Bill Maher Interview
by David Sheff
This article was originally published in August 1997.
It is two days after 39 bodies were discovered in San Diego, members of the Heaven’s Gate cult who had committed suicide, believing they were heading to a new plane of existence via a UFO. Sitting at a desk in the Los Angeles office of his television show, “Politically Incorrect,” Bill Maher is wondering aloud if it would be in bad taste to open tonight’s show in the character of a mad cult leader.
“It would be?” he says. “I was hoping you’d think so.”
A few hours later, Maher, dressed in a black silk suit, bounds onto the “PI” set, where he is framed by mock-ivy-covered Greek columns. Heavy metal music, played to stimulate the studio audience, fades out, and Maher grabs a microphone.
“Greetings, empty vessels of earth,” he begins. “I am Re, brother of Do, husband of Ti, and, if I do say so myself, a drop of golden sun. In a few moments I’m going to ask you to mix a deadly cocktail of prune juice, Haley’s M-O and pharmaceutical crack. But don’t worry, your bodies are just containers, though some of your containers are hotter than others, and you know who you are. Time is running out. The signs are all around us: comets in the sky, elderly ex-presidents jumping out of planes. You must surrender all your earthly goods to me, or to Ron Goldman’s dad, whoever gets there first.” Finally, cult leader Maher offers a pre-UFO-flight briefing. “And for God’s sake,” he says, “don’t call the flight attendant ‘stewardess.’”
Another installment of “Politically Incorrect” has begun.
If the Heaven’s Gate cult was getting the attention that night, 41-year-old Maher seems to be developing his own coterie of loyal followers, a rapidly growing group of Americans who never miss the TV show he hosts each weeknight. Maher is earning higher and higher ratings in a tough time slot—his competition includes Jay Leno and David Letterman—and his is the talk show that generates the most buzz on college campuses, throughout Hollywood and, of course, on Capitol Hill.
After his opening monolog, each night Maher ringleads the quirkiest guest list on television. One panel, for instance, features Deepak Chopra, Carrot Top, Nancy Friday and Naomi Judd, all trying to talk simultaneously as the host tosses his quips and keeps the conversation from degenerating into chaos. Maher likens the show to a cocktail party. In a forum that borrows from “The McLaughlin Group” (and then massacres it), the unlikely ensemble discusses topics ranging from marriage (Maher asks: “If 50 percent of marriages fail, should the institution be revised?”) to reverse sexism on death row (“Why don’t we kill chicks?”).
The ensuing dialogues are great fodder for Maher’s barbed wit. During a discussion of the spate of shootings of rap stars, he commented, “It’s nice to see for once a celebrity actually using the product he endorses.” In discussing sex offenders, he suggested locking them up with nuclear weapons: “We should tie them up to anything liable to leak fluids.” When a guest said that women, if they were in charge, would create a kinder, gentler country, Maher responded: “Maybe, but that wasn’t quite a Candy-Gram Janet Reno sent to David Koresh.” And in a conversation about the racist judicial system: “A quarter of all black men are in jail, on parole or on a sitcom on Fox.”
“Politically Incorrect” has been praised by “TV Guide” as “the best talk show on television.” Ralph Nader, a guest on the show, called Maher “a first-rate social satirist.”
Maher grew up in suburban River Vale, New Jersey, where he was, he once said, “an intense, serious, adult-like kid.” His father, a radio newscaster and later a news editor for NBC-TV, tried to instill an interest in politics in his son. Before Bill was a teenager, he knew who he wanted to be when he grew up: Johnny Carson.
Maher was a nerd throughout high school and only began to come out of his shell in his senior year. He went on to Cornell University, where he graduated in 1978 with a degree in English. Soon after that he began performing regularly at New York City’s comedy clubs and worked as master of ceremonies at the famed Catch a Rising Star. He got his first chance to be on his idol’s show in 1982. During one of his dozens of appearances on “The Tonight Show,” Maher told what is reputed to be the first AIDS joke on television. Bemoaning the new medical dangers looming over the dating scene, he delivered his punch line: “I just want to meet an old-fashioned girl with gonorrhea.” Carson fell off his chair laughing.
More appearances on “The Tonight Show,” and on “The Merv Griffin Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” led to acting jobs on TV shows and in such forgettable films as “D.C. Cab,” “Ratboy,” “Pizza Man” and “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.” In 1993 he pitched “Politically Incorrect” to executives of the Comedy Central cable channel. The show was a smash and has won four Cable Ace awards, three for best talk show and another for best entertainment host. In January 1997 ABC hired Maher, and “PI” switched to its coveted post-“Nightline” time slot.
Maher has written two books—“True Story: A Comedy Novel,” the tale of five struggling New York stand-ups making their way on the comedy circuit of the late Seventies, and “Does Anybody Have a Problem With That?” a collection of great moments from his show. He has also hosted comedy specials, including his annual critique of the president’s State of the Union address. Maher’s presiding at political events invariably adds spice to the evening. At an annual dinner for broadcast correspondents in Washington, D.C. in March 1995, he said that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (who had served a six-month jail term for cocaine possession) had “a plan to get drugs off the street—one gram at a time.” At the same event, with Clinton in attendance, he uttered the word fuck within earshot of the president.
Proud to be considered (by some) America’s premiere politically incorrect magazine, Playboy decided it was time to sit down with Maher for an interview. Contributing Editor David Sheff was tapped for the assignment. Here’s his report:
“Each night, Maher greets the studio audience before the show and offers to answer any questions. On the nights I visited, the questions and answers included these: ‘Is the show rehearsed?’ ‘It’s not that good.’ ‘Are you single?’ (There were whoops and hollers.) ‘Single and a flaming heterosexual.’ ‘How do you choose guests?’ ‘A bottle of Jack Daniel’s.’ ‘Why don’t you have more women on the show?’ ‘Chicks just aren’t up to it.’ ‘What’s the biggest change since coming to network television from cable?’ ‘Money. Money. Big money.’ He also makes cracks about the day’s major and minor headlines, noting that Porsche had begun a marketing campaign aimed at five-year-old boys. ‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘Sure, they don’t have the money yet, but they do have little penises.’
“The interview was to begin at a restaurant near the studio. As Maher drove there in his Jag, he chatted about the day’s news. Noting that the Communications Decency Act was being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, ‘What I want to know is, who is going to do the censoring? I hope it’s Clarence Thomas.’ Citing new scientific evidence which suggests that women 40 and older should have annual mammograms, Maher warned, ‘But women should know that the exams involve X rays, not Polaroids.’”
