An alarming percentage of Americans receive most of their news from late-night talk-show monologues, but Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect at least gives its audience a discussion of issues to go with the usual diet of snappy one-liners. Each night, Maher moderates a panel with four different celebrity guests, who debate a pre-set topic in front of a studio audience. It's a successful format he invented—and took to ABC following a popular run on Comedy Central—after years of work as an actor and stand-up comedian. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Maher about his political views, the upcoming election, acting, and his status as a good, honest person.
The Onion: Should people vote?
Bill Maher: They should vote, but not for one of these guys. I've been saying that for two years. Don't vote for Republicans or Democrats until they clean up the open system of bribery that we live under. And the fact that I don't like either one of these clowns just confirms that, and I'm going to vote for Mr. Nader. I certainly don't agree with everything he says, either, but we don't really have to worry that it's going to get implemented. I would like to see a start made toward something alternative in America, because I just can't imagine anything else where we would put up with having only two choices. Would you put up with two choices of car? Or two choices of soap or toothpaste or anything? It's just not good enough anymore, and it's certainly not the way any other democracies run their game. It's just silly that a country that prides itself on choice allows only two… Really, if you follow this election closely, it's not even two; it's slight variations on one. We must break the monopoly. I know people say a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, and I would think that would be a bad thing if I thought Gore was that much better or that much different. But he's not.
O: What about choice?
BM: Choice is a big one, but I don't see… Yeah, that's true. Bush could appoint…
O: He's going to appoint three or four Supreme Court justices.
BM: But he's not the king. They make it sound like, when you become president, you're going to rule by decree. My plan. Your plan. The both of them talk "my plan." Both those plans have to go through Congress, at which point both those plans would come out pretty much the same way after the Congress dealt with them. It's consensus. Same with the Supreme Court business. You can't just appoint them; they have to be approved.
O: We're going to have a Republican Senate next year.
BM: Is it a simple majority that approves it?
BM: Oh. That is bad.
O: See? Maybe you should vote for Gore.
BM: Yeah. Nope. No, I refuse. The other one they talk about as being a real choice is the environment, and I don't buy that, either, because Gore proved on this heating-oil flip-flop and releasing oil from the Strategic Reserve that he's not a hell of a lot better. Yes, he's somewhat better, but basically, he talks a better game.
O: He wrote a nice book.
BM: He wrote a nice book, which he shies away from touting. I'm a bigger proponent of his book than he is. I've been saying, week after week when environmental issues come up, that his idea to eliminate the internal-combustion engine in 25 years is excellent. Whereas Bush's quote about Gore's book was, "This book needs a lot of explaining." But he says that about every book. It's so easy to demagogue the issue and make someone who speaks out against the internal-combustion engine sound like an insane communist, when the truth is that the internal-combustion engine is the biggest threat to my life in the next 25 years, in terms of what it's doing to our environment and how it's depleting the ozone layer and so forth. There's no reason why, if we put our mind to it, we couldn't eliminate the internal-combustion engine in 25 years.
O: Except for protests from industry, which funds the government.
BM: Exactly. Bush, who's funded primarily by the oil companies, obviously is not going to be for that. We know that. But Gore could certainly do better than he's been doing in explaining to people why that's a reasonable idea.
O: It just seems so out of the mainstream that he wouldn't dare risk it.
BM: Yeah, you're attacking cars, which are right beneath churches.
O: The auto industry would say that you were attacking auto-industry workers, which could turn labor unions against him.
BM: Yeah, but that's what leaders do. They explain positions to people that may not seem like the position [those people want] to take. That's what leadership is. People didn't want to integrate either, but Kennedy at least had the guts to go on TV and say, "We are facing primarily a moral issue here. How can we offer citizenship to one group of people and not to the other group of people who are just different in color? How can we do that?" And people came around. Yes, the Democrats paid a terrible price; the South used to be what they called the Solid South, which meant solidly Democratic. Well, now it's solidly Republican. Sometimes you've got to pay for something that's worth it. These guys are not willing to pay. The other reason I hate both [parties] is that they won't come out against the drug war. They know the drug war is wrong, because they did drugs. I could forgive Bush's father, because he's like my father. He didn't know what a joint was. But these two little Baby Boomer motherfuckers, they know about drugs. They could have a nice debate about pot versus coke. That could be one whole debate for them. So, they have no integrity.
O: What I don't understand is why conservatives wouldn't support taking all those people out of jails when it costs taxpayers something like $50,000 a year per prisoner.
BM: [Being a] conservative also used to involve the concept of people being free to do whatever they want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else. Conservatives used to be very libertarian. Reagan was all about getting the government out of people's lives. Well, does that include when I'm twisting up a fatty to watch Nick At Night? Is that really a threat to our way of life?
O: It's sort of ironic that you're doing a mainstream political talk show when so many Americans only get news from talk-show monologues.
BM: Yes, and that's not a good thing. People say that to me—"I get all my news from your show"—and I say, "Well, you shouldn't." It's like, "I'm just reading the Cliffs Notes." Well, don't. Go back and read the book.
O: What are you not able to address on ABC?
BM: Oh, nothing. They're skittish about drug discussions, but as long as I have someone from the other side presenting their point of view… I'm for the legalization of drugs, and they're okay with that, as long as the other side is presented.
O: Is it like that with all issues?
