Bill Burr exposed the lie beneath Bill Maher’s ‘free-thinker’ brand

Bill Maher and Bill Burr on ‘Club Random' (Club Random/YouTube screenshot)
Bill Maher and Bill Burr on ‘Club Random' (Club Random/YouTube screenshot)

To say Bill Burr looked like he wished he were elsewhere is an understatement. Slumped in an armchair and clutching the nub of a cigar, Burr had the air of a man who would rather be breaking rocks in a Siberian prison yard than be where he was – sat listening to Bill Maher espouse his opinions on the war in Gaza.

Maher, hosting the comedian on his Club Random podcast, had brought up the widespread anti-war protests taking place on university campuses across the US. After Burr makes clear he’s “on the side of the kids”, he and Maher have what could charitably be described as a political back and forth. Maher, arguing for Israel’s right to continue military action in Gaza, condescends to his guest. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m for the kids’. Who’s not for the kids? It comes down to real hard-nosed decisions,” he says. Burr replies: “Stop talking like you’re a general.” When Maher insists, “You know, no one wants to see kids dead,” Burr interjects: “That was very brave of you to say that.”

It’s blunt, effective mockery from the Massachusetts stand-up. As the conversation goes on, Burr grows visibly more derisive. Maher asserts: “‘Don’t attack them’ is a very simple solution to all this problem in the Middle East. Stop attacking Israel.” “You just solved the Middle East on a podcast,” says Burr, who sarcastically suggests that Russian leader Vladimir Putin ought to turn to podcasting to resolve the war in Ukraine. Maher responds obliviously: “This is why this is not your thing. This is my thing.” “It’s not your thing,” replies Burr, in a tone that doesn’t sound like he’s joking. “You’re like that guy that has a fantasy football team and thinks he’s a f***ing GM [General Manager]. That’s exactly what it is. Why am I f***ing listening to you like you’ve done something? What have you done in Washington? Nothing.”

A clip of this exchange has gone viral on social media, and for good reason. It’s embarrassing for Maher, who comes across as both rhetorically misleading – conflating support for the people of Palestine with an endorsement of the violence of Hamas – and deeply smug. Burr, meanwhile, seems sincere and straight talking. What the interaction exposed was the fallacy of Maher’s brand – the flimsy notion of the free-thinking, pot-smoking truth teller.

It’s not the first time Maher has been made to look a fool, or even the first time within the past few weeks. Last month, Jackass star Steve-O, who has long been in recovery for drug addiction, was approached to be interviewed on Maher’s show. He agreed, on the condition that Maher refrain from smoking weed during the interview. Maher – seldom seen without a joint in hand while recording – refused.

Maher occupies an unusual space within the American media-political sphere; in an increasingly polarised nation, he floats around between the poles. He is not lastingly tethered to any political party, and his views have been varyingly and contradictingly described as “liberal”, “centrist”, “libertarian” or “right-wing”. The wideness of his ideological net has surely helped his accessibility – at a glance, he’s a bit like an upmarket Joe Rogan. But the interview with Burr showed the cracks in this facade. It’s the paradox of Maher’s reputation: the pundit who longs to sell himself as a voice of irreverent authority becomes, instead, the butt of a joke.

It’s not like Burr is exactly a radical either. His public persona is that of a hot-tempered cynic, raging against the petty nonsense of the modern world; his comedy material is often provocative and politically incorrect, albeit without tipping into the sort of hateful and sustained punching-down that has made contemporaries such as Dave Chappelle or Ricky Gervais radioactive in many progressive circles. On Club Random, he didn’t seem to be pushing an agenda. He was merely responding to Maher’s assertions – first with honesty, then with incredulity.

It is significant how ethical questions around Israel-Gaza are increasingly being framed around the US campus protests. That is how Maher broaches the subject. By framing it like this – as a question of supporting “the kids” on campus – the pro-Palestinian cause is pigeonholed as a conviction of youth, a cause célèbre for naive adolescents. The “mature”, “adult” position, by implication, would therefore be Maher’s.

This is how Maher sees himself – one of the so-called grown-ups in the room. Even without Burr there to pick him apart, that couldn’t be further from the truth.