Playboy: You’ve described your show as a cocktail party. Do you really know anyone who has cocktail parties with such disparate guests as Jimmy Breslin, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Martin Mull, Ted Nugent, Sarah Jessica Parker, John Waters and Senator Arlen Specter?
Maher: I do. You should come to my house. It’s so like the parties I have that it’s frightening.
Playboy: Politicians are frequent guests. Has your opinion of them changed since you’ve gotten to know them?
Maher: It’s not that I ever thought they were that smart, but I have been amazed at how dumb some are. I won’t name names, but it’s frightening. In general, I’m supportive of politicians. We ask them to do the impossible, because we speak out of both sides of our mouths. When they tell us the truth, we reject them. When they don’t, we lambaste them for lying. That said, I still think there are some real dumb bunnies in high places.
Playboy: Are you saying we get what we deserve?
Maher: Getting elected has nothing to do with how smart you are. It’s how you look, how you’re packaged and how much you pander. The truth is, Americans are suspicious of intelligence. It’s something you have to play down. George Bush, who is a Yale graduate, used to pretend he was a Texan who liked pork rinds, trying to dumb himself down. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar but has a homespun, good old boy, Southern way about him that makes people think he’s not an egghead, though he is.
Playboy: Have you invited him or the vice president to appear on your show?
Maher: If they want to come, all they have to do is call. I doubt if anyone that high up in the government would show up. We have had Cabinet members, though, and senators and congressmen. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to have the president. I’d love to. Or Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jesse Jackson, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell—any of the big guys. We also would like to get almost any big-box-office movie star. We’ve had Alec Baldwin, a hot, hunky movie star, but I’d love to get Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise. It’s not just because they’re big stars; I think they would be interesting guests. We beg them to come on. I see movie stars out on the town all the time who tell me they love the show. I met Jack Nicholson the other night. I’d never met him before, always been a huge fan. He said, “Just for the title, I love you.” I said, “If you ever need to vent your spleen, I hope you’ll keep us in mind.” I meet these big stars and then blow it by becoming a real estate agent: “Here’s my card. If you need a place to have an opinion, please think of us here at Politically Incorrect, Inc.”
Playboy: Are some stars and politicians intimidated by your format, which asks people to be spontaneously intelligent and funny?
Maher: Maybe they are, but they shouldn’t be. It’s not a quiz show.
Playboy: But there must be pressure not to look like an idiot next to the other guests, who are often funny comedians.
Maher: It’s not like I book three other comedians loaded for bear and you’re the one with your dick in your hand. You’re on with an author and a musician and a pundit—people who aren’t even going to try to be funny or clever. We just want people to be passionate over the issues they care about. And we want balance. It’s harder to get conservatives, particularly in show business. Ninety percent of show-business people are nutty liberals. We’d like to have Charlton Heston, Pat Boone, Tom Selleck, Bruce Willis, but they won’t come on. Here’s a forum, but they bitch about a so-called “white list” in Hollywood, a nonexistent list of conservative performers who are avoided like the plague. I don’t think it’s true that conservatives have a harder time getting work. If you make money, the studio heads don’t really care—you could be a go-go dancer for Hitler and they wouldn’t give a damn.
Playboy: Who are some of your favorite conservatives who have appeared on the show?
Maher: Gordon Liddy was great. Funny, strident, passionate. He was on with Harvey Fierstein, Marion Barry and Congressman James Traficant. Harvey noted that he was the only one who had not been indicted or gone to jail. The strangest outcome of that show was that Liddy and Barry became good friends. They had spent time in the same jail, so there was a lot to talk about.
Playboy: Why do politicians appear on your show?
Maher: Nowadays politicians have to prove that they are people. They didn’t have to 20 years ago, but we live in an age of Clinton playing the sax and talking about his underwear on TV.
Playboy: Is that good or bad?
Maher: I don’t think it’s good, but it’s the way it is. They have to go where the people are watching. I don’t think they really want to do it, just like Clinton didn’t really want to have 8000 goddamn coffees with Indonesians to raise money. He had to. He needed the money. He didn’t want to have people in the Lincoln bedroom. None of them want to do this bullshit, but it’s the system. None of them want to campaign before an electorate that is largely apathetic and largely ignorant. And so they have to ride a motorcycle on Jay Leno’s show. Otherwise, they’re not going to reach people.
Playboy: Do you find it demeans the country?
Maher: Yes. But you have to put it in perspective. It’s akin to the criticism I get. Sometimes folks will say, “You’re trivializing the issues. In half an hour, you really don’t get much depth. It’s all sound bites and one-liners.”
Maher: Yeah, but the relevant comparison for my show is not This Week With David Brinkley or The McLaughlin Group.It’s Leno and Letterman; they’re my competition. And their educational content is lower than mine. This is an entertainment show, so any depth we provide is gravy. They’ve got bands and movie stars. I’m trying to put out an alternative product. Start worrying if I get a band and if Charo makes an appearance.
Playboy: What do you have against Charo?
Maher: Actually, I’d have Charo on. I’d have anybody, because anybody in a democracy has the right to vote and therefore, theoretically, should have the right to an opinion.
Playboy: Aren’t you guilty of confusing politics with entertainment?
Maher: You have to look at it in perspective. There’s nothing that’s going to make people take part in this democracy one iota more than they want to, and they don’t want to that much. My view is that anything you can use to get through to them is a small contribution.
Playboy: If that’s true, then Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus are helpful, too, since they talk politics.
Maher: I suppose Rush’s audience is a politically attuned crowd. I’ve never heard him so I don’t know, though I’ve heard he’s a big fat idiot. I don’t listen to Stern either, so I don’t know how political he gets. I’ve always thought of him as a man-in-the-street’s primal scream—a reactionary, which isn’t the same as being politically astute. Imus, on the other hand, is more of a political commentator, and he’s more thoughtful. He could, perhaps, do a show on television like I’m doing if he weren’t such a bitter, ugly motherfucker.
Playboy: You’re also criticized by Washington-based journalists.
