There was a time in the 1980s when Bill Maher was little more than a modestly successful comedian for whom small roles on big television shows were considered the mark of having Made It. His early résumé reads like a Nick at Nite who's-who, with roles on Alice; Murder, She Wrote and Newhart among the highlights.
In between those gigs and Tonight Show appearances were co-starring roles on series long forgotten, among them the Geena Davis 13-episodes-and-out Sara and Tim Matheson's FOX show Charlie Hoover, featuring a miniature Sam Kinison. (The only proof of its existence are these dubbed-into-Spanish clips.) And lest one forget: D.C. Cab and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.
But that was another lifetime ago -- long before he reinvented himself as host of ABC's Politically Incorrect, a ripped-from-the-headlines roundtable show populated by celebrities who spouted off on gay marriage, male birth control, Bill Clinton's marital woes, George W. Bush's drug use and whatever else was on Corey Feldman's mind. Then came September 11, 2001 -- or, more specifically, the week after the terror attacks, when Maher said this and was promptly thrown off ABC.
Shortly after that, he found a new home on HBO, where he's now in his ninth season as host of Real Time With Bill Maher, where he's reinvented himself as flamethrowing, PETA-supporting, Palin-bashing, libertarian-lovin' political satirist -- the kind who calls the former Alaska governor a "dumb twat" and refers to the Quran a "hate-filled holy book." Why, only yesterday Maher found himself mentioned, though not by name, in a Palin post on her Facebook page, where she wrote he's little more than an "annoying little mosquito found zipped up in your tent [who] can't do any harm, but buzzes around annoyingly until it's time to give him the proverbial slap." And that Quaran thing we get to on the other side.
After the jump is a lengthy chat I had with Maher a few days ago in advance of his appearance Sunday at the Winspear Opera House, tickets to which are still available here. We begin, more or less, at the beginning -- I asked him how one transitions from the guy in D.C. Cab to someone who becomes the object of Ari Fleischer's ire. And away we go ...
So, how does one transition from D.C. Cab to role of Important Political Commentator, anyway?
Yeah, I am glad that I shed that skin before I started the new one because it would be hard to take someone seriously as a semi-commentator if they were also the office creep, as I was on my first sitcom, or the cannibal-women-jungle guy and that stuff. That was the '80s, and I was in my 20s, and I was starting out, and you are just lumbering around for who you are in the business. But that was the template for what we all had when we started out in New York in the early '80s -- Jerry Seinfield and all the people who were vaguely contemporaries, all of us comedians. It was a great way to get on The Tonight Show, which we did, and if you got on The Tonight Show, then you got on a sitcom. I remember Jerry was on Benson. And enough of us came out here and got on The Tonight Show, got on sitcoms, and got into movies. I did these very B kind of movies -- you know, D.C. Cab and things like that.
I recall seeing you on Alice ...
My first acting job ever was Alice. Absolutely. 1983. That decade you know, the '80s ... But I got to a certain point where I was like, "Oh, God, I don't want to do this, and this is not who I am," and then I had a few years where I really didn't do a hell of a lot other than keep being a comedian, and then I wrote a book and stuff like that. And luckily the thing that was really suited to me, Politically Incorrect, came along in 1993.
Obviously, Jon Stewart had the same thing -- I was reminded of that the other night when Half Baked came on -- and I'm always fascinated by the fact that there are a handful of guys who transcended being that guy who was in that thing to become somebody that people not only listen to, but who people take so seriously. At what point had you realized that you had in fact left it behind, that you had become someone people listen to, paid attention to and took seriously? Was there was a transcendent moment in which something happened, when you went "Oh, shit, I'm that guy now"?
Well, certainly when you start getting in trouble for things you say. When I got fired off ABC and there was a week there when the White House was commenting on me every day. When Ari Fleischer famously -- and stupidly, on his part -- told Americans they need to watch what they say. I remember thinking at that point, "Why are they talking about me?" We were in the middle of a national crisis, and I'm a comedian, and somehow I was coming up in the briefing room every day.
Is it flattering? Is it scary?
I think it's scary for the country that people care about things and people that they shouldn't care so much about. I would like to see the country be more serious, but that's not going to happen. There are people who say I'm partly to blame because Politically Incorrect in the '90s ushered in an era where political debate was dumbed down by having celebrities talk about it. There was some truth to that, but it's not like that's where the culture wasn't going anyway.
On the flip side then, if Politically Incorrect was where it was dumbed down, was Real Time where it was smartened up?
Well, it definitely smarted up from where Politically Incorrect was.
In terms of where you think the debate went? In terms of having politicians sitting next to actors -- whether it's Ben Affleck or Alec Baldwin or any number of filmmakers -- who clearly have, let's say, an informed perspective?
