In the end, it was a non-event. Which to some people made it a really big event.
Bill Maher’s decision to host controversial blogger Milo Yiannopoulos on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO Friday led to very few on-air fireworks. Maher talked to his guest mostly about free speech, agreeing with him nearly as much as disagreeing with him and generally affecting a convivial tone.
Yiannopoulos is a senior editor at Breitbart News and provocateur on many subjects, including Islam and feminism; he has gained particular notoriety in the past year with the ascent of President Trump.
Earlier in the week, Maher’s announcement that he had invited the blogger and author for a top-of-show interview caused the withdrawal of another guest, Jeremy Scahill, a left-wing journalist who founded The Intercept and produced the documentary “Dirty Wars.” Scahill said in a statement that he pulled out because he said the appearance would "provide Yiannopoulos with a large, important platform to openly advocate his racist, anti-immigrant campaign.”
Maher had defended the choice as necessary to bring the blogger's positions under scrutiny. “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.”
On Friday, Maher created an at times challenging but mostly friendly atmosphere for his guest. “There are so many things I can start an argument with you about,” Maher said at the beginning of the chat and also noted at one point that “some people would say you incited” violence with posts on social media. But, mostly, Maher stuck to issues on which they agreed, including free speech and comedy. The pair also found common ground on the controversy surrounding their respective speaking engagements at UC Berkeley and the subject of political correctness. At one point Maher noted “that part of liberalism that has gone off the deep end.”
Maher is known for supporting a number of progressive causes but also, as he put it to The Times last year, is inclined to point out when “liberals … have spinach on their teeth” on certain issues, including radical Islam.
While Maher said on-air Friday that he was against Yiannopoulos’ policy of going after people individually, he offered no rebuttal to Yiannopoulos’ repetition of slurs against “Saturday Night Live” and "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones, an earlier round of which got the blogger banned from Twitter last year.
Maher’s welcoming spirit was cited by critics as evidence for their argument earlier in the week that hosting Yiannopoulos amounted to a kind of normalization of him.
In the Daily Beast, for instance, Marlow Stern accused Maher of “backslapping” Yiannopoulos and alleged that Maher had “no follow-up … no challenging of statements.”
“When all was said and done, one thing was clear: the only one who took ‘the bait’ tonight was Maher,” Stern wrote.
There was, it should be said, a direct rebuttal on Yiannopolous’s attacks on Jones, but it came from fellow guest Larry Wilmore. When Yiannopoulos joined the panel mid-show, the former Comedy Central host directed a four-letter message to the blogger, then repeated it a moment later.
Off the show, perhaps one of the most pithy responses from the left came from the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, who after the interview posted online, tweeted "Watching the Real Time clip confirms: @jeremyscahill made the right call."