In early 2016 I interviewed Bill Maher for a preview feature to run ahead of his February 20 stand-up date in Asheville NC. That feature originally ran in Mountain Xpress, and then here on Musoscribe. The altweekly’s space requirements precluded using the entire interview. I proudly present the full (edited) transcript of our conversation here. — bk
Bill Kopp: You make the news for things you say more regularly than nearly any non-politician I can name…
Bill Maher: [laughs]
Are you comfortable with the adjective “outspoken” being applied to you, and if not, do you think there’s a better word?
“Outspoken” is accurate; I’ve certainly never been shy about giving my opinion. Sometimes people ask me, “Are you just trying to get a rise out of people, or play Devil’s advocate?” And I’ve told them for twenty-three years – since I started on television – “No. I always say exactly what I think, whether my own audience boos me or not.” I never say anything I don’t believe.
Now, I do say things just to get laughs; I mean, I do tell jokes. I’m a comedian. But the premise of the joke is never false. I never pretend that I’m a Ted Cruz fan.
Is it fair to suggest that you court controversy, or would you say instead that what you’re doing is more a case of shining a light on topics and discussions that are already taking place at – to borrow a cliché – kitchen tables all across the country?
Yeah. I don’t court controversy. In fact I think it would be a much better world if everyone just agreed with me on everything. Honestly, I do. The only reason I ever argue is because people don’t agree with me. I don’t like to argue. It would be great if everybody just succumbed. [laughs] But they don’t.
When you’re doing episodes of Real Time, your role is that of host, moderator. You have the exchange of ideas, a give-and-take, often including people with whom you might not agree. When you do a show like the one you’re bringing here to Asheville, it’s a very different thing: it’s just you up there, so you set the agenda, and yours is the only voice. How do those two roles differ for you? Do you think of them as two wholly separate things, or is there overlap?
They definitely overlap, in the sense that traveling around the country, I think, gives me far more authority to speak on Friday night from my perch here in Hollywood, which isn’t exactly “real American” in most people’s views, although it is part of America, too. But I’m always amused when conservatives talk about the “flyover states,” and how the “liberal elites” don’t respect the people in the flyover states. Well, I land in them. So I respect them.
I don’t know if Bill O’Reilly, who’s always talking about that, ever goes out into America. But I sure do. And when you go to places, you learn about the country and how people are thinking in different parts of the country; you can’t avoid it. Ot at least, I don’t avoid it. I don’t try to avoid it. I like to engage people.
And when you travel, when you’re in airports, [when you’re with] the kid who drives you to the gig, hotels, the hotel bar. Lots of people I always see in the hotel who have come a long way to see my show, which is very flattering. And apparently, [they live so far] away that the need a hotel! They say, “Hey! We’re coming to see your show tonight!” And I always then ask them, “What’s going on here? What’s the local scandal? What’s going on with the local congressman?” That, to me, is fascinating. Because – and of course I’m not the first one to say it – politics is local. Most people care about what’s going on within fifty miles of their house.
You got your professional start as a stand-up comic back in the 1970s…
No! Eighties, eighties! I’m old enough! Come on. I was in high school and college in the 70s.
Okay. In ’93 you became host of Politically Incorrect. I’m interested in how you made the transition (though of course you still do stand-up) to political commentary and talk show hosting. Did you volunteer, or were you drafted?
No, I created that show. I volunteered and then some. I had always been interested in politics. It was something that I was doing in my stand-up act even when I was 23 years old, when I first started. And of course, it wasn’t working very well, because the audience doesn’t look at a twenty-three year old as someone with nearly the kind of gravitas that is required to comment on political events. I wish, now that I’m 60, that I had a little less gravitas! [laughs] But, y’know, you take what you can get.
But yes, it was always something that interested me, because I grew up in a political household. My father was a radio newsman, in the era when every radio station had news at the top of the hour. Oh, if we only had those days back again. Maybe people would know something. So politics was discussed in my house. It was my interest, always, throughout school. I was not a math and science kid; I was much more a social studies and history kid.
And so it was just natural when I started doing comedy that that’s where I gravitated to, and when I finally got the opportunity to pitch a show to Comedy Central – which was a fairly new network in 1993 – that was always the show that I wanted to do: a political roundtable show.
Does it disappoint you the degree to which so many people take a reductionist view to politics – or religion, or anything important, for that matter – that insists one has to identify with one pre-packaged label?
It bothers me to no end. Because I think that so much that is wrong with American politics is that people just root for their team. And they won’t even consider an argument from the other side. I see it in my own [television] audience. And look: I’m a liberal – and a proud liberal – but I fight with liberals, too. And liberals, y’know, I’ve come to really get annoyed with them, as people who watch the show can see. Because they’re very often uninformed, as well. And they often just cheer for the blue team.
