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Bill Maher Was Never One for Solidarity Anyway

Whether it's 2023 or 2008, Bill Maher's self-serving individualism always puts him at odds with WGA action.
  • Bill Maher (Photo: HBO)
    Bill Maher (Photo: HBO)

    Bill Maher's recent announcement that he'll be returning to HBO for a new season of Real Time, "sans writers or writing," ignited another round of controversial press for the late night host this week. The news came only a week after Maher criticized the Writers Guild of America's demands as "kooky."

    "What I find objectionable about the philosophy of the strike," Maher opined on his podcast, Club Random, "[is] it seems to be, they have really morphed a long way from 2007’s strike, where they kind of believe that you’re owed a living as a writer, and you’re not."

    Maher's choice to not only cross a picket line but to speak out against the union while doing so has been an unfortunate development for the striking writers and actors, but it's also an occasion to remember that Maher has never been on the WGA's side. Back in 2008, the last time that the WGA called a strike against the studios, Maher used the occasion of Real Time's Season 6 premiere to offer his thoughts on the then-current strike:

    After some finger-wagging at a straw man about how the strike was not "the most important issue" facing Americans at the time, Maher railed against "the atmosphere of witch hunts and threats" coming from the union, before comparing the WGA to the George W. Bush administration having entered into the Iraq War after lying about weapons of mass destruction.

    Maher had returned to the air in 2008, as many talk show hosts did, without his writing staff. In particular, Real Time had pledged to eschew Maher's monologue and "New Rules" segments, a pledge he has repeated this time around as well, saying he'll "honor the spirit of the strike by not doing a monologue, desk piece, New Rules or editorial, the written pieces." (There are conflicting reports as to whether Maher still ended up performing monologues back in 2008; we’re unable to watch old episodes to confirm, because Season 6 isn’t available to stream anywhere.) That Maher would return to the air in 2023, making anti-union statements on his podcast and social media, is unfortunately consistent with how he's operated in the past, with his talk of "witch hunts."

    The ironic thing is that Maher was once on-target often enough to justify his placement in late night. In that same 2008 episode where Maher slapped down the WGA, one of the main talking points was the subprime mortgage fiasco, which would bear such awful fruit in the economic collapse later that year. Maher also spoke about the looming threat of huge corporations over the entertainment industry, a threat that has evolved to be at the heart of the current labor actions.

    But for Maher, it's always been less about the issues and more about striking the defiant posture of the iconoclast. The legend of Real Time was that it grew out of the ashes of his former show Politically Incorrect, which was canceled by ABC over comments made in the wake of 9/11. It's always been far more important for Maher to wrestle against whatever constraints — real or imagined — are preventing him from speaking the truth. Which is why Maher's rants in 2008 and 2023 aren't about the issues at hand but about tone. He always first concedes that the union is correct on the merits and is fighting a necessary fight, before pivoting into how, despite being right, the unions shouldn't posture so much or be so rigid and strident in demanding solidarity.

    Solidarity is a tough concept for someone who's built their public brand on battling "political correctness" or — as of late — so-called "cancel culture." Solidarity with energetic young labor activists was never going to appeal to someone whose "New Rules" have evolved into an Andy Rooney-esque litany of complaints about young people. Maher's libertarianism has always been more self-serving than anything, obsessed as he's been with legalizing pot and fighting against organized religion. That self-aggrandized individualism has always managed to supersede any kind of collective good. His assertion that "it has been five months, and it is time to bring people back to work" is just as self-centered. How convenient that his self-imposed Labor Day deadline to settle the strikes coincides with Real Time returning to the air. It was always too much to expect Maher to stand shoulder-to-shoulder now after he's spent the last decade or more sneering at the people on the left who share what he ostensibly claims are his values.

    "The heart of [Real Time] is an off-the-cuff panel discussion that aims to cut through the bullsh*t and predictable partisanship," reads part of Maher's tweet announcing his show's writer-less return. That Maher believes the heart of his show lies in the part that (he claims) isn't dependent on writers is certainly significant. But his disregard for "predictable" partisanship is maybe the most telling: What is union solidarity if not being dependable, steadfast, and, yes, predictable in support of a greater benefit? Bill Maher has never been interested in that.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Bill Maher, HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher, TV Actors' Strike, TV Writers' Strike, Writers Guild of America