by David Sheff
A candid conversation with the godfather of political humor about the war, the president, sex crimes, religion and all sorts of political incorrectness
In an age when millions of Americans turn to late-night TV and YouTube videos for satiric commentary on the day’s news, Bill Maher is, as he has put it himself, the godfather of political humor.
An “acid-tongued comedian” and “one of the establishment’s most entertaining critics,” according to The New York Times, Maher sends up the nation’s movers and shakers on his HBO hit, Real Time With Bill Maher, a freewheeling and funny roundtable discussion of national and global issues. His guests have included George Clooney, Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Robin Williams, Drew Barrymore, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, General Wesley Clark, Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan, Ben Affleck, John Edwards and George Carlin.
On the show, which has received multiple Emmy nominations, Maher has continually attacked George W. Bush–calling the president “a catastrophe that walks like a man” and the “retarded child emperor”–and criticized the war in Iraq. But Maher is no knee-jerk liberal. He is pro-death penalty and pro-Israel, supports a powerful military and has strongly libertarian views on sex and drugs. For Maher there are no sacred cows. This past Halloween he angered the entire continent of Australia by dressing up as TV’s Steve Irwin just weeks after a stingray fatally speared the Crocodile Hunter. More recently Maher was embroiledin controversy when he outed Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, as a homosexual; Mehlman later quit his job. Christian groups also frequently assail Maher for his cracks about religion, which he calls stupid and dangerous.
None of these storms compare to the hurricane generated by one of his comments following the 9/11 attacks. The president had called the terrorists cowards, prompting Maher to respond on his late-night ABC talk show, Politically Incorrect, “Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away–that’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building–say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Maher was denounced by the White House and vilified by the media. Advertisers such as Sears and FedEx pulled their ads from the show, and it was soon canceled. Many people assumed it marked the end of Maher’scareer, but they were wrong. Six days after the cancellation, he received an award from the Los Angeles Press Club for championing free speech, followed by a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award. In 2003 he returned to television with his smarter, funnier, hipper and, thanks to HBO, uncensored new show.
Besides working in television, Maher, 51, has written a number of books, including When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden, New Rules and Does Anybody Have a Problem With That? He was also one of the first TV stars to have a regular Internet show, on Amazon.com, and his blog appears on The Huffington Post. He is currently producing and directing a documentary about religion.
After the 2006 election, as Republicans lost control of the House and Senate, we decided to track Maher down for his second Playboy Interview. Contributing Editor David Sheff, who interviewed the comedian a decade ago, traveled to Los Angeles for the follow-up. Sheff reports, “Maher hasn’t mellowed. Onthe contrary, he is more emphatic and confident–and funnier. The sessions, which took place at an L.A. hotel (Sylvester Stallone was hanging around) and at Maher’s Beverly Hills home (yes, there is a stripper’s pole in the club room), began at two P.M., which is early morning for him. He started off sleepily but quickly warmed to the subjects at hand, including the war in Iraq, past and upcoming elections, and the Hollywood trend of starlets eschewing underwear.”
Playboy: After the Democratic upset in the midterm election and with a year and a half left for the Bush administration, are you feeling more optimistic about the country’s direction?
Maher: Are you kidding? It’s a disaster. Unmitigated. Every day we’re killing more American soldiers for an immoral and unwinnable war based on lies. We’re killing innocent Iraqis. The environment is disintegrating. It’s one debacle after the next. Much of the rest of the world loathes us. We’re infinitely less safe than we were before 9/11. Other than that, everything’s great.
Playboy: President Bush may disagree. He maintains the world is safer now.