BM: That's the one they're most skittish about. It's really kind of an anachronistic policy left over from God knows when. There was a point, I remember, when I used to watch Johnny Carson and there were 10 pot jokes in the monologue every night. [Imitates Carson's voice.] "The band's in a good mood. The ship from Colombia must have come in." It was all very funny, but suddenly we had to only take drugs very seriously. Over the last five or six years, that has loosened up a lot, but this is a conservative network and they still want to present that other side. They're still toeing the drug-war line. To their credit, they let me express my opinion, which is probably not what theirs is.
O: Do you feel obligated to address national obsessions such as Lewinsky and O.J. after they've grown tired?
BM: No, quite the opposite. I stopped covering Monica Lewinsky when the impeachment went to the Senate, because I said, "I've seen this." It was a rerun. I saw it once as it played out before the country, the second time in Congress when they were deciding whether to impeach him, and then, the third time around, I was like, "Nope. Just because they're doing it doesn't mean I have to." I got off the train. Actually, people said, "Ooh, it must have helped your ratings." No, actually, it didn't help the ratings. Maybe initially, but people got tired of it. The people were ahead of the powers that be, ahead of the media, ahead of the politicians. They had made up their minds right away and never really wavered. Clinton always had this 60-70% approval rating of people who said, "Well, I wouldn't really want him over to dinner, and I wouldn't want him talking to my daughter, but you know what? That's not what I elected him for, and I'm not worried about him being in my house. I'm worried about my house and the mortgage and the taxes and the situation in Israel or whatever, and for that, he's pretty good."
O: If you look at the polls, it always seems like 35% of the American people would vote to have Clinton killed.
BM: Right. There's a solid third that hates him from the pit of their stomach, just the way there's a solid percentage that hated Nixon to that degree. Luckily, it's only a third.
O: Are there people you leave off the show because they dominate the conversation?
BM: I'm more likely to not invite someone back for not talking. If someone talks a lot, I can usually shut them up and control them. But with people who don't talk, if they don't really want to talk, they probably shouldn't be on this show, and that's fine. They're talented people with things to say, but sometimes people say what they have to say through other means than arguing on a talk show like this. There's no other show like this, so they have no place to practice. There's no getting used to this somewhere else, so the first time can be a bit of a jolt, especially for stars. Movie stars and people like that are so used to being pandered to, being catered to… First of all, they're used to having everybody cater to them and ask them questions directly: "What do you want for lunch? What should we do now? What's your movie about?" And any time they do press, that's certainly what it is. One person asks them a question. They're not used to having to fight their way in to make a point. Second of all, they're not used to having to make a point, because no one ever disagrees with them. I think that explains why you don't see a lot of top box-office stars on our show.
O: Have you thought about giving acting another try?
BM: I just did a movie. It's the part of the bad guy, but they did all my scenes in one day. It was the longest day of my life. I wanted to do it because I wanted to see if I could do this again, and I had mixed feelings. On one hand, it is fun to nail your big scene in your close-up. It's just fun, it's a rush, and I did enjoy it. On the other hand, I no longer have the patience to be on a set from five in the morning until a million o'clock at night with the makeup. You want to scratch it off, and then you're doing the 28th take because there was a plane… I'm just too impatient.
O: For a while it seemed like you were going in that direction. I mean, Pizza Man was a starring role.
BM: Yeah. I made my living as an actor for five years, but I always had the same problems with it. Any actor will tell you the same thing: "Look, we would do the acting for free; it's the waiting they pay us for." It's true. It's the waiting and the repetition and the monotony and having to stay focused all day because you forget your lines. If I could do it like Marlon Brando, where he writes the lines on the other actor's head, I might be lured back into it.
O: What was it like working on DC Cab?
BM: Oh, my God, who remembers it? It was 1983, so I was 27. At the time, I thought it was fantastic. I was 27, I'd just moved out here, and I was in a movie. I couldn't have been happier. But do I remember specifically? No.
O: You don't remember what your motivation was?
BM: My motivation was to get somewhere in show business, and when I got offered a major motion picture, I was not saying no.
O: People's perceptions of you seem wildly varied: They're either rabid fans or they think you're a mean, smarmy jerk. Which are you?
BM: Oh, I'm definitely good. I'm not bad; I'm extremely honest, and I allow no bullshit to pass by my radar. And that will always get lots of people thinking you're a jerk. But there are people who appreciate total honesty and questioning of the conformities in our society, and I'm heroic to those people. And I should be. It's an indictment of the rest of society who doesn't get that, I think. They're the people who are happily going along with Bore and Gush and every other bit of nonsense that's forced down their throat. That's why I called my recent stand-up special Be More Cynical, because I truly believe that the problem in this country is not that we're too cynical; it's that we're too naïve, too stupid, too willing to swallow the same old crap. Everybody complains about, "Oh, we have the same old crap running for office." Yeah, but the same old crap seems to do awfully well at the ballot box. The same old crap is an enormous vote-getter. So excuse me for not covering up the bullshit. People say, "Gee, Bill, the other talk shows get Gore and Bush on." Yeah, well, I wear that as a badge of honor that they won't come here. I certainly get bigger ratings than a lot of the shows they go on, but I won't kiss their ass. Of course they're afraid of me. They should be. It's not that I would be disrespectful to them, but I would ask them questions other than, "What's your favorite color?" and "What's it like to kiss your wife? Here's some pre-written comedy material we'd like to hand you to fluff up your image."
O: That is pretty appalling.
BM: I went off on that. I think people were like, "Oh, he's just mad because they won't do his show." No, even if I didn't have a show I would be appalled by that, appalled by television shows giving candidates material. That's got to be wrong. That's way over the line. We're journalists. We're not supposed to be fluffing up their image. We're supposed to be vetting them for the American public.