Maher: Yeah. You can’t appeal to everybody. In searching for a reason, I tend to think many people in Washington live in their own little world and like it that way. It’s sort of like the court of William XIV, and I’m a peasant who has a TV show. They think, Off with his head. I invite them all on my show. Anyone who’s not on my show won’t come on. But their view of talking politics is The McLaughlin Group or Inside Washington. They all piss in the same pot. They all have the same Beltway mentality, and I am on the outside of the tent pissing in, and they don’t like that. If I lived there and became part of the culture, it would be different. But then my show would suck.
Playboy: Which issues are people most sensitive about? Is it toughest to joke about women, sex or race?
Maher: The most sensitive area for television is drugs. The networks are scared shitless.
Playboy: Yet on your show, James Coburn recently boasted that he not only inhaled but also reinhaled.
Maher: And it made people nervous. In general, you can’t imply that you had a good time on drugs, even if it was in your past. It’s so silly, because drugs are like anything else in life. Fire can warm you or burn down your house. You need to be careful and smart when you use matches. Same with drugs. I would be the first one to say that kids should not do drugs. A kid shouldn’t drive a car, either. So should we take away all the cars because kids could use them and get hurt? Meanwhile, the drug war that we’ve been waging for God knows how many years is a miserable failure. Why do people keep using the same means if they’re not working? You can’t defeat the problem by going after the supply. As long as there’s a demand, drugs will get here. It’s passing the buck. Blame the pusher. Blame the bartender. Blame the cartels. Blame Mexico. Of course, drug dealers are scum. But they don’t create the demand.
Playboy: Would you legalize drugs?
Maher: Yes, though I’d enforce honesty first. I’d make everyone be honest about the problem, so kids could receive, probably for the first time in their lives, credible information. They have nothing but contempt for people who lecture them about drugs. They don’t believe them. They laugh.
Playboy: What would you say to kids about drugs?
Maher: First of all, if you’re doing drugs in high school you’re an idiot because you’re at a time in life when you don’t need to alter reality. You have enough trouble with reality, let’s face it, and you’re not up to it. But I would distinguish between drugs. You lose credibility when you say all drugs are evil poison. Kids hear us say that marijuana is an evil poison and then they use it and think, Maybe I shouldn’t do it, but you know what? It’s not evil poison. Then when somebody says heroin is evil poison, which it is, or cocaine, kids don’t believe it. The drug czars and the other people who make drug policy know little about drugs. All drugs are not alike. Dishonesty doesn’t help.
Playboy: Jack Nicholson said he loved you just for the name of the show. What does it say about someone if they love the idea of being politically incorrect?
Maher: The truth is, almost everyone wants to think of himself as politically incorrect. Few people want to think of themselves as politically correct these days; it’s like saying you’re a square. I get invited all the time to perform at charity functions. They want Mr. Politically Incorrect, but only in theory. I show up and there are a bunch of limousine liberals who are hypersensitive about everything I say. They don’t want what I do when I start doing what is really politically incorrect.
Playboy: Such as?
Maher: I did a benefit for animals and told a joke that I thought was harmless. Some folks were trying to get pandas to mate in a zoo. I said, “They finally got the pandas to mate; all it took was for the male panda to get a Porsche.” There were boos. Was it because I was making fun of pandas? A woman said it was a sexist remark which implied that women are not of sufficient moral character to resist a Porsche. I mean, come on. It was a joke.
Playboy: If everyone fancies himself politically incorrect, who actually is?
Maher: People who speak their minds, who are honest and don’t pull any punches: Ray Bradbury, Roseanne, Willie Brown [mayor of San Francisco], Representative Bob Dornan, Eartha Kitt, James Coburn, Ralph Nader, Camille Paglia and Senator Alan Simpson. And the ones who break my heart because they won’t do the show are Madonna, James Woods, Courtney Love, Barry Goldwater, Gibson, Stern, Senator Patrick Moynihan and Woody Harrelson.
Playboy: Does someone become politically correct when he renounces his past politically incorrect comments? Gibson recently tried to make up with members of the gay community for slurs against them.
Maher: I don’t know what he said to begin with. We once had a contest, in some magazine, called, “Politically Incorrect or Just Stupid?” A lot of times people confuse Politically Incorrect with just stupid because they hear me taking stands that are sort of outrageous. They think, I get it! All I have to do is be outrageous. If someone says something like, “Faggots are all dumb,” that’s just stupid. Defending the Ku Klux Klan is not just politically incorrect, it’s stupid, too. It’s a distinction that’s missed more times than you would think. On the other hand, Camille Paglia says unpopular things like, “No doesn’t always mean no.” She is politically incorrect because it flies in the face of all that monolithic, zero-tolerance nonthinking. It just happens to be fucking true.
Playboy: That no doesn’t always mean no?
Maher: Definitely. Anyone who has been with a girl knows it. It doesn’t justify rape or anything to do with rape. But if no really meant no, no one would ever get laid, OK? No woman wants to give it up right away. A girl says no and an hour later maybe says not quite so emphatic a no. I’ve been on a fair number of dates during which the girl said no, that nothing was going to happen. Then something happens. She just wanted me to know, “Look, I’m not easy,” and she wasn’t, believe me. It was hard work, and it took all night, but at the end of the night—
Playboy: Whereas politically correct men give up at the first no.
Maher: Yeah. But now even women, in many cases, don’t want that politically correct bullshit. They acknowledge that a lot of feminism sounded better at the meetings. Like that stuff about how they were going to pay for half of everything because they were equal. When it came right down to it, they didn’t really want to give up our picking up the check. And that’s OK. We never asked them to. We never staged a rally in Washington Square Park and chanted, “We are tired of paying for dinner.” We always thought that it was fair, because chances are we really did have less-than-sincere intentions, so the least we could do, like in a poker game, was to put up the ante. It has nothing to do with the obvious fact that women should have equal rights under the law and in the workplace and all that.
Playboy: Is your view of sexual harassment politically incorrect?
Maher: No, but Ray Bradbury’s is. On the show he said, “Who among us hasn’t pinched a woman’s butt?” I raised my hand because I never have—I mean, not someone I didn’t know. That is, I’ve only done it when I knew it would be appreciated. Older people can be politically incorrect because they’re honest and people can forgive them. It’s charming from an old man. Bradbury also said, “Yeah, I sexually harassed my wife until she married me.”
Playboy: Do you think this is an issue that has gone too far?
