So far in 2023, the interviewees on Real Time With Bill Maher have tended to be there to discuss either creativity or politics. Friday’s episode went in a somewhat different direction, with author and psychotherapist Esther Perel appearing to discuss relationships, a subject that she has written a lot about over the years. As Maher noted in his introduction, he had initially seen this conversation as a break from more serious matters, only to realize that bringing up dating, relationships and intimacy also took things into relatively bleak territory.
“There is a sense that modern loneliness masks itself as hyperconnectivity,” Perel said. She went on to describe what she termed “artificial intimacy” — and then invoked the feeling one gets after being candid with someone over the phone, only to realize that they’re multitasking on the other end.
Perel went on to discuss the algorithms that point people to new things to do or listen to as a form of “assisted living.” Her issue was with a mindset of “trying to erase the bumps from life” and remove friction. “Any good sex therapist will tell you that friction is an essential part of sex,” she said.
When Maher brought up a statistic that the number of people having sex had declined since the 1990s, Perel pushed back slightly, arguing that the frequency of sex mattered less than other aspects of it. “The essential piece is the erotic quality,” she said.
Later in the discussion, the subject of marriage came up, with Maher noting that he had never married. Perel, for her part, took a different approach. “Many people today, especially in the West, are going to have two or three committed relationships or marriages. Some of us are going to do it with the same person,” she said. “I’ve been married a few times, but with the same person. That keeps it interesting.”
“A relationship is a living, breathing organism that you need to reinvent and infuse,” she clarified — and made the case for not taking a relationship for granted. The discussion went to some places that Maher’s interviews don’t usually go; the two politely clashed on a few matters, but Perel wasn’t afraid to critique some of Maher’s choices of phrasing. By the end, it felt as though the conversation had gone somewhere unexpected. “This was interesting,” Maher said as the interview drew to a close — and it really was.
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Some other notes on the episode:
- Early in his monologue, Maher addressed one of the stranger aspects of time. “4/20 is Hitler’s birthday,” he said. “Only a stoner would do that.”
- Maher also addressed Russia’s military accidentally bombing a Russian city: “Imagine bombing your own city? It’d be like the governor of Florida attacking Disney World!”
- Also covered in the monologue: the concept of the “indictment bounce,” and Maher’s bewilderment that such a thing exists. (He is not alone in this.)
- Glenn Loury and Daniel Bessner were this episode’s panelists. Or, as Maher said while introducing them, “Two professors! Wow.” And later in the episode, the duo would address the current state of academia and the issue of whether or not there are too many administrators.
- The first question posed to the two professors — who had chatted earlier on Loury’s podcast — was about the spate of shootings carried out by armed people who were in no physical danger. “There are no grand projects that people bring in any longer,” Bessner said. For his part, Loury cited the abundance of guns.
- The panel discussion was deeply focused on policy, with Loury and Bessner occupying distinct and different ideological positions and occasionally disagreeing. If you like your Real Time panels wonky (and I do), this one was a particularly strong example.
- Bessner got particularly vocal applause when he argued that teachers needed to be paid significantly more.
- The mid-panel comedy segment this week riffed on Rep. George Santos’s announcement that he would seek re-election, with a series of hypothetical campaign posters. These segments can be hit or miss, but this one was particularly strong. (“George Santos: Weird, But Not Anthony Weiner Weird” was one slogan.)
- In the second half of the panel discussion, conversation turned to news networks — and the degree to which Fox News (and others) told their audience what they wanted to hear, even if it was factually incorrect. (Yes, this arose from discussion of the Dominion settlement.)
- Maher on Donald Trump’s return to Fox News and Ron DeSantis’s lukewarm polling: “They wanted to switch horses, and then their new horse died.”
- New Rules opened with Maher addressing the news that McDonald’s is making the Big Mac’s buns softer: “If it was any softer, it’d be pudding!”
- The bulk of New Rules found Maher recounting an idea he’d suggested at a film industry gathering: an awards show to honor people who’d pushed back against cancel culture. Out of this was a segment dubbed “the Cojones Awards,” with a gold statue of exactly what you’d expect. (Recipients included Ben Stiller and Trader Joe’s.)
- This episode’s most surreal moment came in the midst of the panel discussion, when Loury defended Substack and capitalism by saying, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” As Maher pointed out, that’s a (slightly altered) phrase generally attributed to…Chairman Mao.