Bill Maher: Pointing Out the Truth

NUVO | August 8, 2008
Comedian Bill Maher's current tour has no name. But if it did, he jokes, it'd be the "Better Than Staying Home and Smoking Pot Tour."

"I always laugh when people say 'tour,' " he said in a telephone interview, "like I'm the Rolling Stones and it's been going on for two years."

OK, so it's not Steel Wheels. But on second thought, Maher said, maybe it is a tour. He's on the road three nights a week – which he has time to do, since his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher is on hiatus until Aug. 29 – and the performance consists of all-new material.

Whatever this is, it's certainly a chance to see one of the smartest and most controversial political comics working today. You can always count on Maher to say what he thinks. And that's what he did in our interview, which covered topics such as his talk shows (1993-2002's Politically Incorrect and Real Time, going into its sixth season), his upcoming movie about religion, Religulous (pronounced like "ridiculous," out Oct. 3), politics and anything else we could fit into 15 minutes.

Q: What's wrong with this country?

A: Basically, the people are too stupid to be governed. I saw yesterday that two-thirds of the American public now thinks it would be a good idea to drill for more oil, when even oil people like T. Boone Pickens are telling everyone this is not the answer. It's not going to make your gas prices go down, it's only going to hurt the environment more, it's going to keep us stuck in the past. (New York Times columnist) Tom Friedman had a great analogy: He said it's as if in 1980, someone was clamoring for more IBM Selectric typewriters. Forget about this Internet stuff. It's going nowhere.

Plainly, we have to hitch our wagon to different kinds of energy sources. They're available. We could do it. It just seems incredibly selfish of the president to push for this drilling solution – which is no solution – and it's just so depressing that it takes so little to convince the people of something so erroneous.

Q: Did you always want to be an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time?

A: (Laughs) It would be a funny sketch: Me at 10, with a toga and a staff, railing against snow days. "More snow days from school!" No, but I guess when you're Irish, you're born with it.

Q: There's a Web site called that claims to have 30,000 signatures calling for your ouster for making anti-Catholic statements. Why do you hate Catholics, Bill?

A: I don't hate Catholics; I love everybody. I'm a former Catholic. My father was a serious Catholic and I certainly still love him. But 30,000? First of all, I'm insulted it's that low. But realistically, this Catholic League that always gets mad at me? I have a sneaking suspicion this "Catholic League" is one guy with a fax machine. I don't trust any of those figures, but I'm quite sure more people than that get HBO because of me, so on an economic front, they're doomed to fail.

And on a philosophical front, I certainly don't hate Catholics or anybody. But I do see my job as pointing out the truth, and I know they're very mad at me that I pointed out that the Pope was here the same week they raided that polygamist cult in Texas and the analogy had to be made about systemic abuse of children in religions. It seemed unfair that the Pope was getting parades when he presided over a much more systemic version of the same abuse, and the other guy was going to jail. The truth is the truth. I'm sorry where the chips fall, Catholics.

Q: Did the guy who shot up the Tennessee church because he hates liberals and gays give you pause?

A: Yes. I'm not going to that church anymore. Is that why he did it? Then why didn't he shoot up an abortion clinic or a night club? Why did he go to church? That's not where the liberals and gays are. He was confused. Crazed gunmen have got to do their reading. That's what I say.

Q: Cindy Adams, writing about Religulous, said, "The man makes Michael Moore into a moderate."

A: (Laughs) Michael Moore is a Catholic. I don't think he'd touch this subject. But politically, I don't make him a moderate; I think he's to the left of me. He's practically a socialist, and I'm a little bit to the right of that. But she's certainly not going to drive a wedge between my buddy Michael Moore and me.

Q: ABC News reported recently that a woman in Missouri found a Cheeto that looked like a miniature Jesus on a cross. She and her husband called it "Cheesus." Your reaction to this?

A: My reaction is, it's pretty hard, when you're talking about the subject of religion, to be funnier than the truth. People accuse me of making fun of religion, and I always say, "I'm not making fun of it; it makes fun of itself." I think this just proves my point. By the way, the poster for Religulous is my head in a grilled cheese sandwich. It's really a funny poster.

