Bill Maher tends to say things a bit bluntly. A few weeks ago, on his weekly HBO show Real Time, he suggested that California would lead the way to a modern, liberal American society because, with 40 million residents, the Golden State is by itself the eighth largest economy in the world.
And with that kind of size comes a demand that can’t be ignored. “It’s ironic,” Maher mused, “[that] the two things conservatives love the most—the free market and states’ rights—are the two things that are going to bend this country into California’s image as a socialist fagtopia.” But Maher, who visits the Valley this weekend for a show at Springfield Symphony Hall, is no platform-regurgitating Democrat. He’s always been too politically incorrect for that, as the title of his former show suggests.
Politically Incorrect frequently featured an impressive combination of panel guests, such as Florence (Mrs. Brady) Henderson sitting next to shock rocker Marilyn Manson, openly discussing the issues of the day in a refreshingly unscripted format. Maher was let go by the show’s network, ABC, for suggesting that “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away” was more cowardly than “staying in the airplane[s]” that hit the Twin Towers on September 11. But he’s since found a more compatible home, he says, at HBO. Recently Maher spoke over the phone with the Advocate about the perils of politics and religion, his firing by ABC, and his love of traveling the country doing stand-up.
Valley Advocate: Real Time is a combination of elements that are informative, newsy, entertaining and comedic. How do you see its role, and your role, in today’s media landscape?
BM: Well, I want people to think that it’s newsy, to a degree—a large degree, I hope—and entertaining. The person I have in mind when I’m doing the show is someone who is interested in the news but doesn’t have the time to follow it as closely as they would like.
I’m always trying to make sure we include major news stories somewhere in the show, whether in the monologue or the interview or with our panel guests, or in New Rules, so that our viewers get a full digest of the news.
VA: What is the process of getting people on the show? Do you seek them out? Do they come to you?
BM: It’s a combination. I wish I had veto power. Or that I could just make them come on. Any show that’s been on as long as we have will have friends of the show who know I’m fond of them, and will call up if they know they’re going to be in Los Angeles. People like Salman Rushdie, who I always want to have on, or Richard Dawkins.
And then, of course, we go after people. We go after everybody. Not everyone says yes, but we try.
The audience is mostly liberal, and mostly I’m a liberal, but we try to balance it out by having at least one conservative on the panel. That is kind of important, that the other side be represented, even if you don’t agree with them.
VA: A lot of people started watching you back on Politically Incorrect, on ABC, and then there were the comments you made after 9-11, and you got the heave-ho, eventually landing at HBO. Were there other suitors at the time? And looking back at that experience now, do you see it differently than you did then?
BM: I don’t think there were any other suitors. But the show had always been produced by a production arm of HBO called HBO Downtown. It was originally on Comedy Central, and at that time HBO was a part owner of Comedy Central. Then it moved to ABC, but it was still produced by Comedy Central’s production team. So it was kind of a natural move to HBO—though not something I would have done on my own, before I got unceremoniously kicked off.
Politically Incorrect was good, and there were some great nights, but it was kind of a designed train wreck. Only a half hour, four guests, commercials—there really wasn’t a lot of time.
But the truth is, I had been doing that show for nine years when they, you know, fired me, and it had run its course. So it was a blessing in disguise. It was painful at the time, that’s true. But HBO is so much more appropriate for where I landed as a commentator, and a comedian.
VA: At the end of each show, you mention different spots where you’ll be performing. How often do you travel?
BM: Well, it’s only the weekends, because I have to be [in L.A.] to work on Real Time during the week. I don’t travel each weekend, but I’d say at least half of them.
It’s a lot of back and forth, but I tried living without stand-up and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for my temperament. It doesn’t work for the show, Real Time. I feel so much more real talking about America if I go see America.
These Tea Party people are always saying, “I want my country back,” and I want to tell them, “You know what? I’m out in your country, every weekend, and I see it, and it hasn’t gone anywhere.”
VA: How do you choose where to go?
BM: Every year I send my agent a list of cities I want to visit. I try to go where I haven’t been.
At some point, everybody on TV gets put out to pasture, and I’m sure they will do that to me. And when they do, I’ll still have my stand-up.
VA: Who would you say is your favorite Republican? And I don’t mean Michele Bachmann for comedic reasons.
BM: What’s going on in the Republican party right now is kind of a civil war. There’s the Tea Party, the People of the Tea Lagoon, as I call them, and they’re up against the potty-trained Republicans, I call them, the more old-school Republicans. And I think the one guy from that wing of the party, like the Republicans from the ‘90s who you could actually deal with, would be Chris Christie, the governor of my home state of New Jersey.
Now, he’s said some dumb things, but he’s also said some things where I really like him. He’s never going to be a person who philosophically is in line with everything I believe, but he’s not a crazy. I mean, the crazies—that list is longer. That’s Ted Cruz, who looks like the guy who the crazies are going to want to nominate for president. He’s their hero now.
VA: What about a Democrat you’re especially critical of?
BM: Well, all of them. I’ll say this for the Republicans: they do have the courage of their convictions. They do not run from polls. Democrats run from polls. Republicans don’t. If something is polling at 40 percent or 30 percent, that doesn’t bother Republicans. They’re like, “Fuck that! We’ll all get in a room. We’ll get our talking points straight, we’ll all stand out on the talk shows for the next six months, and we’ll get it up to 60. Or if it’s at 60, and we want it down to 40, we’ll do that, too.” They did it with the public option. The public option was polling at 70 percent approval before they got their fangs into it. So they’re not intimidated by polls. Democrats, just the opposite.
You know, it’s so funny. Gay marriage, when it started polling at 51 percent, that’s when you saw a lot of [Democrats] “evolving” on that issue. Which is pretty funny that they called it evolving, because they did it in about a day and a half. But that’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans. I wish you could have one party that would combine the brains that the Democrats have and the balls that the Republicans have.
As soon as Obama comes on board with one of their ideas, then they don’t like it anymore because, you know, it has Kenyan cooties.
VA: Like Obamacare, which is kind of like Romneycare.
BM: Now that’s it’s been a year almost, I’ve had some perspective on Mitt Romney. I was very, very scared he was going to become the president, but when you look back, it’s like, really? Mitt Romney, the cure for common charisma, is going to be president? It just doesn’t look possible now.
VA: What is more dangerous in your opinion, politics or religion?
BM: Well, normally I would just go right to religion, and I think I still will go to religion. With a party that is holding a gun to the head of the American economy, as the Republicans are, they’ve made it a pretty close battle. But our political problems, I hope, will be worked out over time. Religion, though, is always a danger.
You know, half the people in this country are not interested in solving our problems, like the environment, because they think they’re going to get raptured. They think Jesus is going to come down and solve their problems for them. So right there you’re working with a situation where half the country isn’t really in the game. That’s the kind of thing religion is so bad at, undermining people’s thinking and making it that you can’t really solve problems, because they believe the problems are going to be solved on a whole different plane, and that doesn’t exist.
Politics is bad, but it doesn’t work on that level of complete unreality.•