Maher: The world is not safer. We took Saddam Hussein out, but the idea that he was in league with Osama bin Laden was a direct lie, a bigger lie than the weapons of mass destruction. Being a power-hungry dictator, Hussein would never have given somebody a nuclear weapon, especially someone like Bin Laden, who hated him because he was a secularist. Even three years ago the world wasn’t safer because we’d gone into Iraq. Now even Iraq isn’t safer. We want to keep Muslim extremists who hate Americans from coming here and hurting us, so what do we do? We go into the heart of the Muslim world and start this cockfight. Muslims around the world do not look at our invasion of Iraq as an attempt to install democracy and freedom. They’re far more cynical, and they have reason to be. America has meddled in foreign affairs many times, usually for its own self-interest. We meddled in Iraq in 1963 under Kennedy and put a young assassin named Saddam Hussein on the case of killing its leader. We abandoned the Kurds in 1991. When Bush’s father encouraged the Shiites to rise against Hussein, we pulled a Bay of Pigs and didn’t show up; they were massacred. In their view we went in for oil and perhaps just to fuck with Muslims. There will be angry Muslims for generations. To those on the right who say Muslims hated us anyway, yes, a certain number of them did. But I don’t see how taking that hate and raising it from a simmer to a boil has helped matters. We were having a picnic and a couple of hornets were stinging us, so we went over and hit the nest with a stick. Exactly how is the world safer?
Playboy: What would you have the U.S. do at this point?
Maher: Get out of Iraq. Having troops and bases in the heart of the Muslim world is a thorn in the side of the people who live there. Throughout the region, we are building giant bases with Pizza Huts and car dealerships, stuff that goes over really well in that part of the world. Next there will be a Spearmint Rhino gentlemen’s club.
Playboy: If we pull out, there will likely be increased chaos and slaughter.
Maher: The sooner we get out, the sooner it will end. Turkey will come in? Iran will come in? Maybe, maybe not. It’s Allah’s will. Who knows? Maybe it will shake out in a not so horrible way. The country of Iraq has existed only since 1932. It’s seven years younger than Paul Newman. So what if it breaks apart into three countries? It’s not worth one more dead American to uphold a line on a map that Winston Churchill drew, probably when he was drunk. We disbanded the Iraqi army, which was not a great idea because now there’s a group of Sunnis who know how to use weapons, have no future and have reason to hate us because we put the Shiites in power. We created a massive insurgent guerrilla army. We painted ourselves into a corner, and Bush still doesn’t get it. The Iraq that was is gone and will never rise again. It has already partitioned itself into three countries: Kurdistan is completely autonomous in the north, the Shiite southern part is a theocracy mostly allied with Iran, and the middle is a mess. The Sunnis are still trying to hold on. They’re never going to put it back together again. When we went in, we were told Iraqis would throw flowers at us. Anyone who was of a mind to throw flowers is either dead or gone. Moderate Iraq doesn’t exist anymore.
Playboy: Did the 2006 election vindicate your views on Iraq?
Maher: It was a breath of fresh air. Democrats may differ from Republicans only in that they are bought off by a slightly less scary group of special interests, but at this point a slightly less scary group looks pretty good.
Playboy: What will a Democratic Congress do better?
Maher: Put pressure on the administration to end the war. Barbara Boxer said she’s going to hold hearings on global warming. With scientists! In America! Wow. Bush’s theory is we should teach intelligent design along with creationism–treat stupidity as if it’s a competing school of thought. In addition, in medical school, along with what ob-gyns normally learn, we’re going to teach that storks bring babies.
Playboy: You once said that if we get any stupider about science, soon we won’t even be able to make our own crystal meth.
Maher: Look at our leader. He doesn’t believe in evolution. I’m embarrassed by the cretins who have taken over. Luckily they’re on the way out. In the next election, even if the Republicans win the presidency, at least it won’t be Bush.
Playboy: What Democratic candidate would you support?
Maher: Barack Obama is exciting. Everyone says he’s a rock star, which is one of the most overused phrases these days; everybody’s a rock star. You know what? If you’re not getting blown after the event, you’re not a rock star. But okay, Obama is a rock star. Fine, if that’s what it takes. He seems articulate and serious and thoughtful and electable.
Playboy: Some people say he’s inexperienced and unprepared to be president.
Maher: Bush was woefully unprepared. It obviously doesn’t prevent Americans from voting for you. If Obama wants it, he’s one of the Democrats’ most viable candidates. John Edwards too. In America you can’t get elected president unless you can pronounce all four e’s in the word shit. Clinton, Carter and Bush could. Edwards can.
