August 9, 2022 - 1:30pm

During the latest episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, American comedian Bill Maher discussed America’s obesity epidemic and critiqued the notion of “fat acceptance” as “fat celebration”. “Let me ask you this,” the HBO host said. “Have you ever seen a fat 90-year-old?”

Maher’s comments are the latest in a recent string of comments that have seen him questioning the rise of politically correct language like “birthing people,” apocalyptic concerns about reproductive justice being threatened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade precedent, and the use of puberty blockers as a form of gender-affirming care for self-identifying trans children

This would seem to place Maher in the company of a host of newly-emerging “anti-woke” cultural commentators such as Russell Brand and Glenn Greenwald, individuals who were once generally Left or liberal-leaning but have seen their own opinions evolve in light of concerns about the excesses or misguided stances of the Left.

Maher, however, has been a contrarian for a very long time. His first show, Politically Incorrect (1993-2002), featured some of the liveliest panel discussions of that era, eventually winding up cancelled after a rough stretch in which Maher praised the bravery of the 9/11 terrorists (“staying in the airplane when it hits the building” was less cowardly than “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away”) and compared mentally disabled children to his dogs

That cancellation, like all subsequent attempts to silence Maher, proved ineffective, as he soon returned to television in 2003 with the launch of Real Time on HBO, which is now in its 20th season. Along the way, he ridiculed the inanities of evangelical religion in his 2008 documentary Religulous, warred with Donald Trump in 2013 over the former president’s quixotic quest to obtain Barack Obama’s birth certificate (Maher demanded a copy of Trump’s birth certificate to prove that Trump’s mother had not mated with an orangutan), interviewed alt-Right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in a 2017 interview that Glenn Greenwald called “the most trans-hating discussion I’ve seen on television,” and even referred to himself as a “house n-word” on his own show in response to repeated calls for HBO to cancel him.

What has made Maher such an enduring figure is the variety of his views. Far from drifting towards generic Right-wing positions on all issues, as some commentators have, Maher’s thinking has remained heterodox: he is still a staunch opponent of unfettered access to firearms, an opponent of the BDS movement, and a firm believer in the harmful effects of global warming. He also tries to function as something of an objective analyst of the political scene, recently using the same monologue in which he skewered “fat acceptance” to praise President Joe Biden’s apparent successes on gas prices, jobs, and unemployment.

There is something quite admirable about this: while other cultural critics double down on certain viewpoints at the risk of becoming caricatures of themselves, as some have argued Jordan Peterson has done, Maher is still thoroughly himself, a sui generis deer tick lodged in the underbelly of the mainstream media. Having evaded cancellation for decades, he is carrying on in the same fashion, even if we in the audience may find ourselves disagreeing with him as often as we agree. So there he remains, speaking freely on a major platform where that activity has become much more fraught.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work