Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Bill Maher is, of course, the host of the ABC late-night talk show Politically Incorrect, as well as the author of two books, Does Anybody Have A Problem With That? and True Story. On top of those projects, he's done movies (Pizza Man, House 2: The Second Story) and made countless stand-up appearances. The Onion recently spoke to Maher about his show, his material and his stand-up career.

The Onion: You've written a couple of books, and you've got your own late-night TV show. Why go back to stand-up?

Bill Maher: Well, I never really left it. The last special I did on HBO, which I guess was my fourth, was called The Golden Goose Special because stand-up, for me and others who have shows, is the Golden Goose. It's the thing from which everything comes. So I've never quit, and it's a little harder now with this demanding schedule, but whenever I can, I still like to do it. It's still the most rewarding, the most immediate, and in a lot of ways the most real. It's just you and the audience; they're the director.

O: Because you do a show called Politically Incorrect, do people expect you to mostly just cover political material?

BM: No, because on our show, we go into every area. The only way that title means politics is if you understand that everything has a political element to it. But no, I don't think they're surprised at the content. If I'm doing a place where I can really be myself, they're sometimes surprised that it's as earthy as it is, because there are people who only see you on television. And this usually applies to—and I say this with no disrespect—people who are maybe older, who once in a while will write me a letter saying, "I thought you were such a nice young man on television, and then I went to see you in concert and you were filthy." Well, you know what? I'm not filthy. I've never been filthy, but if I'm in a place where I can speak exactly what's on my mind, that to me is the real absolute beauty of stand-up comedy. It's sort of the last bastion of real free speech. That's what HBO specials are all about, and that's what HBO comedy is all about, and that's what live comedy is all about, I think. But that's the biggest discrepancy in what they expect and what they get sometimes.

O: It's supposed to run after Nightline, but there are some markets where Politically Incorrect runs after stuff like Seinfeld reruns, Access Hollywood, Real TV, EXTRA and more. What do you do about that?

BM: Well, there's nothing I can do about that, because a lot of these stations have existing contracts. We've only been on the air since January, but the problem should take care of itself: The show is doing very well in the ratings, and that should be an incentive to have local affiliates who are not carrying it at the right time make that change. I think they will over time; if they don't, they're not serving their people very well.

O: Your audience isn't exactly up late watching Married With Children reruns in syndication.

BM: Nobody is. There is no audience for that, I don't think.

O: Are the American people stupid?

BM: I always say that having done the show has taught me that there are so, so many smart people in America, and also so many stupid ones. I don't know, it's a big country. I'm just amazed at the volume of intelligent mail I get, people who really care and want to add to the debate. Just what people say to me on the street. You know, I think it's easy to only see the stupidity, because it is large, and it is out there. But there's also, luckily, a large segment of smart people yearning for something challenging. I guess I'm a little bit spoiled here, because of what the show is and its reputation; it's been around for a while, so the audience that comes in here is a little bit smarter than the average bear. And I kind of get spoiled in my own studio, because when they come in here, they understand that one, this is a show that requires a little bit of understanding about what's going on the world—or else they probably wouldn't be that interested in coming to a taping—and two, this is the temple of the politically incorrect, so if anybody makes a statement that anywhere else would get those kind of, "Ooh, don't go there, don't say that," this is the one place where you don't make that sound. This is where we speak what is honestly on our minds. So I am spoiled in that regard, and that becomes very clear to me sometimes when I guest somewhere else, and I'm in front of somebody else's audience, and I realize, "Oh, I've really got to take it down a notch. I can't assume this crowd knows who Madeleine Albright is, because this crowd is not all bright."

More Interview