Bill Maher v John Oliver – HBO’s Next Big Heavyweight Clash

The hosts of ‘Real Time’ and ‘Last Week Tonight’ increasingly represent two sides of the American left. Who will have the last laugh?

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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The promotional posters for the latest seasons of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" and "Real Time with Bill Maher."
The promotional posters for the latest seasons of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" and "Real Time with Bill Maher." Credit: HBO/Warner Media
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

You can never have enough euphemisms in your life for death, and my latest is “trending on Twitter.” As in, “Did you hear about Meat Loaf? Trending on Twitter at age 74. Gone to meet his maker – Jim Steinman.”

That right-hand space on Twitter, officially titled “Trends for you,” has become a digital version of the death notice. By rights, they should stick it in a thick black frame – because while it’s often a literal death we’re being alerted to, it’s also sometimes the death of a celebrity’s career after a particularly ill-advised tweet. (Caveat: Except Republican politicians; they just get more followers.)

This I do know: Very little good news is ever found in that inconspicuous-looking gray space – which until now was how I always used to refer to Mitch McConnell.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve involuntarily blurted out “Oh no!” when I’ve seen the names of people I loved there – most shockingly when Fountains of Wayne songsmith Adam Schlesinger died in the early days of the pandemic.

So, I was genuinely alarmed when the name “John Oliver” popped up there the other week. Was the “Last Week Tonight” host really “trending on Twitter” at the tender age of 44? Or was the squeakiest-clean comedian in the business somehow embroiled in a sordid scandal (the other notification purpose of the Twitter box)?

As it turned out, it was none of the above but instead a group of “Last Week Tonight” fans bemoaning the return of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and calling on their hero to – and I quote here – “eat Bill Maher alive.”

I should point out that unless you spend a lot of time on Twitter, this will have passed you by. It’s why I stand in front of a mirror every morning and repeat the mantra: “Twitter is not the real world; Twitter is not the real world…” What people talk about in 140 or 280 characters is rarely connected to what’s going on in most people’s lives.

It comes as no surprise to learn that fans of Oliver are not in “Team Maher,” especially given the amount of scorn the 66-year-old comedian hurls in the direction of the type of young liberal I presume watches “Last Week Tonight” these days.

“Real Time” just started its 20th season – “Last Week Tonight” returns in February – and I could almost feel the rage emanating from seething progressives as Maher delivered his closing segment this week, on the subject of “How the Left Was Lost.”

“People sometimes say to me, ‘You know, you didn’t used to make fun of the left as much.’ Yeah, because they didn’t give me so much to work with,” he began. “It’s not my fault that the party of FDR and JFK is turning into the party of LOL and WTF,” he added, refraining from adding “AOC” to the latter list though his views on the new breed of young Democrats are well-known.

Watching the monologue, I was reminded of Maher’s quote in James Andrew Miller’s excellent book “Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers,” in which he talked about “Last Week Tonight” and its audience: “They love John Oliver because when does he ever say anything that isn’t in line with what the conventional woke with them is? I don’t watch it all the time, but what I’ve seen of it is extremely down the line liberalism. And liberals are wrong about a lot of shit, too.”

That wasn’t all. “I feel like you could almost interchange the lines on other political slash comedy humor shows, and you wouldn’t know,” Maher continued. “John Oliver could do Seth Meyers’ lines, Samantha Bee’s … they all can do each other’s lines. But they can’t do my lines. My lines are different. My point of view is different. I feel like I have a much more honest relationship with my audience.”

Then he moved in for the kill. “On a lot of these other shows, the opinions are all just like MSNBC. They only pander to the exact liberal preprogrammed one true opinion that’s already out there. They don’t really ever challenge the audience, which is what makes our show different.”

New TV feud?

Could this be the start of a new TV feud, something to rival William F. Buckley versus Gore Vidal in the 1960s or Letterman versus Leno in the ’90s? In a year where unlikely feuds are breaking out like brushfires in California – Taylor Swift versus Damon Albarn; Neil Young and Joni Mitchell versus Joe Rogan and Spotify – anything is possible. (On the opposite side to feuding but no less bizarre, Dolly Parton has teamed up with James Patterson to write a thriller, “Run, Rose, Run,” which is out in March.)

