By Liquid Todd
Bill Maher became the first media casualty of the massive surge in American nationalism that followed the events of 9/11. Ironic doesn’t seem to be a strong enough word to describe being fired for saying something politically incorrect on a show called Politically Incorrect, but after George W. Bush labeled the 9/11 terrorists “cowards” Maher countered that perhaps lobbing cruise missiles from a ship 2,000 miles away required slightly less nerve than piloting an airplane into a building.
“Staying in the airplane when it hits the building . . . say what you want about it,” he said less than a week after it all went down.
The real cowards turned out to be the executives at ABC who declined to renew Politically Correct for another season. Had the country become too thin-skinned to tolerate even mild criticism? Was there a place left on television for unrepentant wiseasses like Bill Maher? Fortunately HBO was willing to take the heat and Real Time with Bill Maher debuted about a year later.
These days Maher’s trademark relaxed acerbity has an undercurrent of what seems like a quiet satisfaction. Maybe it’s because he’s so comfortable being on HBO where there are no advertisers to bully.
“I’m in a great place where they can’t chuck me off because they threaten not to buy a certain brand of toothpaste.”
Or maybe he sounds so pleased because even when he gets ambushed he ends up winning. Last November the token blonde on The View went after him because of a joke he made about her in February. Later that same day Maher looked almost serene on the Late Show with David Letterman, joking that Elizabeth Hasselbeck was actually a dear friend and they only quarrel on television because it “makes the sex hotter.”
“She sold a lot of books for me that day,” Maher tells me.
And the good news keeps on coming. HBO just expanded the Real Time season to 35 episodes a year. His scathing satire on religion, Religulous, was a documentary hit and he just published his seventh book—the third in his New Rules series— subtitled A Funny Look At How Everyone But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass.
Maher is scheduled to perform at The Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on Jan. 21. He’s also set to host the first Yahoo! Screen comedy event when he performs “CrazyStupidPolitics: Bill Maher Live from Silicon Valley” show on Feb. 23.
For an admitted lifelong pothead and vocal advocate of marijuana legalization the guy sure has a serious work ethic. And since he’s doing the rounds promoting the new book, I got a chance to speak with Maher right before New Year’s Eve:
The mainstream media has completely failed to do its job which has resulted in tons of people relying on comedians who do news-centric shows like yourself, Stewart, Colbert and even late-night hosts instead of straight new sources for their information. Does knowing that affect how you do your show?
I don’t know if it affects how I do my show because I think I would do my [show] the same way anyway. I feel like our show is a weekly wrap-up show. It’s on Friday night on a premiere cable network that people pay for, and I feel like what I’m doing is a show for people who may not have been able to follow the news that week.
I want to be able to, first off, catch them up on everything important that happened that week. I want to mention anything I feel that’s important that they should know about somewhere in the show. We have a number of different elements. It could happen in the monologue, the two one-on-one interviews, I have a panel and I have a “New Rules” segments at the end. Anywhere in one of those segments I can do that, but it’s very important to me that I feel like if people were not able to follow the news that week because they’re busy, they have jobs, they have kids, the crazy economy they may be out looking for a job perhaps. But they still can—in one hour—get a thumbnail sketch of everything that went on and, of course, make it all entertaining. That’s very, very important.
So, you do see yourself as part journalist, part comedian?
Oh, majorly a comedian. Much more a comedian than a journalist, but I do feel the obligation to do what a journalist does which is to make interesting what is important.
And the other thing I feel like I try to do every week is just do a show, which is more out there; more raw; more real; more gutsy. And not so easily categorized as left wing, right wing. I think other shows—though they might be entertaining—are more predictable as far as the point-of-view they take. I think our point-of-view very often is not one you can predict.
And I’m sure that ends up pissing people off all along the political spectrum. As a progressive, I sometimes find myself wondering: “What the hell is Bill doing?” But I guess it makes sense if you’re trying to be a little unpredictable. Although you have to admit that one side is completely crazy, and it’s not the progressives.
Yes. And it’s not the progressives that are usually disappointed in me. I’m usually with the progressives. It’s things like . . . I’m an atheist and most progressives are not atheists.
So, where do you get your news? I imagine you to be a fairly voracious news junkie.
I combine old media and new. I still like to read a newspaper with the paper in my hands. I still find that easier so I’ll still read the L.A. Times and USA Today and The New York Times and I, of course, love my HuffPo. And some of my favorite bloggers. Andrew Sullivan and so forth, I click ’em.
