Bill Maher Illustration by John Kascht
June 07, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s a sure bet about Jimmy Kimmel — that loutish-on-the-outside, wily-on-the-inside comedian whose half hour will inhabit the time slot held by the professionally tautological Bill Maher and his Politically Incorrect next January: You’ll never hear Kimmel say, as Maher did on his May 6 show, ”I’m a libertarian…. I’m pro-death. I’m for anybody killing themselves any way they want — the freeway is too crowded [as it is].” For one thing, I doubt Kimmel would think that formulating such tortured semi-humor would be worth his time; he understands in a way Maher never will that for a comedian, stating one’s philosophical beliefs isn’t nearly as funny as just inhabiting them. Thus, when Kimmel recently told an audience of advertisers that one of his goals at ABC was to get Barbara Walters to do a skirt-lifting trampoline leap à la the girls on his Comedy Central showcase ”The Man Show” — well, that was more subversive than anything The Fightin’ Libertarian has ever said in nine seasons of ”PI.” Because you never know with ABC: It’s so desperate for ratings, it might order Babs to start jumping, and loyal employee that she is, she probably would. See how quickly Kimmel could throw the network into frightening chaos? The heck with that Anderson Cooper game show — Jimmy Kimmel is the Mole! Indeed, the rise of Jimmy Kimmel is in itself proof that the term ”politically incorrect” has no real meaning anymore.

For the next few weeks, however, we can watch the rapid slide of Bill Maher into babbling rage — not that the descent is all that steep. Maher sealed his show’s fate when he offered an ill-phrased post-Sept. 11 criticism of earlier American military strategy, asserting that Americans ”have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” These remarks were deemed unpatriotic by some advertisers (which dropped their ads), some affiliates (which dropped the show), one White House press secretary (Ari Fleischer said, ”This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is”), and probably every ABC exec who’d been looking for an excuse to shut down ”Politically Incorrect.” Because, it bears pointing out, Maher hasn’t exactly been presiding over a nightly brain trust. Over the past couple of seasons, the four seats on PI have been occupied by increasingly lower-wattage stars (I dunno — do you really want to know what Super Dave Osborne, Molly Sims, or a costar from ”Grounded for Life” thinks about the great issues of the day?) and politically oriented noncelebs who tend to lean toward the right (give it up for Frank Turek, coauthor of ”Legislating Morality,” and for Blanquita Cullum, president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts!).

Maher is unforgiving of those who waffle, but he proved he didn’t much like the temperature and weight of the ABC waffle iron when it came down on him: He apologized for the ”cowards” remarks. But once his cancellation was announced, he felt the courage of the fully fired: On his May 17 broadcast, he commenced a litany of boldly incoherent beliefs, including ”I think religion is bad and drugs are good. I think America causes cancer, longevity is less important than fun, and young people should be discouraged from voting.” Warming to his task, he went on, ”I think stereotypes are true, abstinence is a perversion, Bush’s lies are worse than Clinton’s, and there’s nothing sexy about being old or pregnant. I think September 11th changed nothing.”

Gee, and he almost had me until that old-and-pregnant-isn’t-sexy stuff. I wondered where that came from before I remembered, Oh, yeah — this is less a libertarian than a Playboy Philosophizer, a regular denizen of Hugh Hefner’s bunny hutch who said on his May 5 show, ”I don’t date ugly Monica Lewinsky types.”

Bill Maher has become the Lenny Bruce of network television, and unfortunately, he’ll probably take that as a compliment. Many guys of Maher’s generation, if they’re into both comedians and freedom of speech, tend to idolize Bruce, even knowing that at the end of his days, Lenny had a hard time finding a stage for his work, and when he did, tended to ramble on incoherently about his freewheeling beliefs and condemning all those who’d persecuted him. Too bad Bruce isn’t still around; he and Maher could get rid of the other ”PI” chairs and just gibber to each other until ABC boxed them up and FedExed them to the Playboy Mansion. The hell with Jimmy Kimmel, they could rant, this is the real man show.

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