That's the difference. On Real Time, it really isn't 'any number of' -- it's a very small number of people who you could say they are in show business who sit on that panel, and I could look at the grid and tell you going back just from this season, I see not very many. Where we use the show business now is to come out, sorta like two-thirds through the show, sit down to my left, and I do a brief interview with them personally, and then they stick on the panel. We did that this year with Matthew Perry, and people like that. That's the better place to put an actual show business person. But as far as the panel, I'm looking at the last week -- former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, Paul Begala, Dana Lash. That's nobody in show business. The week before: Gloria Steinem, Ezra Kline -- one of the smartest guys around -- and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. It's not a lot of people who are coming up. We have Elliot Spitzer, Katty Kay and Andrew Sullivan -- there's no show people there. Gov. Ed Rendell, Tina Brown with David Brooks -- no show business people there. That's where our show has gone to. Now, there are a few people you mention -- Affleck and Alec Baldwin -- and these are guys who really know their shit, but they're few and far between.
It seems to me that you and Stewart in particular are where politicians have gone in order to have the kind of thoughtful conversation that they maybe won't find on Sunday morning television.
They go for it because this is where the audience is.
Well, it's where the audience is, but I think it's a different kind of discussion. A more honest, more visceral, more sincere discussion.
Yes, because you can be more yourself, and you can be more humanized, and that's of course what politicians are looking for. But they're also looking for younger people. When you go on the Sunday morning talk shows, you're performing for a group, for a demographic that is ...
Housebound and they've mostly already decided what political party they are. We're talking 50s and up. The average age on FOX News is late 50s. For Bill O'Reilly, I think the average age is 65. I think the same for Glenn Beck, and it's for the same reason that advertisers want young eyeballs for toothpaste because those people have not made up their mind on brand yet, so they're much more valuable. If you're talking about the average 60-year-old, they pretty much know whether they're a Republican or a Democrat, and they may call themselves independent, but independent really is a misleading term. It's not like they're kind of seriously weighing the difference and could go either way. They're sort of just people. I feel the independents are basically Republicans, who, if the Republicans fuck up bad enough, will vote for the Democrats. That's how Obama got elected -- "the independents." Even they could tell Bush was a fuck-up. And they voted for Obama, but you see he wasn't in office long before they swung right back.
Did you find there was a point at which, because you were putting so much of yourself out there, because your comedy was about where your personal ideas mingle with the political, that is was a little terrifying? Because now people -- powerful people, as you mentioned earlier -- were suddenly going to be up in your shit. They no longer viewed you as just "an entertainer."
It can be [terrifying], but like anything, you get used to it because you do it so long. There are days when I wish I had a completely neutral act -- you know, that I was a juggler or something. I mean, some days you're just tired and don't want to do battle with anybody and you do not want to deal with controversy and you don't want people coming back at you. But that's not where fate lead me. It's not where I was meant to be. So, most of the time I'm totally OK with who I am, the bed that I lie in. But, yeah, there are days when I realize there are easier paths.
I was always stunned by what happened to Politically Incorrect. But obviously when the HBO show came out it became clear that was going to be a place where you could be more yourself. HBO seemed to be where you lost the safety net. Once you fell, you had further to fall because you could say what you wanted, when you wanted to say it.
But I had that on ABC. That's a misconception people have. I've hear that many times, "Oh, it's great that you're finally free to say what you want." I always was free to say whatever I wanted, I just wound up getting fired for it inevitably on ABC. I mean, that wasn't the first time I was in trouble on ABC. I was constantly in trouble. It just didn't always reach that level. And the ratings were good, so I didn't get fired. The ratings were good till the end. It was the advertisers that pulled out. And, of course, you can't do a show without advertisers. So I understood that, and that's the only difference. It's that I'm in a place now where there are no advertisers. Nobody has any real leverage over me. They can write -- and they have directly written my bosses at HBO -- when I say something they don't like. That's a little different. But that's OK, you can deal with that stuff. A lot of advertisers can't deal with that.
It seems what you really enjoy most is interacting with others, whether it's in the Religulous or whether it's doing the show or when you go on the road. When you do these tours, do you get something different from the stand-up because there's a different interaction with the audience? I sense that you're someone who thrives on the give and take of a conversation, the combativeness, and I use that in the best sense of the word.
Well, I certainly like my day job. But it's mainly different from what it was like the first 10 years, even the first 20 years out on the road, because it's not until you become really well known for what you do that you draw your specific audience. And that's what makes it so much fun. The people coming to see you know exactly what you do, and they want to you do what you do, and you want to do it for them. It's just a hell of a lot of fun. In a way, in the past it was maybe fun sometimes and maybe it wasn't. I wasn't just good, and the audience wasn't so sure of who I was.