I have a pretty sophisticated audience; certainly the people watching at home are sophisticated. And one reason – one main reason – that I still love doing stand-up, is that the stand-up audience is the best audience I can find. As you would imagine. They’ve gone out of their way to see me; they’ve actually paid, as opposed to the people that come to our free television taping. So they are [a] very informed, and [b] very encouraging of me to go to the edge; to be politically incorrect. To say the raw truth, even if it’s “out there.”
Whereas the audience that comes to the television show is often too politically correct for my tastes. And very often, they are just cheering for the blue team. They don’t seem to be as informed as they should be: they know [President Barack] Obama‘s perfect, Sarah Palin‘s an idiot, and anything that’s anti-red team, [they] cheer. And anything that’s pro-blue team [they] cheer. And that’s not really a good way to have discourse.
Because – I would never say that there should be equivalence; I think the conservatives definitely are the group that has brought this country to a place where it should never have gotten, more than liberals [have done] – liberals are not right on everything. And they need to hear it sometimes.
As you tour the country, do you find that certain material “lands” better in some parts of the US than in others?
Well, I don’t know if it’s certain material, but the show in general almost always is more fun to do in red states. I know that’s counter-intuitive, but I think what’s going on there is that when you go to a red state, the people don’t even expect you to show up!
And what I know – and what I think what most people in America probably don’t know, because they don’t travel there – is that even the reddest of red places is full of liberals. They may not be a majority, but they’re there. I was in Alabama twice last year; I was in Mississippi. It’s much more having to do with city versus rural…
The cities in the south are not really different than the cities anywhere else in this country. And there are lots of free-thinking, liberal-thinking, wonderful people – my people – and when I come to Jackson, Mississippi, they come out of the woodwork. And I think that there’s an added pleasure for them. Not only the fact that they’re coming to see somebody who thinks like them, when they live in a place where most people don’t think like them, but when they look around the theatre, they’re like, “Wow! I thought I was the only one. There’s thousands of us!”
Have you been to Asheville before?
I think I have; I think I was there in 2009.
Asheville is a deep blue dot in a red sea, so to speak.
Yes, of course. And there are lots of places like that. There’s no state that you can name that doesn’t have [places like that]. It’s usually the college towns. But again, any place where people live in cities, where you have to mingle with other people who aren’t all just like you, they tend to be much more liberal. When you get out in the middle of nowhere, where it’s just a bunch of fuckin’ crows like Cliven Bundy, people tend to have very conservative views.
With all of the controversial topics with which you deal, how do you manage to stay positive? Or, do you?
Well, I think that I get discouraged, as we all do sometimes in American politics. But look, the short, one-word answer to that is perspective. Perspective. We live in America. As much as I make my living criticizing it – I read the paper every day; I watch Vice (I’m a producer of the show Vice, which covers what goes on in their world countries) – and, gee whiz, it could be a lot worse. Let me say that. We’ve got our problems, but – even compared to European countries that didn’t even really come back from the recession the way we did, let alone what’s going on in Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia – we still have it pretty good over here.
I’m not one of those people who say, “Hey, it’s the greatest country in the world.” I say it’s the greatest country for me. It doesn’t have to be the greatest in the world; I don’t need to go up to a Belgian guy and say, “Hey, you Belgian fuck! I live in a better country than you do!” But for me, believe me: I’m not asking for the check. I’m stayin’ here.
Belated happy birthday.
Thank you, yes.
Your recent petition for President Obama to appear on Real Time got over 300,000 signatures.
Look, I could have rolled up the score. We probably could have got a million. But once you get 100,000, the game’s over. That’s all I wanted, which we got in like 36 hours. Once you get that, the they have to respond.
Have you heard anything in response yet, either officially or back-channel?
No. They have sixty days. But, look: the way I framed it – and I think it was the right way to frame it – was that it’ not just about me. It’s about over four million people, which is a lot of people for television these days, who watch the show every week. And we are a very unique, sort of distinct audience. And we want to know why we’re not respected enough for the President to come on this show. Because we don’t have views like everybody else in America on lots of issues. But it’s not like our views shouldn’t be counted.
I mentioned in the piece that I did about it that maybe it was because I’m an atheist. Maybe it’s still too politically risky to appear with an atheist. But, in the last Pew survey of religion, 23% of people in America are atheist, agnostic, or have no interest in religion at all. It’s almost a quarter of the country; it’s the second-largest group behind evangelicals! Don’t we deserve some respect? We’ll see what their answer is.
President Obama’s mom has been variously described as atheist or agnostic, anyway…
Well, yes. The term he uses is, wink-wink, “secular humanist.” But between you, me, and the lamppost, Bill, I think Obama is a lot closer to my views than the ones he espouses. But look: when you’re the first black president, you have enough people who hate you from the get-go, so you’d better talk about Jesus-Jesus-Jesus.