Playboy: Can you?
Playboy: You’d be a great candidate.
Maher: Yeah, right. I think religion is bad and drugs are good. You want to be my campaign manager?
Playboy: Sure. We like a challenge, especially when dealing with your checkered past.
Maher: Who has more of a checkered past than Bush? He was a drunk until he was 40. He wouldn’t answer the cocaine question, which was a way of saying, “Yeah, I did it, and go fuck yourself.” That’s one of the few things I admire him for. He basically said, “I was a sinner, and now I’m not.” Americans love that. What they don’t like is when you get blown in office.
Playboy: Speaking of Bill Clinton, you have said he should be allowed to run again.
Maher: In a democracy, the people should be able to elect whomever they want. It’s not a very clever tribe of Indians that prevents its greatest warriors from taking the field of battle.
Playboy: The Constitution would have to be changed for him to do so.
Maher: We’ll change it so both he and Arnold Schwarzenegger can run. Can you imagine the interest if Clinton ran against Schwarzenegger? The debate could be on pay-per-view.
Playboy: Would you support Clinton?
Maher: Sure. He has a reputation as a party animal because of the Monica Lewinsky situation, but basically he’s a wonk. He can do Monica and run the country. He’s a multitasker. If he had been president when Katrina hit, he would have been in New Orleans three days before the storm. He wouldn’t have slept. Yes, he would have been getting blown–come on, Slick Willie in the Big Easy? He would have had some excellent étouffée. But he would have been working the whole time. I think the country has learned a lesson: If he can do the job, let the guy be who he is. People don’t care about sex.
Playboy: They cared about Mark Foley.
Maher: Monica Lewinsky was an adult. Foley went after boys. Actually, I wasn’t terribly taken aback by Foley. He was like a college professor, in a job where every year there’s a new wave of fresh meat. He would look over the field and decide. He probably had pretty good radar to know which kids were amenable. From the evidence we have, he tried to do something only after they were out of the page program. If a 19-year-old gay kid wants to go out with an older guy, why not? The guys his own age are probably dumb doofuses.
Playboy: But even after leaving their jobs as pages, they were far younger than Foley.
Maher: Look, I’m a 51-year-old man, and I go out with girls in their early 20s. I’d be hypocritical if I said it’s ridiculous for a gay man to do that. I’m very libertarian about love. I’m the only guy I’ve ever heard who defends Mary Kay Letourneau.
Playboy: Are you saying teachers should be allowed to have sex with their 13-year-old students, as she did, and not go to jail?
Maher: I think it’s a little offbeat, but you know, I believe in the double standard. If a 28-year-old male teacher is screwing a 13-year-old girl, that’s a crime. But with Debra Lafave [another teacher who had sex with a student] screwing her 14-year-old boy student, the crime is that we didn’t get it on videotape. Was he being taken advantage of? I wish I had been taken advantage of like that. What a memory she gave him! I would think he’s a champion among his friends. Are you kidding? Even with Michael Jackson—-
Playboy: Are you defending him, too?
Maher: I’m not defending him, but I do believe his case has a nuance that makes it different from other child molestation cases–not that I’m saying he necessarily did it, but come on. Jackson’s worst accusers never said he did anything brutal, like bend them over a table and ram them–you know, like a priest. The worst they said he did was a little grabby-grabby under the covers. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a crime. You shouldn’t be able to grab a kid that age, but when I heard about it, all I could think of was my being brutally beaten up on the playground when I was 12–a kid punching me in the face while another held me down. If I could go back and trade that experience for being gently masturbated by a pop star, I would do it in a New York second. Frankie Valli could jerk me off. Bobby Sherman could. Marvin Gaye could.
Playboy: You’re being remarkably open-minded.
Maher: Woody Allen is the one we might have been wrong about. I was pretty hard on him on my show, but how many years has his relationship continued? Maybe that, like Letourneau’s, was true love. If you look at him or Letourneau, who is still with the guy after her time in jail–they have two kids–the lesson is love will take the form it’s going to take. Sometimes it’s at great variance with the mainstream. I don’t think teachers should be allowed to do that. I think they should be fired. But to send that woman to jail and separate them all those years?
