A extended interview with America's angriest satirist
Bill Maher wants you to know that he's no flag-burner. "I love America!" he gushes, sitting down for a two-hour interview with Rolling Stone. "It gives me so much material." The host of Real Time With Bill Maher has dedicated the ninth season of his Friday-night show on HBO to reclaiming patriotism for progressives. For Maher, 55, that means never conceding that a batshit politician like Michele Bachmann has a reasonable point of view. And it means not backing down – even for the president he believes America can't afford not to re-elect. "The American people don't really care what side of an issue you're on," Maher says. "They just don't want you to act like a pussy."
This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the April 28, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.
That attitude has turned Maher into one of the leading satirists of his generation. His 2008 takedown of God, Religulous, was one of the most successful documentaries of all time, grossing $13.7 million. The political panels he hosts each week on Real Time put Meet the Press to shame, and the show is unlike anything else on television – a frenetic, uncensored mash-up of Ted Koppel and George Carlin, his comedy hero.
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Still, sitting in the triple-wide bungalow on the back corner of a CBS lot in L.A. that he has occupied since 1996, Maher hardly seems content. The only items of sentimental value he keeps on hand are two black-velvet portraits, of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis – "Rembrandts" from a gag sending up Dan Rather's acumen at spotting obvious forgeries. Maher parks his convertible Tesla Roadster just down from the space reserved for j. lopez on American Idol, always primed for a speedy getaway. "There is a feeling that it always could end, so I'm ready to go in a minute," he says. "All I really have to do is grab the briefcase."
You talk about reclaiming patriotism. Where does that impulse come from?
I'm astounded that the Republicans can hold themselves out as the patriotic party. Somehow patriotism has gotten redefined as selfishness: never letting anybody take anything from you – especially the government – and never helping anybody. That's not the patriotism that I grew up with. Patriotism would be for these millionaires and corporations who paid no taxes: Pay your fair share.
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What did you make of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which calls for gutting Medicare and Medicaid?
It irks me to no end that people keep calling him "courageous." Really? Courage would have been going after defense and rich people. His budget goes after children, the poor, the jobless. This is picking on the weakest kid on the playground and getting called courageous for it. And he doesn't come close to solving the deficit. If you're going to put out a fantasy document that appeals to the dickishness in your base, shouldn't it at least accomplish the goal?
Why don't people see that?
The short answer is that they're stupid. I'm not saying that because I hate America – it's just the truth. Americans have no idea what's in the budget, so how could they make informed decisions about it? They think public television gets five percent of the budget. We spend $178 billion a year on public television? Somebody should tell Tavis Smiley, because he's been bitching about that ratty old couch in his greenroom for, like, five years, and I'm sure he could use some of that money.
But even smart people don’t seem to be connecting the dots — that the GOP’s agenda is to finance tax cuts for the rich tax on the backs of the middle class…
Republicans prey on something deep in the American psyche. Steinbeck wrote – it must have been the Twenties or the Thirties – about how socialism never caught on in this country because the poor people don’t see themselves poor, they see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” He’s got Joe the Plumber pegged. Remember Joe was apoplectic that Obama was going to raise the tax rate on people making over $250,000 a year — even though Joe had never seen anything close to $250,000, didn’t even have a job or a plumber’s license. But he’s got that Ralph Kramden mentality: I’m gonna, Alice. I’m gonna be a millionaire, Alice! And if I do, that Obama’s not gonna tax me! Joe was getting killed on the imaginary business in his head, and that just could not stand.
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Do Democrats deserve some of the blame?
Americans are like an animal: they sense fear and they can detect inflection, but they can’t understand an argument. So if you don’t get behind a position 100 percent, like the Republicans do, then the people say to themselves, “There must be something wrong with this position.” Why didn’t the Democrats get behind the health care bill that they passed? They ran from it like it was something to be ashamed of. Democrats don’t brag about their achievements, and they don’t stand up for what they believe in. So the American people are rightfully suspicious.
