Bill Maher Talks Mutating Viruses and a Changing Climate on “Real Time”

His guests this week? Heather Heying, Bret Weinstein, Van Jones and James Pogue

Bill Maher
Bill Maher with a gold bust of Rep. Henry Waxman.

What’s a political commentator to do when their biggest rival goes silent? For much of last year, Bill Maher had Donald Trump in the White House to verbally critique — with the occasional rude Trump tweet swinging back at Maher. With Joe Biden’s inauguration now behind us — with all that implies for political television — it begs the question of how best to move forward. The latest episode of Real Time With Bill Maher offered a few options, from delving deeper into the coronavirus to addressing Trump’s relative absence from national dialogues directly.

In the episode’s opening monologue, Maher began with a quip about the government of California — a running theme in 2021’s episodes so far. “We are now allowed to get the mail and flee wildfires,” Maher said. “Things are really loosening up out here.” (Later in the episode, he struck a more contemplative note with respect to state politics, expressing his frustration with the ongoing effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom.) 

Before long, Maher had shifted topics to national politics, with a particular focus on Republican politicians behaving badly. “Trump has been quiet for a little while,” he said. “Doesn’t that….alarm you?” And Marjorie Taylor Greene’s social media activity also came up for criticism, which felt like one part open mockery, one part genuine alarm. Greene’s penchant for conspiracies and conspiracy theories led Maher to a conclusion that put things in perspective: “Maybe I’m getting old, but I remember when the nuttiest thing Republicans believed in was trickle-down economics!” 

Maher’s first guests were evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, co-authors of A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century and co-hosts of the DarkHore Podcast. Though both have been cited as members of the “intellectual dark Web,” here the focus was more on their scientific background as it pertains to the coronavirus. Maher cited their podcast when he began the interview, noting that the two had, as of late, been discussing COVID-19 vaccines on it, with some debate over mRNA vaccines versus adenovirus vaccines, the more familiar process by which the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine works.

The bulk of the conversation ventured into decidedly theoretical realms — including the question of whether or not COVID-19 escaped from a lab. Heying and Weinstein were of the opinion that evolutionary biologists’ perspectives had been left out of this conversation — which is, admittedly, a position that you might expect evolutionary biologists to take in such a debate. Unsurprisingly, the conversation ended on an ominous note and speculations on what the future of COVID-19 might be.

That mood carried through to the episode’s panel. Maher’s panelists for the night were CNN’s Van Jones and Harper’s Contributing Editor James Pogue. Maher brought up Jones’s 2009 resignation from a White House job and compared what he had said to some of the things Greene has said — which, before long, led to Jones explaining the “Jewish space lasers” conspiracy theory to an incredulous Maher.

But Jones also cautioned about giving Greene too much media coverage. “I don’t want to make another Trump out of this crazy person,” he told Maher. 

A comment by Jones about missing the Tea Party, who seemed moderate by comparison, prompted Pogue to ponder whether the roots of the conspiracies espoused by Greene and seen in the Capitol breach originated with the Tea Party movement. “Everything’s mutating in a worse direction,” Jones said. 

“That’s the theme of the show tonight,” Maher replied.  

Much of the panel discussion focused on climate change and the environment — and how people concerned about those might get skeptical conservatives on board. Jones mentioned environmental work he’s been doing with a bipartisan organization, while Pogue noted that some conservative Democrats — notably West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin — could also require some convincing. Jones also cited one unlikely source for action on climate change: the military’s increasing concern about its national security implications.

The pandemic was at the heart of many of Maher’s jokes during the episode’s New Rules — including a reference to anal swabs and an extended riff on a 5-mask configuration to wear when out and about. Also targeted in the segment: “funny” wine-themed t-shirts and beer yoga. Maher’s most significant frustration, however, came from protests in Portland and Seattle that criticized Biden from the left. From there, he engaged in a lengthy paean to the legislative career of Henry Waxman — characterized by Maher as someone who avoided the spotlight and got plenty done. 

There was only one place Maher could go from there: introducing The Baldy Award, a gold bust of Waxman to be awarded to the member of Congress who, each year, evokes Waxman’s legacy the most. “We need to bring unsexy back,” Maher said at episode’s end. It’s not the political message you might expect in 2021, but then again — it’s hard to say what is.

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