Here's Johnny

What you're watching.
Jan. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Here's Johnny

Bill Maher, yet another late-night heir apparent.

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Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher
At midnight EDT, Monday, Jan. 6, on ABC
Scheduled guests: Roseanne, Arianna Huffington, Coolio, G. Gordon Liddy
Bill Maher, yet another late-night heir apparent.

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(1,483 words; posted Tuesday, Jan. 7; to be composted Tuesday, Jan. 14)

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Bill Maher       The battle of the men who would be Johnny has been going on for so long now--and at such a high pitch of ridiculousness--that we have forgotten what The Tonight Show was, and why we watched it. Johnny Carson was far from being the funniest comedian, or the most gifted. His jokes were formulaic, cranked out by gag hacks, and his fabled delivery was more skill than genius. He did have beautiful timing, and a collection of inflections and tics that passed for a persona, but that was superb craftsmanship rather than the expression of a unique comic vision. But none of this mattered to the myth of Johnny. We turned to The Tonight Show not to laugh (though we did), but because we wanted to be a part of Johnny's nightly party, where we could expect a few chuckles, some lively conversation, and bonhomie that--most nights--seemed wholly genuine. We always felt at home with The Tonight Show, because Johnny Carson was the perfect host.       David Letterman and Jay Leno each made a run at becoming Johnny early on, but lately, both shows seem to be going at each other instead--with big, inflatable bats. Less entertaining than fast and loud, neither Jay nor Dave seems comfortable with what he has become. Jay's insistent Lettermanish wackiness is cramp-inducing, as is Dave's struggle to be cheerful. In this environment it is almost too awful to contemplate another contender for the Carson throne, but here comes the network debut of Politically IncorrectWith Bill Maher, whether we like it or not.
he good news is, it doesn't hurt a bit.      An admission upfront: I have friends who work on this show. But I've also met Bill Maher and, like many people who know Bill Maher only casually, I loathe him. So while I wish my friends well, it pains me to conclude that Maher comes as close to achieving Johnnydom as we can reasonably expect in these overstimulating times.      For the past three years, Politically Incorrect has been playing on Comedy Central, where it has enjoyed critical huzzahs far in excess of its ratings (which are, as they like to say, pretty good for cable). The premise of the show, which Maher describes as "The McLaughlin Group on acid," is simple enough: a funny round-table discussion of the issues of the day, featuring guests from all walks of celebrity. The idea is neither as fresh nor as original as some of its cheerleaders believe: "Comedy McLaughlin" has been the television executive's high concept of choice for years (surpassed only by "Laugh In for the '90s"). Back in 1989, actor-comedian Richard Belzer (Homicide) made a pilot for CNN that was then described as "a stand-up version of The McLaughlin Group"; this later showed up on a Comedy Central ancestor, the Comedy Channel. In 1991, ABC commissioned a couple of editors of Spy magazine to do a test run of Zero Hour, a "topical round-table rap session"; in 1994, former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff created Last Call, a "younger, humorous McLaughlin Group," which lasted several months in syndication without ever once being humorous. There were others that didn't make it that far.
Bill Maher and Roseanne hat Politically Incorrect has managed to flourish with this accursed concept is a testament in part to its execution, but also to the special--and seemingly unhelpful--circumstances of its creation. Comedy Central was drawn to Politically Incorrect back in 1993 primarily because talk is cheap--and public-service-style talk is even cheaper. Maher was an established but not-yet-expensive comic who happened to have some better-known friends, most notably Tom Arnold and Roseanne. Maher's celebrity pals could be paired with ink-stained wags (Joe Queenan, Paul Rudnick) and underexposed politicos (Eugene McCarthy) for virtually nothing, and the combination be made to seem quirky and cutting edge.      Politically Incorrect was uneven at first, handicapped, in large part, by Maher himself. He suffered from that Attention Deficit Disorder peculiar to comedians, becoming fidgety and hostile when he wasn't getting attention. Discussions were allowed to proceed only long enough for Maher to flip through his cards to his next scripted ad-lib. As with John McLaughlin, Maher always had the last word, and there was only one correct answer.