But the bigger problem is that things are terribly out of balance. We don't have a Democratic Party that actually stands up to the other side; we have two parties who agree that we should cut home-heating oil for the poor. Nobody is standing up and saying, "No, we should take it from GE." That's what's wrong with our political system.
Is that an indictment of Obama?
With the Republicans, Obama acts like a guy in a relationship who did something shady and is in that guilty phase where he lets his girlfriend win every argument. He's a brilliant politician, terrific guy, love him to death. But he's a bad negotiator.
You've been a fierce critic of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but you've backed Obama on this third war in Libya. Why?
There would have been a bloodbath, and we stopped it. I like that. And you got the sense that Obama was asking questions first and shooting later — which is a foreign concept to most of America. Why can’t we see strength in this country as being cautious and consultative? Why do we only want Toby Keith, “I’m gonna put a boot in your ass”? But that’s what Americans like. Obama’s too “professorial.” One of the people in the Iowa focus group that Frank Luntz did last month said, “Everything Obama says is textbook.” Wow, nothing worse than a textbook. Need I say more?
What did you make of Obama’s speech explaining the decision to intervene?
He seemed to be readying America for the idea that we are no longer the big swingin' dicks in the world. We can occasionally, as in Libya, put our thumb on the scale to change the course of events when it's doable, but we need to lose the empire. If these Teabaggers and Paul Ryan were serious about cutting the deficit, their first order of business would be to say, "This country was never meant to be an empire." Jefferson would turn over in his slave if he knew we had tens of thousands of troops on bases in Germany, Japan and Korea – wars that we won 50, 60 years ago. It's a concept we would never tolerate in reverse, by the way. If there were 20,000 armed Guatemalans on a military base in San Bernardino, Lou Dobbs would become a suicide bomber.
We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill; Obama’s been promoting new domestic drilling. BP is negotiating permits to get back in the water. What’s happened to America that we’re no longer capable of taking an event like that and changing our behavior?
After the Depression, we got the New Deal. After this financial meltdown, we got more tax cuts for rich people. We have lost the ability to be corrective, to do big things — or to even ask ourselves to.
Do you have any hope for us responding to global warming in a way that’s meaningful?
I have to say, I’m pretty sure it’s too late. I never read a headline that says, “Polar ice caps melting slower than expected.” Everything seems to be moving at a pace that’s alarming — even to the scientists who predicted it would happen. Just that idea — of the polar ice cap melting — the ice that that reflects so much of the sun’s energy back into space. We’d better start building a really big mirror. We need a team to take it up to the North Pole and put it in place…. I’m thinking Bruce Willis, Kate Beckinsale, the Rock, and the big black kid from The Blind Side.
You're prodigiously well informed on your show; is that a testament to your own news junky-ness or the skill of your staff?
I have a skeleton staff, but a brilliant skeleton. Most shows have, like, 15 writers; I have six. But news is ubiquitous for me: It comes on my BlackBerry, it comes on my computer at home, on television. I was always interested in the news – my father was a newsman. He was on-air on the radio in New York. This is the era when you could not turn on the dial of any radio station that didn't have a news broadcast for five minutes at the top of every hour. Later, he was a news editor – worked the Don Imus shift in the era when Don was beyond Charlie Sheen crazy on coke.
An opening at one of the big three networks used to be like a vacancy on the Supreme Court. But now Katie Couric is leaving CBS, and no one seems to care.
She was as professional as it gets at that hour, which is not very. The most recent example: The other week, ABC and CBS led with Elizabeth Taylor's death for the whole first slug. That's unconscionable. It's not like she was struck down in her prime. They named a sandwich after her at Cedars-Sinai – she was there a lot.
Is there anything you admire about Fox News, even ruefully?
They're good at confirming what knuckle-draggers believe. I'm sure they'd say the same thing about MSNBC. But if some celestial judge could come down and answer which station cleaves more to the facts and doesn't just pull it out of their ass, it's undeniably MSNBC. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity are not peers.
Who in media makes you want to step up your game? Whom do you admire?
