Bill Maher is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he thrives on it, even when his opinions alienate his own fans (remember when he famously rejected the patriotic notion that flying a plane into the World Trade Center was “cowardly”?).
More than a decade later, the former star of Politically Incorrect and current host of HBO’s Real Time political talk show still refuses to mince his words, albeit in an unfailingly good-natured way. So for those who are planning to catch Maher’s show at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Sunday night, enter with a thick skin and an open mind, as the comedian is sure to exercise his right to free speech to its fullest extent.
Maher talked to the Miami Herald about why he still loves to do stand-up, why Republicans are such an easy comedic target, and whether he has ever felt the need to censor himself.
Q: So, being from L.A., I guess you’re not looking forward to the weather change down here like most visitors do?
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A: [Laughs] Well, it’s my sister in New Jersey who had the intolerable winter like so much of the country did. We’re the lucky ones. When I moved out of New York, everybody was like, “How can you leave the artistic climate and the intellectual climate?” And I was always like, “What about the climate climate?” That affects my mood a lot more than a museum that I don’t go to.
Q: What can we expect from your show?
A: You can expect to laugh your ass off! Yeah, I mean, that’s what stand-up is, and that’s why I do it: Because there’s something very pure about it, and it’s not a mixture, like the Real Time show is, of serious and funny — it’s all funny. It’s the same kind of topics that I’m interested in — I’ve never been the kind of comedian who is interested in the trivial, although there are comedians who do that brilliantly. I always have to have something real to chew on. But there’s plenty of material out there [laughs].
Q: Anybody in particular who deserves skewering?
A: Oh, the Republicans have such a deep bench [of targets]. They just keep coming up with new people, you know? Whoever you thought was the worst — if you thought it was Reagan, then Bush comes along, and if you thought it was Bush then Sarah Palin comes along, and, you know, Ted Cruz. It never ends, and they get crazier and crazier, and it’s all good for me.
Q: Speaking of the presidency, how do you feel about Obama’s performance?
A: I always think of the alternative universe — if Mitt Romney or John McCain were president. If John McCain were president, we’d be at war in 12 different countries. The White House put their big climate change report out this week, and not that we’re doing a lot to solve that problem, but it would be even worse if it were Mitt Romney. And you look at the economy — I think the thing that Obama doesn’t get credited enough for is that we probably would have tipped into a depression if he hadn’t been “No Drama Obama” and plenty calm about passing that stimulus package. People forget what people were going through in the fall of 2008 — banks were failing, and people were taking their money out and putting it under their mattresses. It was horrible — we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Well, we’ve got all the jobs back now from the great recession, and obviously things could be better, but we’re not at war. And people are getting healthcare, unemployment is down to 6.3 percent, the deficit has been cut in half, we’re not at war, the stock market is at an all-time high. I mean, how low can this man take us? [laughs]. That’s what the Republicans keep saying: How bad can it get out there?!
I just hope in the remaining time he has in office, that he does pivot big-time toward the environment as an issue. It seems like that was the one that kinda got lost in the shuffle, and obviously, like with so many issues, he doesn’t get any help from the other side. They think it’s a big hoax, even as they’re drowning or starving, or just withering in 130-degree sun [laughs].
Q: From the beginning of your comedic career, have you always been this serious underneath the joking?
A: I was always interested in politics, yeah, and world affairs, because that’s what my father did for a living — he was a radio news guy. So it was something that was talked about around the dinner table in my house, which I think is probably not the typical situation in America, that you talk about politics with the kids even before they can understand it. But that’s what he did, and that’s what was around the house, and that’s what always interested me. Now, when I was a younger comedian starting out right out of college, it was not very well accepted by the audience — first of all, of course, you’re not a very good comic at that point. And then on top of that, I’m trying to talk about things that the audience is looking at me like, “What the f--- do you know about it — you look like you don’t even shave yet!” [laughs] So it’s the kind of thing you have to grow into a little bit, but yes, it was always my area of interest.
Q: How often do you feel that you could do a better job than those in positions of power?
A: Well, I’ve met so many Congress people, and very often you realize, “Wow, this guy is just flat-out not bright!” What it always reminds me of is local news guys or the weather person — somebody who smiles and blow-dries the hair and puts a nice outfit on. But there’s just nothing behind the eyes. So yes, lots of Americans could do better than those people.
But would I have the patience that’s required to be a politician? Absolutely not. First of all, they spend about four to five hours a day, a lot of them, on the phone begging for money. They are the world’s last English-speaking telemarketers [laughs].
Q: Do you enjoy Real Time more than you did Politically Incorrect?
A: You know, they were two different ages in my life. It’s like saying, “Are you enjoying your 50s more than your 20s?” I’m enjoying different aspects of my 50s than I did in my 20s or 30s — I had different things going for me back then, and different things going against me back then. Politically Incorrect was a sillier show, and I was a sillier person. I was younger, less mature, more crazy, doing lots of jokes about smoking pot and being in the hot tub with girls I didn’t know, and just things I would never do and that are very inappropriate at this time in my life. So it’s hard to say, but I’m definitely very, very glad that at the moment we transitioned, we did transition. Because I sure wouldn’t want to be doing Polically Incorrect at this point in my life. It was just too trivial.
Q: Do you still feel like a free-speech poster child, or has that died down a bit?
A: I feel like I’m an inoculated free-speech poster child, because they’ve come after me so many times and never got rid of me. And there are often outcries, and of course we live in a different world now, because people can do it immediately on social media. And I think that sometimes takes some of the sting out of it, because it’s so immediate, and it’s so ubiquitous. I mean, I could write on Twitter, literally, “Good Morning,” and the first 50 responses will be, “F--- you, Bill Maher! Where do you get off saying good morning —morning was the word Ronald Reagan used, and you don’t deserve to lick his … .” OK. So when everything becomes a cause to attack, it’s hard to find your way through the weeds and see what’s real and what’s not.
Q: Has any of the flak that you’ve gotten for some of the things you’ve said ever tempt you to censor yourself?
A: No. That’s the one thing I never did, because I always felt like the bond that was between me and the audience was that I don’t censor myself. I will accept the fact that I sometimes lose fans and lose viewers because I say something that they don’t like. I’ve even seen people walk out of my stand-up shows. But that’s OK. That’s the price to pay, and the benefit outweighs it by far. And the benefit is that people feel like this is a guy who doesn’t pull a punch, and is not gonna pander, and is not gonna say what he thinks we want to hear.