He got fired by a network for suggesting that flying airplanes into buildings is less cowardly than lobbing rockets at another country from a safe distance.
He landed at HBO, where they don’t even bleep out the bad words — and he has been known to use one or two.
His studio audiences skew left, but he takes pains to invite non-liberal guests. His politics also seem to lean left, but he calls himself an independent who “is on the side of truth, whoever has it.”
He’s a comic who sets you up with serious subject matter, then nails you with naughty non-sequiturs.
He’s an atheist with a skinny tie and a strange haircut. When it comes to political correctness, he is an equal opportunity offender.
He started a minor controversy this fall when he criticized, via Twitter, people who get swine flu vaccinations.*
He’s Bill Maher, eponymous host of the HBO program “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which is on hiatus while he takes his standup routine on the road. Maher performs Saturday night at the Louisville Palace. A very punctual Maher recently took time on the phone to enlighten and entertain.
BILL MAHER: Hi, it’s Bill Maher.
LEO: Right on time. Maybe you should be running health care reform.
BM: (laughs) I don’t think so, but thank you. Yes, that’s one of my good points. I’m always on time.
LEO: I wonder if we could start with a little quick word association.
BM: I’ll do my best. It may not be quick …
LEO: I say Kentucky, you say what?
LEO: I say Obama, you say?
BM: Black Elvis.
LEO: Mitch McConnell.
BM: Hangin’ on.
LEO: It does seem we’re living in rancorous times. Agreed?
BM: Very much so.
LEO: Does it feel different?
BM: Less so than I had expected at this point. We’re coming up on a year anniversary of the election. There was a lot of feeling, I think, at that moment a year ago, that things were about to change. And what happened was, things didn’t change that much. And I think that’s disillusioning and disappointing to a lot of people, and I’m one of them. I kinda feel like a sucker. I believed in that first 100 days they kept writing about in the press, and I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a new chapter and we’re gonna ride into Washington and there’s gonna be a new sheriff in town.” But it turns out that the new sheriff is still very cozy with the greedy corporate bastards who continue uninterrupted to suck this country dry. So, I say we just forget Obama’s first year. It’s like your first year in college — you waste a lot of time on crap that’s unimportant, and you gain 15 pounds, and you have sex with a fat girl. Let’s just forget the first year.
LEO: What hyped — but real — problem troubles you most?
BM: The environment. I don’t think it’s hyped enough. I think, actually, we have a lot of cynicism about it. I think a lot of people, including young people — which is really horrible — think it’s a big hoax. But it’s not a big hoax. Like, we have to stop using plastic today. There’s a swirl of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that’s now twice the size of Texas. It’s killing everything, and it’s just getting bigger, and there’s no way to get rid of it because it’s not biodegradable.
LEO: It’s entering the food chain.
BM: Yeah, exactly. And I just think in every way, we’re slowly killing ourselves, and for people who think this is something for a future generation to deal with, I don’t think so. I think we’re gonna have to be dealing with it in a very big way in very few years.
LEO: A related question: Do you think educated people stopped having babies, relative to less educated people, more because of selfish career pursuits or because of a pragmatic choice based on sustainability issues?
BM: Selfishness. I actually think when people want to have a baby or don’t want to have a baby, that doesn’t really enter into it, because it is somewhat abstract. And I think the more educated people — the yuppies, as we used to call them — they wanna take that trip to Italy and, you know, the wife’s new pottery business is really going well, and the husband is taking courses. There just isn’t enough time for a child; they’ve got other stuff going on.
LEO: Too bad you can’t get those kids at age 12 and put ’em right to work.
BM: (laughs) Exactly. I think people, no matter how bad things get, that’s one thing that doesn’t change: If people wanna have a baby, they’ll say, “Well, you know, maybe this baby will be the one who’ll fix all our problems.”
LEO: On your HBO show, do you think there’s a lot of persuasion going on, of either the audience or the guests?
BM: I used to say no, but too many people have come up to me over the years and said, “You know, I saw this or that and I have changed my mind on this,” or, “You brought me around.” I guess it can happen. I don’t think it happens enough to change anything in America, but on an individual basis, on an anecdotal basis, it does happen. I also saw it with my documentary about religion (“Religulous”). A lot of people said to me, “You know, I really hadn’t thought a lot about those points, and now I’m kinda different.”
LEO: That must make you feel better about your job.
BM: Yes, but I’m an entertainer. I’m not there to be a politician or to proselytize. I’m there to make people laugh. What I use to make people laugh is the news. What I find most amusing and most engaging is the news, issues of importance. There are some comics, like Jerry Seinfeld, who can brilliantly take trivial matters and use that as their comic fodder. I was never that kind of comic. It never really appealed to me. So, this is what appeals to me as my clay, to make people laugh, but that is my main thing, especially when I’m doing standup. It’s all about making people laugh very hard.