That's a real big factor, when you're just generic comedian in a comedy club. Like, you wouldn't do that to someone with music. "Hey do you wanna see some music today?" No, you'd ask what kind? Jazz? Party? Rock? Punk? Because we all have our specific tastes. I wouldn't want to have to go see punk because, no, I don't like that. So that's kind of what it's like when you're coming up as a comedian. Once you're established it's a whole new ballgame, and it's a lot more fun.
I find getting out in the country and sort of absorbing what's going on out there, it's essential to when I come back here. Otherwise I'd feel like I was just sitting in my ivory tower or bubble in Los Angeles. I'm out in America 75-something dates a year. I think it makes a real difference when I come back here. And, no, there isn't a dialogue with the audience, where they're verbalizing -- although they do sometimes shout out -- but there is a dialogue in a sense that when you're doing stand-up, the audience is the director with their laughter and with their reaction. It may not be a specifically verbal reaction, but it's very real. I can read it. I've been doing it 30 years. I speak audience.
What do you learn about America when you're out on the road these days?
Well, you just feel it. Sometimes you feel the poverty. My friend who travels with me and my road manager, we walk around the city we're in, and you see an America that I don't think is often reported in the press. We were walking around Reno recently in the center of the city, and the same in Lexington, Kentucky -- we were there in December -- and you see block after block of porn shops and boarded-up stores. You see the blight. You see that other America, the one that isn't doing so well. We know the people doing great are doing a little more awesomer these days, and it isn't that fantastic, but this is like a whole forgotten half of the country that you kind of have to see first-hand to believe because it doesn't look like an America I ever remember.
Do you look forward coming to the hometown of George W. Bush?
Well, I always do. I love playing the red states, because they're always the most enthusiastic audiences -- because, I guess, someone with my points of view is just not as frequent a visitor to their parts. So it's a little more special when someone like that comes to their town, they seem grateful that I didn't write them off and say, "I'm not going to go to a red state." No, it's that I really love the red states.
Well, you do realize Dallas does have its fair share of Democrats in power and went 57 percent for Obama ...
Yeah, Dallas is hardly the reddest of the red. You know, it's not hard to find a progressive audience in Dallas.
We're also very red meat.
Oh, yeah, that too, but you know, if so many progressive people marbled into all the rednecks in the country, you'd just need to show up and be famous enough to be a rallying point, and they'd come out of the wood work.
Everything, no matter how benign or important, is political. No subject can be broached without it turning into a shouting match. I wonder as someone who's in the center of the maelstrom -- day in and day out, whether it's on the road or television -- what that experience is like for you. Can it be utterly defeating, wearying, or it is galvanizing?
I'd say more wearying. We did an editorial recently about the fact that Mrs. Obama chose as a cause -- because first ladies always have causes, like Lady Bird Johnson had "Beautify America" -- nutrition. And we said if Lady Bird Johnson was in the White House today saying, "Beautify America," we'd be like, "Don't tell me what to beautify, you bitch." There is nothing that isn't controversial. Michelle Obama was merely saying your kids should eat something other then fried shit and get a little exercise, and in any arena before this one, her actions would be completely non-controversial. But of course now it's Obama's wife wants to outlaw this and Sarah Palin has to bring sugar cookies to a school to make sure the people know she's not going to let Obama tell us what our kids should eat.
We live in that era where there is literally nothing that can't be made fodder for controversy. And when that happens, you do feel a bit hopeless that the country wouldn't be able to rally around anything, because if they can't agree that desserts should be limited, how you're going to do the budget?
As someone who holds court over a political discussion and tries to find rationality and thoughtfulness in the eye of the hurricane, what is it like to be in that position -- where your own discussion is drowned out by noise?
Well, the other side would say I'm the noise. I would hope that conservatives, even the more thoughtful ones, have come to see the place where I do my job as a place where conservatives are welcome. We have them on all the time. It's very rare that we have a show with all liberals, though it does happen, though even then with those liberals there is nuance between them. I think they've come to really enjoy the place, because I'm the one sometimes being booed by the liberals.
I was hounded this week when I was talking about the Quran. You know liberals can be absolutely as dark and benighted as conservatives. They stick their fingers in their ears and they hum. If you say anything about the Quran they just go, "La, la, la, la, la, all religions are the same." They all are coming from a place of peace where God has a plan, that's what we learn and sing "Kumbaya" and you're a racist. So I think conservatives applaud the fact that I'm not always predictability liberal and I'm not afraid to make my core audience boo me. And I think we give them a fair chance to speak.
It's not a show like Politically Incorrect where we're purposely trying to pit a snake against a mongoose and there is a screaming match going on. Those days of yelling at other television are certainty over for us here. I hope people see this forum we have as a safe harbor where you can say anything and people won't beat you down. That way, all points can then be heard.