Playboy: You may think Clinton’s or even Foley’s personal life is irrelevant, but you apparently draw the line in some cases, such as when you outed Ken Mehlman, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Maher: I didn’t know I was outing him. My bad.
Playboy: How could you not have known?
Maher: I guess I’m in a bit of a newsjunkie bubble. For years everyone talked about him as if it was known he was gay. The truth is I don’t know. I never dated the guy.
Playboy: Are you apologizing?
Maher: If I disrupted anybody’s life, I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have said it. I’m not an outer. I don’t believe in outing. I mentioned Mehlman because I had a joke about him. I didn’t mean to out him.
Playboy: Were you surprised when CNN cut your comments about Mehlman and had YouTube remove the clip from its website? Also, The New York Times wrote about the incident but didn’t print Mehlman’s name.
Maher: I was surprised because I didn’t think I was doing anything out of school.
Playboy: Do you make an exception to your feelings about outing if the closeted gay man espouses traditional family values, demonizes gays and pushes antigay legislation?
Maher: I don’t. For years it was an inside joke about Mehlman, but do I really know? Everybody talks about everybody. Rosie O’Donnell said Oprah is “a little bit gay.” I’d never heard that before. Everybody makes Tom Cruise gay jokes now. I don’t know if that’s true, either.
Playboy: You called Katie Holmes Tom Cruise’s beard.
Maher: Yeah. There are something like 25 celebrity fragrances now, so on the show we made up fragrances by other celebrities. Tom Cruise’s was called Bat Shit–the fragrance to use on your beard.
Playboy: As a comedian, do you rub your hands together when you wake up to news about the misadventures of celebrities like Cruise and Mel Gibson?
Maher: It’s gold.
Playboy: What was your opinion of Gibson’s arrest and outburst?
Maher: When you say things when you’re drunk, it’s not the liquor talking. The liquor makes you more honest. He’s a bright, talented guy and a despicable anti-Semite. All those people live by the press, then they’re surprised when they die by the press. At least Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are clever enough to take a page out of the old John and Yoko book and say, “If you’re going to photograph everything we do, we’re going to use that for good. You’ll have to photograph starving children and AIDS in Africa.” I admire them for doing that.
Playboy: Who are your favorite celebrities to make fun of?
Maher: We don’t usually talk about celebrities much, but occasionally in the monologue we mention the brat patrol–the Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan contingent. I feel no guilt about whatever joke we do, because these people exist only to be made fun of. They don’t otherwise contribute. I guess Lindsay Lohan is an actress, but Britney Spears doesn’t seem to have a career anymore except as tabloid fodder.
Playboy: That group is continually photographed without underwear. What do you make of the trend?
Maher: I would never discourage it. Girls not wearing underwear is a wonderful thing.
Playboy: Have any of those girls been on your show?
Maher: Are you kidding? I don’t know what we’d talk about. Paris Hilton is an amazing phenomenon, though. Did you notice that the second Britney Spears was free of her husband, she came under Paris’s spell? Paris is the head-honcho cheerleader who decides who’s cool and who’s in her group. You can make fun of her, and I of course enjoy doing so quite often, but you have to give her her due. Somehow she is the head bitch in the high school of America.
Playboy: What is it about her?
Maher: I think it’s confidence. She’s a rich kid. I compare her to George W. Bush, a rich kid who really didn’t accomplish anything but had the confidence rich kids often have–an attitude that the world should come to them because it always has. It’s very attractive to a nation of followers. Britney Spears, who nominally should be the leader of the pack–she actually had a career, has sold millions of dollars’ worth of records–and Lindsay Lohan, an actress who does movies, understand who the boss is: Paris Hilton. It’s because she does what the Democrats don’t do and the Republicans have consistently done. They let the country come to them. By standing their ground and standing by their principles, they have successfully moved the country way, way to the right. When Barry Goldwater ran in 1964, he lost by a landslide, but they didn’t care. Ronald Reagan was a laugh-out-loud joke when he first ran for president, in 1968. But he stood by what he thought was right and true, and the country came to him.
