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Issue 2 (Winter 2003): Cover Issue 2 (Winter 2003) Return to table of contents: Issue 2 (Winter 2003) View cover story: Issue 2 (Winter 2003)
PROOF: Issue 2 (pp. 58-59)

Late-night TV
Funnier than Jesus?

Bill Maher’s talk show would have survived that remark you heard about—if only you’d heard it on his show first.

Essay by Jay Martel

Illustration by Linda Zacks


Excerpt: When I asked a British friend why his countrymen have found America’s late-night funnymen something less than funny, he answered, “Well, name one memorable thing that any of those guys ever said.” My mind quickly spun through hours of pet antics, giggly celebrity put-downs and topical one-liners and came up . . . empty. What was funny at the time, I realized, was often based on context; it’s not the first time that David Letterman talks about accidentally swallowing pool water that’s funny—it’s the third time. Or maybe the tenth. To be precise, much of the comedy on these shows stems from our own long-standing relationships with these men going on for hours at a time behind their desks about, well, nothing in particular. ¶Whether you liked it or not, the same could not be said of Politically Incorrect. Amiable banter about nothing in particular was precisely what Maher sought to avoid on his show. To be sure, he frequently found himself adrift in a sea of bland discussions, punctuated by mostly conventional observations (“Suicide is for cowards!”). Still, Maher himself could be sharp; every now and then the guests complemented each other; and the host’s iconoclasm most often came across as something fresh in a cupboard of stale food. For what it’s worth, PI was often the funniest show on the air after 11 p.m. ¶Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with success in the world of late-night TV. . . .

About the writer: Jay Martel writes plays when he isn’t writing about television (in Rolling Stone, GQ and Mother Jones) or for television (including TV Nation, Strangers with Candy and the recent VH1 movie Warning: Parental Advisory). He wrote about Dennis Miller’s stint on Monday Night Football for Proof No. 1.


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