What would you call a guy who loves smoking marijuana, loves animals but doesn't like kid, loves girls and sex but never wants to get married, loves talking dirty, and loves shocking people with wisecracks about organized religion and hillbillies? You might call him a teenage boy. But what if this guy is a bright, well-read 57-year-old man? Then you might call him Bill Maher.
For the record, I agree with about 98 percent of the political opinions Maher regularly presents on his HBO television show Real Time With Bill Maher, a program I never fail to watch. The man can be both hilariously funny and dead-on brilliant. And he's got no shortage of raw courage; he'll make comments that other performers wouldn't dream of making. But there are three things about him that drive me up the wall.
First, because he's a professional comedian, he's constantly seeking laughs, no matter what the context. Even when he's interviewing a serious guest about a sobering topic, he can't help himself; he feels compelled to interject with joke after joke. You want to scream, "For crying out loud, let your guest talk!"
Second, he's too needy. He's an applause hound. The man will come to a complete stop in the middle of his monologue if even one audience member -- some guy in Row 19 -- is clapping his hands. At moments like these you wish Maher were more like Jimmy Kimmel. You want to scream, "Keep talking, don't wait for the applause to stop!"
And third, Maher is more or less "anti-labor union," which is a real disappointment. He regularly champions all the usual left-liberal causes (gays, ethnic minorities, women, anti-war, anti-empire, pro-environment, anti-corporate, anti-gun, pro-choice, et al), but has never offered any praise for the American labor movement. You want to scream, "Bill, what the f**k?"
It's hard to tell if this anti-unionism is the product of ignorance and inattentiveness, or, more sinisterly, is the result of a personal grudge or prejudice he's been nursing for years. After all, there is some irony here, because Maher himself is a union member. Maybe his father disliked unions, and Bill is merely carrying on a family tradition. Maybe he has a lingering beef with his own union's executive board. Who knows?
A couple years ago, Maher railed against the California school teachers' union, accusing them of being so stubborn and powerful, they refuse to allow administrators to fire egregiously substandard teachers. That was his claim: That the union wouldn't let them fire bad teachers. He went so far as to blame the myriad flaws in the California educational system on the teacher's union. This was not only a demonstrably inaccurate charge, it was a stupid and lazy one, unworthy of a person with Maher's intellect.
Although I wrote the show a letter, meticulously pointing out (with irrefutable statistics) that teachers across the country -- both union and non-union -- get fired at about the same low rate, I never received a reply.
Again, I'm a devoted Bill Maher fan. I like him. He makes me laugh. I only wish he would end one (just one!) of his "New Rules" segments with a shout-out to organized labor -- the only institution dedicated to the welfare of working men and women, and the only economic force capable of resisting the corporate juggernaut.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd edition), was a former union president.