Bill Maher and Dr. Phil Sparred on This Week’s “Real Time”

Maher reckoned with a fairly bleak news week

March 2, 2024 1:35 pm
Bill Maher
Bill Maher's latest episode made the best of a grim news week.

Something interesting has been happening since Real Time With Bill Maher returned after the writers’ strike last fall. Many of the guests have still been people who are broadly simpatico with Maher — whether in terms of their love of comedy and its history or their presence in the “anti-woke” camp. Maher has clearly found an ideological space to explore and an audience who’s along for the ride.

Where things have gotten interesting is when certain guests have stopped by and tried to lean in to the anti-woke vibes. Last fall, that involved several politicians; it didn’t always go as well as they’d hoped. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis showed up making a play for Maher’s audience; instead, he got a much tougher line of questioning from Maher than he (seemingly) expected.

This week, it was Dr. Phil McGraw’s turn. He was there to discuss his new book We’ve Got Issues: How You Can Stand Strong for America’s Soul and Sanity — and Maher did observe early on that he agreed with plenty that McGraw had written therein. But if Dr. Phil thought that he was getting a softball interview, he quickly learned otherwise.

“You know I’m not political,” McGraw said early in the interview. “You try to sucker me into being political.”

Maher responded by arguing that much of what McGraw brought up in his book was exactly that. “What you’re trying to do — I don’t think you can do without being political,” he said. (There’s also the matter of McGraw’s book being released on an imprint of Simon & Schuster that largely publishes books about politics from conservative writers, which made some of McGraw’s claims of being apolitical sound slightly disingenuous.)

Later in their conversation, McGraw brought up policy decisions related to schools and distance learning during the pandemic. Again, Maher pointed out that this was the furthest thing from an apolitical debate. “You’re talking about school closings,” Maher said. “This is a political issue.”

Things got most heated when Maher brought up a phrase from McGraw’s book: “Let men be men.” McGraw sounded irate when he quizzed Maher on his methods. “What — did you pick a phrase and then go 50 pages and pick another phrase?” McGraw asked.

“I’m picking out things that I want you to have to address,” Maher responded, offering McGraw a refresher course on how interviews work. Did it radically change hearts and minds? Maybe not — but it did make for compelling viewing.

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Some other notable moments from this episode:

  • Maher, on the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent ruling on IVF: “Finally! Someone is standing up for the rights of the unthawed.”
  • To be fair to the show’s writers, this was a news week that didn’t really lend itself to snappy jokes, between the funeral of Alexei Navalny and the Supreme Court’s ruling about Donald Trump’s forthcoming trial.
  • The latter did lead to one fiery exchange on the panel between Maher and panelist Batya Ungar-Sargon. “Is he not innocent until proven guilty?” Ungar-Sargon asked. “That’s why I want the goddamn trials to happen!” Maher replied.
  • Also discussed: conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec’s commentary at CPAC on ending democracy. See above re: this being a relatively bleak news week.
  • The panel discussion itself was often heated, with Ungar-Sargon and former Senator Tim Ryan sparring about a host of public policies.
  • The relatively stark news week we’ve had did make the episode’s most overtly comedic moments stand out more — including an extended bit about a Kanye West country album and a New Rules joke about glory holes.
  • New Rules concluded with Maher delivering a State of the Union address. The use of cutaways to actual State of the Union audiences brought back memories of his pandemic-era shows, when he’d use footage of audiences applauding during his monologue.

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