ut four seasons without serious ratings pressure has allowed Politically Incorrect to work all that out, jettisoning its unnecessary entertainment (most thankfully, Maher's mock diatribe, "Somebody's Gotta Say It") and concentrating on the talk. The guests have grown more varied and celebrated (from socialist Rep. Bernie Sanders to Jerry Seinfeld), and the conversation, looser. Maher now draws his guests out rather than pushing them back. His responses suggest that he's actually listening to what they are saying--quite a rarity these days, but something Johnny always did. You can still sometimes detect Maher waiting to jump in with that ad-lib, but now he waits until it's needed--another Carson hallmark. For better or worse, Maher has also picked up some of Johnny's mannerisms, particularly evident in the monologue (the chin dip, the nose touch and, especially, the hand-in-pocket pelvic thrust on a punchline). But then, Carson stole from Jack Benny.      Much has been made of Maher's supposed incorrectness, but here too, he has the same politics as Johnny: none. He's neither Republican nor Democrat; he's Comedian, in favor of whatever will get a laugh. One moment, he's liberally pro-choice (" 'Get the government off the people's back,' Ronald Reagan used to say, but in their uterus is apparently OK"), and the next, conservatively pro-death-penalty ("When you kill a murderer, it certainly deters him from committing another crime"). He's also against taxes and government fat cats. At least, like Dave, he still tells jokes; Jay seems to have given up on this outmoded concept and simply spouts APPLAUSE lines--in the business, they call these rallying cries "Vote for Jay."
s Maher's hosting has improved, Politically Incorrect's strange-bedfellows setup has begun to produce bizarre delights. Politicians still try too hard to be too funny and celebrities try too hard to seem smart; but, thanks to both the wonks and stars being forced off-message (policy and plug, respectively), the discussions are livelier, loopier, and far more unpredictable than on either the celebrity or public-service circuits. Nowhere else, for example, would you see rap artist Coolio and director John Landis debate corporal punishment in schools:
LANDIS: It's OK with you to have your child hit by a stranger?
COOLIO: It's not really a stranger if it's somebody they're with eight hours a day. And if you work a lot, if you're a working parent like me, then the teacher probably spends more time with your child than you do.
LANDIS: There is no way I would allow a stranger to strike my kid.
COOLIO: Not strike. Swat.
    Politically Incorrect also manages to have moments of actual spontaneity. On one show this past season, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Morley Safer wound themselves into a discussion of St. Augustine's view of gossip, while Paul Stanley sat wanly by, clearly pained at having nothing to add. The lead singer of Kiss nevertheless politely broke in after a few moments: "Could I get anybody a glass of water?"
hat's the sort of moment one can imagine happening on the old Tonight Show (change the guests to Orson Bean, Carl Sagan, and Dean Martin). It would be all but impossible today. Guests rarely accumulate on late-night couches anymore, and these midlevel guests never appear at all--fear of channel-switching has banished them. In Johnny's heyday, The Tonight Show was put together in exactly this way, with an eye toward mix and balance. There were stars, certainly--but there wasn't the sort of competitive pressure to trot out one overexposed headliner after another.      It will be interesting to see what effect raising Politically Incorrect to the network level will have. One assumes that despite promises to the contrary, Maher will be a little less "incorrect," at least with respect to making jokes about one-armed senators and calling Diane Sawyer a "ratings whore."Politically Incorrect's executive producer, Scott Carter, has also promised that the guest list will not suddenly get exclusively star-studded, and that ABC has not made any ratings demands of them. But the show will probably have to roughly octuple its cable audience of 700,000 to be competitive with Jay or Dave; on the other hand, its lead-in, Nightline, has been regularly beating both of them--I'm not sure that many Americans are interested in watching The McLaughlin Group on acid. Don't be surprised if you should tune in one Friday night and find a panel with Demi Moore, Sen. Fred Thompson, Martha Stewart, and Shania Twain, and in introducing the topic of women in the military, Maher goes to a clip of the upcoming G.I. Jane. Then you'll know that it's all over, and that Johnny is never coming back.
Links Comedy Central and Politically Incorrect present the InDecision '96 Election Year in Review (who knows how much longer this will be up now that the show has moved to ABC, which briefly plugs the upcoming network debut). The self-declared unofficial Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher page is a rather exhaustive tribute to the man and his program. Meanwhile, Random House publicizes Maher's book, Does Anybody Have a Problem With That? (The site, which includes "commentary" from the show, gets updated weekly.)
Larry Doyle has written for television, the movies, and cartoons, and has published pieces in Harper's, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker.

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Stills from Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits © 1996 ABC Television Network. All rights reserved.

Larry Doyle is the former news editor of New York. He writes regularly for television.

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