When Network TV Got ‘Politically Incorrect’

143 - MaherThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

The unwritten mission statement of “From the Archives” is to preserve the rich history of television comedy and expose readers to things they may not have known existed. Taking that into account, it may not make a lot of sense to spend an article examining a purely topical comedy show from nearly 20 years ago. However, Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect holds an important place in the world of TV satire and so even if its subject matter episode to episode was rather ephemeral, it still deserves it’s moment in the sun. Even if that means I’m going to have to explain a number of pop culture references.

Politically Incorrect launched on Comedy Central in 1993 and became a massive hit. The show began with a short monologue from Maher on topics of the day before introducing his guests, who would be present for the remainder of the episode. The four panelists, who would frequently come from politics, music, comedy, and film, then be presented with topics that they would then discuss. While these conversations would often have an undercurrent of humor running through them, they would also get very serious. Maher, acting as moderator would interject into conversations to fill both of these roles: sometimes he’d offer a joke of some kind, other times he would bring up an interesting point or call a panelist out on something ridiculously untrue that they had said.

The show proved successful enough that in 1997 ABC came calling and stole it away, which I believe is the only example of a show moving from Comedy Central while still in production. (Mystery Science Theater 3000 would later move to the Sci-Fi Channel, but that was after Comedy Central had already cancelled it.) Today we look at the first episode of the ABC era as well as the later history of the show into the next millennium.

On January 7th, 1997 Bill Maher walked out onto his set, which featured a number of Greek columns covered in ivy, including one that had tumbled to the ground, giving the look of a post-apocalyptic Washington DC. Throughout the episode he makes only a handful of references to the show’s new home, including his first joke, in which he talks about how it had always been his dream to “be on the same network that aired The Ropers.” His monologue, as you might expect, is like opening a newspaper found in a time capsule from 1997. Jokes about OJ Simpson’s civil trial mix with jokes about the Dallas Cowboys being knocked out of the playoffs which mingle with references to the fact that Strom Thurmond is actually still alive at this time. Already, Maher tests the waters a little by telling a joke about Disneyland, who are the parent company of ABC.

Maybe I’m a little jaded, or a little spoiled by the abundance of quality political satire that exists on television today, but there were a few moments at the top of the show that I was really surprised by. They weren’t outmoded or offensive, but when Bill Maher transitioned into his show’s opening titles by announcing to the audience that they shouldn’t worry because “everything’s been satirized for your protection,” I was shocked that what was considered to be such a “smart” show could start with such a cringe-worthy line. And then it got worse: the opening titles for the show were brief and consisted of a some generic graphics from American history appearing on screen while politically incorrect phrases appeared on screen like, “Get over yourself,” or “Fame is the worst drug of all,” or “America causes cancer,” or the surprisingly lame “Somebody’s gotta say it.” Thought it would quickly recover, in that moment the show felt like a parody of itself.

The panelists for the show that evening were Arianna Huffington, who at the time was sporting a short Reba McEntire-style haircut, famous burglar G. Gordon Liddy, rapper Coolio, and Janeane Garofalo. Knowing Garofalo to be a very politically outspoken person, I was excited to watch her in this episode. I was then very surprised to see that the only topic in this episode she chose to talk about were the complaints about political correctness on Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride in which pirates are chasing and selling “wenches.” To be fair, if I were on a national talk show to promote my new movie, Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion, I might also be a little hesitant to discuss ebonics with Coolio and Liddy, but I was expecting a little bit more from her. But I guess that’s what The Minority Report was for.

My main takeaway from this show was that G. Gordon Liddy likes to stir the pot. If there was a winner crowned at the end of each episode of Politically Correct, and if the winner was determined by which contestant spoke the most, Liddy would handily be named the victor of this episode. But since the show did not have such a competition, instead Liddy comes off as a bit of a jerk. For example, during a discussion about the validity of ebonics as a language, Liddy somehow gets himself on the point that Kwanzaa isn’t a thing. And that it was invented not that long ago here in America. “If you go to Africa and say Happy Kwanzaa to someone, they’ll put a spear through ya!” As I was taking notes on this episode, following this comment I wrote “[awkward silence].”

Related to Liddy, it is through Gordon that we get the best joke of the night. The panel is discussing comments that Liddy had made months before in which he advocated shooting federal agents in the face if they were to break into one’s house. Needless to say, no one has his back on this one. Doubling-down, Liddy attempts to explain his position: “Suppose I break into your house and you don’t know who I am. I haven’t announced who I am…” Maher interjects. “But everyone would know. When it comes to breaking in, who’s more famous at it than you?” Boom. Now, that’s a solid ad lib if I’ve ever heard one.

The weirdest part of the show for me came at the end. Maher wraps everything up, announcing tomorrow night’s guest, then brings up a very quick point to discuss. I assumed he was collecting a final thought from each of his panelists, but instead, the camera just cut to the production companies’ logos while Coolio is mid-sentence. I guess it was good for the studio audience that they got more show, but it was very jarring for an at-home audience member.

The show would remain on ABC until 2001, but would end mired in controversy. Responding to a guest following 9/11, Maher would state that he believed that the terrorists were not morally right in their actions but they also were not “cowards” as so many people had said. Advertisers began to pull out, and before long his show was off the air. While ABC denied it had nothing to do with the comments and everything to do with ratings, Maher wasn’t so sure. A very short time later, he had jumped over to HBO for Real Time and is running there still to this day.

Unfortunately the format of Politically Incorrect ensures that it is not only of its time, it is very much of its minute, destroying any need for rewatchability today, though I did still find it fascinating to watch such a diverse group of people talk in an entertaining way about the topics of the moment. We have a billion different venues to laugh at current events today, but during the time in which the outlets were few and far between, Bill Maher provided an excellent place for satire to live and develop.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

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