Nominally liberal comedian Bill Maher finally followed through on his irresistible urge to discuss the beauty of laughter with far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos on his HBO show “Real Time” this Friday. It went just as poorly as people familiar with the work of Maher and Yiannopoulos expected it to.
On Wednesday, journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept announced on Twitter his decision to decline Maher’s invitation to appear on the same episode of his show as Yiannopoulos, arguing that the gay Breitbart writer, “has ample venues to spew his hateful diatribes. There is no value in ‘debating’ him.” Yiannopolous has been profiled widely, from Out Magazine to Bloomberg, and loves publicity of all kinds. Recently, he’s brought his intolerant screed to several universities, then acted insulted when he’s inevitably met with protests (he markets himself as a champion of free speech, but is most enamored with his own voice).
Maher responded to Scahill with his own statement that, “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims—and he might be—nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.”
But the interview ended up revealing more about Maher, who passed the time agreeing with much of what the 32-year-old alt-right poster boy and avid Trump supporter had to say. At one point, Milo asserted, “All I care about is free speech and free expression. I want people to be able to be, say, and do anything. These days...that’s a conservative issue.” Maher completely let him get away with it and even affirmed him. After the initial interview, Yianopoulos joined the night’s other guests on a panel, where he suggested that transgender people “have a psychiatric disorder.” In the one-on-one interview, Maher referred to people who were concerned about Yianopoulos’ appearance on his show as “schoolgirls.” And there is so much more where that came from.
What I see as the major misconception of the interview was expressed in an interaction toward the end where Yiannopoulos asserts that, “The one thing authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter,” and Maher totally doesn’t call out Yiannopoulos for supporting a president with a highly authoritarian style of governing. Instead, Maher follows up with this: “And also because when people laugh, they know it’s true.” The pair howls and spits over how right they are about being funny (or is it funny about being Right?) for most of the interview.
It seemed to me that Maher was gesturing at the existence of some kind of universal truth that conveniently transcends all the aghast viewers who were most certainly not laughing as he and his guest took turns making pointlessly cruel remarks at the expense of LGBT people, women, people of faith (Muslims in particular, of course), and black people. Noticeably absent from this universally hilarious cohort of comedic targets: Trump and his entire administration, Breitbart, Republicans in general, cops, corporations—need I go on? Unlike many in Maher’s audience, this segment did not make me laugh so much as make me intensely conscious of how cold and clammy my face was becoming with each passing moment.
The thing about Maher is that—though he’s made too many nasty jokes about minorities and women for me to ever enjoy him—he is usually pretty good at making fun of everyone. He didn’t do that in his interview with Yiannopoulos. I’m sure Maher of all people can appreciate the truth about how much that fucking sucked.