Maher: No. I think it hasn’t gone far enough. Women really are sexually harassed. It’s at a preposterously high level in this country. There just are an enormous number of schmucks who take advantage of women. I hear the stories from my zillion women friends.
Playboy: Does knowing this make you more cautious?
Maher: Yeah, and we all have to be careful. I don’t know of one executive in this town who will hire a female assistant. That’s the corrupt side of it: Women have claimed that men have done things they haven’t done, and men are afraid. But a lot of the men brought it on themselves because they got away with shit for years. And it’s not fair for people like—well, I must say—me.
Maher: Me, who never, in all my years in show business, ever did anything, even when I could have. I was the emcee at nightclubs and could have had singers fuck me to get onstage, but I never once did. It’s not even for a noble reason. I wouldn’t want to be with somebody who didn’t really want to be with me. I’d lose my hard-on in two seconds.
Playboy: How do you respond to feminists who claim the centerfold objectifies women?
Maher: It does, but get over it. Aren’t there worse problems in the world? If we stopped it, what would change? Would men really be that different? Men like what they like about women, and women don’t like that we have these tastes. What they want us to like in them is not always what we like in them, but it’s such a primal thing that you can’t just stamp your foot and say, “Men should be this way.” Maybe we’ll evolve that way, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow. Women always ask us to be accepting of them, but they’re not really that accepting of our nature. Men are pigs, but we’re getting a little tired of apologizing for it. We didn’t make ourselves this way. We would like to be more like women; it would be easier. It would be nice to not be horny all the time or have a problem staying monogamous. That would make life simpler and cut out a lot of bullshit, but I didn’t put the chip in my brain that makes me the way I am. It has caused me a lot of pain in my life, but you don’t blame a moth for eating your socks.
Playboy: You’ve done a number of shows about prostitution. The theme of one was, “A woman can legally rent her body out for nine months to have a baby as a surrogate mother, but she can’t legally rent it out for 15 minutes just to get fucked.” Should she be able to?
Maher: Of course! That’s a no-brainer. And no law has ever stopped it. If Hugh Grant wants a blow job, whose business is that? The government’s? The cops’? The man wants a blow job and someone is willing to give it to him for $60. I don’t see the problem.
Playboy: What’s your opinion of attempts to control sex on the Internet?
Maher: I don’t like this tendency to childproof the world. If one kid falls out a window because of negligence, everybody has to put guards on their windows. Everyone. Everyone has to go put of their way because of parents who aren’t doing what they should be doing—watching their kids. If computers are really that dangerous, allow your kids to turn on the computer only when you’re around. If Mom is hovering nearby, I think it’s less likely that Junior will be downloading pictures of Teri Hatcher, though Dad still might be.
Playboy: What about when Mom and Dad aren’t around?
Maher: Then the kid shouldn’t have access to the computer. I don’t think adults should have to constantly rearrange their lives because of what kids and stupid people might do. And by the way, I’m not that certain how damaging it is for kids to be exposed to sex. If a kid sees two people fucking, does it really screw him up?
Playboy: Are you pro-hard-core porn?
Maher: Here’s what I said on a show about porn channels: They don’t educate, they don’t enlighten and they don’t come in clearly enough where I live.
Playboy: Do you know when your show is working and when it’s not?
Maher: Yeah, but it doesn’t get me down when it isn’t. People seem to like the train wrecks. John Ehrlichman was on and said nothing. He was sphinxlike, so it was sort of like playing tennis with no one on the other side of the net. It was so bad it was good.
Playboy: Is it good when things get testy, such as when Chevy Chase and Steven Bochco nearly came to blows?
Maher: Ooh, yeah. That was a particularly nasty fight. It was about who was doing more for the great American viewing audience, and it got personal. Chevy was attacking television, and Bochco seemed to take it personally. It was sort of, “You’re crap.” “No, you’re crap.”
Playboy: When that happens, are you nervously thinking about how you can intercede?
Maher: Not really. The only time I’m not so happy with my guests, and I leave no doubt about it, is when they don’t take a stand, when they refuse to get into the fray.
Playboy: You didn’t have that problem with Sandra Bernhard, who nearly strangled John Lofton, a preacher from the far right, then spit in his face.
Maher: Actually, he was making a point that Sandra misinterpreted. He said that women couldn’t even speak in temple in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, but she thought it was a sexist remark and went nuts on him.
Playboy: Another classic show was with Kato Kaelin, of all people, who appeared with Garry Shandling.
Maher: Garry was just too funny with him. It was days after the Simpson criminal trial had ended, the first talk show Kato did. I couldn’t have said the things to him that Garry said because I’m the host. But first he said, “Why couldn’t you have said on the stand that you knew it was 10:30 because you were watching The Larry Sanders Show?” Which was very funny. And then he said, “Knock, knock.” Kato said, “Who’s there?” Garry said, “Oh, you know.”
Playboy: Do people like to see other people squirm?
Maher: Sure. At least it’s real. At the same time, it can get to a point where they may not like it. I got a lot of mail about the show with Chase and Bochco. Richard Lewis was on once and was out of his wits—really hostile, which is unlike him. People wrote and said they don’t want to see that. I certainly don’t want to get to the point where chairs are thrown.
Playboy: What was Lewis hostile about?
Maher: We had on a conservative woman, who I could see him going after, but he also went after Robert Fulghum [who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten]. I mean, who goes after the kindergarten guy?
Playboy: Do you always push your real opinion or do you play devil’s advocate?
Maher: I will not say something I don’t believe, but I care more about some issues than others. I have a dog in the fight of some issues. Other times, I’m just curious like everyone else.
Playboy: In what fight do you have a dog?
Maher: The one about the National Endowment for the Arts, for example. I don’t think we should have it. I see no justification for spending money on art, which doesn’t depend on the government funding it. When that comes up, I will not squelch my opinion. But on many issues, I’m uncertain or I change. I’m very susceptible to the last thing I read. I’m often thankful I’m not a politician who isn’t allowed to change his mind. If he does, he’s accused of waffling. I change my mind all the time.
Playboy: What is it about political correctness that so irks you?
Maher: It’s the fact that the truth isn’t important. It’s hypersensitivity. Now, sensitivity is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only frigging virtue in society, especially when it buries the truth. That’s why it’s pernicious. Whenever you bury the truth, it comes back to haunt you. It’s like telling a lie on the first date. Somewhere down the line she’s going to find out it isn’t a loaner, that the piece of shit you drive is really the only car you own.
