Photo courtesy Alberto Tolot/HBO
Way back during the Clinton Administration, Bill Maher had the wonderful idea of letting a comedian — himself — talk regularly with politicians and political commentators about current events on TV. Politically Incorrect turned poli-chat into something non-wonks could enjoy and paved the way for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report etc. Maher has refined this formula in his current show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and he still has time for stand-up, touring frequently. Next week he’s got a show in the New York Comedy Festival at Avery Fisher Hall, the occasion for this interview.
You’re at Avery Fisher Hall on November 8.
Isn’t that something? From the Comic Strip to Avery Fisher Hall in a mere 30 years.
Will it be straight standup, or a Mort Sahl kind of thing?
Straight standup, hysterically funny, wonderful stuff, covering the waterfront…
William Donahue of the Catholic League mentioned your show this week in relation to Larry David peeing on Jesus on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. He threw in that “Sarah Silverman insulted Catholics on Real Time with Bill Maher.” He mentions you a lot, called you “America’s #1 Bigot” and so forth. Are you paying him for this publicity? Why does he have such a hard-on for you?
‘Cause he’s Catholic. Catholics think I have a special animus against them, whereas I’m an equal opportunity offender. I think Catholicism is stupid and dangerous; I think all religion is stupid and dangerous. I was raised Catholic so I know more about that…
The Catholic League is always trying to get me off thrown of the air, Donohue wanted to fight me in a parking lot because, you know, that’s how Jesus would handle it. And they want to believe I have some personal vendetta against Catholicism. But I wasn’t abused or molested — by which I’m slightly offended because I was a cute kid, I don’t know how they they overlooked me.
It would not be unheard of for someone who was raised Catholic to have a grudge, and I know many people who do, but I don’t. I didn’t particularly like being Catholic, but they didn’t do anything awful to me. But some people have had awful things done to them… to call me a bigot, that implies prejudice. But I’m not prejudging, I’m judging. And there is plenty to judge.
What’s Obama’s problem? He’s got majorities in both houses and what they used to call a mandate, and the Democrats are still fighting Joe Lieberman for a health care plan. Why doesn’t he go LBJ on the guy?
Believe me, I think I was the first one to say this on my own show, and my own audience was booing me for it but I had to say it: He’s the President, he’s not your boyfriend. We were all thrilled that he got elected, and this would be a much worse country with Old Man McCain and Cruella de Vil running things. But we’ve gotta raise the bar a little higher…
I was the one who called for Obama to be more like Bush. Bush had horrible ideas like deregulation and preeemptive war, but he pushed them through, he got them done. He knew how to do that. They didn’t ask if people were gonna be mad at them, they just got that shit through. And Obama needs a little more of that. He needs to be like Dick Cheney. Remember, they asked Cheney about the Iraq War, they told him that the American people were against it, and he said “So?” When they tell Obama his health care plan is socialism, he should say, “So?”
You’re pretty synonymous with political and cultural commentary now. Do you ever feel stuck with that? Is there something else that’s very different that you’d like to try?
I did, when I made Religulous. That was my Moby Dick, if you will. It was the one thing I wanted to do for 10 years. And it was a struggle — no movie studio wanted to touch it. But I got the right director, it did great, people loved it — except for the religious people, but what do you expect.
I harpooned my big whale. I love doing what I do on the show, and I love doing stand-up. That’s enough. I have no desire to do another movie. I think some people thought I wanted to be a documentarian, you know, the next Michael Moore. No. I had one subject that I thought was worthy of skewering, and having done that, I can retire from that art form and say, I made my point, good night…
And I don’t think people need to always share themselves completely with their adoring audience — you know, actors who sing, everyone wants to direct. How about let’s all stick to doing what we do best?
This will sound like a stupid question, but we’ve never made a movie: is it hard?
Yeah, it is hard! That’s one reason I don’t want to do it again. I’m 53. I don’t need to get up at six in the morning and go around with makeup all over my face, staying in crummy hotels and shitting my pants cause we’re going someplace where we’re gonna get killed. [Director] Larry Charles is the most wonderful man, he’s a crazy man, he does Borat and all that, and that’s what he lives for. He’s a rebel, a renegade, a gorilla. And he’ll do it again. But for me once was enough.
Did you see Gore Vidal on the Atlantic web site this week? He made some comments on Roman Polanski. (Excerpt; “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?… The idea that this girl was in her communion dress, a little angel all in white, being raped by this awful Jew, Polacko – that’s what people were calling him – well, the story is totally different now from what it was then.”) Your reaction?
I don’t agree. I love Gore, and I love the fact that when you get old, you can say anything. And the older you get, the more inappropriate and politically incorrect you can be: “I’m 85, fuck off.” But he’s dead wrong. That’s being contrarian just to be contrary. It’s a 13-year-old girl. I said this on my show: I don’t know where you draw the line if you can drug and anally rape a 13-year old. I don’t know what then we can say is out of bounds. I don’t have any sympathy for Roman Polanski and I was surprised that so many people in Hollywood defended this. It’s a defense of the indefensible.
Bill Maher, stand-up comedian. Image (cc) zbowling.
Are there any other acts in the festival that you’re going to catch?
I would see all of them, but I’m in New York just that one day. I’m in Montclair on the 6th, and Atlantic City the night before.
How much do you tour?
A fair amount. 60-70 dates a year. Not Leno numbers, but…
How do you do it? You don’t want to get up a 6 a.m. to make movies, but you have the show, all the touring —
You do what you love. It took me long enough to get good at it, I don’t want to waste it while I can do it.
It’s a pleasure. It wasn’t such pleasure when you were playing small clubs, and people were sometimes a little hostile. Now that the audience wants it, I love doing it. The travel can be a bit of a grind, but you’re touring in your own country, you’re not futzing with passports. I have a road manager who makes it a lot easier. You find ways to make it okay. And I never do more than two or three dates at a time. People say, “Oh, you’re on tour?” It’s not like I’m the Rolling Stones. I do three gigs, driving distance from my hotel, and then I go home.