BILL MAHER MIGHT SEEM almost establishment now — or as close to it as a Bible-dissing, PETA-loving pot smoker can be — but just a few years ago, he was practically on his way to the gulag. "I have a newspaper headline on my wall that says WHITE HOUSE KEEPS HEAT ON ABC'S MAHER — for a couple of weeks, I really was public enemy number one," Maher says, laughing. "The country had no place to put their anger, so I provided a service for America." Maher's civic duty as a national pariah began in September 2001, when his comments that the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards ignited such a shitstorm that his show Politically Incorrect was canceled. He bounced back, landed at HBO and began hammering the Bush administration each week, and millions loved him for it. But as Real Time With Bill Maher enters its seventh season on February 20th, we asked the host how he'll fare without George Bush to kick around anymore.
When Bush's helicopter flew off did you worry, "There goes my best material"?
We will never be able to enjoy such a thundering doofus as George Bush. He was so good for comedy. When I do my stand-up around the country, there's a feeling of "us against the world," because the Man is in power, and here we are balling up our tiny-fists and making jokes. I don't know if we can have that feeling again, but can there be comedy in an Obama administration? Honkie, please. Are there still Democrats and call girls? Republicans and anonymous gay sex? Fox News and the truth? Sure, maybe a smart, competent guy is a smaller target than a doltish dry drunk, but he's the president. He's not some infallible chocolate Jesus. That's Kanye West.
Still, doesn't Obama's coolness make him a much harder mark?
Yeah, this is the first time I remember that the coolest guy in America and the president are the same guy. Clinton was cool, but he was also a barbecue-eating, ass- squeezing red-faced hillbilly who fucked ugly girls — remember, this is the guy who struck out with Paula Jones.He wasn't cool in the way Obama is cool. This is a First Couple that has drinkability. They fist-bump, they look each other in the eye. So suck it up, OPEC — our president gets it on with a hot black chick. We finally have a First Family with game! That's the thing about him: It's great that we have our first black president, but also it paves the way for the first really black president - President 50 Cent, some day. And, yeah, Obama is cool. He is so cool that I feel like sometimes he must be on Xanax.
But aren't expectations a little too high?
Yeah, but already you've seen mistakes: Tom Daschle just withdrew, the stimulus plan seems to be overloaded with pork. And we're only two weeks into it. Please, comedy fans, we'll be fine.
For all the talk of bipartisanship from Obama, the Republicans don't seem to be interested in helping him out.
The Republicans are geniuses at picking very small issues and making them giant issues. We've already seen it: Obama wants a more informal White House, which has a lot of the conservatives enraged. In the Bush years, a jacket and a tie were required to enter the Oval Office — not to mention a strictly enforced two-drink minimum. But Obama has said, "We're gonna keep it a little more laid-back," and people are acting like he's going to cover the Oval Office with black-light posters of Pam Grier, for God's sake. It's not like he's showing up in corn-rows with a neck tattoo. He's just taking his jacket off. And by the way, you fucking clown posse, you may have forgotten, but when people are working, that's what they do: They take their jacket off'.
What did you think of the GOP electing Michael Steele as their leader?
It's an obvious move. They feel like, "OK, checkmate. You got a black guy; we got a black guy." It's sort of like Sarah Palin after Hillary: "Hey, you want tits? You think you've got tits in your party? We've got fresher, tighter tits over here!"
But didn't Steele’s selection highlight the Republican Party's efforts to deal with their undeniable issues with race?
America has an issue with race. Obama did not win the white vote in America. Just because there's a black president doesn't mean racism has ended. This election did not destroy the Republican base — it purified it. The sane people have all left. When McCain picked Palin, that was a gut-check for Republicans: Are they going to go down the path, which is the Bush legacy of this super-Christ-y, anti-intellectual party? Or, are you going to go in a more sane direction that was the old-school Republican Party of David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, Christopher Buckley? Those people checked out, so all you have left now are the wing nuts. You have the Sean Hanitys and the Palins and the Bill Kristols — or as I call them, "the Axis of Stupid." The Republican base has been purified, the same way that crack can be purified out of cocaine. Or at least that's how Amy Winehouse explained it to me.
Were you happy Obama thanked the nonbelievers at the inauguration?
Excuse me, I'm Mr. Religulous, I made the movie, and this was better than an Academy Award nomination, not that I shouldn't have had that, too. My jaw dropped. Never in my life do I remember any shout-out to atheists. Bush Sr. supposedly said they shouldn't be able to vote. Seriously. So it was a gratifying moment, especially since Obama has bent over backward to look like a super-duper Christian.
You don't believe him?
The difference is that Bush believes it, and I think Obama's faking. I can't really believe that somebody as bright as Obama actually believes in the talking snake. He's a politician. Certainly, in a country that's 85 percent religious, he cannot get up and say, "I'm a secular man." So I understand why he has to do that. The difference is that it does not allect his thinking, whereas with Bush, it absolutely affected his thinking. They asked Bush, "Why didn't you listen to your father when you were planning to go into Iraq?" And he said, "I appeal to a higher father." Because Jesus, you know, was all about the military invasion.
Do people come up to you and nay, "I was pissed at you after 9/11, but I realize that I was wrong, and I'm sorry"?
Of course, it's happened a million times! But that's the nature of this country. This country does nothing but panic, overreact immediately and then pull back and say, "Oh, you know what, Don Imus? You can come back to work. It was not the smartest joke to make, but come back to work." Even as it was happening, I had people come to my defense. Even conservatives — Rush Limbaugh came to my defense.
Some people arc saying that Rush Limbaugh might be the most powerful Republican voice in the country right now. Do you agree with that?
I do, because they're following his lead. These hard right-wingers, they're like stalkers: Rejection just makes them crazier. Losing that election just made them nuttier. Rush has said he's rooting against Obama. Now, that could just be the OxyContin talking — I give Rush a wide latitude because he's a drug addict, God bless him. But there's no doubt that people like Limbaugh and Hannity have an enormous influence in controlling the debate in this country. They're the ones who get the Joe the Plumbers all hopped up on something that is preventing Joe from reaching the American Dream. It's either gays or immigrants or poor people or the French or science or birth control or Hollywood or the femi-Nazis or Hillary. These are the guys who Obama was talking about when he said they cling to their guns and their religion. And he was exactly right!
Doesn't Obama seem like the perfect conduit for this rage?
Any president's going to be a lightning rod, but especially him. Karl Rove tried to present Obama during the campaign as the guy at the country club with a martini, making snide comments. Really? That's who Obama is? The guy at the country club? Are you fucking kidding me? This black man that was on food stamps with a single mother? It's just something that Rove pulled out of his large, gelatinous ass. It has no basis in reality, but they don't care about reality. They care about a story line.
If you had a chance to get Bush on the show, what would you ask him?
Why did you want to be president? Really? Because, obviously, you weren't good at it. You didn't really devote yourself to it, and you don't even seem to notice that you fucked it up so bad.