Bill Maher clearly loves to speak his mind.
But unlike other comedians, what is on Maher’s mind isn’t his bad date or his crazy mother. It’s the bad government and crazy culture.
Maher said his penchant for dissecting the news of the day for laughs came from his family.
“My father was a radio news guy in the old days of the staff announcements. In those days, there was news on the radio every hour, on the hour,” Maher said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.
“It was always a part of our life at home. Unlike most American families, who don’t discuss politics over dinner, we did.”
Still, the comic and television host knows firsthand how his sometimes politically incorrect, always thought-provoking topics can lead to trouble.
In 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Maher landed in hot water while hosting his ABC late-night talk show, “Politically Incorrect,” for referring to some past U.S. military actions as “cowardly.”
The controversy led ABC to cancel the show in 2002, after five years on the air, and left Maher uncertain about his future career.
But, oh, what a difference a few years and an unpopular war make. Maher has hosted the HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher” since 2003.
“It is amazing how quickly that whole thing went from being public enemy No. 1 to six months later people saying, `Didn’t you say something?’” he said.
We spoke with Maher recently about his past, future and his continued lack of sacred cows.
After your comments and ABC’s canceling of “Politically Incorrect,” did you worry your career might be over?
Well, definitely, at the onset of it. That was a week after Sept. 11.
That period in the fall of 2001, the country was cuckoo. I mean, Bush was considered smart for a few months. That’s how crazy the country was.
Everyone was so (expletive) in their pants afraid, the country had to close its eyes and say, “Yes, he is smart. He’ll get us through this.” Then beginning 2003, the ice started to thaw. But there was a period where I was the subject of White House press conferences. There was a period I might never work again and I might never be able to go outside again.
The nine months we were still on the air after that, I think we did our best work. We were liberated; we weren’t trying to satisfy the network and have on sitcom stars. In that last nine months, we were really able to do a much more in-depth kind of show. The whole country was serious for a little bit.
What did you take away from that experience as far as the whims of public opinion?
It was a scary time for a comedian and scary time for someone who depends on the affection of the public. But what I found out was that my fans were never mad at me. If anything, this solidified their affection for me. It was all the people who weren’t watching the show anyway who were making all the noise. So I wasn’t upset at the end of the day the show got canceled. And now it’s a satisfying vindication. But the guy who really should get a fruit basket from somebody is Michael Moore. He was booed off the stage at the Oscars and he was right.
Was there pressure with your new show to tone things down?
Oh, yes. We went on the air with the HBO show just as we were going to war. In 2003, we went on the air in February and the tanks rolled up to Baghdad in March. It was a very strange time to be on the air, and I can’t tell you how many people suggested we just lay off, especially coming from a job where I had just been fired. The tabloid headlines had my picture with Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins. They put us together like we were a cabal and meeting in Hollywood to overthrow the government. People overreact very quickly.
Like with Don Imus, I think if you polled people now, they might think, “Oh, yeah, maybe that was a bad reaction.”
Shows like yours, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” intentionally blur entertainment and news, but do you think real journalism has become irreparably blurred with entertainment?
I think it will never go back to the way it was until the giant corporations which own the networks separate the news divisions from the rest of the corporation. News used to be considered a loss leader; it did not have to turn a profit and did not have to compete for eyeballs.
That has been a downfall of news in our country and it has had terrible repercussions for the country. News is supposed to be the fourth estate.
They complain how fewer and fewer people watch the news, but even the ones who watch the nightly news aren’t getting the news. They get one quick news slug at the beginning, then news you can use. By the time you get to the last segment, it’s about a one-legged dog.
Coming into this new presidential campaign, which candidates look ripe for ridicule and which look good?
For a comedian, it’s a pretty good field. On the Republican side, you have Rudy Giuliani, who on a substantive level, I can’t wait to get into. We did a little bit this season, but it will get hotter. He is running on being a great terrorist fighter—but he put the terrorist command center in the building that got attacked. The Republicans do not care about substance; they care about image.
Then on the Democratic side, Hillary is, of course, a font of humor. I have no doubt the Republicans already have dirt on (Bill Clinton’s) philandering. I just know the second she gets the nomination, they’ll release stuff and that’s all the election will be about. People will turn off to her. Bill Clinton had sex behind her back when he was president, just think what he’s been like now with time on his hands.
It’s not going to be a dull one, I’ll say that.
What do you get from stand-up that differs from your other work?
It’s very pure. There are no guests and no clocks, no commercials and no director. It’s just you and the audience and big laughs. It’s a discipline that I just love. It’s the first thing I tried to do in my life when I got out of school. Part of its (appeal) is that you’re very bad at it for quite a while and it’s quite painful and not lucrative.
Then when you can do it well, you want to do it more. I don’t know why so many of my colleagues aren’t still doing it; there are very few of us. I do love constructing an act, putting all the jokes together. It’s my version of building a ship in a bottle.