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Bill Maher is outspoken in every medium he's explored, and he's certainly explored a lot of them. He tours the country as a stand-up comedian. He's written a novel (True Story) and a series of humor books—the latest is 2005's New Rules: Polite Musings From A Timid Observer. He's had a series of small roles in films from Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death to The Aristocrats. He has a political blog at The Huffington Post. And he just finished a "summer job" hosting an Internet-only Amazon.com talk show called Amazon Fishbowl. But he's best known as the host of the defunct talk show Politically Incorrect and HBO's current series Real Time With Bill Maher; both have served as a public forum for his opinions on politics, society, law, religion and all the many fallacies thereof.
Maher's views and his forthright, knowledgeable, caustically humorous way of expressing them have sometimes gotten him into trouble—most notably, Politically Incorrect's eight-year run ended after Maher angered critics by saying that George W. Bush was wrong to call the 9/11 terrorists "cowardly." But he's also earned a dedicated fan following. As Real Time was preparing for the late-August launch of its fifth season, The A.V. Club spoke with Maher about impeaching Bush, acquiring pot, getting fired, and ruffling feathers.
The A.V. Club: On last season's Real Time finale, you joked about George W. Bush being impeached for lying about a fish he caught, and today at The Huffington Post, you called more seriously for impeachment over the wiretapping scandal. Do you think there's any chance of Bush actually being impeached?
Bill Maher: Well, it really depends on what happens with the elections in November, and what happens to the makeup of Congress, doesn't it? I mean, the Republicans are certainly never going to impeach Bush. Which is sort of hilarious, if you look at how little it took by comparison to get Bill Clinton impeached. If America wants it done, they're going to have to elect people who'll do it. Not that I think that should be that much of a priority in this election, given what a lame duck Bush is.
AVC: Rolling Stone's website recently republished a 1999 interview with you where you said Bill Clinton's acquittal proved America is getting over its little-old-lady morality. Are you still optimistic about that happening?
BM: Well, I think we still are getting over it, we're still moving forward. I go out on the road a lot, and I talk to people—what we're seeing in the administration, in the government today, doesn't necessarily reflect what people in America are actually like, or what they believe. I think people are more tolerant, more grown-up about morality than you'd know from watching what the administration does. Especially young people, but it's hard to get them to vote, to make their views known. Puffy said "Vote or die," and I guess the kids probably took it literally, thought he was going to kill them. But maybe they think they don't need to vote to change things. Take marijuana. Nobody in America who wants pot has any trouble getting it, so maybe that's why we aren't seeing support for legalization. People don't think it's necessary to legalize it, because it's so easy to get it.
AVC: Isn't that kind of easy to say as a wealthy celebrity?
BM: You think people have trouble getting pot? You're wrong about that. It's actually harder for me. It's not like I can just walk down to Washington Square and cop off the first guy I see, you know?
AVC: You've been very public about your drug use—
BM: Not drugs. Pot.
AVC: Your pot use and your support for legalization. In the wake of Tommy Chong's arrest and conviction, are you concerned at all that someone might try to make an example of you?
BM: Well, as truly ridiculous as that bust was, it was a different situation. He was actually selling things, paraphernalia and such, and it was clear what he was doing. Whereas in my case, I joke about it more than I actually do it, so no, I'm not all that worried.
AVC: You're about to go out on tour again—
BM: I'm touring all the time. I'm out doing stand-up all the time. I never really stop.
AVC: You're doing live stand-up, and writing books, and blogging, and doing the talk show. How do you avoid repeating yourself? How concerned are you about overlap from one medium to another?
BM: Well, I actually keep really careful track of where I've been, and when I've been there. I always try to emphasize when I do an interview with the local paper, or whatever, "Don't worry, I'm not going to be telling the jokes I told last time I was in Albuquerque." Because I know that the last time I was in Albuquerque, it was November 9, 2004, and I was doing this act, so now I'm doing this other one. I actually titled them. It's not quite like a Madonna performance. [Laughs.] Where she puts on a whole new show every time she goes on tour. But that's how I try to think of it. That was the I'm Swiss tour. Before that was the Be More Cynical tour. I do try to keep track of where I've been and what I've said. Is there some overlap? Of course. Sometimes something is in my stand-up act because I said it on Real Time. But usually, if I'm doing it in the stand-up act, it's because I've fleshed that idea out a lot more since the show.
