Bill Maher Takes on the Met Gala and Charlie Sheen on a New “Real Time”

A discussion of cancel culture takes an unexpected turn

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the September 17, 2021 episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher."

Appearing on the set of Real Time for the first time since the California recall election concluded, Bill Maher did not lack for material in his opening monologue. He riffed on the cost of the election itself, Larry Elder’s political future and the state’s return to normalcy — which in this case meant an abundance of fires, earthquakes and murders. Also up for discussion was the FDA’s advice on COVID-19 booster shots — leading Maher to call them “the extended warranty.”

Also discussed? Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril. Maher’s description was succinct: “Take everything you thought you knew about Donald Trump — and keep thinking it.” And the looming rally in Washington, D.C. to support the people who breached the Capitol earlier this year gave Maher plenty to talk about, including some demonstrators’ concerns over the event. 

“You knew this would eventually happen right?” said Maher. “That they would eventually get too paranoid to attend their own paranoid rally.”

Anne Applebaum was the episode’s first guest. Given that Applebaum’s recent work has included a book on authoritarian impulses on the political right and a long article about cancel culture for The Atlantic, it seems as though there would be no shortage of topics for the two to discuss. And his first question, given Applebaum’s areas of expertise, was straightforward, and addressed the recurring refrain from some high-profile Republicans about elections being “stolen.” How do we get back to a more normal place, Maher wondered. 

Applebaum didn’t offer any easy answers. She pointed out that pushing back against election results and institutions is a common tactic from authoritarians, and argued that Northern Ireland might be a model of what to look for in terms of finding a way past broad political differences.

In the second half of their conversation, the subject shifted towards cancel culture, with Maher making an argument about the somewhat arbitrary nature of who gets canceled. “Charlie Sheen gets a Super Bowl commercial,” Maher said. “He did a lot worse things than Louis CK.” (Maher didn’t elaborate, but he was likely referring to this.)

 The episode’s panel consisted of Dan Save, author (most recently) of Savage Love from A to Z: Advice on Sex and Relationships, Dating and Mating, Exes and Extras, and Gillian Tett, author of Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life. Here the subject returned to the events recounted in Peril regarding the waning days of the Trump administration. Savage argued that Trump had started “a Cold Civil War,” which was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

From there, the conversation shifted to homelessness — specifically, homelessness in California, and the number of voters in the recall who argued that it was a substantial issue for them. Savage quickly pointed out that the same voters who’d say this might also be opposed to multi-family housing in their neighborhoods. And Tett pointed out that homelessness has risen over the decades — and the lack of empathy innate to NIMBYism. 

Maher segued from there to a discussion of the Met Gala, where he zeroed in on a specific piece of optics from it. The celebrities attending, he pointed out, were largely unmasked; the staff working on the event were uniformly masked. “There’s something about this that’s not liberal to me,” he said. Savage concurred to a point, noting that it seemed “security theater”-esque to him — but also pointed out that some masking was better than none at all.

“Let’s just make the help wear the masks? That’s the liberal approach?” Maher said. And Tett agreed that the juxtaposition sent a worrying message.

In the second half of the panel discussion, talk turned to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s recent comments on the Texas abortion ban and her use of the phrase “people who menstruate.” This led to a moment when Savage offered Maher an explanation of why, for instance, trans men could be affected by the ban as well. Maher responded with his recurring theme of “is this going to alienate voters;” Savage countered that it would not.

And then it came time for New Rules. Maher dubbed the current state of school board meetings as “open mic nights for the mentally deranged” and invoked the Florida man who caused a car wreck shortly after getting married. The main event, however, found Maher taking on the Texas abortion ban — specifically, the aspect of it that empowered, in his phrase, “citizen snitches.”

“When did West Texas become East Germany?” Maher asked. Though he quickly pivoted from there to a broader attack on people’s old tweets and conversations being used against them, citing both Mike Richards and Rachel Nichols as examples. He went on to assail “this mindset where everyone is an amateur secret policeman and tattling is a virtue,” which he argued was a bipartisan phenomenon — and which he felt distracted from the work of whistleblowers who’d taken actual risks over the years. Will that argument hit home with anyone on the political right or left? That remains to be seen.

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