I admire real reporters: the Lara Logans and Richard Engels, Dexter Filkins, Jeremy Scahill – people who go to Afghanistan and go to these hellholes, the worst places in the world, and sometimes don't come back. That's real journalism.
You're a friend of Arianna Huffington, who's been in a dust-up with New York Times editor Bill Keller over paywalls versus unpaid bloggers. Who's right?
Her model is working, his isn't. That's a lot of it: They're jealous of her. She found a way not only to make money, but to reach people in a much more relevant way. Let's not forget that The Huffington Post made its bones by calling bullshit on Judith Miller, who I believe was working for Bill Keller. That's when the Times fell off its pedestal for me. I still love their columnists. I cannot live without my Maureen Dowd.
David Brooks was recently on your panel. Is he someone you admire?
A strong word. Mr. Brooks did not have a great time. I heard that as soon as he got offstage, he said, "No amount of book sales is worth that [laughs]."
Who among your peers – Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, anyone else – do you think is really killing it these days?
It's not a good idea for us to watch each other, because you want to stay pure for what you do. I will say that hardly anybody else could do my job. It's an hour-long show with no commercials, where I have to go from a comedy monologue to a one-on-one interview with a newsmaker to a panel discussion with a comedy bit in the middle and then to a written bit at the end of the show. I don't think Billy Bush could do this job. But Jon Stewart could. He's very smart and funny, and does a great show.
So why did you blast Stewart for his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear?
I didn't agree with the premise of the march, which was that we need to bring moderates of both parties together. There are no moderates in the other party. "Moderate Republican" is like "friendly shark" or "straight priest." It just doesn't exist.
Few things seem to make you angrier than people who excuse the lunacy on the right by saying, "Well, both sides do it."
It's false equivalence. There's no denying that the mouth-breathers are stacked up on one side of this ideological divide – the Michele Bachmanns, the Sarah Palins, the George W. Bushes, always on the red team. Not a week goes by that some Republican doesn't say something that is just dazzlingly ignorant. Tom Marino said he was afraid that our intervention in Libya could spread to Africa. Bachmann, talking about the "shot heard 'round the world," said the American Revolution started in New Hampshire. Of course, that's also where Sherman burned Atlanta.
As dissatisfied as you can get with Obama, is there anyone who could tempt you to the dark side?
There's not a person the Republicans have who I would even consider voting for against Obama. That's part of our problem, too: Obama knows he can't lose me. Who am I going to vote for, Newt Gingrich?
In '08 you got a little Ron Paul curious.
Well, crazy people sometimes say things I agree with. What I loved about Ron Paul was what he said when we were in Iraq: "We marched in, we can march right out." There was clarity in that that I appreciated. Now, his views on the Civil War? No.
How can liberals hold Obama honest if he knows people like you have nowhere to go?
What are we going to do? Fake it? Create a third party? We’ve seen how well that works in America: Third parties only serve to siphon votes away from the person you’d most rather see elected. It has to start with the people. Politicians react to pressure, and all the pressure right now is from the right.
Is Obama in danger in 2012?
Republicans are geniuses at making people believe stuff that you wouldn't think you could make people believe – like schoolteachers are responsible for our budget deficit. But at the moment, the Republicans are all afraid of Obama. Only the fringe people are in the race right now. Donald Trump? Why are we even listening to this forgotten clown? Why don't we ask John Wayne Bobbitt's severed dick what it thinks about fixing the nuclear reactor in Japan? What does the Octomom's vagina have to say about Medicare reform?
When you do the extended riffs at the end of Real Time—
What we call "the editorial"…
I was thinking about the Karab Amabo bit. You were so clearly enjoying the material even as you delivered it. I felt like you were letting us in on your respect for your writers.
I’m very often laughing at something my writers came up with that just tickles me. We have a fantastic working relationship. Some of them have been with me 14, 15, 18 years — since the very beginning of Politically Incorrect. I’m a very hands-on writer myself, so I take their material — I steal the best things they write — and I add my own, put it together. I love doing that. Some people like building a ship inside of a bottle. I like putting together an editorial — tinkering with it and shaping it, squeezing it into just the best two-and-a-half minutes.
