TV | March 6, 2021 11:11 am

Bill Maher Ponders Food Deserts, Neanderthals and Andrew Cuomo on a New “Real Time”

Charlamagne Tha God and Frank Bruni made for a lively panel discussion

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the March 5 episode of "Real Time."

What’s the most challenging part of a political talk show? Sometimes it’s finding the right balance of guests — one where the agreements and disagreements are interesting and informative, without descending into chaos or devolving into ten minutes of patting one another on the back. Last week’s episode of Real Time With Bill Maher showed the formula not quite clicking; this week’s program, by contrast, hummed along far better. 

“Delayed laughter’s fine, just as long as there’s laughter.” That was Maher’s response after the punchline to a joke inspired by this week’s news about several Dr. Seuss books took a few seconds longer than expected to land. From there, he pivoted to a bit about the controversy surrounding Mr. Potato Head, and threw in a riff on Joe Biden’s fondness for the word “malarkey” for good measure. 

In this case, the jokes were increasingly less about current events and more about reality growing stranger at a rate too fast for Maher to keep up. That came up with Mr. Potato Head, and it came up again when Maher alluded to Senator Marsha Blackburn defending the good name of Neanderthals

His monologue grew sharper when he addressed the recent accusations of sexual harassment directed at Andrew Cuomo. “How can any politician of his stature be so f*cking stupid?” Maher asked — and then proceeded to soundly skewer Cuomo for several minutes. It was a textbook case of comedic punching up, and it worked far better than Maher’s occasional tirades against “cancel culture” this season. And there was a Chico Marx reference to boot. 

The episode’s first guest was MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, author of the recent book Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization. Scarborough mentioned that the two had a long history of on-air interviews. Maher agreed, but pointed out that it had been a while since their last interview. “The last time we talked,” Maher said, “you were a Republican.” That, in turn, prompted Maher’s first line of questioning: was Scarborough an independent now because he thought the Republican Party couldn’t be saved?

“I used to get attacked by liberals because I’m a conservative,” Scarborough said. “Now I’m getting attacked by people who voted for a fascist because I’m a conservative.” 

Scarborough spoke candidly about members of his family who voted for Trump, and about his bafflement regarding focus groups who have spoken about their fondness for Trump’s position on various political issues. Maher returned to a theme he’d brought up in previous episodes: the importance of a “loyal opposition” party. To illustrate the change in the Republican Party over the years, Maher brought up the congressional district Scarborough once represented — which is now the district of the far more conservative Matt Gaetz. 

The night’s panel offered an interesting duo: Frank Bruni of The New York Times and radio host and author Charlamagne Tha God. Up for discussion first: money. Specifically, the COVID-19 relief plan currently being debated in the Senate, and whether or not larger stimulus checks should be going to hourly workers. Did either of his guests want to defend the Democrats on that? “No,” Charlamagne replied.

From there, the trio discussed the importance of raising the minimum wage, with Maher arguing that it was an existential matter for the Democratic Party, and Charlamagne discussing the ability of a higher minimum wage to bring countless people out of poverty. Charlamagne also brought up the amount of money the government has spent to date on the F-35, which has been repeatedly criticized for its waste.

Charlamagne then made an impassioned case for reparations. “You can’t write a check to a ghost,” Maher said. “Why not?” Charlamagne replied, and brought up the fact that many of his ancestors were enslaved.

“Let me ask you a question,” Charlamagne said to Maher. “How do you right the wrong of slavery?” Maher and Bruni argued in favor of more government investment, with Bruni pointing out that reparations doesn’t necessarily poll well. Charlamagne didn’t discount the idea of investment in education and institutions, but held fast to his position — and it seemed notable that he drew the most vigorous applause from the audience. 

In the second half of the panel, after some discussion of Andrew Cuomo’s actions and his political future, the subject turned to obesity and its relationship to the pandemic. As he’s done in the past, Maher asked why it’s not being discussed more. Bruni, who has written extensively about his own relationship to eating and weight, pushed back somewhat, noting that Maher was raising a genuine issue but also expressing concern that people who are overweight aren’t demonized. Charlamagne also raised a good point — that this country doesn’t exactly promote healthy living. 

It was here that Charlamagne cited the prevalence of food deserts,  something he and Maher agreed was a serious problem that needed to be addressed. And Bruni noted that healthy eating was more emphasized under the Obama administration than under Trump — and that national leadership does play a part here.

For this week’s “New Rules,” Maher took on everything from goat theft to whether rideshare companies should get into the ambulance business. The bulk of the segment focused on whether raising awareness — i.e. “This month is National [something] Awareness Month” — has gone far beyond the point of saturation. 
Maher had a particular field day with Salt Awareness Week, envisioning what someone unaware of salt might think. (“Why do restaurants always put the cocaine right next to the pepper?”) More troublingly, he said, was the way that awareness campaigns didn’t necessarily take steps to address the things they raised awareness of. “This is to activism what putting a flag on your car is to patriotism,” Maher said. It was an unexpected note on which to close the episode — though it seems very likely to a subject Maher might return to in the future.

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