To say Bill Maher is politically incorrect is about as much of an understatement as is possible. In fact, the wry comedian was so politically incorrect regarding 9-11 that ABC canceled his show, “Politically Incorrect.” Seems Maher disagreed with the popular sentiment that the suicide bombings were an act of cowardice, and the ensuing uproar sealed his fate.
Since 2003, Maher has found friendlier territory on HBO with his show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” which takes an irreverent look at the week’s events.
But stand-up will always be his true love. Maher talks about the controversy surrounding his 9-11 comments; our impending loss of President Bush, a comic’s dream; and exactly why he starred in the 1988 B-movie “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”
What’s wrong with the world today?
Probably nothing that the retirement of George Bush can’t help.
Will you miss Bush at all for the wealth of comic material he provides?
Yes. There’s no doubt that stupidity is the greatest source of comic material. It’s true—look at any sitcom. There’s always at least one flat-out lunch-bucket stupid person, one character who you can count on. Very often there’s two or three. Remember “Cheers” had Woody and Coach, and Sam wasn’t too bright. You need the stupid character. Clinton was horny, which was funny, but it’s not quite as funny as stupid. So we’ll never have another one like George Bush, but of course I would gladly trade that for having someone competent running our country and the world.
You support Barack Obama. But would you be unhappy with Hillary?
I’d be a lot happier with Hillary than what we have, and I’d be happier with Hillary than John McCain. But you have to put these things in order—my first choice going back was John Edwards. When he dropped out then Barack became my first choice. If he loses to Hillary then she’ll be my first choice. So we’re always playing want-settle-get. You know, you want Alec Baldwin, you settle for Billy Baldwin, then Stephen Baldwin.
Why do you think comedians seem to have so much more common sense than politicians?
Because what we do for a living is to make people laugh out loud, and to make people laugh out loud, you have to either surprise them or get at a truth. We have to find the places where something rings true.
Is there any one comedian who influenced you the most?
Yeah, I would say George Carlin, because he still is unflinchingly honest. I would say anyone who is not afraid to get booed once in a while is heroic to me, because we live in a very conformist, pandering society, and people just generally don’t have it in them to do that. And George Carlin—he does not care what anybody thinks. And I love that.
Why do you think your comment about 9-11 and cowardice caused such an uproar?
I think the fact that the 9-11 thing blew over so quickly indicated that it really wasn’t something that hit very deeply—it just hit at a time when people weren’t ready to accept the truth. It was explosive at the moment, but it seemed to go away so quickly that a year later, people couldn’t remember what I said.
Did all that uproar directly lead to the cancellation of “Politically Incorrect”?
Absolutely! No doubt about it. I mean, as one newspaper called it, from the next day—actually, not the next day, because it took a few days for the right wing to inform people that they were that upset—one newspaper called our show “Dead Show Walking.”
Would you ever do a broadcast net show again?
Yeah, but I wouldn’t do a political one. I might do more of a traditional interview one if there was a time in my life that I was interested in that and someone was interested in having me do it.
Do HBO producers ever try to rein you in at all, or do you have total freedom?
I would say it’s very free. There are sometimes discussions about just matters of taste. They never say, “Don’t do this because it’ll upset this group,” but the thing with having total freedom, especially with language and stuff, is that it’s up to you to be your own editor. We never have arguments, because I want to be my own best editor and the truth is that when you have a congresswoman sitting on the panel, you don’t really wanna use the word “mother(blank),” because it’ll make her feel uncomfortable.
Have you ever found yourself being controversial for controversy’s sake?
No, I never was. I call it the way I see it. And very often that is controversial because, as I said, people just don’t do that enough. They don’t have a taste for it. This is a country where if something is the least bit offensive to anybody, they demand apologies. Look at on the campaign trail—every week it’s “You said this, or you know somebody who said this!” You don’t have to say it yourself even.
You’ve been extremely critical of organized religion. Do you see anything positive about religion?
There’s no denying that religion does some good—absolutely. I just always ask the question, “Why do you need religion to do that good?” I mean, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are always doing good deeds around the world and it’s never because of Jesus.
You favor legalizing gambling, prostitution and all drugs. Why?
Well, I think the gambling part we’ve achieved—I don’t know if that could get any more legal. Prostitution? I heard an awful lot about it recently with the Eliot Spitzer case. And what can I say? I think the girl involved proved the opposite of what people were writing, which is that prostitution always exploits people. This girl wasn’t “exploited.” She just made a choice. She said, “Huh. I can work 40 hours a week selling Kentucky Fried Chicken, or I could work 10 minutes having sex with Colonel Sanders. I think I’ll choose Option B.” And that should be somebody’s right in a free society. Now, if somebody’s being exploited, obviously we stop that.
Do you have a preference between doing stand-up and hosting your shows such as “Real Time”?
I love stand-up. It’s more pure, it’s what I started doing, it’s something I’ve never stopped doing—there’s just something about getting in front of an audience and really having a single-minded focus to make them laugh so hard they say “Stop.”
What inspired you to star in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death”?
Money. It was 1988 and I was taking any job they offered me. And also I got to spend the summer in the Avocado Jungle of Death with the Piranha Women, with my shirt off. So it was a win-win.