Playboy: What are particularly onerous examples of political correctness?
Maher: There are so many. Cindy Crawford was on the show after she had been yanked from a Cadillac ad because it was too sexy. We ended up talking about Cadillacs and I said, “Why is it that people who buy Cadillacs are either country-club Republicans or black? What’s up with that?” I said it and everyone froze, and these were pretty liberal, with-it people. But we’re all trained. We don’t use the truth meter to determine our reactions, we use the sensitivity meter. I don’t think truth even comes in second. In this case, it’s true, and it’s a kind of strange thing to notice, yet you don’t dare say it in mixed company. Why not?
Playboy: Because it would encourage stereotypes.
Maher: Are we such a bunch of babies that we can’t say what is true? Part of the problem is that we don’t have big problems. World War Two was a big problem. I can’t see people in that era suing because there weren’t sufficient warnings on a ladder or on a Batman cape: “This cape does not enable user to fly.” Back then, no one would have considered a stupid lawsuit over a kid jumping off a building in a Batman cape. A suit like that would have been viewed as demeaning. It would have been viewed as a scam. Now people sue over everything. Everyone sees himself as a victim, which takes away from people who are real victims. I remember reading about the many “victims of silicone implants.” I’m sorry for women who had a bad tit job. But is it the same thing as losing a leg fighting for your country? That’s a victim. If everybody’s a victim then there are no true victims, and that’s not right. Also, victimization becomes an excuse. In some cases, it may be. But we have to distinguish or no one is responsible because everyone is a victim. People cringe at jokes because they’re so sensitive. And they are so strident. Nobody just wants to say they disagree; everyone wants an apology. I got a nasty letter today because of something I said about Mother Teresa. She had just given up her mission in Calcutta, finally, after 60 years, and the punch line was, “But she will retain control of prostitution and the numbers rackets.” That’s preposterous, yet someone writes a letter: “How dare you! We demand an apology.”
Playboy: But don’t jokes reinforce stereotypes, whether against Poles, gays, Jews, blacks or any other group?
Maher: I think it is possible to generalize. If you say, “Jews are good with money,” oh! “What do you mean saying we’re good at something. How dare you!” Well, excuse me. I don’t understand how some stereotypes get started. I don’t understand why Polish people have a reputation of being stupid. I’ve never known Polish people to be stupider than anybody else. But a lot of times, stereotypes become stereotypes because they are true. Black people do have better senses of humor than white people. They are politically incorrect more than white people in the sense that they’re not protecting some false sensitivity. They’re just more out with it, like I am. I think that’s why they like me, and I think that’s why I have a lot of black friends. Maybe white people have more to lose. I had a party last weekend and somebody said to me, “Boy, you have a lot of black friends,” and I hadn’t even noticed. When I was inviting people, I didn’t notice who was black.
Playboy: Now you’re saying some of your best friends are black.
Maher: They are! It’s some horrible thing to say, but it is true. What’s offensive to me are lies. They offend me, not truth. That’s the problem with politically correct thinking. It’s not thinking. It is the elevation of sensitivity over truth. It is the unwillingness to judge, when we need to judge. Judging has become a real bogey word, like liberal did. Everyone’s in that mode: I don’t want to judge. Well, you know, without judging you have no standards. A wild, controversial show included Deepak Chopra, who argued with me vehemently about Woody Allen. He was saying we shouldn’t judge Allen. I’m not talking about the speculation regarding him, I’m talking about what’s fact: that he seduced the teenage sister of his own children. So I’m just asking: If not here, when do we judge? Where is the line? Up to murder? Do we judge anything? All these liberal Hollywood types who work with him said they wouldn’t judge him. Makes you wonder. To do what he did to his family and to cut his girlfriend off from her family seems terribly selfish. I mean, you’re Woody Allen. You could date anybody. Look outside the living room, you know? Go to a bar. You’ll meet somebody. You’re famous. That’s not a disco ball hanging in the kids’ bedroom. On my show Fran Lebowitz was talking about Judge Lance Ito. She said, “He doesn’t want to judge.” I think that was true. I mean, if not him, who? No wonder you see it throughout society.
Playboy: What causes this tendency?
Maher: We don’t have pressing problems, so society gets softer and softer and gets away from what’s important and of real value. It gets narcissistic and morally bankrupt.
Playboy: You sound like a right-winger pining for the good old days when we were moral.
Maher: Listen, we do have a values crisis. I don’t think you solve it the way Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan want us to solve it. I don’t know how to solve it. Another war would solve it, or if we were invaded by Mars or something. Believe me, people would get an attitude adjustment. My mother told me that her generation, before World War Two, was like slackers today. Then people got their shit together because they had to. Now everyone is turned off and cynical, which is not completely their fault. They think, What’s in it for me? What do I get? It’s the kind of world we live in. Why should I read the paper? How does it affect my life? How does it help me? What do I get out of it? Nothing tangible, nothing immediate. They say, “I guess if I knew more, I could cast a more intelligent vote and maybe the politicians would do better by the causes that are important to me. But that seems like a lot of turns to make when I could be watching the Spice Channel.”
Playboy: Yet you seem too forgiving of the system that engenders that. Your comments about the Lincoln bedroom make it sound as if it’s appropriate just the way it is.
Maher: No, my point was, compared with other ways to make money, it’s the best of the bad. To get elected president, you have to buy $100 million in TV advertising, or some ridiculous number like that, just to be in the game. You have to get that kind of money somehow. Bush recently said that he never used the White House to solicit campaign funds. He said he never made one single phone call or sat in one single meeting where money was asked for—which explains why Clinton kicked his ass. As far as I’m concerned, you can get that money by promising someone in the tobacco industry that you’ll say, “I don’t know if cigarettes are addictive,” or promising someone in the timber industry, “We will lay off the law that says you can’t clear-cut more forests.” But that seems more harmful than selling the Lincoln bedroom.
Playboy: Is Clinton corrupt?
Maher: Yes, though his form is better than some of the others’. It’s better form to bill tourists who want to stay at Planet White House. It’s taking advantage of this age of celebrity we live in. The president of the United States is the biggest star in the country. I mean, if Kevin Costner sold his bedroom, he could make money, too, but Bill Clinton is an even bigger star, and there’s even more history in that room.
Playboy: Overall, how would you rate Clinton’s presidency?
