Bill Maher is the vanguard in the blurring of the line between political comedian and political commentator. The standup veteran and longtime television host's irreverent 1990s series "Politically Incorrect" brought a sharp edge to political chatter before warring 24-hour news networks began to spotlight punditry as much as reporting.
Maher has more than kept pace. The Los Angeles resident has grown increasingly strident on his 10-season HBO series "Real Time," skewered organized religion in his 2008 documentary "Religulous" and made headlines when he donated $1 million to President Obama's re-election campaign. He's come to be viewed as much a bellwether for liberals as a professional funnyman.
Maher spoke with The Patriot Ledger (Mass.) about the world view that informs his act in 2012.
Though you've been tagged a coastal elitist, you spend a lot of time touring mid-America and the South. Does that help you create an act that relates to more people?
Yeah, absolutely. That's key, I feel. Because L.A. is a bubble. I talk a lot about the conservative bubble, but there's a liberal bubble, too. I mean, nobody I know watches "NCIS" or "CSI," and those are the biggest shows on television. That's a liberal bubble, and we all have to fight to get out of our bubble.
What about Boston as a market to play?
I haven't been there in a while. I know obviously they've got a red-hot race there, the Scott Brown/Elizabeth Warren race. I'm anxious to see what the feeling on the ground is. There was a time when the Democrat was such a shoo-in (in Massachusetts). But as my friend Joe Scarborough says, don't ever underestimate Mitt Romney. He got elected governor of Massachusetts as a Republican Mormon.
Do you think the Internet and online comment boards have made us more divided?
Probably. I think people generally with the Internet can sort of coagulate into their own tribes and form a clot. It's funny, because we live in the information age. Information is actually more available than it ever was, readily and easily. I was born in an age when there were still door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. And yet somehow, in the information age, it seems it is harder than ever to get information into people's heads.
I don't mind if someone has genuine ideological differences. But I do take offense when people have their own set of facts. I'm not the only one to point this out, but it is amazing the way the Republicans can run against a completely fictional Barack Obama. I saw it on the news just yesterday, something like half the country -- and I don't mean just Republicans -- half of everybody thinks he's a Muslim. Forty-nine percent say he's a Christian. Now this is not something that's really in dispute. You can easily look this up. And yet they are stubbornly ignorant, they refuse to let any air into that bubble.
Page 2 of 4 - And so you have them running against the president, who basically in their view wants to take away your guns, even though he's never said anything about that; is coming for your Bible, even though he's always spouting spiritual nonsense; wants to get between you and your doctor, even though that's not at all what the health care bill does. They talk about him redistributing your wealth when he only wants to raise taxes on rich people 3 percent, which is what Clinton had. It's a far cry from what the tax rate was under Eisenhower or Nixon.
They constantly talk about (how) he wants to slash defense, even though he's done nothing but raise it. He takes his cues from Europe, (but) there's no evidence of that. It's complete fiction. And that's because, partly, they can get on those chat rooms and they just hear themselves in an echo chamber.
Do you think people are wired to believe the negative more than the positive?
That's a good question. America is a very optimistic country. In many ways, it's very naive. It's very religious, so it has that model in its head of believing something that's a magical thought, as opposed to fact based. So in many ways, I think they love the positive. I mean, just watch reality TV. It's all about (being) very positive. But they also love gossip, and they love to hear the bad about people. I don't know. It would be a good book.
One thing you're noted for saying is that if you're a Republican, it doesn't mean you're a racist. But if you're a racist, you're probably a Republican. Have you really never met any racist Democrats?
The Democrats invented it in this country, are you kidding? I mean, that was a big part of the Democratic Party; they used to call them Dixie-crats. I'm sure there are racist Democrats. But at least the Democrats don't say things like, ‘Obama is the most radical president we've ever had.' Now, again, you look at his record. Barack Obama, he's to the right of Nixon on almost every issue. There is nothing about this man that's radical. Socialist? He's not even a liberal. So I think when they say ‘most radical president,' what they mean is, he's black. I'm sorry, but that really is the translation. There's absolutely no basis in fact to call him the most radical president. But that is a code way of saying he's black.
Can you compare doing your show under Obama to doing it under Bush?
Well, Bush was, of course, easy pickings. And the audience was united because I didn't like Bush and they didn't like Bush. With Obama, many times I've had to stop in the middle of my rant or whatever I was saying to sort of tell the audience, ‘He's not your boyfriend, he's the president.' And being president, I have to hold his feet to the fire on a lot of issues, and there are a lot of issues he's been disappointing on. But, obviously, in this country, where you only get two choices, it's no choice. You either get Obama or the representative of the mental patient party. So I think at the end of the day, everybody knows where I stand. I mean, that's why when I gave him money this year, I thought, well, I've never really given money, but who's kidding who(m) anymore? It's not like people wonder which candidate I'm backing.
