Checking in With Bill Maher (in 1999)

After Monica, the 'Politically Incorrect' host gets to the real issues: Super-model slights, Howard Stern's jealousy and the importance of Jesse Ventura.

Photograph by Dan Winters
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Bill Maher has just finished up with Monica Lewinsky.

It's the night of the former intern's prime-time infomercial with Barbara Walters, and the best of Politically Incorrect has wrapped a special live episode in which he digested the media spectacle with a typically eclectic panel of guests: supermodel Kathy Ireland, Talk Soup host John Henson, Fear of Flying author Erica Jong and former MTV VJ Kennedy. The show has gone well, with standup-turned-pundit-maker Maher in fine, dry form as he kicked things off with a rapid-fire succession of use-'em-or-lose-'em Lewinsky gags and then effectively moderated a surprisingly sub-stantial and funny debate on the topic of what it all means. Maher — whose own politics can be best described as wise-ass libertarian — nonetheless vigorously defends our all-too-human chief executive when it comes to carnal matters.

This article appeared in the April 15, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

After the show, Maher makes his way past Tom Snyder's nearby studio and into his own far-from-ostentatious office, dotted with framed Time magazine covers of Johnny Carson and Hugh Hefner, assorted Beatles memorabilia and, hidden away on a side table, a tiny set of tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written. He seems in a focused mood, even though he's still grappling with the fact that Ireland failed to hug or kiss him when she made her on-air entrance.

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Maher was raised in New Jersey and majored in English at Cornell. From there he went on to become a successful standup comic and occasional B-movie actor before finally finding his TV niche in 1993 with Politically Incorrect, which aired on Comedy Central for nearly four years until ABC picked it up.

Tonight, as the memory of another show begins to fade, the deepest thinker ever to appear with Adrienne Barbeau in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death speaks forthrightly about the state of our culture and his own incorrigible place in it.

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Now that you have officially entered the post-Monica age, are you feeling a sense of closure? Withdrawal? Nausea?
Relief. How about that?

Wasn't she good for you?
I think she was at the beginning, but then it was a show that should have closed but went on too long. People got bored with it. I got bored with it. This is a really good instance of the electorate being ahead of the people who are supposed to be leading them. The whole thing was a rerun, and I don't like reruns. I saw this information when it first hit, I saw the Starr report, I saw it when they impeached him, and it was enough. So in 1999, I said I'm not going to do this anymore. We are going to lead and not follow. We did Monica when the show went to Washington and the trial was wrapping up. Other than that, and tonight, it was like, forget it.

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Kathy Ireland needed to weigh in before you put it to bed?
The chick didn't even shake my hand. Did you see that?

Do you feel it was intentional — a supermodel slight?
Absolutely not. But that almost makes it worse.

Like the president, you've had a certain bad-boy reputation.Do you think there's a lesser standard for you than for him?
A way-lesser standard. One point I was at least trying to make on the show tonight is that I really object when people treat the president like he's their peer. He is not their peer. He is certainly not Monica's peer. He's someone with great accomplishments who in some ways deserves great slack. I'm not saying he could kill people....

Though some have said so....
Yeah, it's amazing the way so much of this is driven by such pure hate. But they couldn't beat him. He's smarter, he's more talented, he's put up with more shit. It just bothers me that these people begrudge this man — who is on the case 24/7, doing a job in a way no-body else could — ten instances of prison sex. He is getting blown by a fat girl in a hallway. We've made the presidency and the White House the jewel of the prison system. He's living a life that would be wished upon nobody, and they begrudge him that?

So do you know whether the Big Creep watches your show?
I know several high-ranking politicians and people who tell me he does. I feel bad sometimes when I say something very critical of him, but I have to. I'm a big fan of his, as a person, and his ability as president, but I take issue with a lot of his policies. I am not for this giving away all our money that he's so good at.

You've been described as a libertarian.
I'm a libertarian. The line I've always used is, I would be a Republican if they would. Which means that I like the Barry Gold-water Republican Party, even the Reagan Republican Party. I want a mean old man to watch my money. I don't want a Republican to be funny. I don't want him to be charming. Because government is a sieve that takes as much money as it can and gives it away, usually needlessly.

I am for freedom, a waning cause in this country. The GOP — which used to be the party of freedom and getting government off our backs — is now quite the opposite. And it's because the Christian right is a parasite that has taken over the host Republican Party. Like any parasite, they're going to kill it. It's not their party. It's the party of Barry Goldwater, who was like, "If you're gay, so what? I don't want to know about it, I don't want to see it, I think it's kinda gross, but it's not my business." Which is a far cry from last year, when the legislature in Alabama outlawed the sale of vibrators.

Speaking of freedom and democracy, your show promotes the democratic notion that all of us — be we rock star, politician, model-actress or full-time pundit — have an equal vote. In a time when celebrity has largely replaced God as a guiding principle in American life, have you ever considered the possibility that perhaps there's such a thing as too much goddamn democracy?
There is such a thing as too much democracy. I think that Politically Incorrect is proudly part of the problem and not the solution. But, God, we're just an entertainment show. I'm a comedian.

