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Bye Bye, PI

The last episode of Politi- cally Incorrect will be broadcast on June 28. I’m going to be on it one last time, and I’ve promised myself I won’t cry on the air. Once the cameras go off—well, that’s another story. You see, the show has been a touchstone for me over the last nine years—both in the evolution of my political ideas and the changes in my personal life.

My first appearance was in November 1993, when the show was on Comedy Central and taping in New York. I was on with Harry Shearer, Rep. Jim Traficant, and Dr. Peter Kramer, who had just published Listening to Prozac. Since then, Shearer—the brilliant satirist, and voice of half of The Simpsons characters—has become a close friend and coconspirator, Traficant has been convicted of racketeering, and I’ve gone on to launch a mini-crusade disagreeing with Dr. Kramer’s rosy assessment of the miraculous effects of Prozac.

Doing PI was always a stimulating two-way street. Sometimes it gave me the chance to mount my soapbox and sound off on subjects I care passionately about, and sometimes it opened my mind to new topics and ideas that I then went on to write about.

For that initial appearance, I had flown up from Washington, D.C., where I was living with my Republican congressman husband and our two preschool daughters. When I do the last PI next week, it will be from Los Angeles, where, after a divorce from my husband and the Republican party, I now live as a registered independent, with my 5-foot-6-inch teenage daughter and her tweener sister.

In between, I made a few dozen appearances on PI, crossing swords—sometimes playfully, sometimes earnestly—with everyone from Michael Douglas to Jesse Jackson to Cindy Crawford to Chevy Chase to G. Gordon Liddy to Tom Arnold to Coolio. PI’s appeal has always been the simple notion of bringing together eclectic groups of pundits, politicians, and performers and letting the fur fly.

In the process, the show challenged the larger shibboleths of “proper” comment and debate in America. People tend to talk mostly to like-minded people who communicate in the same way. We naturally tend to fall into cliché. PI was about breaking those clichés, and the best moments came from unexpected juxtapositions: when a comedian popped the balloon of a pontificating politico, when a rapper had the last word on campaign finance reform, or when Jerry Falwell revealed—yes, it’s true—a playful sense of humor.

In fact, the show was responsible for unleashing my own long-suppressed inner clown. In bed, no less. In 1996, during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Bill Maher lured Al Franken and me between the sheets to do political commentary from a specially constructed bed for a segment called “Strange Bedfellows.” It was the beginning of an oddball act of the same name that Al and I took on the road, trading barbs and double entendres at colleges, conventions and trade shows. As an added bonus, I was probably the only woman in my profession to claim a tax deduction for lingerie. (I’m not sure whether Al deducted for his or not).

Another thing I’ll miss is traveling around the country—to places like New Orleans, San Francisco, Aspen, Colo., and San Diego—to tape special on-location editions of PI. It was on one of these road shows that Chris Rock and I covered an Al Sharpton rally in Chicago, chanting “No justice, no peace” in our Greek accents (OK, maybe that was just me.)

For nine years, PI has been the best place on television to find edgy political satire. But, because it’s a comedy show, people often forget the fact that it also offered a rare forum for certain “orphan issues”: important topics overlooked by the mainstream media. PI delved into such knotty matters as the ongoing madness of the war on drugs and the destructive role of money in politics not just once in a blue moon, but night in and night out. I regularly marveled at the ardor and wonkish knowledge Bill brought to these issues. In fact, he gave two rousing speeches on these topics at the 2000 Shadow Conventions that rivaled the experts in detail and far exceeded them in entertainment value. It is this blend of skills that makes him a first-class satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, wielding his savage wit in the service of passionate conviction.

For some weird reason, I always ended up doing PI on emotionally charged days in my life, including the show we taped the day I moved into my post-divorce home in LA. The movers were still carting in boxes when I hurried off to the studio. Then there was the now infamous show I did a few days after Sept. 11. It was the first post-attack PI, and showed Bill at his best: respectful of what truly mattered but courageously challenging everything else.

As Politically Incorrect ends its remarkable 1,600-plus-show run, the appropriate farewell is not a eulogy but a 21-pun salute to a man—and a show—that encapsulate what our culture needs now more than ever: independence, fearlessness, and an increasingly rare willingness to speak truth to power.

On the personal side, it’s also a time to celebrate a treasured friendship that, thankfully, isn’t at the mercy of the whims of skittish sponsors and network executives.

Bill has said that he considers his last show not so much an end as a new beginning—”kind of like being transferred to another diocese.” Well, my friend, you can count on me to sing in your choir, whatever parish you wind up in.

—Arianna Huffington


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