The Politics of Cool

Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect is no more about politics than MTV's The Real World is about the real world. And watching Politically Incorrect for a discussion of newsworthy events of the day makes no more sense than watching The Real World for life lessons. You watch these shows for TV. With Politically Incorrect the medium is the message and the medium is TV, what Maher calls "that cool medium of just relaxing entertainment."

Since 1993, his half-hour talk show has aired on Comedy Central; this January, it's slated to move to ABC, but he insists that nothing will change. Each week, he gathers four famous people -- supermodels, aged rock stars and recently published authors -- to discuss the issues of the day. The great thinkers sit in red leather barrister's chairs, surrounded by what appears to be the coliseum of Hollywood. Faux Roman relics, twined with faux ivy, ring the stage. In the background, there's a pretty picture of a hillside sporting the famous Hollywood sign. Famous people, the trappings of thinkers and a substantial dose of Hollywood: Who could ask for anything more?

You could ask for political comedy, I guess, given the name of the show. But politics is not Maher's game. Political comedians are malcontents, moody loners in the Thomas Paine mode, bad eggs who overanalyze everything and get themselves into trouble all the time. Guys like Will Durst and Harry Shearer like trouble, but Maher has other heroes. "Johnny Carson certainly is in my blood," he says. "And Dean Martin -- I always loved Dean Martin as a comedian. He's obviously known as a singer, but he was a great comic, and a better TV personality you could not find."

Taking cues from Martin's slyboots style, Maher tries to always seem unfazed. If he gets a big laugh, he smiles a dry little unfazed smile. If he gets no laugh, he smiles a dry little unfazed smile, maybe pulls a droll eyebrow arch for sympathy. And, if he gets into trouble, he's unfazed. If post-head-trauma Gary Busey has to explain a fine point of law, Maher is unfazed. If jovial geezer and journalist Ben Wattenburg has to explain baseball commissioner duties, Maher is unfazed. He is cool in vintage Rat Pack style, almost all the time.

He's not entirely unflappable -- partially because he's not knocking back Percodan and Scotch like Dean Martin and partially because he's simply not Dean Martin. Maher got a little flapped introducing his two-hour election-night special, and he grows visibly excited when he thinks a joke is working.

Sometimes, too, in his efforts at effortless hepness, he fails to be condescending. He was offended when Ann Richards (our Ann Richards) wanted to talk about reproductive rights and the likelihood of bloody riots if men's reproductive rights were legislated. Maher simply cut her off. It was a bad move, uncool. Even Joey Bishop, a Pack pip-squeak who probably never even got to ride in a car with Sinatra, would have known to treat the former governor like a well-meaning but naive little girl.

Does Maher have political views? Well, he voted. For Dole, if you're wondering, and for sentimental reasons. "I wanted to vote for one last WWII vet since my parents met during the war and since I have a lot more respect for that generation than my own." I can't tell whether the sudden warm tone in Maher's voice is an affect or whether he's sincere (WWII is Dino's generation, too!).

Maher's no Dino. He's not even Joey Bishop. On the other hand, he's head and shoulders above Gallagher, and who knows what wonders the new network version of Politically Incorrect will bring? Maher cites Jesse Jackson as a long-sought-after guest, as well as Paul McCartney, which he admits is just a fanboy thing, and "big movie stars would be nice, too." And, hey, maybe he can get Foster Brooks and do celebrity roasts.

Bill Maher appears (without guests) at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at Spellbinders, 10001 Westheimer, 266-2525. $22.50.

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Edith Sorenson