December 23, 1995 in Features

‘Politically Incorrect’ Makes It Ok To Laugh

David Bianculli New York Daily News

Every Sunday morning from 8 to 10, Comedy Central repeats a batch of “Politically Incorrect” episodes, either from that week’s cycle of Bill Maher-hosted talk shows or, if Maher and the show have the week off, other recent episodes.

Last Sunday, one show in particular made me laugh out loud and rediscover why “PI” really is one of TV’s more valuable havens of eccentricity.

In this rerun, Maher’s deliberately eclectic panel of guests included conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke and “Kids in the Hall” and “Larry Sanders” comedian Scott Thompson. Thompson was watching silently, as though he had any other choice, as O’Rourke dominated the early discussion, talking about what he considered the spurious concerns of environmentalists. But when O’Rourke dismissed those concerns, specifically about ozone layer damage, while simultaneously rhapsodizing about his old gas-guzzling automobile, Thompson finally leaned forward, visibly angered, and jumped in.

“Surely,” he said to O’Rourke, “you can’t argue that driving big gas-guzzling cars doesn’t endanger the Earth?”

O’Rourke looked at him dismissively and smirked.

“What you’re breathing out,” he told Thompson, “endangers the Earth.”

“You think I’m breathing out,” Thompson shot back, poking fun at both O’Rourke’s forceful manner and his nonstop style of speech. “Since you started speaking, I haven’t breathed out once.”

The audience roared. So, at home, did I.

“PI” is refreshingly different from most other talk shows in several respects, all of them good.

First, the guests are given no opportunity to plug anything, other than when Maher holds up a book or makes an introduction, so there’s no egotistical agenda, only the topics laid out and steered by the thoughtful and witty Maher.

Second, the guests sit together and stay for the whole show, putting the focus on the group rather than on a succession of individuals.

Third, the topics are interesting, challenging and often genuinely meaningful.

All that said, though, what I love the most about “PI” is that it takes celebrities out of their protective cocoons. All of a sudden, they’re seated there without scripts, without a pre-approved list of stories to tell, and without the spotlight aimed on them. They don’t demand attention from Maher and company; they have to earn it.

Each four-member panel, therefore, is an exercise in dynamic tension.

Some panelists like to hit the ground running and take the offensive. Others like to sit back, keep quiet, wait for their opening, and strike quickly and with venom, like talk-show cobras. Some are eager to please. Others are just as eager to displease.

Some panelists emerge as natural leaders. Others, after a few dumb remarks, get trampled and left behind.

It’s a Darwinian TV environment, like being on “Celebrity Jeopardy.” It’s one place where what and how you think, not who you are, counts most.

In each case, as in every installment of “Politically Incorrect,” only the strong survive.

xxxx PROGRAM TIMES “Politically Incorrect” airs weekdays at 7 and 11 p.m., with four episodes repeated from 8-10 a.m. Sundays.

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