You bring celebrities on in a judicious way on Real Time.
It’s very different than ‘Politically Incorrect,’ which was trying to feed a beast that is the everyday talk show — one that needed four guests a night, five nights a week, so obviously the bar was low. If you were famous at all and could speak English, that was pretty much it. What I’ve learned from the Real Time audience is that they like famous people but they absolutely despise us putting somebody on the panel who should be sitting at the children’s table. So we have taken that note. The celebrities we bring on, they’re all political junkies or they do their homework that week for the show. The last time Ashton Kutcher was on, for example, I remember saying to him afterwards, “I’m sure there are some people who will bitch that we’re just having you on because you’re an attractive young movie star. But after that performance, they must know that that’s just their prejudice, because you really were good.”
I'm always struck by how aggressive you are in confronting ideologues on your show with hard facts. Does that chutzpah come from your experience doing stand-up, 50 gigs a year?
You hit it on the head. I feel I'm entitled to do that because I'm out there fighting the battle. Stand-up is the linchpin to everything that happens here in Hollywood. I do Real Time Friday night, Saturday morning I'm on a plane. I love going to the red states. When you go onstage there, you get a feel for what's really absurd to them. It's fun. I've been doing it more than 30 years. It takes a long time to get it right – as Charlie Sheen just found out.
Did you get a perverse pleasure in seeing him booed off the stage?
I did tweet: "Duh, I told you so." People know they can't sing or dance, but they look at stand-up and they think, "I can do that. That guy's just talking." It's a little more than that. It reminds me of when they gave Magic Johnson a talk show – the ad campaign had a picture of him smiling over the phrase "The Grin That Stole Late Night." A grin – what more do you need for a talk-show host? Turned out he was about as good at that as I was that year I played point guard for the Lakers.
You came under fire recently for calling Sarah Palin a "cunt" in your stand-up.
Fox News ginned up this so-called controversy. I don't just walk out there and say, "Sarah Palin's a cunt! Good night!" It's a carefully crafted routine that has been in my act for over a year. This is not a word that we can get along without, because it's a word that talks about a specific type of person – and it can be a man or a woman.
I said I'd take it out of my act because of HBO – we're a good fit for each other. Every once in a while you just have to say, "I'm going to pick my battles." I don't need to be a martyr for Sarah Palin's cunt … whoops, I did it again.
You’re getting older. Are you maturing?
I’m 55 years old. You go along and you think you’re controlling your destiny. But there’s a lot to do with things like how much testosterone is coursing through your veins, which you can’t do anything about. There used to be too much, apparently.
If I was going to write a book about my life, it would be called Who Was In My Body? I remember once driving out to the beach, coming down from an acid trip with no shirt. Not no shirt on — no shirt with me. I remember it got dark and cold at night as I was driving back, and I was like, “Geez, I don’t have a shirt.” Who was in my body when I did that?
And I have ‘who was in my body’ feelings about the way I was just a few years ago. I was going through a bunch of old New Rules for a book we’re putting together and I realized that four or five years ago I was still doing all these jokes that ended with me in a hot tub with the Olsen twins — just sleazy jokes until I was 50. I look back at that and think, “I’d never do these kinds of jokes today, they make me look like such a sexist and a pervert.” I was a different person at the time. I was still running around, drinking a lot, going out with a million girls. But it’s so not who I am, and when I look back on it, I do cringe a little. If women want an apology from me, I’d be happy to apologize for that.
Are you feeling more centered, happier now? Are you a fulfilled guy?
Those are strong words. Happy and fulfilled…not at the moment, but I’m sure I will be again.
Are you someone who second-guesses himself?
Do I regret things I say? Constantly. I don’t know who these people are who say they have no regrets. Friday night after the show is put to bed, there’s a certain amount of hours I get where it’s like it was an out-of-body experience: It happened and I don’t even have it in my mind. And then I start driving home, and the show starts coming back to me, and it’s torture until six in the morning, when I finally fall asleep out of exhaustion. I’m turning the show over in my head, and I’m thinking, “Oh, I should have said that, I should have cut him off sooner, I shouldn’t have cut him off.”