Maher: He’s the right president for these times because he’s full of shit and we’re full of shit, which is not the most complimentary thing you could say. But it’s true.
Playboy: Are you embarrassed that you said “fuck” in front of Clinton?
Maher: By mistake. I’m never going to live that one down.
Playboy: Did he laugh?
Maher: I don’t know. I was in the middle of a joke, and I blew the wording and went, “Oh, fuck it.”
Playboy: It has been reported that Clinton watches your show.
Maher: George Stephanopoulos said he does. Recently, when I saw Clinton at a performance at the Ford Theater, I got a bit of the evil eye. He just shook my hand and gave me a look like, “I heard what you said the other night, you rat.” Then I remembered why. In some speech, he had said, “We have to end the cynicism and hypocrisy in Washington,” and my comment was, “This is from a guy who has stabbed more people in the back than Joe Pesci.” Of course, when you say things like that about the president, you can’t be surprised when he gives you the evil eye. But on balance, I’m pretty supportive.
Playboy: Dick Morris has been on a few times. You once noted that Morris wrote a book, but you gave it the name Men Are From Mars, Women Are From the Yellow Pages.
Maher: I did that at the performance at the Ford Theater, with Clinton in the audience. He loved that one. Clinton really thought that was funny.
Playboy: What do you think of Al Gore?
Maher: I like him in general. I didn’t like his speech in Chicago last year when he railed against tobacco for killing his sister. I thought it was one of the most naked political plays I’d ever heard. My father died of cancer, but using that to get a laugh is unthinkable.
Playboy: Do you think Gore will be the next president?
Maher: I think Colin Powell will get into it and beat him. Powell has always been my favorite, because he’s the one guy who has the authority not to pander. He could tell the truth. Ross Perot was a big hero until he said we should have a 50-cent tax on gasoline, which we absolutely should. We pay a third of what the rest of the world pays for gasoline, and yet if there’s a four percent rise in the gas tax, people act like their lives are going to end. There are a dozen good reasons to have a big tax on gasoline, but I pity the poor fool who tells the people that.
Playboy: What’s your take on the controversial welfare-reform bill?
Maher: I certainly am not for throwing poor people out onto the street. On the other hand, I have a skeptical view of human nature and tend to believe that if you allow someone not to work, in most cases they won’t. The bill is probably harsh, and a lot of people will be hurt who shouldn’t be, but there’s no way to deal with problems that affect millions of people without someone getting hurt. America cannot seem to face that idea. We want to go to war but with no casualties. How can we go to war if no one dies? We see a picture of one soldier with a Band-Aid on, and it’s too much—pull out. But nothing is free in this world.
Playboy: How about abortion?
Maher: I happen to believe that life begins at birth. The argument is summed up in the word the other side chooses to use: unborn. They’re protecting the unborn, but, hey: unborn. Not born. You’re not around. Where does life begin? Maybe on a first date. Just thinking about having sex? Yeah, sure, I want the government and preachers stepping in there. But you have to say that it starts somewhere.
Playboy: You side with the liberals on abortion but with the conservatives on the death penalty.
Maher: The death penalty is a deterrent only to the guy on death row. He is completely deterred from killing again. But I also think there have to be some people who will think twice when they see flames jump out of a guy’s head. In this country we pull the trigger only on heinous criminals. You’ve got to be a really bad guy to get the death penalty.
Playboy: Doesn’t it concern you that the majority of the people executed are black?
Maher: A problem like that should be addressed, but that is a completely different issue from abolishing the death penalty. The truth is, I don’t know what you’re saving these killers from. Why is it so great to rot in jail your whole life? When a life has gone that wrong, start over. If you believe that there is a soul and something beyond, then what’s the tragedy in sending someone back into the reincarnation pool? Now, admittedly, that guy’s going to have to go back a little further. He’s going to come back as a cockroach or something.
Playboy: You don’t really believe that, do you?
Maher: I believe there is a continuum of souls, yes.
Playboy: Do you believe in God?
Maher: I do. I also believe that because of the very nature of a supreme being, I can’t know what its nature is; I can’t even imagine. If I were to get to the next level, then maybe I would have a greater consciousness. But it’s not like the next level is some good version of this—like a great lounge and all your friends are there. I’ve said, “It’s a shame my father can’t see me doing this show because he would have loved it so much,” and people say, “Oh, he sees it.” I don’t believe he does. I believe he’s on a plane where a TV show would be so trivial. Why even bother having an afterlife if it’s the same bunch of shit?
Playboy: Somehow we expect cynics like you to be atheists.
Maher: I was at a dinner party at Alan Alda’s house when he asked how many people there believed in God. I was the only one who raised a hand. But if you go out into the country at large, not only do people believe in God, there’s a huge number who also believe that the Bible is the word of God and that he is some sort of old man or something. There are things we don’t and can’t know, that we can’t apply human reason to.
Playboy: Were your parents, a Jew and a Catholic, believers in their respective religions?
Maher: My father was very Irish Catholic. His parents were mortified when he married a Jew. My mother was never a religious Jew, and I’ve never been in a temple in my life.
Playboy: Does that sort of background make for good comedy?
Maher: It has more to do with the fact that my father was very funny; he got a lot of laughs around the house. Many of my comedian friends had funny fathers or mothers. One generation of amateur funniness seems often to be followed by a kid who takes it to the next level.
Playboy: Did your parents like the idea of their son being a comedian?
Maher: I always wanted to be a comedian, but I never told my parents. I was too shy to do that and afraid that if it didn’t work out I’d look like an idiot.
Playboy: What kind of a child were you?
Maher: Out of it. Too serious. Very shy. I had friends, but I had a hard time making friends. I vividly remember sitting with my father on the front porch of a house we rented on the Jersey shore. It was dusk and all these kids were playing in the street. My father said, “Go over there. Introduce yourself,” and I just couldn’t do it. “Hi. I’m a kid.” I couldn’t do it. Some kids can. I felt like I was letting him down. I looked like a pussy. I didn’t have friends, and I was stuck on the porch. It was pathetic. But I still can’t approach strangers. The truth is, the desire to become famous is an attempt to solve that problem: When you’re famous, you don’t have to do it anymore. Everybody already knows you. I finally came out of my shell a little bit in my senior year of high school. Until then, my ambition to perform had been a secret. Then, on the recommendation of a teacher, I emceed a couple of talent shows. I got laughs. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life had a rush like that, and I’ve never been that high again. You can’t lose your virginity twice.