Playboy: Why do Americans find that appealing?
Maher: Most people in this country want to follow. They want to be told what to think. It’s an attribute that has served Bush well, too. He seems resolute. He seems as if he knows what he thinks. People like it when he says, “I don’t follow the polls.” To them it says leadership. Of course they forgot that his ideas are stupid and he’s a moron. Finally they woke up to that in 2006. Resolute became stubborn. But by standing their ground, Republicans brought the country way to the right. It’s why you had John Kerry closing out the election in a goosehunting outfit and why Hillary Clinton talks about a flag-burning amendment. Hillary Clinton, valedictorian at Wellesley, doesn’t think we should be able to burn the flag? That’s hard for me to believe. But they have put the idea into the Democrats’ heads that to win you better move closer to where they are. As a result, nobody in Washington is suggesting programs and policies I would consider left-wing. Nancy Pelosi is not going to say we should legalize drugs. She’s not for socialized medicine. She’s not for a gasoline tax. Part of the genius of Karl Rove and the far right is they have convinced the rest of America that the center is way over to the right. It’s one reason so many people don’t vote. In the 2004 election 78 million people who could have voted did not. My guess is most of those 78 million would have voted liberal. Meanwhile conservatives vote. They’re organized. They’re squares. They get up in the morning.
Playboy: As opposed to…?
Maher: Us. We’re sleeping it off from last night’s clubs. If there were a draft and the Supreme Court outlawed abortion, you might see liberals set the alarm clock that Tuesday.
Playboy: Did the most recent election indicate that the religious right has been discredited?
Maher: No. From what I read they came out in about the same numbers as previous elections. This time, however, independents who were energized by Republican ineptitude outvoted them. The religious right is still there. The election just taught us that there is a counterweight to it.
Playboy: Do you agree that the election was a referendum on the war?
Maher: Mostly on the war but also on corruption. Also it was about Bush giving most of the treasury to his rich friends. People finally realized our money could be going to better things than Paris Hilton so she can gargle with diamonds after she blows a guy. The Democrats won this time only because people were fed up. The challenge now is for Democrats to see if they can win an election when the other party has not completely disgraced itself in every conceivable manner.
Playboy: People have said the results might have been different had Donald Rumsfeld been fired before the election rather than after. Do you agree?
Maher: People were looking for the president to make a change, to show he could be flexible. Rumsfeld was the face of a failed program. Bush had done nothing but stand by him. In fact, the week before the election he said Rumsfeld was going to be there until the end of his term. I think people just rolled their eyes at that. It was a political blunder.
Playboy: Have we heard the last from Karl Rove?
Maher: I don’t know if people in the party blame him for that election. I think they blame Bush. Rove has proved he could win with a weak hand, but this was pretty much the weakest hand anyone had ever been asked to play in modern politics. Add up the war, Hurricane Katrina, Mark Foley, the debt–there was very little he could run on. Mostly, Bush lost the war. Mr. Kick Ass and Take Names lost. I’m sure Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he never learned about Iraq. Everybody in this country thinks praying is great, which to me is childish. But even if it isn’t, it doesn’t replace knowledge. [impersonating Bush] “Saddam bad. Freedom good.” Well, the Iraqis saw something else. Sunnis out, Shiites in. In most of the Muslim world, Shiites are close to apostates. In the minds of most Muslims, it was impossible to imagine Shiites in power. That’s what threatens them now. They see America enabling this impossible event. We went into their country without knowing anything about them. Half the people they originally got to go over there thought, We’ve sprinkled the freedom dust on them, and now everything’s going to be cool. We don’t need troops; we don’t need a plan. Another problem is something we seem never to learn: You can’t just instill democracy. You can’t just graft it onto a society that has no institutions of public law. As I said, Saddam was a secularist. Now we have these crazy fundamentalists warring–a model democracy.
Playboy: How many of the problems in the Middle East are due to religious fundamentalism?