I don't understand the media. On one hand, they ascribe all this power to me; on the other hand, they've completely stopped covering me. Still, the people are there for this show. I think they sense the honesty. That's what Politically Incorrect means — it means I'm not bullshitting. ABC just did a focus group last year — only fourteen percent of the people said they agree with me most of the time, yet they still like the show, because people respect honesty. I don't think we are in much danger of helping the republic fall, but it's an alternative where people can get a little more meat in their diet than they would by watching the competition. We're at least attempting something that is a little more erudite.

Who in current politics impresses you with their honesty?
I think Jesse Ventura is the most important politician in America right now, because he is the first one who is not a robot, not a suit, who doesn't wear a tie and doesn't watch his language. He's the anti-Al Gore. He's not some guy who's beaten down all the rough edges and all the things that might offend anybody until he's a big pile of bland mush. That's why I didn't like Monica Lewinsky on Barbara Walters. I felt she had become a politician. That was the irony — this innocent little girl now was practiced in the art of spinning, as good as the master who taught her. I think people are ready for honesty — they won't revolt if you're a human being. They proved that with Clinton: They're OK with sex. I think the next thing to fall is going to be drugs, then assisted suicide. Right down the line. We're France now.

Jerry Lewis will be thrilled. Do you harbor any political aspirations yourself?
No. I wouldn't want to be a politician, because they aren't allowed to change their mind. If they do, they're accused of being inconsistent. There's no such thing in politics as evolving, as learning, as growing, as keeping an open mind, because if you did, why, then you'd be a flip-flopper. You'd be someone who grew. How awful.

But I'm forty-three. In twenty years, I think the country could be in a real different place — if they legalize drugs, if people are OK with a bachelor president. I'm saying Jesse Ventura is just the vanguard. I think the country is ready for a sea change from what I call old-lady politics. It seems like the whole country is based on what an old lady would think: "Oh, my God, the president fooled around." "Oh, that's a marijuana cigarette." But that's not who we really are. Nobody has the guts to challenge that. Somebody will, and it will fall like a house of cards. It will be the Berlin Wall.

So I take it you did inhale?
Yes.

Today?
No.

Is Politically Incorrect good for America?
Yeah. I think if America could get back to wit, it would be a better country. It may not always reach the heights of Masterpiece Theater...

Or Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.
But at least it's really for adults. The fact that we've gotten a nice slice of that audience tells me there is some hunger out there for real adult conversation about adult things that isn't always about pandering to the lowest common denominator — girls in their short skirts with their tits hanging out. We have supermodels on, like we had tonight, but we don't have them on for their tits. We want to hear what they have to say.

How do you feel about politicians who refuse to come on your show?
I have the highest respect for people who genuinely turn their nose up. Like Pat Moynihan, who's a true intellectual. I have no respect for people who pretend to turn their nose up and are really just afraid to mix it up, afraid to look bad.

Now that your old home, Comedy Central, has exploded with South Park, are you happy that you got your start there and didn't wait for a network to pick you up?
I think we were very important to Comedy Central at the time we were on. When we started, it was certainly an open issue as to whether they would survive. I think we were important to them, getting them into the next phase, where they could have a real breakout, like South Park. I'm happy for Comedy Central — I wouldn't be here without them. ABC would have never hired me if we hadn't been there first.

Is there any way that the networks will be as influential as they once were?
I think they could, if they would change their ways — if they'd get hip. They're sort of a mirror image of Washington, another example of socalled leaders being out of touch with the people they're leading. I think people are clamoring for more innovative programming.

So what's needed is more South Park and Jesse Ventura?
If you want to sum it up that way.

What's your take on MSNBC — the twenty-four-hour blow-job network and pundit central?
I have total responsibility for so many of those people being on the air, starting with Arianna [Huffington] and including Laura Ingraham, Susan Carpenter-McMillan. Other shows make stars out of actresses; we make stars out of pundits.

Who's your favorite right-wing blond babe? Who's the hottest?
The hottest or my favorite?

Both.
Probably my two favorites — because they're my friends — are Ann Coulter and Kelly Anne Fitzpatrick. And Arianna is one of my best friends, my bar buddy. She's kind of the matriarch of the whole group. But we've broken so many of those pundits, and it's funny the way other shows not only appropriate our guests, which is fine, but sometimes the very same pairings of guests.

Talking about appropriations, what's your feeling about Howard Stern saying that you took the idea of Politically Incorrect from him?
He's insane and jealous. He hates anyone who has a good sex life. That truly is my estimation of Howard. He has rested his reputation as a nice guy on the fact that he has never strayed from his wife, but what kind of compliment is that when you're always drooling, foaming at the mouth over every woman? So I just think he hates anyone who hasn't gotten married and is still what Gay Talese called "the emancipated male."

Finally, if the Friends of Bill at DreamWorks eventually do build the Clintons a home in the Hollywood Hills, do you think he'd be a good Politically Incorrect regular?
They just announced they're going to New York, but I would like to think that when he's out of office, we could have a conversation with him. And I'd like to think he might say, "Hey, I appreciated the support during that rough period, that little tough time I had. I appreciated you saying some of the things I couldn't say myself."

The night of the famous speech to the nation, August 17th, I made the speech he couldn't make. It ended with the words, "She blew me — fuck you."

From The Archives Issue 810: April 15, 1999
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