Well-meaning left-wing people seem to recall, at some point somewhere in Bill Maher’s 30-year talk-show career, a golden age of Maher. A time when they believed absolutely that he was their guy. It’s why every time Maher has made headlines over the years—for calling Islam “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing,” or arguing that #MeToo is the new McCarthyism, or devoting a lengthy segment of self-examination to why he casually used a racist slur while talking to a US senator—someone always says, “What happened to that guy?”
Nothing happened to Bill Maher; he’s always been that guy. He named his first show Politically Incorrect in 1993 to bait the left. Sure, he goes after the right as well, but not because he’s a liberal. And yet with the news last week that CNN’s CEO Chris Licht would run Maher’s “Overtime” segment at 11:30 pm on Friday, people again asked aloud, “What happened to that guy?” Twenty years ago, when ABC fired Maher for comments made to his guest Dinesh D’Souza (speaking of “always that guy”) about whether the 9/11 hijackers should be labeled “cowards” compared to our own military, people saw him as a liberal because he opposed the Iraq War and loathed President Bush.
Last month, Hollywood trade publications Puck and Variety reported that Licht had ambitions to expand CNN’s reach into late-night “news entertainment,” and considered Arsenio Hall, Jon Stewart, and Maher as possibilities. “News entertainment” is Licht’s professional comfort zone: At CBS, he rose up from highly rated morning TV to producing late night and took Stephen Colbert’s show from OK ratings to its current success.
Maher won, and it looks like he got the gig for lots of low-risk reasons. HBO and CNN have the same parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, meaning “Overtime” costs CNN next to nothing. It also means a minimal imposition on Maher, since he already produces the 10–15 minute segment for his YouTube page. It’s put there to move his brand out from behind HBO’s subscriber-only paywall and in front of a wider online audience.
The other element of low-risk appeal here for CNN is Maher himself, an apparently uncancellable comic force of nature despite decades of controversy. Maher survives because he’s built an audience of fans who agree with him or have developed a herd immunity to his more obnoxious asides, like calling President Obama “President Sanford and Son.” Throughout the Obama years, Maher found any number of ways to stereotype the president, yet suffered little consequence. “I thought when we elected a Black president, we were going to get a Black president,” Maher said during the British Petroleum oil spill. “I want him in a meeting with the BP CEOs, you know, where he lifts up his shirt where you can see the gun in his pants. That’s—‘We’ve got a motherfucking problem here?’ Shoot somebody in the foot.”
None of it slowed Maher down, and yet he could never figure out why Obama refused to go on Real Time. Maher eventually resorted to begging Obama with a public petition until the president relented at the end of his second term. A joke like that—using a hip-hop gangster stereotype to address environmental issues—is how Maher continues to portray himself as iconoclastic while pandering to the most basic liberal policy goals (i.e., boldly coming out against oil spills). It’s the sort of faux-edginess that prompts people to ask, “What happened to that guy?”
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Thirty years is a long time to survive in late night. That’s why CNN chose to bank on Maher’s low-cost, low-risk, durable presence to give the network a foothold in answering Fox’s right-wing late-night breakout hit, Gutfeld! Greg Gutfeld, the show’s namesake host, tops not only his cable rivals but also the broadcast network shows of Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon.
For CNN, Maher works because it’s also clear that, in the current comedy climate, the best path to challenging Gutfeld! is to not veer left. In the past year, left-wing political comedy lost TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Showtime’s Desus and Mero broke up (although the network still has Ziwe), and Trevor Noah departed The Daily Show (with a new host yet to be named). HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Apple’s The Problem with Jon Stewart, and Ziwe continue on in liberal late-night comedy’s rapidly evaporating market. Network hosts like Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon pepper their topical monologues with political jokes, and, despite the ire Colbert and Kimmel draw from the right, their shows remain entertainment-based. The Daily Show most likely won’t be canceled thanks to its legacy brand, but it will not be a surprise if it hires a much more conservative host in light of Gutfeld’s success.
This is the broader backdrop behind Licht’s recruitment of Maher. Maher’s “what happened to that guy?” history makes adapting to a right-wing environment easy: All he has to do is emphasize his own genuine right-wing views. Since his HBO season-opener on January 20, Maher’s guests have included Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, South Carolina GOP Representative Nancy Mace, and former Trump attorney general Bill Barr. Yes, Maher booked failed Ohio Democratic senate candidate Tim Ryan and did call Barr out to his face about his sleazy handling of the Mueller probe. But so far, this season’s bookings and commentary could sit quite comfortably on the Fox and Friends couch.
This past Friday, Maher’s panel included conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, Democratic Representative Ruben Gallegos, and former Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo. Maher’s “New Rules” segment included an extended take on “wokeism,” warning the youth of today that they are pursuing the same free-speech-stifling agenda that fueled Chairman Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution. For Maher, asking that people respect someone’s preferred pronouns is but a gateway drug to the Little Red Book. As proof, Maher offered up University of Illinois–Chicago law school professor Jason Kilborn’s dismissal after including two redacted slurs in a test question about racial and gender discrimination in the workplace. Those who brought multiple complaints against Kilborn see a larger pattern to his behavior and cite the test as a breaking point, but Maher left them out. Instead, he courted right-wing applause by likening Kilborn’s compulsory attendance at a sensitivity training course to detention in a reeducation camp under Mao. Of course, America has no Mao, and Maher’s equating Twitter mobs to the Red Guard is just silly… but why overthink the bit?
No doubt Maher sincerely believes every position he takes, but focusing on his right-leaning views now keeps him relevant in today’s conservative comedy market—a trend that the new management at HBO’s corporate cousin CNN also follows. Since Licht took over at CNN last June, he has repeatedly said he wants the network to be viewed as a nonpartisan truth-telling organization and not an outlet for “opinionated” news. So he disappeared media reporter Brian Stetler and demoted anchor Don Lemon and White House correspondent Jim Acosta—all, coincidentally, figures held in high contempt by the MAGAverse. It’s no great surprise that Licht should recruit Maher in this rightward makeover of the network. Maher summed up this sea change perfectly Friday night as he referenced a September 2022 Atlantic article on why we should suspend gender separation in sports that keep trans kids from competing. “I’ve spent three decades on TV mocking Republicans who said climate change is just a theory. Now I gotta deal with people who say, ‘You know what else is just a theory? Biology.’”
Of course, no one’s still talking about that piece, but Maher has a flag to plant. The whole game has shifted, and Maher’s letting us know he’s shifting with it, right there with Gutfeld, Dave Chappelle, and Joe Rogan, competing for MAGA marketshare. That’s what happened to that guy.