Comedian and TV personality Bill Maher, who will perform at the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday, July 13, has been pushing the boundaries of comedy and political satire for more than 20 years.
While many comedians have found success combining politics with humor in their stand-up routines, Maher is among the few who have managed to navigate the much trickier waters of television, where one misstep can send sponsors running. "Politically Incorrect" ran on ABC from 1993 to 2002. And Maher's "Real Time" has run on HBO for the last nine years. The shows have earned Maher nearly 30 Emmy nominations.
His 2008 documentary film "Religulous," directed by Larry Charles, was a hysterical swipe at organized religion. In it, Maher travels around the world talking to people about God. The interviews show the fine line between faith's good and destructive forces. And he's written five books, his most recent being "The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass."
Maher's most recent endeavor, as executive producer of the HBO news series "Vice," marks a clear departure from humor. Vice is a stirring, sometimes graphic mix of news and documentary film. The episodes have a hard-to-watch, can't-look-away fascination.
In a recent phone interview, Maher gave his own take on a wide range of topics: Americans' narrow appetite for news, getting snubbed by Bill Clinton, the recent national-security leaks, the changes in the Republican Party during the last decade, how Republicans have changed their positions on issues they once supported, mainly to impede President Obama. In his characteristic frankness, Maher said that much of the particularly virulent comments about Obama are racially motivated.
Born in New York City, Maher started his career as a stand-up comedian, and he still makes more than 50 appearances a year. He was most influenced, he said, by comedians Robert Klein and Johnny Carson. While he was drawn to Klein's wit, he remembers Carson as a kind of nurturing godfather for comedians. And Maher credits his father for introducing him to politics.
The following is an edited version of that interview.
CITY: You've created a niche that mixes comedy with serious political commentary. Did you always know that this is what you wanted to do? What made you combine the two?
MAHER: I don't think I knew it consciously, but my father was a newsman. That's what he did for a living. He was in radio news in the old days when every radio station had news at the top of the hour, even the rock and roll station I listened to as a kid. And he was also a funny guy, a good living-room comedian when his friends were over. My mother was a witty person, too, and that's the stew I was born into.
Do you think that many Americans become so upset by political discourse that humor becomes an easier way of listening to or talking about difficult subjects?
I do think that's a lot of it. I think there's a lot of cynicism. And I think a lot of them feel the news is so disheartening, the country is so corrupt, and the system is so rigged, and we're so poisoned, ripped off, and lied to that it doesn't deserve serious recounting. They would rather have it come through satire.
Now I don't think this is anything new in American history. I also think that part of it is that we've become lazier. It's just easier to get your news and humor from one source. Why read the real story when you can go right to the Cliff Notes?
And you know, I guess I'm somewhat responsible for it.
Some people might say that your approach is a little abrasive, and given that, do you change any hearts and minds?
I'll tell you, in doing this for 20 years over three networks and two different shows, you really don't change people's minds about politics. The number of people who have come up to me over the years or reached out over Twitter or Facebook and say, "Hey, I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and now I'm a bleeding heart liberal" is almost none.
But that's not my goal. My goal is to inform and entertain.
I'll tell you what is easy to change people's views about, and that's religion. I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me and said, "I saw 'Religulous' and boy, I'm so glad I did. And I don't go to church anymore."
It's so easy to flip people about the religious thing. You just point out a few things, and it all starts to unravel. People always ask me, "What [spiritual] figure do you relate to?" And I always say, "Toto from 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
He's the little dog that pulled the curtain back and showed that the Wizard was just an ordinary guy even though he was claiming to be something else.
Your television program "Politically Incorrect" first aired in the 1990's. What has changed during that time?
I think politics changed. When we started in '93, [former US Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole was the guy running the show in the Senate. Bob Dole sponsored a health-care bill that is basically very much like what we wound up with in Obamacare.
Twenty years ago, Republicans were for much of Obamacare. They changed. Twenty years ago, many Republicans were for a cap-and-trade bill and talked about solving the acid rain problem. It's a marketplace solution, very Republican. Again, now that it's a Democratic proposal, Republicans are against it. They are against what they used to be for because they've tap danced so far to the right, they don't even want to admit that global warming exists. They say it's a hoax.
I'm not the first person to point this out, but they've moved so far to the right that they've skewed everybody's commentary. I think I used to play it a little bit more down the middle. I don't think my politics and sensibility changed. One of the parties changed.
We're always hearing about the influence of the conservative media machine on politics, led by conservative talk radio. Do you see yourself as a one of the leaders of progressive media?
Progressive media have asked me a number of times to come to work for them, and I always tell them, "I think I would disappoint too many of your listeners because I don't think I'm predictably progressive."