AVC: How do you go about preparing for an average episode of Real Time?
BM: It's tough. This show takes a lot out of me. I'm glad that our seasons are only 12 or 13 weeks long, because I'm really fried at the end of it. It takes all week, because there's so many elements to the show, even though it's only one hour. There's a panel of three people, and we talk about six or seven issues with them. So you have to prepare for six or seven issues with the panel. Then there's two satellite guests. You have to prepare for those guests. And then there's written material. We do an editorial that ends the show. That usually takes quite a bit to get right. The "New Rules" pieces. We do a cold open, and we do a desk piece in the middle. A little comedy desk piece. All these elements—I wind up staying in almost every night. I happen to work late hours, which is not good for you, but I can't seem to stop it. I go to the office in the afternoon and have meetings with the writers and the producers and the bookers, and then I go home, and I'm usually at my computer from about 8 o'clock at night to about 3 in the morning.
AVC: Does your prep process or time depend upon who's going to be on the show, or is it roughly the same week to week?
BM: It's pretty much the same week to week. For this show, we try to book three people on the panel who are going to be up to speed, to say the least, on what's going on in the world. Once in a while, I'm sure we've had a guest who didn't fulfill that obligation. For example, for the season opener on Friday night, we have Christopher Hitchens. Obviously he knows what's up. Former Senator Max Cleland. Obviously he knows what's up. And this gentlemen Vali Nasr who's written this book, The Shia Revival, who's an expert on the Middle East. So these are people—I don't have to worry about whether they'll bring their game. I just got to worry about presenting them with interesting stuff that they can get their teeth into.
AVC: Do you anticipate any significant changes coming along this season?
BM: No, I think we like the format that we're doing. It's a mistake to try to reinvent the wheel with talk shows. It's almost always about the execution. You can play around with format, but what people really care about is the content. A good discussion and stuff that'll make them laugh.
AVC: What do you see as the primary differences between the philosophies of Real Time and Politically Incorrect?
BM: Politically Incorrect, we cast a much wider net for guests, first of all. Being on every night with four guests, that was 20 guests a week, vs. three for Real Time. That's a big difference. Politically Incorrect wasn't pretending to be as deep as Real Time. We would never on Politically Incorrect have a panel of Christopher Hitchens, Max Cleland, and Vali Nasr. We would have one of those people, and then probably three celebrities of one sort or another. And that was, we hoped, the charm of the show: that it was a mix-and-match of people of various ideologies and intellectual levels. Sometimes that was charming, and sometimes it wasn't. As far as the guests go, that's the main difference. As far as my political philosophy, I don't think it's changed radically. One reason I'm glad I'm a talk-show host and not a politician is that I'm allowed to change my mind and evolve and grow as I learn something. As opposed to the philosophy of our present administration, which is "We never learn, because we're always right from the beginning. We're resolute, in that even suggesting a whiff of change means you're cutting and running and flipping and flopping." And that's ridiculous.
AVC: With that in mind, would it actually help or change anything if Bush were impeached? Would Dick Cheney make a better president in any way?
BM: Well, I'm sure thousands of times before I have made the observation that he's probably running the show to begin with. So I don't know if it would change anything. I don't know if it would make things worse. But that's another great reason why Bush is probably safe from impeachment, is because we'd probably go from the frying pan into the fire. Not that it wouldn't make that much of a difference. I think Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, they know what's really up. They know why they really went into Iraq. Bush is just the empty suit who's stupid enough to believe their nonsense about spreading freedom.
AVC: You've described yourself as a libertarian, but you have beliefs on both sides of the Democrat/Republican divide, and a comedian's distaste for everyone in power. So is there a single person out there now whom you could wholeheartedly back as a 2008 presidential candidate?
BM: I don't know yet, because I haven't seen what the candidates are saying yet. There are some people who I think have potential. I think John Edwards, Joe Biden, Al Gore, even John Kerry. They're all capable, bright people. What the Democrats have lacked is not intelligence, it's will. It's the political will to say things which might ruffle a few feathers at first, which might not be so popular. If somebody would run under the slogan, "I'd rather be right than president," great. I'd vote for that person.
AVC: If you were elected president tomorrow, what would your first three initiatives be?
