Bengahzi. The IRS. The Associated Press.
It was a bad week for President Obama, which meant a good show for stand-up Bill Maher and his politically driven HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher.
The trio of escalating and unfolding scandals ensured there would be highly flammable fuel for debate for the host and his panel of guests for this mid-May episode. But only two days before the show aired live, Maher wasn’t hearing any of it.
“It’s been a bad week perception-wise,” he said of the President’s mounting troubles, “[ but] I am not on the page of conventional wisdom that there’s a lot of ‘there’ there with any of these so-called scandals. I don’t think people pay attention very much and I think the media — especially the television media — is very culpable about not really informing people. It’s just we have an atmosphere of scandal. And people don’t look into that closely. They just get this sense, ‘OK, it’s his second term, and like all the presidents he [messed] up and it’s a lot of scandal,’ and it really isn’t a lot of scandal.”
Full disclosure: Maher is an Obama supporter. Last year he donated $1 million to Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA. He’s also a libertarian and pot-smoking atheist who doesn’t hesitate to criticize the Obama administration on many issues, including the President’s reluctance to back the legalization of marijuana.
A 1978 graduate of Cornell University with degrees in English and history who launched his stand-up career in the late ’70s, the 57-year-old Maher brought smart, acerbic political and topical half-hour discussions into living rooms with his Politically Incorrect years before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The show was canceled in 2002, nearly a year after Maher opined that the Sept. 11 terrorists were not cowards — “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” — and so he took the format to HBO in 2003, where it’s aired ever since.
Besides politics, Maher loves to talk religion — more specifically, denounce it. In 2008 he co-wrote and starred in Religulous, a humorous documentary that was unsuprisingly highly critical of organized religion and many of its rabid believers.
As for his stand-up, most weekends Maher can be seen at a theater somewhere in the country. On Saturday it’s the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $32.50, $42.50, $58, and $68. Information: 419-381-8851 or etix.com. To promote his Toledo appearance, the comic chatted with The Blade in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office.
Q: For fans of Real Time who have never seen you perform, how does your stand-up act differ from what they see on your show? Is your stand-up also politically driven?
A: Yes. I think what’s the same about it is the kind of subject material that I’m interested in will not be a shock to people who come out to a stand-up show. But it is very different. The show is a hybrid of comic and serious. It’s a panel and I’m all for it getting serious at times, but that’s not what stand-up is. Stand-up is like laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. I’m not in the school of the Lenny Bruces or the Mort Sahls or these people who don’t take the laugh as seriously as they should have and got lost in the weeds of messaging. I’m not a professor or humorist. I’m a stand-up comedian and people, when they come out to see a stand-up show, they want to laugh really hard for a long time, and that’s what I will make them do. (Laughs)
Q: You’ve mentioned that’s it’s difficult booking conservative pundits as guests ...
A: We do pretty well with the pundits. We don’t do so well with the politicians.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think they feel like the deck is stacked. Part of it is the audience. We have tried, but we cannot get a bipartisan audience. We tape in a blue state and it’s a liberal crowd. And I don’t blame them for that. I’ve been in that situation, where you are talking to an audience who is hostile to what you say before it comes out of your mouth. Look, I have problems with our audience. I don’t like the fact that they cheer for everything the blue teams does and boo everything that the red team does. That’s not the kind of tack I take or the show that I want to do, but you can’t control a crowd. But I think that’s a lot of it. And the other part of it is, if you’re a conservative from a conservative district, you don’t want to be on an attack ad: “He went on that atheist, pot-smoking Bill Maher show.” And I can see why just being associated with me. I mean, Democrats won’t associate with me. Obama won’t, Clinton won’t. And that’s fine. I wear that as a badge of honor.
Q: The perception of you is as in the liberal camp, but you’ve been known to break from progressives on many issues. During a recent Real Time, you got into a ferocious debate with a college professor and terrorist expert when you said that Muslims are the leading terrorist threat.
