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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Incorrect but not forgotten

Speaking of irony, some time ago I caught Chevy Chase on a late night-talk show. The first time we saw Chevy Chase he was a hot young writer/comedian who was part of the very original cast of Saturday Night Live more than a quarter-century ago. His best recurring bit was a running gag in which he played a bumbling President Gerald Ford. Part of the absurd humor was the fact that the young Chase looked absolutely nothing like Ford. In stark contrast, future SNL presidential impersonators were uncannily apt in evoking their targets (e.g. Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon, Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush).

Anyway, the ironic part of seeing Chase on late-night television again after all these years that, with age, he actually does look a bit like Gerald Ford now. Talk about the universe taking revenge.

Chevy Chase has made enough films that he can legitimately be classified as a movie star. And that is the only pretext I need to justify writing a column about late-night television on what is supposed to be a movie web site. You see, as it happens, the late-night chat show on which I spotted Chase back then was ABC’s Politically Incorrect, which broadcast its last new show last week. And that’s what I really want to talk about.

I have watched Politically Incorrect off and on since it originated on the Comedy Central cable channel nearly a decade ago. The only reason I saw it back then was thanks to my mother, who is a longtime fan of TV talk shows, and the fact that she introduced me to this show partly makes up for all those awful Lifetime movies she has caused me to watch over the years. Politically Incorrect was a lot of fun because they got a lot of guests that you never saw on other talk shows. The guest list was an eclectic list of actors, comedians, rock musicians, authors, journalists and professional pundits. The topics were firmly rooted in hard and soft news. Guests who had written books got them plugged but they weren’t actually discussed unless they were truly provocative. Guests’ latest movies were not discussed at all unless they had caused a serious social stir.

In other words, this was not a show of powder-puff interviews for plugging new books, movies, TV shows, etc. And, because of this, it was sadly unique among television shows. I am too young to remember when the likes Steve Allen and Jack Paar ruled late-night television, but I remember Johnny Carson well enough, and my hazy impression of the pre-Jay Leno Tonight Show was that the show featured a lot more real conversation than it does today. Nowadays, Leno and Letterman seem more about trading in and plugging big studio productions or else setting up mindless comedy gags. Even issue-oriented daytime talk shows like Oprah seem to be more about an agenda than serious discussion. Meanwhile, news discussion programs like Crossfire are more about political hacks reciting their knee-jerk talking points at each other.

Politically Incorrect was the only talk show where people actually talked. There were enough knee-jerk political and social opinions all right, but the guest mix usually guaranteed that people using talking points got thrown off track. This was largely because one of the understood guidelines was that nothing could be taken too seriously. Host Bill Maher always went for the laugh, and he encouraged his guests to do the same. When the show moved to ABC and was placed immediately after Nightline, it was a perfect fit for me: 30 minutes of hard news followed by a half-hour of humor and chitchat.

But the show was not without its frustrations. In the end, the program was really about Maher’s ego, something that was on conspicuous display on the self-congratulating final shows. While he prided himself on being “politically incorrect,” he was essentially a Hollywood liberal whose political incorrectness derived almost entirely from his desire to smoke, do drugs and sleep around and from the fact that he thought that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was actually a good idea. The program reached its inevitably logical conclusion when Maher did a week of shows at the Playboy mansion and fawned over his idol Hugh Hefner. The irony was that Hefner actually had the least to say of practically any of the guests Maher has ever hosted.

His best shows were in the early days when his guest lists seemed to be at their most eclectic and in the final days when he had some of the best post-September 11 discussion on TV, inviting lots of Muslim Americans to expose their perspectives. The worst bit was in the middle during the second Clinton Administration. The show seemed to become nothing but a soapbox for Maher’s unabashed admiration for Bill Clinton, more because of than in spite of his sex scandals. During this period, the knee-jerk talking-point rants were no better or worse than on the news discussion shows. At times, it seemed as though the same exact show was being broadcast night after night. Also, the guest lists seemed to become more formulaic. It seemed as though every show featured a liberal actor, a liberal rock musician, a liberal author and a token conservative, who always seemed to be a leggy blonde or an African-American male. And the same guests kept showing up, instead of new, interesting ones. Still, the discussion were usually more interesting than what other shows were offering.

It’s easy to see why Disney-owned ABC finally decided that the independent-minded Politically Incorrect didn’t fit into the brave new media world of corporate synergy. But television is poorer for its demise, and I will miss it.

To my fellow Americans: Happy Fourth of July!

-S.L., 4 July 2002


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