BM: [Laughs.] That's insane. Me elected President. Well, the first thing I would do would be to address the environment. The second thing would be to address homeland security. My thinking is, government is really there to do the things that people absolutely can't do for themselves. And that's mostly involved with the things that might kill you. And what might kill me? The environment and terrorism. And I think in both cases, we have very little defense in this country. So, I would immediately try to get the ports protected. The chemical plants, the airlines. I would move on these areas, which have become really just pork-barrel projects in a business-as-usual Congress. And then make drastic steps toward reversing or arresting the global-warming problem. Al Gore's movie [An Inconvenient Truth] was real nice, but he didn't suggest anything at the end. He didn't say, "This is a horrible problem that's reaching a tipping point, so what we really need is a $2 gasoline tax." He didn't do any of that. So what good is it? Everyone who saw the movie is already on the page. Even Bush at this point has admitted, "Yes, there probably is global warming, and probably it's caused by human beings." So it's a matter of then saying, "Yeah, but what are we doing about it?"
AVC: So the environment and security. Is there a third thing?
BM: The debt. That's another iceberg we're heading toward. I would try doing something about this enormous debt that we've incurred by giving away money to all of George Bush's rich friends.
AVC: Do you see any practical way to stop the government from legislating morality?
BM: Elect people who promise that they won't. The only reason we got into this is because people like George Bush are very adept at inspiring their base of Christian voters to elect them into office. And as I say, the majority of the country doesn't feel that way. It's just the majority of the people who are inspired to get off their asses and go into the voting booth. I don't think a lot of these Christian people who voted for George Bush—I've heard them interviewed, and sometimes they don't even think very highly of many of the policies of his administration, but they like him because he's a Christian. They feel like he's one of them.
AVC: From Politically Incorrect on, you've been known for speaking your mind and courting controversy, but as political debate gets progressively more vitriolic, it's difficult to say something strong enough to stand out from the crowd. Do you feel any pressure to become more outrageous?
BM: Oh God, no. [Laughs.] More outrageous. I never, ever in my life tried to be outrageous. I've only ever tried to say what was truly on my mind and not pull punches about it. The fact that struck people as outrageous is just because there's a lot of people in this country who look at the world through a lens that I don't find to be particularly realistic.
AVC: You've recently been taken to task for saying religion is a neurological disorder—
BM: I've always talked about religion that way. Always. From the beginning. I hate religion. But I couldn't possibly talk about it more than I do without making people go, "Bill, you've got to get off religion a little. It comes up in almost every show. You have to keep some sense of balance, so the people who are watching this show every week don't go 'Oh, this guy, he's doing a Lenny Bruce now. He's obsessed with this issue. Everything comes down to this.'" And believe me, I could get into religion on every show, no matter what we're discussing, because religion really is in almost every issue. But I try to keep an eye out for the viewer. People know where I stand on religion. [Laughs.] I don't think that I have to worry that I've been ambiguous.
AVC: Have you had problems with censorship over the years, or with people trying to get you to tone it down on your shows?
BM: Of course! I worked for ABC. I worked for Disney. The time I got fired from Politically Incorrect wasn't the first time I got in trouble over there. It was just the last straw. I always say when people talk about me getting fired, "Yeah, but I lasted six years working for the Disney Company on a show called Politically Incorrect that really was politically incorrect." I don't know how we lasted that long. But that sure wasn't the first time. [Laughs.]
AVC: Any bio of you today will say you were fired from Politically Incorrect for objecting to Bush calling the 9/11 terrorists "cowardly." But it was eight months after that remark that your contract wasn't renewed—it wasn't like goons kicked you out of the building the night you did that show. Could anything else have contributed to ABC's decision to end the series?
BM: Oh no, it was definitely that. That comment about the terrorists not being cowards was six days after 9/11. And nothing happened when I said it—that's one of the key points to that story. Nothing happened the next day. Nothing happened the day after that. It took a while. The Dixie Chicks would tell you the same story about their comments in England about Bush. It takes somebody who wants to whip up people into a frenzy, because normally, people—if somebody says something they don't like or disagree with, they just go, "Oh, what the hell was that?" And then they go on with their lives. Sometimes I read something that I don't like, and I think, "That's offensive." Then I turn the page. I don't like to make it my life's crusade, therefore, to get an apology and make the offensive person disappear.
