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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is Bill Maher's Audience A Greek Chorus?

Ann Althouse here links to some interesting live TV footage of 9/11 Truthers disrupting, and being kicked out of, Bill Maher's HBO show.

It's right that a host would throw out any disruptive audience member regardless of the nature of the disruption.   But I found one interesting moment in Maher's reaction that complicates things a bit.  It was when Maher exasperatedly said, "'Audience' comes from the Latin word meaning 'to listen.'"  A funny line at a tense moment, to be sure.  It showed Maher's skill as an entertainer that he was able to be funny at a moment like that while still asserting control over his show.

But it did get me thinking about the audience in these sorts of shows -- shows that mix political opinion with comedy, like Jon Stewart's and Steven Colbert's.  On these shows (unlike, say a sitcom with a live studio audience) the role of the audience is not merely "to listen."  The audience is instead a character on these shows -- and the shows' directors and stars very much use them that way.  These audiences audibly react -- often in quite predictable ways -- to the political opinions that the show and its guests present.  The audiences boo and hiss jokes and opinions of which they disapprove (which are very often jokes and opinions advancing a perspective friendly to the policies of the current Administration) and react with glee and approval to the sauciest of the jokes and opinions with which they agree (which are very often jokes and opinions critical of the policies of the current Administration).  Sometimes when the audience is being tough on a guest, the guest will either respond to the audience, or turn to the host and criticize it.  At times the audience and the guest will get into a short back-and-forth. 

My point here does not depend on the particular political alignment of the audience; it is instead that the audience on these shows really is a character -- not just a group of "listeners."

Does this fact make the audience a public forum, or make it appropriate for individual audience members to speak?  No, it doesn't.  But it does suggest that something more complex is going on on these shows than their hosts might have us believe -- something that places the disruptive 9/11 Truthers in at least a slightly different context than might first appear.

Posted by Eric Muller on October 21, 2007 at 01:26 PM in First Amendment | Permalink


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A minor correction: Not to be picky, but "Greek chorus" is not the term you're looking for. A Greek chorus comments on the drama and is omniscient; the dramatic irony of the chorus knowing how the story will end and providing commentary for the audience contrasts strongly with the characters on stage, who have no idea what Fate has in store for them. There is nothing about the Real Time audience that would call to mind the chorus of ancient Greece.

Now to the substance of your comment: I think the implied comparison of Bill Maher trying to get control of his show to the Bush machine shutting down legitimate dissent at a political rally is an unfair comparison: show intended primarily to entertain vs. political rally intended to be a controlled environment where a highly unpopular administration can avoid tough questions that they should be answering.

But who wants to hear a bunch of morons shouting that 9/11 was the work of the US government? I mean, I consider myself an ultraliberal, but I don't buy that one! I don't want crazy nutjobs interrupting what I consider to be one of the very few important---and entertaining---shows on TV.

These idiots give the progressives a bad name.

Posted by: Paul | Nov 4, 2007 12:47:54 PM

I think the "live show" is something akin to having the reporter stand outside of a courthouse at 11 PM to report on something that happened at 3:00. No reason they couldn't havce done the same thing at the studio. No reason Bill Maher's show couldn't be tape delayed a bit (as I think John Stewart's show is filmed earlier in the evening). The audience is not there to participate, just as a game show audience is not there to participate. Except to clap/laugh on cue.

Posted by: Joe Camel | Oct 22, 2007 9:25:33 AM

It was interesting to hear Gary Kasparov's comments on why live audience's are banned in Russia, and American stations are following suit as well. A live audience can be a death knell to programs that are attempting to put forth a tightly planned and scripted agenda. Maher's show is generally very left leaning but they do have right wing perspective from time to time. However when the vocalizations of the audience go too far to the left or too far to the right (something he does not want to be associated with) he will actively shout down the dissent and have the majority assist him. I know the format does not really allow for true audience interaction but it should be more permissive of outbursts, no matter what viewpoint they take.

I applaud HBO for not editing the west coast broadcast and running it as it happened; at the same time I am not thrilled with the forceful ejection of dissenting voices. However that ejection is more defensible in that it happened on private property and by private security but it is unfortunately an escalating trend that is visible in the public ejection and detention of dissenters in public places (i.e. March on Washington, Code Pink, Congressional Hearings, etc.)

Posted by: Arthur | Oct 21, 2007 7:19:41 PM

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