LEO: Back to something we discussed earlier, about the general climate, the generalized anger. It reminds me of what was going on with the advent of Rush Limbaugh in ’93-’94 and the angry-white-man movement that led to the Republican takeover of Congress in the ’94 midterms. And then we had the bombing in Oklahoma City. Is it reasonable to even bring that question up and ask if the climate now is similar?
BM: I think it’s a good question, and I think there is absolutely the chance that, because right wing, as they call it, “hate radio,” is so prevalent with certain people that it could reach borderline personalities and they could do something horrible that’s inspired by it. But having said that, I think free speech is more important. That’s just one of the prices you have to pay for free speech. You cannot shut people up, and you shouldn’t shut people up. I don’t care who they are or what they’re saying, short of “fire” in a crowded theater, you have to let them bark. And yes, there are some people who are gonna take it the wrong way. We know already that Obama gets more threats than any president ever, by far, but that’s the price of doing business in this country.
LEO: Scapegoating is also a familiar dynamic throughout history. As an outspoken person with alternative views, do you worry for your own safety?
BM: I don’t worry about it, but for many, many years I’ve taken the precautions that a prudent person would take.
LEO: Who’s getting scapegoated now?
BM: I guess mostly it’s the president, because there’s a large portion of this country — the Limbaugh listeners — who keep saying, “I want my country back.” As if he has taken it away. And I always say, “Back from what?” I wish it’d went somewhere. It’s the same corporate-run, greedy, semi-ignorant place that it was a year ago. You know, Obama has changed too little, not too much. I think your country is exactly where it was. To me, that’s scapegoating, when you make it up in your head. Guns and ammo are selling off the shelves. They cannot keep ammo on the shelf in many states. Why? Obama has never said “boo” about gun control. None of the Democrats do. And yet they’re somehow convinced that he’s gonna come and confiscate your guns?
LEO: There’s a lot of extrapolation involved in that thinking.
BM: Yes, exactly the word.
LEO: It sorta ties into the whole “What’s the matter with Kansas?” theory, where regular people argue about labels like “liberal” and “conservative,” while really there’s an oligarchy in charge that sticks it to everyone who isn’t part of the oligarchy. Is all that too nuanced for people to zero in on?
BM: No, I don’t think so. You’re talking about the Thomas Frank book. Exactly. That’s a good point. I think it’s more the Republicans who get people to vote against their own economic interests. Joe the Plumber is a good example of it. Joe the Plumber was incensed that Obama was going to raise taxes 3 percent on people making over $250,000 a year, even though Joe didn’t have a job, didn’t even have a plumber’s license, had been on welfare. But he was getting killed on the taxes on the imaginary business in his head.
LEO: One theory is that people who call themselves Republican but aren’t rich think they’ll get rich someday, and they want the rules to be favorable when that happens.
BM: That’s exactly it. They call it the American Dream, but really what they’re selling is the American Fantasy. Because there are statistics on these things, and among Western nations, we have almost the lowest amount of social mobility. In other words, if you are born poor in this country, there’s a much greater chance that you stay poor than in almost any other Western country. The myth is that, in America, you can go anywhere, and you can, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, of course. But the reality is, we don’t have a lot of social mobility, because, you know, from 1980 until now, the last 30 years, basically, the top 1 percent has squeezed everybody out. In 1980, the top 1 percent had 8 percent of the wealth in this country, and now they have 23 percent. And if you wanna know where the schools and the health care and the bridges and the roads and the infrastructure and all that went, I think that’s where it went. That 15 percent that went to rich fucks buying yachts and blow jobs.
LEO: You’re successful. Why do you care if we have health care reform?
BM: It’s one-sixth of the economy. It’s gonna bankrupt us. Also, I’d like to see people not thrown out of hospitals like they do in this country.
LEO: Can you see a scenario where this country gets it together?
BM: I can, but I have to be dreaming at the time.
LEO: You’re very open about pot. Do you ever worry about legal hassles?
BM: I only smoke it 12 miles off the coastal limit, where it’s legal.
LEO: How do you stay so thin?
BM: (laughs — phone goes dead …)
LEO: (phone rings again) Hello.
BM: I’m sorry. My phone died. I knew it was getting ready to do that.
LEO: I thought you were on a timer, like when you call someone from jail.
BM: (laughs) I had a friend in jail once, who I helped keep alive for four years by sending him money for food. I remember those jail calls.
LEO: I asked how you stay so thin?
BM: Well, I’m not as thin as I used to be. I do it the old-fashioned way. I exercise and don’t eat shit. It’s not rocket science.
LEO: Anything else?
BM: Tell ’em to bring their ass to the show and they’ll laugh it off.
*I opted to not get into this issue for this interview, thinking it would take all of the allotted time. The issue is all over Google, and Maher has a lengthy and thoughtful response at his blog, which is linked at www.billmaher.com.