It would be apt for HBO, which made a lot of money out of boxing pay-per-view events in its earlier days, to host a clash between two of its own comedy heavyweights.

In the far-left corner, we have Oliver – the Cambridge-educated Brit who has become the unlikely face of liberal America, a bespectacled brawler who jabs away tirelessly at the establishment, without perhaps ever scoring a knockout punch.

And in the right corner (when compared to many progressives, anyway), we have Maher, the veteran pugilist who has been on the ropes plenty of times in a colorful career – from the 9/11 “cowards” comment that eventually led to his ouster from ABC in 2002, to the “house ******” joke he offensively made in 2017 that would have got him fired from anywhere other than HBO – but somehow keeps scrapping.

One gets the sense that Maher harbors a smidgen of jealousy toward Oliver as the latter’s show scoops up all the awards while “Real Time” is overlooked. For instance, “Last Week Tonight” has racked up six straight wins in the Outstanding Variety Talk Series category at the Emmys, while “Real Time” has been nominated just once in that time. To borrow the phrase from a much-loved “Real Time” segment, I don’t know it for a fact that Maher’s ego is hurt by such things, I just know it’s true.

Here’s the funny thing. If you were to ask me who I’d prefer to see perform a stand-up set, I’d go for Oliver every time. But if you asked me which show I prefer, I’d opt for “Real Time.” Every. Single. Time.

John Oliver performing at the 11th Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit in New York, in 2017.Credit: Brent N. Clarke /AP
Bill Maher performing stand-up during his "Live from D.C." TV special in 2014.Credit: Kevin Mazur / HBO / yes

And here’s why: Bill Maher still possesses the power to surprise. And shock.

While he does appear to have an ego the size of Florida, he also isn’t afraid to court unpopularity with his strident views – and that’s an increasingly rare commodity these days, whether that be in politics or comedy (where it’s hard to tell who delivers the bigger yuks).

Maher says things I’ve not heard other comedians say, whether about the Democratic Party he has poured his own money into – famously donating $2 million to several causes over the years – or the need for Americans to take better care of themselves rather than expecting the state to do it for them, particularly in relation to obesity. In short, he’s not afraid to say “F*** you” to his own audience.

Yet while Oliver likes to poke fun at his paymasters – questioning what the hell HBO Max is and pointing out the lousy service offered by AT&T – he never deviates from what Maher describes as “the one true opinion.” Although I return to “Last Week Tonight” every season, nowadays I find myself drifting away after a few episodes due to the sheer predictability of it all. In recent years in particular, the episodes feel as if they were written by an outrage of Twitter liberals. And yes, “outrage” is the correct collective noun here.

Weiss words

I’ve written a lot about both “Real Time” and “Last Week Tonight” over the years, but the former is now the only one I watch religiously – and I’m aware of the irony of using that phrase to describe the show of one of America’s most famous atheists.

It’s telling that columnist Bari Weiss has become a regular guest on “Real Time” in recent years, her “When did liberals get so crazy?” views chiming perfectly with his worldview. The only thing this pair wants to defund is the New York Times’ Opinion section.

I happen to like hearing what Weiss has to say about the world, and was delighted to see she was one of the guests on the first show of the new season. In what she suggested could be a regular feature, Weiss and Maher discussed “the week in woke” – including the fact that the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures had somehow managed to airbrush Jews out of the history of Hollywood (you know, like those foundational figures such as Harry Cohn, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and Adolph Zukor). As Maher aptly but crassly put it, “That’s like a Holocaust museum not mentioning the Nazis.”

Maher’s show may not be picking up awards anytime soon, its routine as familiar as a spouse caught cheating on their partner. But I’m guessing way more lawmakers tune into “Real Time” than “Last Week Tonight,” especially as Maher continues to sound the alarm on a slow-moving coup ahead of the 2024 election.

Maybe that’s why there are some on Fox News talking up the chances of Maher himself running for the Democratic candidacy in 2024. A Bill Maher-Donald Trump town hall? Now that’s a fight night HBO should definitely bankroll.

“Real Time with Bill Maher” is on Hot VOD and Hot HBO in Israel, and HBO and HBO Max in America. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” returns on February 22.

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