HBO’s The Other Side: Real Time With Bill Maher Anniversary Special featured a roster of the most influential entertainers, writers, and thinkers — Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Barbra Streisand, Fareed Zakaria, Maureen Dowd, Salman Rushdie, Michael Moore, and Thrive Global’s Arianna Huffington — who weighed in on Maher’s enduring 25-year career as a talk-show host. The special chronicles standout moments that capture Maher’s gift for comic timing, political astuteness and daring honesty. 

The special covers the controversial history of Maher’s original show Politically Incorrect, which lasted for eight seasons before being cancelled by ABC after Maher agreed with conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza that the terrorists who took down the World Trade Center towers were “not cowardly.” It also celebrates HBO’s audacity — and savvy — in giving the funnyman another venue with Real Time with Bill Maher. “He was irreverent. He said things that made you think to yourself, ‘Did he just say that?’” Huffington says in the special. “Then you thought, ‘Yes, he just said that and it was really, really funny… but also wise.’” Indeed, Maher’s success contains some wise, valuable lessons for all of us.

Be Authentic

“I love people who stick to their guns even when the crowd does not agree,” Maher says during the anniversary special. He famously refers to political incorrectness as “the opposite of bullsh*t” and derides “the elevation of sensitivity over truth.” Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer, lauds Maher’s ability to put unvarnished truths front and center on Real Time: “On other shows, you only get people to talk real once you get off the set into the Green Room. What Bill has managed to do is get the Green Room conversation on the set.” Actor Martin Short added that the show’s winning formula is its brutal honesty: “If you’re watching, you don’t for one second believe that anything has been altered to get a rating or to get anyone’s approval.”

Learn and Evolve

“A lot of the fun of looking back is that you see how you evolve,” Maher says — and he has. After being called out for greeting female guests with words like “baby,” “doll” or “beautiful,” he rethought and altered his behavior.

“I’ve gotten a lot of mail from women who say, ‘You know, when you bring women on the show…’ I often have a bad habit of [saying] ‘Hey beautiful’ or some word like that,” he admits on one episode. “But I learned a lesson,” he says. “If it hurts a woman, just don’t do it. You don’t have to know why. I promise I won’t do it anymore.”

In another episode, he defends everyone’s right, including that of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who came late to accepting same-sex marriage, to develop and progress at their own pace: “You can’t purge everybody who doesn’t evolve exactly on the time table you did.” That’s a good message to carry when we engage with friends and family whose beliefs don’t align with our own.

Talk to People You Don’t Agree With

Maher says the fundamental purpose of both of his shows was to get people talking who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. “I love that he would bring in people from opposite ends of the political spectrum and everywhere in between and he could talk to everyone and challenge them or agree with them, and back up his opinions with facts,” Barbra Streisand enthuses on the special. Given how divisive American political discourse is right now — and given that it’s only weeks away from the midterms — it seems particularly crucial to try and apply this Maher lesson to our lives. Studies indicate that we tend to avoid political discourse with those who hold views distant from our own, but that seems like the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

One of the admirable things about Maher’s show is that it demonstrates that we can connect with people who are unlike us. As filmmaker and writer John Waters jokes to a conservative guest sitting next to him on Real Time: “This might be the only place in the world that we might ever meet!” Sadly, that’s true. But Maher shows us that we’ll likely never get past the polarization and disunity of American politics if we don’t start talking to each other.

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  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.