Playboy: Did you plunge headlong into performing at comedy clubs?
Maher: Not then. I graduated and went to college. I got real itchy about doing comedy in my last year or two at college because I could see what was looming on the horizon, which was life. That was probably the tensest time in my life, that transition from school to having to actually do something.
Playboy: How was college?
Maher: I hated Cornell. It’s a sucky place.
Playboy: Were you a nerd?
Maher: As much as you can be an arty nerd. When I headed off to Cornell, I remember thinking and planning:I can be different. I don’t have to be the guy I was in high school who wasn’t in the cool group and who wasn’t good with girls. I can be somebody new. I thought, It’s a fresh start. But, of course, when you get there, you haven’t shed your skin. You can’t walk into a phone booth and come out Superman. You’re still the same schmuck.
Playboy: Have you ever figured out why you were a schmuck?
Maher: Just astrology. It’s in my chart, in my nature.
Playboy: So you believe in the soul, and you believe in astrology.
Maher: Oh yes. I think it’s just a science that’s misinterpreted like any science when it’s given to you in small bits. If someone printed only one or two lines about physics in the newspaper, that would look stupid, too.
Playboy: While you were growing up, which comedians influenced you?
Maher: When I was old enough to look up to people and seriously think about what I wanted to do with my life, Robert Klein was it. He was it for a lot of comedians in my generation. Not Lenny Bruce. I’m sorry; it escapes me. He never made me laugh. Robert Klein did. I also loved Alan King. Steve Allen. I loved Dean Martin. I used to watch his show with my mother. I loved him and I loved the delight he gave her. I wanted to be that cool. Johnny Carson was huge. I used to watch him every night I could, sneaking on the television at 11:30. I wanted to be a famous comedian. I wanted to be Carson. At 12, I fantasized about having a talk show. Why they would let a 12-year-old host a talk show, I don’t know, but I pictured myself with one. When I lay in bed at night thinking about a way to get girls to like me, that’s what I imagined.
Playboy: And the girls responded?
Maher: Oh, yeah. It sure worked for Dean Martin. When women are asked, “What do you like in a guy?” the answer is, “a sense of humor. If he makes me laugh, he’s got me. I don’t care what he looks like if he makes me laugh.” You wonder why Moe, Larry and Curly didn’t get more women. I guess it has its limits.
Playboy: After you finished college, you finally tried stand-up. Were your parents in the audience?
Maher: Oh, no. I would never have let that happen.
Maher: It would have been mortifying and I stunk. Also, I was too dirty. To this day, I won’t let my mother see me live. The show’s OK, and I can’t stop her from seeing the HBO specials, but I wouldn’t feel right if she were sitting in the second row and “fucking up the ass” and “pussy” came out of my mouth.
Playboy: You wrote a book about those early days in your career.
Maher: The characters in True Story are composites of the people I knew. None are the ones who became successful. When the book came out, people were all over me with, “Who is this one, really?” “Is it Roseanne?” “Is that Jerry?” I hate to disappoint you, but none of them are anyone you would know.
Playboy: At that time, could you have chosen the people who were going to be successful? Would you have picked Jerry Seinfeld?
Maher: I definitely would have picked Jerry. He was always better than the rest of us. Everybody else was sloppy. We were kids. He was never sloppy.
Playboy: Who else was around who became successful?
Maher: Rita Rudner. Gilbert Gottfried. Sandra Bernhard. I remember when she was making The King of Comedy,and we were all like “Oh, wow.” We were making pancakes. She was out doing a movie with Robert De Niro.
Playboy: How about Roseanne?
Maher: I got to know her later.
Playboy: Is she a friend?
Maher: Roseanne and I aren’t speaking at the moment. We booked her on the first ABC show—needless to say, an important show. She canceled a couple of days before. I caught up with her about a month ago and asked her why. She said it was deliberate, to punish me because I had made jokes about her marriage when Tom Arnold was a guest. I raised the points that, first of all, the jokes weren’t really at her expense, and second, I can’t muzzle my guests. Finally, I said that someone who has lived her life in the press and publicized every intimate fact of it oughtn’t to chastise others for making jokes about her personal life; it’s a little hypocritical. She didn’t see it that way. She’s bitter about the marriage, and she’s made many jokes about him—very cutting ones, about his small penis and everything! I don’t remember anything he said about her being nearly so vicious.
Playboy: Do you find that comedians are more troubled than people in the general population?
Maher: Some are. Richard Lewis’ onstage persona is an exaggerated version of a neurotic guy who, in his case, thank God, has found a way to channel it into a multimillion-dollar business. There also are comics who are completely sane and rational. Does Jerry Seinfeld strike you as cuckoo? Steve Martin? Andy Kaufman was cuckoo. Don’t get me started on Woody Allen. I guess there is a higher percentage of cuckoos among comics.
Playboy: Who among the new generation of comics do you like?
Maher: I don’t know any of the new kids working the clubs these days. I like Bob Odenkirk and David Cross onMr. Show.
Playboy: What do you think of David Spade, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler?
Maher: I’ve always loved Adam’s standup. His act eludes me—I just don’t get the singing. I don’t know if that’s a generational thing, because I know he’s huge on college campuses. Spade and Farley make me laugh. Even Beavis and Butt-head can be funny. They were talking about Paul Simon and one said, “You mean that African dude who used to be in the Beatles?” That was a great example of how a little learning is a dangerous thing.
Playboy: What about the new Saturday Night Live crew?
Maher: Norm Macdonald does some really funny stuff, but I wouldn’t know the rest of them if I fell over them. I don’t mean to kick people when they’re down, but SNL has earned its reputation for being a hit-and-miss project.
Playboy: When you finally appeared on Carson’s show, were you terrified?
Maher: Of course. Jerry Seinfeld came with me. I had on these tight pants and it kind of looked like my dick was a little too bulgy. I said, “Jerry, what do I do with my dick?” And he said, “Try to get it sucked after the show.”
Playboy: Were some late-night shows harder to do than others?