You’ve had real failure in your life. How did you bounce back from the implosion of ‘Politically Incorrect’?
Free speech is alive and well in this country. You just have to fight for it. Of course, it’s a lot easier to fight for it if you’re already famous and on TV and funny. But yes, I could have easily gone away after what we here in the office call ‘the tragic events of 9/17’ — it was six days after 9/11 when I said that thing about how the terrorists were not cowards because they stuck with a suicide mission. We’ve seen that happen to people. But I guess that was the Irish in me.
But you were saying, as we sat down today, that you still have that feeling — like this might all disappear?
It’s crazy, because it’s been going on for 10 years, with just one six-month hiatus — one break in between Politically Incorrect and Real Time. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s not built for security—and that’s good. You want to be feeling like you have the eye of the tiger, like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, “The longer I stay in this hotel room, the longer Charlie stays in the jungle, the bigger advantage he’s going to have over me.” I don’t want to get too comfortable.
But I’m very fortunate that at the age of 55, my career is better than ever. How often does that happen? It’s one of the great things about comedy, you can do it until you’re 100. George Burns was booked when he was 100, and he damn near made the gig.
You love pot.
Come on. You know I gave that shit up when I got saved… [Laughs]
When you’re out on the road, doing standup in Oklahoma City, how do you avoid… Willie Nelson problems?
I have only ever smoked marijuana 12 miles off the coast of the United States — that’s where it is legal. I learned that from William F. Buckley. I put a video up on FunnyorDie about a month or so ago called 12 Mile, I interviewed Sarah Silverman, and we had the ocean on a green screen, sailors’ caps — like we were on a boat. That was my subtle way of saying we were both very stoned in that interview — but we were 12 miles off the coast, so it is legal.
So what do you smoke — medical marijuana?
I only smoke what floats up there 12 miles off the coast! It’s lucky that there’s so much intercepted marijuana coming in from Mexico that it is floating out there in the ocean, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Why are you so out in front on the issue?
Partly because it has been beneficial in my life, partly because I believe in freedom. What could be more private than what goes on inside your mind? You should be allowed to manipulate that as an adult any way you want. Is it one of our top 10 problems, to legalize pot? No, but ending the drug war would be a great way to save a metric fuckton of money.
You say pot has been beneficial to you. You've also said you "miss alcohol like a dead brother." Are the two connected?
They've been connected on many nights in the past [laughs]. At a certain point, you just can't drink, or you'll look like Ted Kennedy. That's one of the concessions you have to make to getting older.
I was a shy, nerdy kid who never really had that much fun when I was in high school or college. I never went to spring break in college, but I went for years after. I went to Freaknik '93, and I stayed until 2006. Now I limit myself to a very few precious drinks a week. As far as marijuana? Some people, it makes paranoid. Some people, it makes tired and lazy. And some people, it wakes up and makes creative. [Raises hand] I'm in that group.
The intro to your show is a heavy hip-hop beat that’s different from the usual fanfare.
That was written by one of my very best friends, the person who, in all those years when I was going to Freaknik, was my main drinking partner, Christopher “Kid” Reid from Kid N’ Play. He definitely still has his hip-hop chops, and I asked him to write the theme song, and I still love it: I walk out onstage to it when I’m on the road, and I never get tired of it.
Who were your comic heroes as a kid?
Johnny Carson, George Carlin, Robert Klein, Alan King, Dean Martin, Don Rickles.
Whose spirit stays with you most when you're onstage?
In stand-up, George Carlin. George was funny and brave and only ever got better at what he did, pretty much died onstage, did it to the end. When I'm tramping around this country, one of the things I think about is that if everything else went away, I'd have that. George Carlin never had a late-night show. He built an audience that appreciated free speech the way he practiced it and the way I try to do it – stuff for the people who are not easily offended.
