- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

Time was, dissidents were beheaded, a la Thomas More, or poisoned, a la Socrates. Don't even ask what happened to Trotsky. And yes, Lenny Bruce too was harshly punished: He had to read those law books.

Today they get premium TV talk shows.

Of course, Bill Maher, former host of the canceled show "Politically Incorrect," is no martyr to free expression, as much as he may covet the role.

The fearless Mr. Maher memorably opined that the September 11 hijackers were braver than Americans who lob cruise missiles from a safe distance. Then, after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer (stop giggling) retorted, somewhat irrelevantly, that Americans "need to watch what they say" in the wake of September 11, Mr. Maher apologized.

The iconclastic comic went on to do some qualifying, followed by a little backing and filling, and then some clarifying just to make sure nobody thought he was questioning the bravery of America's men in uniform. (It is the politicians, you see, who lob cruise missiles at the enemy at no personal risk to themselves.) He concluded with further apologies to anyone who would listen all in a futile bid to save his ailing talk show.

Columnist Arianna Huffington, a frequent guest on "Politically Incorrect," pleaded with ABC at the time not to use "the Taliban's trademark weapon the stifling of dissent." (This was it was learned that our Lincoln Navigators were the Taliban's trademark weapon.)

Now ask yourself: Who would compare Michael Eisner's Disney to the Taliban? Besides Jeffrey Katzenberg?

More to the point, can dissent that already has been speedily disavowed to appease a nearsighted flack who forgot to read his daily press guidance really be "stifled"?

Perhaps it can.

In that case can't it be stifled just a little bit longer?

It seems not. Mr. Maher is back, and nobody is safe from his barbs. Remember, this is one late-night comic for whom not even politicans are off-limits.

"Real Time With Bill Maher," which debuted last night at 11:30, occupies a comfy hourlong Friday-night slot on HBO. For the new show, Mr. Maher has ditched the daytime-game-show-grade celebrity guest panelists of "Politically Incorrect," the ones who made the host seem intelligent.

"Real Time's" format features an opening monologue by Mr. Maher, a weekly feature story by comedian Paul Tompkins, a stand-up routine by "edgy young comedians," live satellite interviews and round-tables with a regular pool of panelists, including Ann Coulter, Michael Eric Dyson and other fixtures from basic cable that now you can pay extra to see on HBO.

"On HBO, I can be as outspoken as ever and still keep my job," Mr. Maher says in an HBO press release.

Like Dennis Miller before him, Mr. Maher hopes HBO's no-holds-barred approach will take the "Politically Incorrect" concept where network TV feared to tread.

But where might that be? Without the celebrities, what's left? "This Week" in the "Tonight Show" time slot? Live stand-up with some deranged old guy in Italian suits buttoned up to his sternum badgering the audience to get angry about the political situation?

If we're to take Mr. Maher's words at face value, he believes "Real Time" will serve as a mouthpiece for those ignored by mainstream popular culture stand-up samizdat for the truth-hungry consumers of premium cable packages.

"This country is not overrun with rebels and free thinkers," he declared recently. "It's overrun with sheep and conformists. The media these days, especially in television, seem to be afraid to talk openly about a lot of things going on, in society, in government, and I hope we will pick up that tradition where we left it off with 'Politically Incorrect.' "

This was the show, mind you, on which Oxonians such as Christopher Hitchens tried to debate the finer points of Cold War-era strategic doctrine with Gene Simmons of Kiss. On which celebrities such as Jeffrey Tambor actually said things like "Republicans are against education."

Is that the kind of "dissent" the media fear? Can Mr. Maher really have believed that his puffy half-hour TV show was in the vanguard of nonconformism? Wasn't its appeal closer to that of "American Idol" the impermissible thrill of watching people who think they're talented humiliate themselves before a live audience?

"It's true that people who challenge authority and speak their minds are not treated very well in their own time," Mr. Maher somberly acknowledges. "But maybe I can break that tradition, because I have this powerful, free-thinking network behind me in HBO. Maybe that's what Socrates and Lenny Bruce needed. I'm sure life would have been easier for both of them if they had HBO behind them, too."

Lenny Bruce wasn't the churchy type, but if Mr. Maher wants to canonize him, fine.

But likening himself to Socrates in his defiance of established power? Puh-leeze.

Mr. Maher's self-congratulatory delusion that he is a persecuted prophet without honor would be funny, except that it's pretty revolting.

There are brave people today, in China, Cuba, Iraq and other enclaves of tyranny, who are risking their lives not their corporate sponsorship or network renewal for being "outspoken."

Speaking out against Saddam Hussein can cost you your tongue. Even if you try to apologize for it in your opening monologue.

Real-life dissidents are not punished by being relegated to cable. I've never seen a "Mr. Wei's wardrobe provided by Armani" credit anywhere on TV, have you?

Real-life dissidents don't brag ad nauseam about how marginalized they are. That's because real-life dissidents have real convictions and are committed to real political change. They don't use their freedom to posture as champions of political resistance. They offer political resistance to gain their freedom. Real-life dissidents are serious.

Why would HBO give Mr. Maher a show in the first place? Could it be that there's a potential audience? Could it be that some of the "sheep and conformists" out there are fans of Mr. Maher's shtick?

Comedian Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show, ABC's replacement for "Politically Incorrect," is pulling in fewer viewers than Mr. Maher did. The last four weeks of "Politically Incorrect" averaged 2.1 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

How many people do you think watch Ari Fleischer's daily briefing?

Put it this way: Ari Fleischer will get his own series on HBO when Bill Maher learns classical Greek, becomes a philosopher and discovers a truth that he values more than his life or even his time slot.

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