TV | May 21, 2022 2:16 pm

Bill Maher and Guests Debated Baby Formula and Midterm Elections on a New “Real Time”

Given the list of guests, it wasn’t as contentious as you might think

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the latest "Real Time."
HBO

Friday’s Real Time With Bill Maher opened with another instance of reality outpacing satire. In this case, it was House Republicans voting against a bill to address baby formula shortages across the country. “Nourishing babies is a slippery slope to kids watching Disney movies,” Maher quipped. Throw in a monkeypox outbreak and Congressional UFO hearings and you have a moment in time when it’s sufficient for a comedian to just state what’s happening; the absurdity is already present.

This week’s primaries offered Maher more tangible material, which led to Maher noting that Madison Cawthorn’s successful primary challenger had a notable slogan for his campaign: “Google ‘Madison Cawthorn.’” 

Maher’s first guest was former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, there to discuss his new memoir of his time in the Trump administration. “You had the honor of being fired by tweet,” Maher recalled. Conversation quickly turned to speculation about what role the military might have in the aftermath of a contested 2024 election.

Conversation turned from there to the legacy of the late Colin Powell, and Esper shared some advice Powell had given him during his time at the Defense Department. Maher asked Esper about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, and whether Esper felt that there were any connections between that and the current war taking place between Russia and Ukraine. “I don’t think it made a material difference,” Esper said.

Maher returned to one of his running themes this year — which is to say that defense budgets are too high. Esper conceded that, yes, there were things that are bloated about the budgets in question. Maher then pointed out that Esper had also worked for Raytheon, and wondered if the ability of people to move between the defense industry and the government wasn’t part of the problem. Esper argued that it had made him a better Secretary of Defense.

The discussion ended on a contentious note, with Maher pressing Esper on who he planned to vote for in 2024 and Esper hedging his bets, noting that he hoped to be able to vote for “a Reagan Republican” but recognized that one was unlikely to be on the ballot.

The evening’s panel seemed primed for more heated debate, with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile opposite talk radio host Adam Carolla, whose politics have gone rightward over the years. Overall, though, the two proved more affable than not. Here, the tensions came up in the areas of debate rather than the debate itself. Maher brought up the ongoing state primaries, and the increasingly extreme positions taken by many Republican candidates. 

Later, Maher brought up Elon Musk’s recent Tweet about shifting his voting habits from Democrats to Republicans. “I can’t go there with him,” Maher said. But he expressed alarm that this was up for debate. “The fact that he can be taken over by the Republicans — what does that say about the Democrats?” Maher said. Brazile countered that Musk’s ideological shift didn’t represent a trend; for his part, Maher wasn’t so sure.

The second half of the panel shifted focus to Joe Biden’s use of the phrase “ultra MAGA,” and whether or not it was effective. Carolla posited that Democrats were starting to use language in a similar manner to Donald Trump, while Maher was more critical of the phrasing, pointing out that it seemed ineffectual.

Esper joined the panelists for Overtime, which opened with a long discussion of the 2024 election and whether or not Joe Biden would run for re-election. Brazile felt that he would; Carolla was holding out hope for a Michelle Obama run. The second half of the segment focused on the Pennsylvania Senatorial election, with Brazile making the case for John Fetterman and Esper arguing for the merits of David McCormick.

Maher opened New Rules with riffs on the mile high club and iPhone covers that look like VHS tapes. The bulk of the segment found him focusing on the increasing percentage of LGBTQ+ identification by generation. He spoke about the importance of “respecting and protecting,” but also defended his right to “ask questions.”

It’s here that things got a little more muddled, to put it diplomatically. Maher raised questions about the wisdom of prescribing puberty blockers to minors — but conflated that with the backlash to a recent book by Abigail Shrier, though the two issues don’t entirely line up. 

“If this spike in trans children is all natural, why is it regional?” Maher asked. “Either Ohio is shaming them or California is creating them.” It’s frustrating, though, that Maher focused, in broad strokes, on the segment on the latter without considering the former. He did qualify his position several times. “I understand being trans is different; it’s innate,” Maher said. But it also felt like he was trying to tackle a complex argument with the broadest of strokes; as with several New Rules segments, it felt like a subject better suited for discussion than monologue.