On Friday’s season premiere of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” back just in time for the runup to the November mid-term elections, the host got more than a few laughs at the expense of Christine O’Donnell, the new Tea Party darling who beat a longtime Delaware Republican rep in last week’s U.S. Senate primary.
“I created her,” Maher chuckled, almost with disbelief, noting the once-unknown conservative abstinence activist appeared 22 times on his old show, “Politically Incorrect.”
Maher – who played a 1999 clip of O’Donnell recalling how she once “dabbled into witchcraft” – might have just helped destroy her election chances.
It’s notable that Maher took aim at O’Donnell just a day after Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced plans for a pre-election march in Washington next month, in a clear takeoff on Tea Party hero Glenn Beck’s recent “Restoring Honor” rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
With the elections weeks away, three of our best political satirists are boldly – if perhaps riskily – expanding the bounds of their comedy in a bid to crash the Tea Party.
Stewart and Colbert's plan to take their acts from their studios to The National Mall isn’t just an answer to Beck and Sarah Palin’s Aug. 28 gathering – which all involved insisted wasn’t political and not timed to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The Comedy Central hosts responded to an online movement by fans encouraging Colbert to mount a major rejoinder.
“Daily Show” host Stewart, who calls the Oct. 30 event variously "The Rally to Restore Sanity" and "The Million Moderate March," has been careful to portray the gathering as a dig at zealots on both sides of the political aisle. Colbert, meanwhile, has branded his part of the rally “The March to Keep Fear Alive,” playing off his conservative character's alarmist persona.
Maher, in keeping with his far blunter style, ripped into the Tea Party on Friday’s show, saying followers are looking for “magical solutions” and “just hate facts.”
The facts apparently include old foot-in-mouth footage of O’Donnell declaring on “Politically Incorrect” in 1999 that she once “dabbled into witchcraft” and went on a date with a witch that ended “on a satanic altar.”
O’Donnell’s campaign suddenly canceled appearances planned for Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday,” which would have given her – and the Tea Party – some prime national exposure. Even if you buy her campaign’s reported explanation that she dropped out because of scheduling conflicts, there’s little doubt the novice pol – who also faces questions about campaign fund use – avoided potential skewerings.
Maher has own plan to get O’Donnell on his show: He said Friday he has more embarrassing clips from her past appearances on “Politically Incorrect” – and he’ll keep showing them until she comes on “Real Time.”
“It’s like a hostage crisis….I’m going to throw another body out,” he said.
Maher’s vow to keep making news off O’Donnell’s past flubs and the publicity generated by the Stewart/Colbert rally bode to move the TV stars into new comic territory where the boundary between observer and participant could become blurred – even if the targets in their sites are fair game.
Still, we’re eager to watch how this all plays out in a turbulent year where the nation’s bitter bipartisan split, the emergence of the Tea Party, the unexpected reaction of some top satirists – and a dash of witchcraft – are making for a strange brew.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.