A: Yes, the liberals hate me for that and I’m not fond of them on that issue because they don’t listen to me. Here’s what their problem is on that. They see Muslims [as] equal minority. I’m a good person so I’m always on the side of minorities. Therefore, anyone who criticizes a minority is bad and a racist, which is so silly and just nonsensical.
First of all, Islam is a religion that encompasses people of all races, so I can’t really be a racist. What I’m railing against is people’s beliefs. Beliefs matter. Their beliefs — and I’m talking about Muslims around the world as well as Muslims here in the United States — disturbing numbers of Muslims in both camps if you look at polling, if you look at people who have done surveys on this, believe things that are just not compatible, and it’s so ironic, with the liberal point of view from the enlightenment.
These people who pride themselves on being liberals, don’t even know what liberalism means, otherwise they would be against people who believe, for example, in disturbing numbers that if you leave the religion, you can be killed for it, that if you insult the prophet. What is this, the First Amendment pauses now because somebody made up a god and I’m going to get killed in reality if I say something about that god? This is madness. There is a small group — Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens used to be in it — there’s some of us who I call 9-11 liberals as opposed to 9-11 conservatives who just want to defend the liberal way of life and the liberal point of view. Again, beliefs matter.
Q: You’ve done this kind of show for 20 years ...
A: (Laughs) Yeah. Oh, my gosh.
Q: And Politically Incorrect was a pioneer of much of what has followed. There wasn’t anything like it on TV.
A: Well, I definitely remember when we started everyone saying to me that it was a fool’s errand to even try to do a show about politics because it was so considered the least sexy thing you could do on television. ‘Why are you trying to put entertainment into politics? People hate politics, especially the young people. It’s a ridiculous thing to do.’ And also they told me that, “You can’t express a political opinion as the host of the show because this was the Johnny Carson playbook that everybody had been playing from, and by the way which people like [Jay] Leno and [David] Letterman still play from.
You don’t really know who they voted for. I mean, they make fun of whoever the president is, but you’re not really sure where they stand on an issue. They don’t outright say. And that’s what I was told. ‘You’ll alienate half the audience.’ And the audience was, as sometimes happens, more sophisticated than the experts because the audience was like, “Yeah, so what? We don’t agree with everything he says. We don’t agree with everything people say in life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t abide this person. We know who he is and that’s fine that we don’t agree.’
Q: Given how outspoken you can be, do you ever find yourself in front of a hostile crowd?
A: I never perform in front of a hostile audience anymore. I was thinking more of like I spoke once to Grover Norquist’s Wednesday afternoon luncheon group and you know, things like that, probably in Washington D.C., ... because I owed a favor to a Republican. Whatever. I’ve done lots of stuff. But when people actually are paying money to come out and see you, they generally like you. You can pretty much count on the fact that people are not going to spend money to see somebody they don’t like.
Now of course, there’s very often somebody I see right in the front row, some guy staring at me with his arms folded, and he’s some guy whose wife dragged him to the show. Because he’s a big, tough Republican, so he does exactly what his wife tells him. (Laughs) But in general, I do enjoy — I’m not making that up — I really enjoy, the redder the state the better the crowd because there are all the people who live there who are surrounded by rednecks but they’re not. I can always find 2 or 3,000 very smart progressive people anywhere. I’ve yet to be in a state or place so redneck that I can’t find that.
Q: So political leaning — red state, blue state — doesn’t enter where you perform?
A: I’ve yet to find that kind of place. We do our homework. I’m sure my agent does. I always give him a list at the end of the year, ‘I don’t think I’ve been to this place yet,’ or ‘I haven’t been here in a long time.’ I’m sure I put Toledo on the list this year because I don’t know if I’ve ever played there directly.
You know what, I think — and this is really embarrassing — but I believe I played Toledo when I was in stand-up about two years in the early ’80s opening for Peaches & Herb. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone there ever on my own when people actually knew who I was and without Peaches & Herb. So I want to see how it goes without Peaches & Herb. (Laughs)
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.