Page 3 of 4 - How does Romney compare to Bush?
Romney could be just as funny. I mean, I don't think he's as dimwitted, but as a gaffe machine in ways that even Bush wasn't. He has a different kind of ignorance, which is ignorance of the common man. He could be one of the funniest presidents ever. I mean, he was away on a foreign trip and every country he went to, he made a gaffe.
The late George Carlin, a comedian you admired, used to avoid political humor because he said politicians were simply products of what the American system produces, and that the public is the problem. Considering how politically active you get on some issues, would you agree with that?
I absolutely agree. I remember once Barney Frank, he was on ("Real Time") some years ago. He was a straight shooter because he had a pretty safe district and he could say things like (this). He said, ‘You know, the politicians aren't great. But the voters are no prize, either.' Which is pretty great for a politician to say. Because usually they just (say), ‘If only we had a government as good as the people.' I used to say, we do. It was a routine I had, like maybe 10, 15 years ago. We do have a government as good as the people. It is an absolute reflection of the people. If the people wanted better government, they should stand up and take it back. But they don't.
You became very well known for your documentary critique of religion, "Religulous." As a comedian, do you sometimes feel boxed-in as just the anti-religion guy?
No, I love it. I feel like I own it, because no one else on TV said that or has been saying that. I mean, comics have always done religious jokes. My first joke when I started out when I was 24 years old was, ‘I'm half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and I used to bring a lawyer into confession.'
That's one thing, to make jokes about religion, assuming that the religion is still OK. It's another thing to say, no, religion is stupid and dangerous and should go away. And it is the one issue where I think minds are changed. I don't think that political humorists like myself really change a lot of minds about political stuff. People pretty much have their mind made up. But religion, I've heard it too many times from people who say, ‘You know, you've brought me over to the dark side; your movie did it.' Because the thing you have to understand about religious people is they know nothing about religion.
The thing about Bible thumpers, they've never read the Bible. So it doesn't take much. If you just show them a few things, they go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.' There's a ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain' moment for these people. It's so funny, everyone calls their religion the one true faith. But statistics show us that 44 percent of Americans have switched religions. Almost half the people have found another one true faith. Glenn Beck just decided to be a Mormon. Shopping in the cafeteria of religion. ‘I like this one. Jesus is an American in this one, honey.'
Page 4 of 4 - In the current media climate, can anyone really win an argument anymore?
That's a really good question. It's very hard, because to win an argument you have to be talking to people who know facts, and the audience doesn't. And this is why, almost no matter what happens, the other side can say, ‘Well, you know, it's a wash.' I remember when they were going after Romney for the dog on the car. The dog on the car is a real thing. Whether it's important in the election, that's for the electorate to decide. Obviously, it's not the biggest issue. But the Romney campaign came back a day later with, ‘Well, you know, when Obama was growing up in Indonesia, (he) ate dogs.' And if you can make everything a push like that -- and the media is very culpable in doing that and abetting them in that -- then it is very hard to answer your question.
Is a polarized media landscape good or bad?
There's a place for it. For a while, there was only Fox News. I'm glad MSNBC emerged as a counterweight. As much as I'm very fond of all of the people at MSNBC, Chris Matthews and Rachel (Maddow) and Lawrence O'Donnell, they're all good people. But if I watch it, like, for a whole day, I want to marry Ann Coulter and join the tea party.
You've said that one of the problems today is everybody wants to be on the stage and no one wants to be in the audience. Is this something you've recently noticed or has it been the case for a long time?
Oh yes, that's been there for a long time. People don't like to hear it. It's so true. The discussion so often in America is of going for your dreams, which is great, but absolutely no follow-up discussion about what that dream should be. In other words, it doesn't matter, as long as you say you have a dream. Forget the fact that for 90 percent of the 12-year-olds out there, (their dream is) to be some sort of singer, baller, the "American Idol," a model.
It's not wrong to wish for that. But it seems like if your dream was to be part of Doctors Without Borders, that's actually a much better dream. And we should somewhat differentiate between great dreams and dreams that are really just to become some sort of show-business icon, so you're able to pig out on ego, money ... whatever it is. Wanting to be the next Justin Bieber is not as noble as wanting to teach kids in Africa.
Jack Encarnacao is at firstname.lastname@example.org.