On a New “Real Time,” Bill Maher Covers Weed, Polling and the Democratic Party

Some data science here, some Viagra jokes there

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the March 19, 2021 episode of "Real Time."

For the last few episodes of Real Time With Bill Maher, the show’s host has expressed a cautious optimism about the Biden administration. That’s largely been a good thing for both Maher and the country, but it’s also left something of a void in the show: while the latest episode of the show did involve some criticism of Biden’s policies, there wasn’t the sense of Maher pushing back against a powerful adversary that there was during his pre-election episodes. What do you do when your ideological foe is out of power? That’s a question the show still seems to be working towards answering.

Maher’s opening monologue, which largely focused on the country gradually emerging from the pandemic, included more than a few riffs on pets. When one barb at the expense of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle didn’t get the hearty response he’d hoped for, Maher said of his audience, “I should give out treats when they laugh at the politically incorrect ones.” And in alluding to the expanded number of people who can give out COVID vaccines, Maher quipped about getting his shot at a veterinarian. 

“It’s a little weird going to the vet for a shot,” Maher said. “I had to trick myself to get into the car. Other than that…” 

That blend of public policy and irreverence carried through most of the rest of the episode. David Shor, the Head of Data Science at OpenLabs, was Maher’s first guest. Maher alluded to Shor’s work on Barack Obama’s campaign for President, and then asked him about his impressions of the 2020 election. Shor did something of a deep dive on polling methodologies and polling errors in 2016 and 2020. “Everyone likes to talk about the undecideds breaking or turnout, but it’s really just that the survey-takers are super, super weird,” Shor said. “That’s the big problem.”

What does that amount to in polling terms? Shor clarified that the people who respond to polls are already more likely to trust other people. Social trust began to have partisan consequences in the 2016 election — which Shor cited as an explanation of why the state polls in 2016 were inaccurate. 

The conversation took a relatively in-depth look at both polling and ideology. Maher argued that Democrats’ declines in the 2020 election had to do with the presence of more “woke” policies within the party. Shor neither agreed nor disagreed, instead pointing to a long-time Democratic tendency to be more wonkish or policy-focused than some voters might like. It left the impression that the questions Maher had were less specific to the current moment and more that these were the most recent examples of a phenomenon that’s existed for decades.

The last few Real Time episodes have largely featured panelists who are relatively close, ideologically speaking. That this episode’s panelists were Reason Editor-at-Large Nick Gillespie and former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp boded well for a more wide-ranging debate — something on which the episode delivered. 

The first topics up: the recent murders of eight people in Atlanta, and whether they were a hate crime or the result of the shooter’s sexual guilt. Gillespie offered a concise history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States, and Heitkamp spoke of a national tendency to let horrifying things linger until something tragic happens. Neither the panelists nor Maher suggested that the murders couldn’t be both a hate crime and the result of sexual guilt — or, more broadly, that this could possibly be something other than an either/or situation.

From there, talk turned to the War on Drugs, with Gillespie criticizing Joe Biden’s legislative record on drug legalization and criminalization. Heitkamp then brought up the dangers of legalizing most drugs — which prompted frustrated responses from both Maher and Gillespie. Though even Heitkamp critiqued the Biden administration for lagging behind the nation on marijuana legalization, pointing out that South Dakota had recently voted in favor of both medical and recreational marijuana.

“I don’t want to talk about cancel culture and this nonsense every week,” Maher said at the midway point of the panel. He then began talking about cancel culture, and enumerating all of the things that “they” could “get you” on. Partway through his tirade, Heitkamp addressed the electoral implications of this. She also got in a partisan dig when she mentioned Republicans looking to emphasize, in her words, “this whole Dr. Seuss stuff that’s going on, where they’re reading Green Eggs and Ham, proving that some of these Senators can actually read.” That got the biggest laughs of the night.

As the debate about cancel culture went deeper, Maher raised the subject of the McCarthy era and blacklisting, and that was where things got a little dissonant. Why? A few minutes earlier, Gillespie had mentioned that David Shor had been “canceled” in 2020, citing Shor’s firing from a data science firm that year after a contentious Tweet. Except that, less than a year later, Shor had a prominent new job and was appearing on a well-known political talk show, which hardly sounds like a lifetime exile from the public eye — and points to the idea of being “canceled” as an increasingly nebulous concept.

For “New Rules,” Maher touched on Viagra delivery, sheep-cuddling, QAnon and Tucker Carlson — all targets that brought substantial laughs. He then used the Grammys to riff on meritocracy, “trophy syndrome” and the inequalities of the music streaming world — something which Maher argued upheld the idea of the best music being what found an audience. It then concluded with a diatribe against, of all people, Paris Hilton. It felt somewhat forced; there’s an interesting point to be made from some of the data he cited about members of Gen Z wanting to be famous, but riffing on the current state of streaming music seemed a strange way of going about it. At least his Tucker Carlson gag was funny.

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