Critic's Notebook: Milo Yiannopoulos Comes Across Like a Teddy Bear on His 'Real Time With Bill Maher' Appearance
The normally combative Maher misses an opportunity to truly spar with his right-wing, provocateur guest.
Friday night on his HBO show, Bill Maher interviewed Breitbart News editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and people were shocked, shocked, that the host would book a guest who was politically incorrect. The booking caused one scheduled guest, journalist Jeremy Scahill, to cancel his appearance. As Scahill explained in a tweet, debating the “hateful” Yiannopoulos would be “many bridges too far.”
Having heard much about Yiannopoulos without having ever been exposed to him (yes, I live in a liberal bubble, but in my defense, the air is much cleaner here), my chief reaction to the controversial figure while watching the show was to wonder, "This is who people are rioting over? This lightweight, Russell Brand wannabe?"
Maher interviewed Yiannopoulos in the show’s opening segment, and the encounter didn’t produce the sort of fireworks you would have expected. Maher went very lightly on his guest, openly mocking his looks and mannerisms but not delving into the hateful rhetoric that has caused Yiannopoulos to be permanently banned from Twitter. (Memo to Twitter: Is there any way you could possibly extend that ban to a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Please?)
“You’re very controversial,” Maher said to the 32-year-old Yiannopoulos, an observation which falls under the category of “Duh!” “I don’t know why. I’m lovely,” Yiannopoulos coyly replied. The guest did look rather offended when Maher told him, “You look like Bruno.”
“I think you’re colossally wrong on a number of things,” Maher pointed out, citing as an example Yiannopoulos’ disparaging remarks about gays.
“You’re gay … spoiler alert!” Maher joked to his guest, who was dressed like he was ready for a night hitting the clubs after the show. Yiannopoulos responded by saying about gay people that “you can’t trust them to show up at work on time,” which would be offensive if anyone knew what the hell it meant.
As the audience mostly listened politely — normally quick to jeer right-wing guests, they must have been strongly cautioned to refrain from catcalls — Maher and Yiannopoulos seemed to find common ground about the suppression of ideas.
“All I care about is free speech and free expression,” Yiannopoulos claimed, while somehow resisting the impulse to yell “Fire!” in the crowded studio.
“We have both been disbarred at Berkeley,” Maher said, in an apparent show of solidarity.
“Much more dramatically, I have to say,” Yiannopoulos rightly pointed out about the recent violent protests that led to the cancellation of his appearance. The lovefest continued as Yiannopoulos told his host, “You’re the only good one [liberal].”
Like a bad insult comic, Yiannopoulos proceeded to take aim at a number of celebrities, including such usual targets as Lena Dunham (“The more that America sees of Lena Dunham, the fewer votes you’re going to get”), Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman, prompting Maher to respond weakly, “Let’s not pick on fellow HBO stars.” Asked about his relentless hounding of Leslie Jones, Yiannopoulos said she was an “A-list Hollywood star” who should “get over it.” Somewhere, Jones’ agent was smiling.
When Maher called him out about his internet trolling, Yiannopoulos replied, “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll,” getting it at least half-right. “I am very happy with what I see in the mirror,” he added, which may be a sign that the one he uses was bought second-hand from the evil queen in Snow White.
“When I had a Twitter [account], it was the funniest thing in America,” Yiannopoulos boasted, which might be true if his audience was elderly Germans who found Der Stermur funny during World War II. “Mean words don’t hurt people,” he pointed out, sounding like Don Rickles at the end of his act when he tries to reassure his audience that he’s really a nice guy. “I get off on it … I’m a little broken,” he added, putting it mildly.
Yiannopoulos derided Scahill for cancelling. “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose,” he observed, which may be true, unless the person you’re debating has said such things as “Hillary Clinton is funded by people who murder homosexuals” and “Muslims are allowed to get away with almost anything.” Statements like that make not showing up seem a worthwhile option.
Maher seemed less offended by his guest, who admittedly was on his best behavior, than the liberals he scorned for taking the bait from the “impish British fag” sitting next to him. It’s a valid argument that might have been stronger if he had actually sparred with Yiannopoulos about serious issues. Instead of calling his guest out for his countless offensive racist comments, he merely chided, “You should get off the Trump train.”
“He’s fabulous!” Yiannopoulos replied, smug in the knowledge that he had entered the lion’s den and emerged unscathed.
Otherwise, the show was a fairly typical episode, although Maher was even more scathing than usual about President Trump (“He’s f—ing nuts and he’s dangerous”) and his purposefully distracting administration (“While you’re watching the clown screw the pony, they’re breaking into the car”). The attacks continued during the panel discussion, with former intelligence officer Malcolm Nance and comedian Larry Wilmore ripping into Trump while former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, a Republican and frequent guest, garnered audience jeers with his weak rebuttals.
Leah Remini was the final guest, with Maher fawning over her because of her war on Scientology. “Fate chose you,” he told her, adding, “You’re putting a human face on the people who suffer from this awful cult.” She returned the favor, saying that it was a viewing of his film Religulous that first raised her suspicions, although she admitted, “You seemed a little crazy to me.” Maher concluded the brief segment by declaring, “You’re doing God’s work,” although he made light of his ironic choice of words by adding, “Wink, wink.”