Q: Have you ever said anything publicly that you didn't mean, just to get a rise out of the right?

A: I probably have. I can't think of an example. I generally never do that. People say to me, "Do you mean what you say?" And I do. I don't play devil's advocate on my show. Never have. I am a comedian, so comedians have to comede, and part of comedy – despite what they say about the cover of The New Yorker – is the use of irony, the use of exaggeration, the use of sarcasm. They're all comedic devices. If you then parse them and take them literally, obviously you can make mischief out of it. And it's a sort of deliberate misinterpretation.

This goes on in the country all of the time – deliberate misinterpretation – from people who live for what I call "fake outrage." "Oh, my God, he's not wearing a lapel pin" and "Oh, my God, his wife said she's not proud of America" and "Oh, my God, he doesn't have his hand over his heart and they're playing 'America the Beautiful.'" There's this whole industry built on fake outrage. But I'm not part of that. If I'm outraged, it's usually how I truly feel.

Q: Have you invited Ben Stein on the show?

A: We haven't invited Ben. Ben's probably still mad at me. He was on Politically Incorrect, probably about 1935, and I guess he feels I was mean to him. Maybe I was. Who can remember back then? He was denying global warming, as I recall, so I can't feel bad about being mean to someone who's denying something that might kill me and every scientist in the world says is happening. I'd like to have Ben back, and I promise I won't be mean anymore.

Q: Have you seen his movie Expelled, about intelligent design?

A: I have not. It's curious why someone with such obvious brain capacity – I mean, nobody's going to deny that Ben Stein is a big brain – gets to a place where he's justifying intelligent design and denying global warming. Where did this big brain make a wrong turn? I don't have as big a brain as he does, but mine seems to work better.

Q: On Real Time, how do the notes you get from HBO compare with the notes you got for Politically Correct on ABC?

A: I never got notes either place. ABC would call down more because there would be controversies, little dust-ups over censorship issues. We wanted to do a sketch called Harry Pothead once when Harry Potter was coming out. I remember that being a big fight. I was in trouble on a fairly regular basis, but months and months would go by and no, they didn't give notes. At least, not to me. Maybe to my producers. And HBO – that's the great thing. They hire people and they let you do your thing. They believe in the talent they hire, and we just don't have those discussions.

But I don't feel like I've ever been squelched. And it was only six months after I got fired (by ABC) that I was back on the air, at HBO. So I think the lesson is, there is free speech in America. You have to fight for it a little bit, but they haven't gotten to that one yet. They have dismantled a good part of the Bill of Rights, that is true – search and seizure, wiretapping, torture, habeas corpus. Any time they say the word "terrorist," rights disappear. But freedom of speech, that one seems to prevail.

Q: What was it like in the middle of the shit storm that occurred right after the "coward" remark? (On Sept. 17, 2001, Maher said on Politically Incorrect: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.")

A: It was very intense for a very short time – a couple of weeks. And then, within six months, people were saying to me, "Didn't you say something?" It was amazing how intense and how quickly it receded into nothingness.

Which is, to me, so typical of this country, which is a panicky country. It's a panicky country because it's an ignorant country. When you're ignorant, you're always in the dark and when you're in the dark, everything scares you. So we panic. Everything from Janet Jackson's nipple to 9/11, we immediately go to DEFCON 5. We attack the wrong country and start torturing people. We defeated the Nazis without having to torture people. But we weren't panickers back then.

Q: What's your prediction for the outcome of the presidential election?

A: I have no doubt the Democrats will prevail this time, the difference being Obama doesn't have that "I'm gonna blow it" look on his face that the last two guys had. And things are bad. That's the Democrats' ace in the hole. Things are bad. So people don't have the indulgence they had in other elections to vote for nonsense. The "he-doesn't-wear-a-flag-pin" nonsense will have a certain effect, but I believe on Election Day, people will go, "You know what, my kid needs new teeth. I'd better vote for the smart guy."


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