I hear The Huffington Post is launching a television network. Will we see you on there in some capacity?
I don’t know if I’m going to be involved, but anytime my girl Arianna wants me to write a blog or say something I’m happy to do it.
How many episodes of Real Time are you doing each year now?
Now we’re up to 35, which is great. For a long time—for the first eight years we were on HBO—they had us doing two seasons and we had terribly long breaks in between.
I know! That really bums me out.
Yeah, but that was not the case this year. We’ll be back on Jan. 13. Two months in the winter and one month in the summer are the only times we’re off. So, that’s getting better.
That’s not so bad. But, like I said earlier, we rely on you guys for some real news so it really sucks when you’re not around when there’s important shit going down.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Well, I appreciate that.
Okay would you consider doing more episodes of Real Time, you know, for me?
(Laughs) I could come over your house and act it out with puppets!
Excellent! Are you happy with Real Time? How long do you see yourself doing the show?
You know, I love it. It’s a terrific place I landed. I love the network. I love the fact that no matter what I say I can’t get thrown off the air by sponsors like what happened to me at ABC. I kind of need to be in a protected place like this because if I was on a network that had sponsors you know that—within a week—the same shit would start happening all over again.
Do you think Real Time will continue to evolve and change?
Well, I always hope it will evolve to a degree, but I think you can’t evolve to the point where you confuse the audience as to what it is you’re doing. We have tweaked the show over the years to the format that it’s in now. Like, for example, we used to do our one-on-one interviews via satellite but we found it works much better to have the people in the studio. I actually like to look at someone in the eye. When you’re on satellite it’s very hard to get the comedy timing right because there’s that delay.
Also, they can’t see the audience so your guest can’t get a feel for how they are reacting to what they’re saying.
That’s right. So, things like that. We’ve learned to bring out a guest mid-way through the show, who may not be someone who would be correct for the panel, who goes on for 20 minutes and talks about hard politics. You can bring out someone who’s a little more “show-bizzy” and their only responsibility is to talk to you for five minutes, and then if they want to jump in for the last few minutes of the show back with the panel they can but they don’t have to. It takes the pressure off and you can have some people on who you wouldn’t normally really feel comfortable about having on the panel. Little things like that, I think, help a lot, but, you know, I always am going to want to do a monologue. You always want to establish that this is a funny show, and I am a comedian. And you always want to have on newsmakers and you always want to have on a panel.
Can I get you to name names and give us some of your favorite guests?
You know, I never answer that question because I know that I’ll leave somebody out. I’ve done that before and I’ve said, “Oh, my favorite guests are A, B and C,” and then I get a call from Martin Short the next day: “How come you didn’t say me?”
Well, Elizabeth Hasselbeck really went after you on The View. Was she really that pissed at you or do you kids secretly adore each other in real life?
I’ve never met her in real life. I’ve only met her on The View and, you know, I think she helped me sell a lot of books that day so I really should send her a basket of flowers.
Alright, you have the HBO show, you just wrote a new book called New New Rules and you’re still doing standup regularly. In fact you’re doing a comedy special in San Jose in February that is going to be streamed live (and for free) on Yahoo!, right?
Yeah and that’s something I’m really excited about because it’s the first time anyone has ever done a live show on the Internet. It’s gonna be pretty much what I used to do for HBO. I’ve done nine, hour-long standup specials for HBO going back to 1989, and, I thought: “Well you know what? I’m on their network for 35 weeks a year; they’re probably sick of me.” And, “Why not do it someplace where you can basically attract a new audience; people who don’t necessarily have HBO, and do it for free?”
How would you describe your work ethic?
I’m a worker. I’m not someone who’s comfortable just sitting around doing nothing. I like my work. And it’s the one relationship in my life that goes back to high school. I don’t know, I feel . . . useless if I’m not working on some thing or another.
When I was doing my research for this interview I was surprised to learn that your documentary on religion, Religulous is the eighth-highest grossing documentary in the U.S. ever. That’s pretty cool, eh?
Yes, it was seventh and then something . . . oh, the penguin movie.
The f#@*ing March of the Penguins knocked us down to eighth.
Bill Maher at The Arlington Theare, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 963-4408; thearlingtontheatre.com, www.billmaher.com. Jan. 21. 8pm.