For the evening’s panel, Maher spoke to The Daily Beast columnist Keli Goff and Bret Stephens of The New York Times. With the election a few weeks away, Maher raised the question of how confident Democrats should be about Joe Biden’s chances. Both panelists offered reminders that things could still take a turn: Stephens invoked moments from the 2016 presidential race, while Goff brought up the sexting scandal currently at play in the North Carolina Senate race. 

Eventually, Maher brought the discussion around to a subject he’s raised before: namely, whether obesity needs to be called out more as a contributing factor in the pandemic. It was here that Goff raised a point in opposition to Maher — and, when he cut her off, got the biggest audience reaction of the night with a devastatingly deployed “Mike Pence, can I finish?” Goff brought up a few important points, including the way that body types and self-images are interwoven, and the way that nutrition and exercise also have a class dimension present. And overall, it made for one of the night’s most bracing moments, as she pushed back against some of Maher’s assumptions about health, class and race.

The episode’s interview was with former CIA Director John O. Brennan, there to discuss his new memoir Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. This segment found Maher pointing out Brennan’s unconventional younger years, which were covered in the memoir — including time spent smoking hash and voting for Communist Party candidates, neither of which is what one might expect from a future CIA director. Here, too, Maher brought up the prospect of post-election chaos; Brennan struck a more optimistic chord — namely, that the “rank and file” within the intelligence community would act on behalf of the country.

Closing out the episode, as always, was Maher’s New Rules segment. This included a March Madness-style graphic featuring the White House coronavirus infections — and a riff on Herman Cain’s death — which prompted halting laughter. “What show did you all think you were coming to?” Maher quipped when the line didn’t land

Maher concluded the segment with a long exploration of the word “self-evident” in the Constitution, arguing that the Trump presidency has represented the moment when the nation had a head of state for whom many previously self-evident things were self-evident no longer. From there, Maher launched into a long riff comparing Trump’s time in office to the obscure Disney movie Gus, about a football team who signs a mule as a kicker

From there, Maher turned this metaphor to the coming election and its aftermath, prompting a take on events that offered a glimpse of Maher at his most earnest and least snarky. Of course, he quickly pivoted from there to a riff on “a German dominatrix who doesn’t understand my safeword.” But the sincere mood prevailed — ending things with an enthusiastic call for viewers in the studio and watching from home to vote. 

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