Maher: Religious fundamentalism is the root of problems everywhere. I could just as easily go on about the crazy Christian God-hates-fags types who have killed abortion doctors. I don’t know if any religion has the monopoly on crazy factions. I’ve been brushing up on my Eastern religions, and they’re crazy too. Their big superiority is supposed to be that they’re peaceful, but Japan was Buddhist before World War II, and that didn’t stop it from raping Nanking and bombing Pearl Harbor. People use religion to justify what they want to do. Some Mormons use biblical passages to justify the genocide of the Indians, as well as their longtime prejudice against blacks.
Playboy: Your views about religion have gotten you into trouble.
Maher: Like the old saying goes, the two things you shouldn’t talk about in a polite dinner conversation are politics and religion–the two things I love to talk about. [laughs] At my dinner parties we talk about them.
Playboy: Have you been affected by religious organizations’ angry reactions to you?
Maher: When ABC canned me for my 9/11 comments, a lot of it was because of what I had said about religion.
Playboy: But your show was canceled not because of anything you had said about religion but your comment that the U.S., not the terrorists, was cowardly.
Maher: A Houston disc jockey started all the mob action against me, but he had been trying to get me fired for 10 years because of my position on religion.
Playboy: Do you regret your remarks?
Maher: I was sorry it upset people at a time when they were traumatized anyway, but what I said wasn’t wrong. Listen, after 9/11 Bush said the terrorists win unless we continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing. So go shop. Go back to work. Well, I went back to work. I was host of a show called Politically Incorrect, which prided itself on pulling no punches and saying the truth. The terrorists did not win with me.
Playboy: Did the reaction surprise you?
Maher: Oh my God. I don’t think most people, even people in show business, will ever know what it feels like when that super-white-hot light gets turned right onto you in a negative way. I thought I was headed to Abu Ghraib. I was afraid to go out. I thought people were going to punch me or something. It was as though all of America was enraged about what had happened to us, but because the enemy was amorphous, people had nothing to turn their rage on until I stepped up. I provided a service for America. I gave people a target for their rage for a while. You’re welcome, America.
Playboy: Were the sponsors who pulled out offended or just succumbing to your critics’ reaction?
Maher: They reacted to money. They got letters saying, “We will boycott your product if you advertise on this show.”
Playboy: Did you worry that the damage was irreparable?
Maher: At first, yes, absolutely.
Playboy: You have been at the heart of many controversies. Have any of the others compared?
Maher: No. None. And nothing ever will, which is kind of good. It’s as if I’ve been inoculated. I know what it feels like to have people try to make me disappear.
Playboy: After that experience, were you bothered by the flak about your Halloween costume of Steve Irwin pierced by a stingray?
Maher: I didn’t even flinch. I defend that, by the way. If you get killed by an animal, it means you were doing something to an animal that you shouldn’t have been doing. Steve Irwin loved animals the way child molesters love children. They really do love them, but they also go too far.
Playboy: Who will you dress up as next Halloween?
Maher: I’ll have to see what tragedy has struck the heart of most Americans. That’s what Halloween is for. I don’t understand why people don’t get that.
Playboy: Clearly your political incorrectness still pushes many people’s buttons.
Maher: Yes, America is still a place that wants to make people disappear if they make someone the least bit uncomfortable. What 9/11 should have done was toughen America up, but it didn’t. We just absorbed it into our vast web of narcissism and general softness. I see things all the time that offend me or that I don’t like. I turn the page or change the channel. I don’t need to hear an apology. I’m like, “What an asshole. Fuck you. Next.” But instead, I dress up like the Crocodile Hunter and people want me to apologize. At least I piss off Democrats as well as Republicans. I’m bipartisan.
Playboy: Are you a registered Democrat?
Maher: I’m an independent.
Playboy: In 2000 you supported Nader. Many people blame his supporters for getting Bush elected.
Maher: In 2000 a lot of us supported Nader. He represented more of what we were thinking. He still does, but in 2004 we felt it would be better to go the practical route, and this Kerry fellow was a decent man who had a chance of winning. We got fucked both ways.
Playboy: Will an independent candidate ever have a chance of winning?