I don't know if I would really fit in on MSNBC, because I think I would piss them off. I never say anything I don't mean on my show. I don't say anything just to be contrary. And I'm not always in the liberal's camp. They very often get mad at me on my show.
What's your view of the NSA leaks?
Now there's an issue where we see that it's completely impossible to predict the left and right, and what side people will come down on. [Former vice president] Al Gore said it was one of the worst things he's ever seen. Al Franken said we were aware of this, and that this isn't news. It's funny because the Ron Paul people, which I usually think of as far to the right, are in agreement with the NYCLU people, which are far to the left. It has really scrambled things up.
We were talking about it on the show, and I'm still a little bit on the edge. I'm still wrestling with it, and what I said was, for me, the thing that tips the scale is the fact that there are nuclear weapons in the world. And there are so many crazy people who want to get their hands of them and use them.
If there weren't, then I think I would come down on the side that's saying this is too intrusive. For all the people who make the point that the founding fathers could not have predicted assault weapons, true; but they couldn't have predicted nuclear weapons, either, which can do so much more damage. An assault weapon is a few grades above a musket. But a nuclear weapon is unimaginable, and the fact that there are thousands of them in the world, and that we don't know if some of them are loose and where they could show up, concerns me.
Obama himself, when he was pressed on the question, "What keeps you up at night?" finally answered, "Pakistan." That's the place where there are nuclear weapons and people ready to give them to a terrorist.
You're the executive producer of Vice on HBO, and it's been a long time since we've seen anything like this approach to journalism. It's very graphic. What are trying to do with Vice?
It is so different, and I think what it does more than anything is open the eyes of Americans to what they don't see. Americans are rather inward looking. We were just talking in a producers' meeting about a statistic: 41 percent of Americans have absolutely no desire to travel overseas. It's one thing to be unable to afford to travel overseas, but this is not about that. This is about people saying, "Nah, nothing to see over there."
I don't think a lot of Americans, including a lot of well-educated people, have a clue of what the rest of the world is like. And that's what Vice does. We may think things are crazy here – well, just look at [what's happening in] those oil fields in Nigeria. Just look at the Philippines, where they believe smoking is a cure for cancer. Just look at Indonesia, if you think we have a gun problem.
The shows are eye-opening, and Friday is the finale for the season, and it's Dennis Rodman in North Korea. If people have had their minds blown by this show, this will be an appropriate and fitting finale because North Korea is the craziest place in this crazy world.
An episode showing the Taliban's use of children as suicide bombers shows the carnage after a bomber explodes in a public market. We hear these reports all the time, but we never see it. Why in your view has the network news shied away from this coverage? And if Americans were seeing this in their nightly news, do you think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have lasted so long?
Probably. The nightly news gives you one segment of real news. I watch the nightly news every night. It's sort of a thumb on the pulse of people who are interested enough to want to know what's going on, but not as interested as a news junkie.
I find it very ironic because nightly news in the Walter Cronkite era used to complain that they only had a half hour and they needed more time to adequately educate the American public. Now it doesn't even use its half hour. You get one first slug — I was watching this the other night — then they went right to storm chasers, which is not news. By the time you get to the last segment, it's just some feel good story about a one-legged skier or some nonsense. So if that's the way people get their news, good luck.
You talk about President Obama a lot on your show, often supportively and sometimes critically. Why is Obama such a lightning rod, and why is the response from the right so extreme?
He's black. I mean they hate Democrats to begin with. Let's be honest. They hated Clinton, too. But it's also that he's black. That's the extra element. It's not rational.
I was watching something about [former governor of Alabama] George Wallace because it was the 50th anniversary of him standing in the doorway [of a building at the University of Alabama blocking black students from entering]. People in this day and age often don't know that they are racists and often deny it. Whenever you hear someone say, "I'm not a racist, but," I can almost guarantee you that whatever comes after the 'but' is some kind of racist nonsense.
They feel something in their gut that they can't quantify. They feel that the country has changed, and it has. I mean we have 20 women senators now. We have six gay Congress people. We have a bisexual, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and a Muslim. And the vision of a black man getting on Air Force One just doesn't compute for them. So they lash out on a very emotional level on issues that have nothing to do with them.
Gay marriage? What could have less to do with their lives than whether gay people are getting married? Who cares? It doesn't matter. But it suggests that the country that they remember is better than the one they live in today. And it's often not even an accurate memory. It's a conflated memory. And it really is racially motivated. The country they liked better did not have black people in charge.
Who haven't you interviewed that you wish that you could?
My big fish that I never got was Bill Clinton, and I've tried every which way to get him on. I've tried shaming him publicly. I did it once when we were on "Larry King Live" together, and I've done it privately.
At this point, I have to take it as a badge of honor that these people who will not come on my show do it because they know I will not pull any punches or kiss their ass. But certainly Bill Clinton should do my show.