2008 LIONS GATE FILMS Enlarge
Like most comedians, Bill Maher likes to hear himself talk. But he also listens, and truly engages with guests -- Democrats and tea party members alike -- on his weekly HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher.
Though clearly on the Democrats' side most of the time, Maher also is genuinely, visibly curious about the other side. The thoughtfulness behind his smirk suggests he can understand an opposing or even fully wacked-out viewpoint, even if he doesn't agree.
A supporter of PETA and pot legalization, Maher, 55, is himself an immoderate thinker as well as a born moderator -- qualities that make him a perfect ringleader for a political-humor show. He has been that since his former show Politically Incorrect started in 1993, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were still in short pants.
Reached by phone at his Los Angeles office, Maher discussed his act, impact, and disappointment with President Obama. The conversation took place before the credit rating downgrade -- a development sure to provide additional fodder for Maher's show.
Q. Is most of your stand-up act political, or do you cover a range of topics?
A. I would say it is mostly political. I do a nice long show, at least an hour and a half, so there is room for everything. I want them to say "No mas!" at the end. (laughs)
Q. Does the material have to be up to the minute, the way it must be for Real Time?
A. It is definitely different from the show. That's the pleasant surprise for most people. An old lady once said to me, "I didn't think you could be any worse than you were on TV, but you are."
Q. Yet, she had paid to see you?
A. Yeah, she meant it as a compliment ... (laughs). However bad you think I am on TV, this is going to be a lot worse.
The people who come to our TV studio, they're fans, but they don't have to pay to get in. And there is something about TV, it makes them -- even though it's HBO -- I don't want to say uptight, exactly. But the stand-up audience is the free-est of all the audiences I play to. They really want me to go to the edge.
Q. There has been commentary over the past few years about satirical talk shows influencing public opinion and voting. Have you seen evidence of that?
A. My personal view is that entertainment forms don't change people's minds a hell of a lot. I think that's overrated.
Bruce Springsteen toured for John Kerry, and it didn't happen, and he's a lot more powerful with people than (talk-show hosts) are.
Puff Daddy had a slogan on tour in 2004: "Vote or Die." This was coming after he was actually on trial for gunplay, so there was some validity to it, (laughs) and it still didn't help.
I think you're in trouble when you think you are affecting people's political views too terribly much. The one area where I cannot deny there has been a change in people's minds has been religion. It's an area I kind of have to myself, and especially after the movie (the 2008 documentary Religulous) I made.
It's been three years, but there are always tweets and Facebook posts, and I have met people in person who say to me, "I saw your movie, and I think differently now -- I was kind of thinking of those things before, but you really freed me up" to come out of the closet or whatever it is. I think that is one area where people are ripe to be brought over to the dark side, shall I say.
Q. What are the most important issues for you, as a citizen and voter?
A. To me, the environment is always the most important. Now, I admit that is something that can be said by somebody who has the luxury not to have to worry where his next meal is coming from. I do understand how, if you are extremely economically strapped, well, "The polar ice caps? Whatever."
Except, we do have these unprecedented triple-digit days, and we do have giant dust storms blowing over Phoenix, and Texas is just one giant, devil-red barren land now. And I can name 10 other things.
Every time you read the story in the paper about the polar ice caps melting, they're always melting faster than they thought. Whatever the last prediction was, however bad they thought it was, no, it's worse. ... This idea that it's something far in the future -- not really. It's kind of happening now, and it's kind of going to get worse.
Q. You have been doing political satire for decades now. During the past few years of a bad economy, and especially more recently, when all the national news seems bad, has audience response to political humor changed at all? Are people more receptive, less receptive?
A. It's hard to say, because I always try to have a killer act, and (make sure) they're always laughing a lot.
But I do think it says something that in difficult economic times, when a lot of things are not selling on the road, I'm selling great. Better than ever. Bigger theaters, more people.
I think when things seem so hopeless, laughter really is the best medicine. I know that's a cliche, but sometimes people do need to laugh if off when it seems like there is no solution coming.
I think people who voted for Obama -- I am one of them, and the vast majority of my audience are people who voted for Obama, and probably will again, because what's the alternative? But the love is gone, I think. ... It feels like it is just a succession of cave-ins -- you know, (House Speaker) John Boehner bragging that he got 98 percent of what he wanted (in the debt-ceiling agreement). How does that make us feel? Where's our champion who was going to stand up to this nonsense?
Q. Disappointment with President Obama among Democrats seems to go deeper than it did with President Clinton when he made compromises. Is that because there was so much idealism attached to Obama's candidacy?
A. No, it is because the compromises are actually greater, because Clinton was actually a better negotiator. When Clinton negotiated a budget deal, it was half tax increases and half spending cuts. Obama got no tax increases. Zero. Nada. That's not a good negotiator.