The Mike Douglas of the '90s
It all happened because Bill Maher lost a bar bet. Though probably not his first (likely there was one involving a beer, a dollar bill, and a monkey), this one dictated that once a week, an anonymous American gets to sit beside movie stars, politicians, journalists, musicians, and the occasional celebrity nobody on the panel of his televised gabfest Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and bitch about what makes this country great. And as happens on PI, Maher gets the last say. He picks the panelists himself from five semifinalists, each of whom was selected from 50 people who participated in PI-like panels across the country and were interviewed by the show's staff. The goal of these citizen-panelist drives is to find some "strongly opinionated regular people" who have the guts to stand up to the celebrities. Do you have what it takes to stare down Fran Drescher?
So far, panelist recruitment drives have been held in myriad towns, among thenmSeattle, Portland, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Chicago. But lucky us: The next Politically Incorrect panelist drive takes place June 19 at the WFAA-Channel 8 studios. Maher, who'll be in town for a stand-up performance at the Bronco Bowl, will choose a panelist to appear on PI July 13 in Los Angeles. The panelist must see only one side of the issue and be willing to fight for it; apparently, the "I" in PI stands for ideologue. Sarcasm and a sense of humor don't hurt either, though apparently no one told that to Dixie Chick Natalie Maines during her recent appearance. How you say in English: Shut up?
Fact is, it's unfortunate that Maher -- a man known to hang at the Playboy Mansion during his off-hours -- isn't quite as picky when it comes to choosing celebrity panelists. It might prevent the likes of musician Ben Folds from sitting on the panel and watching the battle of wits unfold as he sits blankly on the sidelines. While feminist Germaine Greer and Growing Pains dad Alan Thicke (what is this -- The Merv Griffin Show?) debated the ethics of female genital mutilation in Africa, Folds sat stiff and silent, barely cracking a smile even when Greer said, "People are always tinkering with genitals," prompting Thicke to respond, "I've always had the utmost respect and affection for female genitalia." Dude, that's funny.
Maher's gimmick is tossing out controversial political topics -- say, teen parents who kill their newborns while smoking marijuana for medical reasons with presidential interns -- with a panel of four famous and semifamous folks who have nothing in common except they're asked to go on talk shows. PI works best when the most unlikely combinations turn into power couples: Marilyn Manson taking on Pamela Anderson Lee (while she's wearing a Hanson T-shirt), freak-show circus performer Jim Rose putting the fear of God in Jerry Falwell, or Ben Affleck and Steven Wright ganging up on one of those anonymous religious-righters Maher likes to use as feeding-frenzy fodder.
Maher isn't above manufacturing some combinations with theme shows. During one, Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel from Comedy Central's new The Man Show discussed sex and marriage with Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, the co-authors of The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. Like that episode, often the most mismatched panels are the funniest and most brutal, which is why Maher is personally involved in finding citizen panelists who will meet his standard. Maher plans eventually to take Politically Incorrect on a U.S. tour, incorporating more regular-folk panelists into the show. He has taken the show to Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and London.
Maher's managed to turn his show into a nifty little franchise. He created it for Comedy Central six years ago, where it thrived (among the best guests back then were Jerry Seinfeld and Rosanne), then took it to ABC, where it's the anti-Nightline. And if the show's lost some of its edge on ABC -- Why is it the best arguments break out during the closing-credit crawl? -- at least it beats watching Craig Kilborn smirk his way through a David Letterman show. That's our opinion, of course. What, you got a problem with that?
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