When I do a monologue on the show, that's a different animal. It's more of a Johnny Carson monologue. I watched him so faithfully for so many years when I was young that I think his rhythm for a monologue is in my DNA. You can see me doing Carson-esque inflections, gestures. And of course, Johnny used to always say he stole it from Jack Benny.
Who are your political heroes?
Jimmy Carter is definitely one of them. He never fired a missile, not a bullet, not a bomb dropped on anybody – wow. To me, he's heroic for that.
Did the Terry Jones/Koran-burning debacle encapsulate everything you made Religulous to speak out against?
I’m sometimes reluctant to go after religion now; you don’t want to be that Lenny Bruce guy, who’s a broken record on one topic. But on this one? Let’s just throw that fastball right down the middle of the plate and say, “Blame religion.” It’s about a crazy Christian and a crazy Muslim who both did crazy things — and people got killed. And it happened in Afghanistan, where we wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for 9/11 — which also was completely the fault of religion.
But as wrong as it is to incite people, I was so disappointed in the voices coming out of the West, our civilization. Lindsey Graham had a ridiculous statement, like, “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” A great idea!? I’d hope an officer of the United States government would speak out a little more strongly for free speech. And Gen. Petraeus made a big statement condemning the burning, but he said nothing about the reaction that it caused. Yes, it was a stupid thing to burn the Koran, but guess what? The lion’s share of the guilt should be laid on people who then kill over it. It’s like a violent, drunken father. When his kid sets him off and he beats the shit out of the kid, do you blame the kid for setting him off? No, you blame the father for being a violent drunk.
Are you done with movies?
All done. I’m not interested in becoming a filmmaker. I had one subject. And I had to work for ten years to get that movie made — it was my Moby Dick. I found the right director in Larry Charles. And the right independent studio in Lion’s Gate; it couldn’t have come out of a studio like Paramount that was part of a conglomerate where people could call up and say, “If you release this movie, I’ll stop buying your toothpaste.” It’s the one movie that nobody else would have made, and I don’t know what subject I could go to now that would compare. Where do you go after you take down God?
Does that explain why you were salty about not getting an Oscar nod —because this was your one shot?
We weren’t even considered. Even though Religulous was something like the seventh most successful documentary ever, the documentary committee would not even put it on the short list from which they then chose the five nominees. The same thing happened with Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story — a documentary that people actually see as opposed to the one about the Lithuanian violinist in the Holocaust. Of all the bodies that are irrelevant, the documentary division of the Oscars has to be close to the top of the list.
I get the sense you still look for affirmation.
Anyone who gets into this business is looking for affirmation from the very beginning. Why else would you do it? It's all about, "Mommy, look at me! I'm doing it, Mommy! No, I'm doing it now!" And who else has been nominated for an Emmy 26 times and never won? No one, my friend. Everybody says Susan Lucci, but not only did I pass her, I do something very different. I feel like it hurts me more.
Did anybody at the DNC send you flowers over the Christine O’Donnell thing? Your airing old clips of her talking about “dabbling in witchcraft” made her a laughingstock.
When the whole comedy sphere gets in on a point to make fun of—when they’re opening the Saturday Night Live sketches with Christine O’Donnell flying away on a broom—that will bring down anybody. I was amazed at how much people just latched onto that. “It’s perfect, we can understand that, a witch, she’s a witch!” But let’s get real, she wouldn’t have won anyway. She was not a credible candidate, and Delaware is not a stupid state. We gave people something to laugh about, and made a marginal candidate even more marginal.
Why not run for office like Al Franken?
Because I think drugs are good and religion is bad. You try starting a campaign with that. I am not the person who is saying the things the majority wants to get behind. But it's a big country, and I'm very happy with the minority that likes me. There's a beautiful, progressive Canadian-European country here in America. It's just surrounded by rednecks.
Almost every routine I’ve seen of yours takes digs at Alabama. What did Alabama ever do to you?
Nothin’ — cuz I never went there. [Or] Mississippi. I think I've played every other state. I know my limits, man!