As a reader of this site, you are of course a good liberal, and no doubt familiar with the many post-Jon Stewart purveyors of political humor. John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers’s “A Closer Look” segments, the unfairly canceled Larry Wilmore, and Michelle Wolf.
All have done great work. But you may not be familiar with a more left-wing alternative, the columnist and comic Lee Camp. We’ll get to him in a moment!
Bill Maher: Daring Truthteller
Recently, the funny writer Drew Magary posted an article at GQ, titled Bill Maher: Do We Need Him? Maher has, once again, said something people take umbrage at — this time, joking that rural communities lack sophistication. As Magary observes, this is far from the most offensive thing Maher’s ever said — it doesn’t even crack the top 20. (And, in this case, the riffing clearly was a joke; most of Maher’s truly repugnant opinions are delivered with full sincerity.)
Magary is perhaps a little too dismissive of Maher’s long-practiced joke-delivery style. It’s old-fashioned, but he is skilled at it. What Magary gets absolutely right is exasperation at Maher’s “smarmy brand as Teller of Uncomfortable Truths,” a tone Maher’s adopted since being fired by ABC for saying 2001’s suicide bombers were, physically, not cowards.
While ABC was rather gutless in that instance, Maher ended up quite rich and happy at HBO — essentially, like getting fired from a bad job and immediately finding a better one. So Maher’s firing hardly counts as a great hardship, suffered for Telling Uncomfortable Truths.
Along with his self-righteous sense of singular moral courage, Maher has repeatedly punched down on targets his audience shares no admiration for (fundamentalist Muslims, humorless liberals) and, worse, given airtime to others who’ve been justly criticized for more viciously doing the same.
The likes of Ann Coulter, Grover Norquist, Jordan Peterson, and Milo Yiannopoulos, Maher seems to believe, are kindred spirits, attacked by those who want to stifle free speech. In fact, they are the ones attempting to stifle free speech, by deflecting genuine criticism with evasions, untruths, and whining about persecution.
There might be some point in having these monsters on if Maher or his other guests called out their incessant dishonesty. That rarely seems to happen. The most widely-watched clip on Maher’s YouTube page is where Larry Wilmore berates Yiannopoulos for his repugnant remarks towards the LGTB community. Generally, the guests, and Maher, let the liars get away with it.
(The vile Yiannopoulos, now broke, wants other to feel sorry for him. Nobody complains more than a neofascist whose viciousness towards others stops being rewarding.)
As Magary correctly states: Bill Maher’s “show has done far more to legitimize shitty people than to subvert them.” Which, more than the smugness, more than the faux-daring offensiveness, is why I no longer tolerate the skilled joke delivery of Bill Maher.
I’d been reading Camp’s occasional TruthDig columns for a while, and finally got around to noticing that his bio line mentions the show, Redacted Tonight. It’s roughly in the same visual style as most of those mentioned above, although it clearly doesn’t have the same budget. (In that way it reminds me of the early years of The Daily Show, with a far stronger political viewpoint.)
Here’s his column’s take on our mucking around in Venezuela:
and Fraggle Rock,
and those tree forts where the EWOKS LIVED!
Camp is an avowed socialist and Washington, DC native; that’s where the program is taped. (Most of these programs are taped in New York — Bee and Oliver share the same studio, in fact, and Bee once carved her name in his desk!)
It’s presumably because Washington is the home to RT America (The US branch of RT Network, which is funded by the Russian government). They presumably host Camp’s program because of his opposition to American imperialism.
A Few Words About RT Network
The little-seen network is state-sponsored and claims to receive no editorial interference. That’s hard to determine, but they’ve certainly run programs with hosts and/or guests who are no lovers of the crony capitalism Russia has embraced since 1989. For example, Chris Hedges, Thom Hartmann, and Noam Chomsky, among others.
It’s also had some true wackadoodle guests on before, like the crazy Jesse Ventura. Larry King has a show there, maybe because he missed wearing the suspenders. Basically, the gist seems to be that anyone who legitimizes the viewpoint that America isn’t always a Pure Force Of Moral Goodness for our world is welcome on that network.
Well, as others have noted, it’s not like we don’t export CNN to basically every airport on Earth, and that’s in the business of justifying America’s awesomeness. My best guess is that RT will hardly allow any direct criticism of Moscow’s policies, while most other subjects are fair game. Al-Jazeera English, which is widely considered a genuine source of reportage, doesn’t ever criticize Qatar.
As Glen Greenwald noted recently, the US media accepted unquestioningly a false 23 February story from Venezuela that showed our preferred side in the best light while demonizing the enemy. An RT reporter got the story correct, later that very day. (It took The New York Times until 10 March to confirm what that reporter had said immediately.) While Greenwald admits that we should look hard at any government’s state-approved media, in this instance, it was the RT reporter “who was acting like a journalist trying to understand and report the truth.”
Camp comes across a little like a young college student who just discovered socialism. But he was born in 1980 and told Fox & Friends to go fart itself, on air, ten years ago. He’s been an Onion writer and part of the East Coast comedy scene. If anything makes him look younger, it’s the long hair; in one episode a co-performer calls him “progressive Jesus.”
Most episodes feature Camp in the funny-angry opening role, then interviewing either one of his co-performers (he’ll play the straight man) or a serious guest; one recent episode featured human rights’ activists from Colombia.
He could use a larger writing staff (most of these shows credit at least ten), as sometimes the jokes are a little repetitive; Camp relies on a lot of what Spock called “colorful metaphors.” Take this recent example:
But even when the jokes sound similar, his outrage at criminal injustice always feels real. Here’s a typical recent episode:
Fake Cojones And The Real Thing
Ultimately, Maher’s schtick is hugely neoliberal. It’s humor for the kind of socially tolerant careerists who trust our financial overlords, are vaguely critical of our widely-known military disasters and don’t want to hear about the secret wars. The sort of people who think TED Talks and (Maher’s frequent guest) Andrew Sullivan represent common-sense wisdom. For whom Maher can seem kinkily outrageous at times, but mostly against those dumb religious sorts and super-lefties who don’t live in the real world.
Maher pretends to have Giant Cojones, which gets him accepted among the faux-intelligentsia and has made him obscenely rich.
Lee Camp’s humor might at times feel a little more desperate because he’s genuinely angry. Is he hurting? No, he’s got a perfectly successful comic career, even if it currently involves going a bit quiet on Russia’s crimes. But, as a true liberal, he’s frustrated and furious at what our system of power does here, there, everywhere. And that takes more cajones than Bill Maher has ever had since his struggling club days.