But there are people with nothing better to do. And two of them were working at a radio station in Houston, Texas. And what I found out later, was that the people who fomented this crusade against me, they had been trying to get me off the air for years, mostly because of what I said about religion. That's really why they hated me. But they saw an opening here. Just like we went into Iraq because we saw an opening. But those Project For The New American Century people in the Bush administration, they wanted to go into Iraq anyway. As soon as 9/11 happened, they were like, "Oh. Here's our excuse. Even though Iraq really had nothing to do with it. Here's our excuse." It was the same thing with me. These guys wanted to get rid of me for years because I made fun of religion and Ronald Reagan, and whatever else pissed them off. And here was their opportunity. It was very easy, in an age where you hit a button to send 25,000 e-mails out to people, to make advertisers feel like there was going to be a boycott or whatever bullshit. And so that's what happened. Advertisers pulled out. By the end of that week, we had lost FedEx and Sears. That sort of started a stampede. Basically, what happened was, you can't do a television show on commercial broadcast without sponsors. And we had trouble getting sponsors.
AVC: Which networks have given you the most space to do exactly what you want to do on a show?
BM: Well, that would be HBO. I have to say, there's a misconception that I hear all the time. "Oh, it's great you're on HBO. Now you can say whatever you want." I always said whatever I wanted. I just got fired for it on the other station. Or I got in trouble for it. But ABC never, ever stopped me from saying what I wanted. As a matter of fact, the issue that they were most sensitive about was pot. As ridiculous as that is. And even then, they didn't stop me from saying what I wanted. They just insisted that when I said what I wanted about drugs, there would be someone from the other side to say the corresponding, ridiculous argument.
AVC: What was it like working with Amazon.com on the Amazon Fishbowl online series?
BM: That was a perfect summer job, because, as I was just describing to you, the intensity of working on Real Time, where I have to be up on all these issues, and I have to talk to Madeleine Albright on the satellite This was a once-a-week show where I didn't have to really be up on anything except what the people who were coming on that show were selling. So it was a break. It made me realize how much easier it would be to do a traditional type of talk show. Because that's really what it was. It was a much more traditional type of talk show where we had guests who were selling their wares, and I was interviewing them.
AVC: Yourself aside, who's the best talk-show host out there?
BM: [Laughs.] I'm not going to answer that question. I would get into way too much trouble.
AVC: Well, who do you enjoy watching?
BM: I don't watch a lot of any one of them, but when I'm up at that hour—and I'm always up at that hour—if I have the TV on, I see bits of all of them.
AVC: Are there any defunct talk shows that you particularly miss or would like to see revived?
BM: Well, Jack Paar was before my time, but my parents always talked about how great he was. And then I got this DVD set, and he was pretty great. Steve Allen was one of my mentors. His original Tonight! show was of course before my time, but he had a show in the '60s that was really funny. I love Steve Allen. And of course, I lived and slept and dreamt Johnny Carson, and I had him in my blood from the time I was 10—I don't think I missed a Tonight Show from when I was 10 to when I was out of college.
AVC: Is there anybody that you'd like to have on Real Time that you haven't been able to get?
BM: Dozens. Probably hundreds of people.
AVC: Such as?
BM: Bill Clinton.
AVC: What's the first thing you'd ask him?
BM: "Why have you resisted me so long? When I did nothing but support you more than anyone else when you were going through your time of troubles?"
AVC: When we last spoke to you—it's been almost 10 years now—the last question asked was "Are the American people stupid?" How would you answer that today?
BM: They are. Even more so than 10 years ago. People come up to me all the time and say, "This is such a stupid country." And it is. Unfortunately, it is. It has millions of bright people in it. I like to think that they comprise a good part of my audience. But there's no doubt about it, it's a stupid country. It was in The New York Times last week that when they asked the question "Do you think human beings evolved from an earlier species of animal?" the only Western nation that responded "no" more often than America was Turkey. Thirty different countries, including Bulgaria. Ooh, that one hurt. I got to say, that hurt. That was like a knife in the gut. Even Bulgaria gets it about evolution more than we do. That's a stupid country.
AVC: Is there any medium that you haven't touched yet that you'd like to get into?
BM: Not really. I'm pretty happy with what I've done so far, and what I'm doing now.
AVC: Any regrets? Things you've done or said that you wish you could take back?
BM: Sure! Dozens, probably hundreds of things. I lie awake in bed practically every Friday night, thinking "I could have said that better," or "That would have been funnier if I'd just done this." You can't help regretting every opportunity you miss. But you can keep yourself from dwelling on it. You have to. There's another show coming up.