Maher: No. It’s ironic. This is a country that insists on 28 flavors of ice cream. You go down the aisle in the supermarket: Do you want Pellegrino or still water? Lemon? I’m just trying to get some fucking water, and there’s a questionnaire I have to fill out. Christ, I don’t care. I’ll die of thirst before I get it. But somehow in politics it’s always the same two choices.
Playboy: One issue on which you and the left disagree is the death penalty. You support it. Why?
Maher: I don’t believe life is necessarily precious, I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, and I don’t think people necessarily have goodness in them. Most people in this country believe those three things. Life is precious? It can be. It can also be a waste of protoplasm. I certainly don’t think everything happens for a reason.
Playboy: At least you’re consistent. You support abortion, which some people also believe is killing.
Maher: I’m like the antipope. The pope is very consistent about life: Don’t fuck with it. I’m that way about death. I’m pro-death. I’m for the death penalty. I’m pro-choice. I’m pro-assisted suicide, and I’m pro-regular suicide. Whatever gets the freeway moving.
Playboy: How about some other issues. What’s your view of the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko? Do you think Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind it?
Maher: Would it surprise you if ex-KGB Putin did that? It was priceless when Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” I looked into his eyes and saw Satan. Bush’s idiocy is amazing. How embarrassing. Like the G8 summit–a graphic illustration of a clown on the world stage. He and Laura arrived like the Duke and Duchess of Hazzard. He was spitting food, grabbing the German chancellor. When he called to the British prime minister, “Yo, Blair,” even Fox News had to gasp.
Playboy: How important a force is Fox News?
Maher: It’s peaked. And I think the ratings back that up. The American public has caught on, just the way it caught on to the Bush administration. “Oh, just because they’re saying it on TV doesn’t mean it’s not complete bullshit.” Now everyone knows it’s not really a news organization.
Playboy: But Fox has a sizeable audience.
Maher: A loyal audience not interested in the truth. For Fox, “fair and balanced” means all the news that’s shit we print. The audience turns to Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and hears one side.
Playboy: On your side, many liberals turn to comedians: you, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
Maher: We mostly preach to the converted, though on my show we try to mix it up.
Playboy: You have claimed to be the godfather of political humor. Are you proud to have Stewart and Colbert as progeny?
Maher: Absolutely. They’re good at what they do.
Playboy: The New Yorker once called you a brainy bully. Are you?
Maher: Yeah, I guess. I can get overexcited. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m being as impassioned as I am, and that can probably come across as bullying–especially since it’s my show and I have home-court advantage. I should watch that. The real bullies are O’Reilly and Hannity, though. They never let you finish a sentence.
Playboy: Where do you get your news?
Maher: I read The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the newsmagazines.
Playboy: Any blogs?
Maher: I go to The Huffington Post. I watch the evening news–all three networks. I flip between the three newscasts, but all you get is about six or seven minutes of news and then segments like “Your Money,” “Focus on the Family” and “How to Carve a Pumpkin.”
Playboy: How has the Internet changed politics?
Maher: It’s a bathroom wall. You can read great wisdom on a bathroom wall, and you can read, “Here I sit brokenhearted. Something, something and only farted.”
Playboy: Growing up, did you read the newspaper and watch TV news?
Maher: Much more so than in the normal American family, because my father was in news as a radio staff announcer and then an editor. I can be a silly comedian one minute and then talk to Madeleine Albright the next because I’ve been reading the paper for 36 years. We had a Republican operative on one of our shows–I won’t say who. Afterward we were discussing whether the Democrats would try to impeach Bush. I said, “I think what’s impeachable is the fact that he went to war in Iraq without knowing Islam is divided between Sunnis and Shiites.” This person said, “Well, five years ago did you?” Yes, I did. It’s something you learn from reading the newspapers starting at 15. The people in this administration, however, know only that freedom’s good and the other guys are bad.
Playboy: How did having a Jewish mother and a Catholic father impact your life?
Maher: My mother’s Jewish, but I was raised very much a Catholic.
Playboy: Were you a believer?