Maher: The Tonight Show was always the easiest to do because its crowd was the most excited, and Johnny was the most supportive. You could really kill on that show. Johnny made the audience feel like, “Here’s my son. Please like him the way I do.” Letterman was much harder. You didn’t get the feeling that he was with you. Letterman made the audience feel like, “Here’s a guy who might be looking to take my job one day; don’t feel any special need to laugh at him.” Jay, when he started, wasn’t that way. He was easier. Jay is a state-of-the-art stand-up comedian. They are both very funny. But the big difference is that their shows are scripted, though not word for word. From my days as a guest I know they do a preinterview with you. They want to know as much as they can. Then they’ll say, “I’m going to ask you this, and you’ll say, ‘Blah.’” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I want to do, and it’s not what I want to watch, either. I’m not interested in seeing celebrities talk about their latest projects or tell little rehearsed stories.
Playboy: Once you were making it big as a comedian, did your social life improve?
Maher: I had my comic friends. The club itself was a great social gathering place. It was a party every night.
Playboy: With lots of drinking and drugs?
Maher: I used to throw back a few, though I was never a huge drinker. My body just doesn’t allow me to be. Drugs? I mean, I was never really into a lot of hard drugs. I smoked some pot.
Playboy: More recently you got a DUI.
Maher: Yeah. It makes you very careful. It’s like playing with five fouls. It was four years ago, but you’re on probation for seven years. I don’t want people on the road who are impaired, but I was not impaired when I was stopped. I was speeding, which was stupid, but I was far from being drunk. I see people doing things that are much more distracting. I see women putting on makeup, drivers blasting music, talking on the phone. All that impairs concentration a lot more than a drink or two. I think they’re moving toward zero tolerance; that’s what they told us in driving class. By the year 2000 you will not be allowed to drive with any alcohol in your blood, which means that you won’t be able to go to dinner and have a glass of wine. I don’t know if that’s the kind of world we want to live in. Naturally we don’t want anyone to be killed by a drunk driver, but we can make the world so safe that no one has any fun. We’re all alive, but we’re all bored to death.
Playboy: At what point did the appearances at comedy clubs and on talk shows lead to other work?
Maher: I did some movies. Two of them, Pizza Man and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, are ones audiences never let me forget. And I did some TV shows. It was the combination of the failure of these movies and TV shows that led to Politically Incorrect.
Playboy: How so?
Maher: The roughest time of my career, outside of the first year when I was terrible at what I was doing, was the early Nineties, when I had exhausted the acting avenue. I did another sitcom in 1991 that was very bad. I was 35 and some of my friends were making it pretty big. Jerry. Paul Reiser. Roseanne. Garry Shandling. For me, it was like, Am I going to get my ticket punched? It was a tremendous load on my mind because I’m just not the kind of person who couldn’t make it. It would be too tough for me to never do the Playboy Interview,to think all that would pass me by. I was 35 years old and still doing sets at the Improv and not wanting to go out for sitcoms anymore. I wrote screenplays. I wrote that book. But what was I going to do? I guess it was my destiny that I had to try everything until I came back around to the thing that was the most perfect for me.
Playboy: Was PI a tough sell?
Maher: Comedy Central was the kind of place that was willing to take a chance on something new. But I still had to pitch it and push it. They bought the first batch of 24 shows. I had to move back to New York, which was a big price for me because I don’t like living in New York and also I was in a relationship. I had just bought a house for us and we moved into it, and then I had to go back to New York. That didn’t help the relationship and, in fact, it hastened its demise.
Playboy: Was it worth it?
Maher: Yes, absolutely, because I would not have been good for her or anybody else if I hadn’t made it in this business. I would have been a bad guy, or a dead guy.
Playboy: Is the show on ABC different from what it was on Comedy Central?
Maher: No. Nothing is different in terms of what we can or can’t say. At least not yet. The people who might worry about what we’re saying must fall asleep before we come on.
Playboy: How has cable changed the face of television?
Maher: Thank God for cable. Without Comedy Central, no one would want me now. But for all 1200 channels, I’m surprised there’s not more experimentation and innovation. There is little innovation even on the smaller channels because, let’s face it, they’re in a tough, competitive world. They’re out there trying to get ratings and ad dollars and subscriptions like everybody else.
Playboy: Are there exceptions?
Maher: Sure. There’s some great innovative stuff. Comedy Central put on Mystery Science Theater and Dr. Katz andAbsolutely Fabulous, and HBO has Mr. Show and Larry Sanders and some other great stuff. But it’s surprising to me that the big stations don’t do more of what they did with my show, which is cherry pick from the smaller stations. I don’t know of any other show that went from cable to network like mine did. You would think it would be more common, that they would use the cable stations as a farm team.
Playboy: Is Larry Sanders next to be snapped up?
Maher: Larry Sanders couldn’t survive on regular TV; it’s too good.
Playboy: What does that say about your show?
Maher: That it’s not that good! And I’m going to keep it that way. I’m no fool.
Playboy: Now that you’ve reached this level of success, could you handle the cancellation of PI?
Maher: Yeah. First of all, if the show went away, I wouldn’t go away completely now. You become enough of a something so that you can get something else in the business. But even if it all went away, I’d be OK. I have scratched the big itch.
Playboy: Is your success an impediment to a serious relationship?
Maher: I’m not looking for a serious relationship, but I’m not closed off to one, either.
Playboy: You once got close to marriage; you were engaged.
Maher: I’ve gotten close a few times. I was engaged once, and I was with someone for five years, until the end of 1993. I think some people don’t get married because they never meet the right person, but some people meet the right person and still don’t get married because the institution itself doesn’t fit very well. I think I’m in that group.
Playboy: What is it about marriage that doesn’t fit you?
Maher: I just like to do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it.
Playboy: Is it that you are unable to be monogamous?
Maher: I don’t think that’s the most important part of it. I’ve been monogamous before. If you’re really digging somebody it’s not hard. It’s more that my life moves very fast, and I don’t have time to be considerate to someone in the way they deserve. When I’m with someone, be it casually or seriously, I am very considerate. But I don’t want to be with someone for one minute when I can’t be that considerate. If you’re married, you have to be. Women might say they would accept that, but they really wouldn’t. The truth is, I don’t understand marriage. It seems—at least in many of the instances I know about—a particular hell where you become emotionally dependent on the very person who increasingly bores and annoys you. Is that a pretty politically incorrect thing to say? Well, it’s true.
Bill Maher, April 2007
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 embroiled in 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’s career, 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. On the 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 news junkie 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 goose-hunting 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.