Maher: Kids always buy everything. They have no power to resist. It’s a form of child abuse. When kids are abused, very often they don’t say much because they just figure, Oh well, that’s what creepy uncles do. They touch you. I was traumatized even though I wasn’t abused by a priest–and I’m a little insulted, because I was cute. Maybe I was just too sensitive as a kid, but I always dreaded going to church. The nuns would scare the hell out of you. I was slumping over once, and a nun said, “The boy who’s slumping is going to go to hell.” When you’re a little kid, you take that seriously. One of the main differences with Eastern religions is that you get more than one shot. You can come back. In Western religions, you’re up to the plate once, and you’d better fucking get a hit or you’re going to burn in hell forever.
Playboy: Between your Jewish mom and Catholic dad, you must be very experienced with guilt.
Maher: On my first Tonight Show I said I was half Jewish and half Catholic, so I used to bring a lawyer into confession. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I think you know Mr. Cohen.” Johnny Carson loved that.
Playboy: In clips from those early days, you have a mullet. Does that embarrass you now?
Maher: Hair was pretty awful in the 1980s. There was something in the water. It wasn’t really a mullet, though. I had a big squirrel on my shoulder from this giant flock of hair behind my ear.
Playboy: Now you have a stripper’s pole in your home. Has anyone famous used it well?
Maher: It’s amazing the way a woman of a certain age cannot pass a stripper’s pole without at least wanting to try it. It’s like a man picking up a baseball bat. You just want to take a few cuts.
Playboy: Has Paris Hilton tried it?
Maher: No, but if she ever comes over, she would be more than welcome.
Playboy: At the age of 51 are you a confirmed bachelor?
Maher: I know I have that reputation. Marriage never called to me, but I understand it works for a lot of people. You’re a different person every decade. I don’t know what’s going to happen now that I’m 51.
Playboy: You’re not pretty much the same guy you were when you were younger?
Maher: In my 20s I was a loser. High school, college–not much. I didn’t have the college experience we see on MTV. I went to Cornell. There weren’t very many girls, the ones who were there weren’t very cute, and I wasn’t very good at getting girls. I was in New York in my early 20s and was desperately poor trying to be a comedian. That formula didn’t make me a big player. I lived in a horrible roach-infested studio over a bus stop on Eighth Avenue. I came out here to L.A. when I was 27. I felt as though I’d found paradise, because I lived in a nicer place for the same amount of money. I had a little car. I had just enough to be dangerous. That was the era of girlfriends–steady girlfriends, one at a time, some more serious than others. I had a very serious relationship in my mid-30s. When I got out of that I became a real bachelor, a player. I had a good time in my 40s. I had learned a lot about women by then.
Playboy: What did you learn?
Maher: To talk to them as you would talk to anyone you aren’t trying to fuck.
Playboy: And then?
Maher: Then you’ll get laid.
Playboy: Do you have a girlfriend now?
Maher: Yes, I do. I try to keep it private. What will happen? Who knows? They always say life begins at 40. I understand what that means, especially for someone ambitious and driven. It takes a couple of decades to set up your life. By 40 you’ve laid the groundwork. You’ve got your own business or whatever it is. But what they don’t tell you about life beginning at 40 is that the next step is 50. I think my 50s are going to be good, but you’re always looking ahead. Fifty seems old when you’re 40, but at 50 you’re looking at 60. Now that seems really old. I’m still having fun, though, and when I get bored, well, thank God for George Bush. He may be the worst president we’ve ever had, but he’s been good for me.
Playboy: Will Bush leaving office be bad for your business?
Maher: Well, there will never be anybody as good as Bush. He provided everything except sex, and dumbness is probably even better than sex. There’s a contradiction between what’s good for my country and what’s good for my living. Between Bush and Clinton, I’ve been lucky. Since I’ve been doing this we’ve had a horndog and an idiot.
Playboy: Which is worse?
Maher: No question. I’d rather have a horndog any day. I can relate to a horndog.
Playboy: And when there’s no more George Bush to kick around?
Maher: I hope I’m wrong, but sadly, and given our recent history, there’s a better than even chance some other idiot will come along, screw up miserably and provide me with endless opportunities.