LOS ANGELES — Bill Maher is smirking. This is no pedestrian, canary-swallowing smirk. The host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” has mastered the art the way that professional wrestlers perfect their trademark finishing moves. You see the smirk and the jig is up, the Jell-O is jiggling, the joke’s on you. If there’s a Cooperstown for comics, Maher will be bronzed with that self-satisfied smile and a spliff between his lips.
“A colleague who attended journalism school told me that even if you like the guy you’re profiling, you have to say three bad things about him. That’s the rule,” Maher says before this interview even begins, reflexively turning up his lips and eyebrows.
The Cornell graduate is Southern California casual in a PETA T-shirt depicting a caged ape, blue and red Adidas sneakers and black jeans. “If that’s truly what you think, that’s fine,” he continues. “But just to make that up seems a little crazy.”
Like that, Maher puts numbers on the board before the clock starts ticking. For the purposes of convention, let’s just get those bad things out of the way. Yes, Bill Maher is smug. He often lacks empathy, particularly when confronted by the craven and dim. Perhaps only Keith Olbermann rivals him as the subject of comments that go something like, “I agree with him, but . . . ”
But calling Bill Maher smug is like complaining that Larry David is too neurotic. Maher uses arrogance as a form of renewable energy, occasionally windmilling it toward his audience or politically hostile guests. It’s part of the schtick, a reflection of intellectual bona fides, ruthless confidence and intense preparation. At times, it can resemble Andy Kaufman in the wrestling ring, taunting Memphis hayseeds that “he’s from Hollywood, where people use their brains.”
Maher’s latest heel turn finds the 58-year-old bringing his act to Washington. On Friday, Maher hosts a special edition of “Real Time,” live from Sidney Harman Hall. The episode will reveal the “winner” of “Flip a District,” a recurring segment on Maher’s no-holds-barred political talk show in which he puts the spotlight on his choices of the most inept, corrupt and flat-out stupid members of Congress. Viewers voted online to choose one representative from the group of Mike Coffman of Colorado, Renee L. Ellmers of North Carolina, John Kline of Minnesota and Blake Farenthold of Texas — all Republicans, of course — who should be voted out of office. Immediately after the show’s 9 p.m. telecast, Maher will hustle over to the Warner Theatre to film an hour-long HBO stand-up comedy special (his first since 2010) in front of a different live audience.
“ ‘Flip a District’ is a bit, but it’s a sincere bit and I think we can actually flip a district. We’re in this to win it. What we’ve been doing since January is just the regular season. When we get to Washington, it’s playoff time,” Maher says at his offices at CBS Television City in L.A.’s Fairfax district, a few hundred yards from Studio 33, the soundstage the show shares with “The Price Is Right.”
“I’m nibbling around the edges of activism,” adds the New Jersey-raised son of a news editor and radio announcer. (Some might say he took a big bite when he donated $1 million to President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.) “After 20 years on television, I think I’ve earned the right to step over that line. And it is a line I’m crossing to a degree.”
The comedy, cable and political spheres have witnessed epochal transformations since Maher first waded into these waters when his show “Politically Incorrect” debuted on Comedy Central in 1993. Jay Leno and David Letterman had just ended their war for Johnny Carson’s throne; Bill Clinton won the Gen X vote by playing the sax on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” And Chevy Chase elicited proto-Internet snark for his brief late-night pratfall on Fox.
No one paid much attention to Comedy Central’s decision to give a show to Maher, a veteran stand-up comic whose film and television credits included “D.C. Cab,” a few episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” and a starring role in “Cannibal Women and the Avocado Jungle of Death.” (And these were the highlights.)
“I didn’t want to be a sitcom or film actor. That’s not what I do or who I am,” Maher reflects. “ ‘Politically Incorrect’ was the only show I ever really pitched. It was more finding a network desperate enough and that had nothing — that was Comedy Central.” The concept was pretty basic, and hasn’t changed much in 20 years: a monologue from Maher and then a panel discussion tackling the hot topics of the day.
If you go back and watch the early episodes, Maher’s core beliefs and acerbic style have changed little. His hair is grayer and thinner now than at the onset of the Clinton administration, but he retains the same Ivy League glee at skewering buffoons. His chrome-blue eyes still betray a class clown’s mischievousness.
Most immutable may be his willingness to spout unalloyed opinions, regardless of what interest groups, religions or advertisers they offend. Most famously, ABC lost several sponsors following comments that Maher made after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, implying that the hijackers weren’t cowardly. (“We have been the cowards, 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,” was the full statement.) The incident hastened the end of “Politically Incorrect,” which ABC snagged from Comedy Central and ran from 1997-2002.
“I was always about to get fired for something I said on ABC,” Maher says in his sparsely decorated office, adorned by a few framed photos, a TV and an unplugged “Real Time” sign. “I’m surprised it took six years.”
The “Real Time” era will inevitably be the one for which Maher is most remembered.
Launching in 2003, the same year of the Iraq invasion, the comic found an ideal foil in the Bush presidency and the jingoism of the age of Freedom Fries. His guest bookings trended less toward Hollywood actors and more toward political wonks, authors and public intellectuals. The aegis of HBO afforded maximum liberty to confront popular orthodoxy. Friday’s guests include Jerry Seinfeld, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D), former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R), former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (R) and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
“[Maher] can step outside the noise and clutter of what’s going on in the moment, challenge the conventional wisdom, and speak truth to power,” says his longtime friend and frequent guest Arianna Huffington. “His passionate nature and ability to be wildly entertaining make him a first-class satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. He’s fearless, witty, and hates hypocrisy and injustice.”
Another regular guest, the astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, lauded Maher’s ideology-free approach, which allows for freer panel discussions.
“Unlike so many other talk shows, especially those with pundits that lean conservative, [Maher] actually wants to hear what his guests have to say. Nobody is left wanting more time to speak,” deGrasse Tyson says. “I’m convinced that this derives from a genuine curiosity of views that differ from his. In fact, his film ‘Religulous’ was a personal fact-finding mission to understand the minds of religious people.”
The religiously devout are often Maher’s favorite targets. During a time when only 43 percent of Republicans believe in evolution (according to a recent CBS News survey), Maher exists as a heathen hybrid of Steve Allen and H.L. Mencken, smoking pot and sipping pomegranate juice at the Playboy Mansion.
The success of 2008’s “Religulous” reconfirmed the appeal of Maher’s brand of witty skepticism: grossing over $13 million to rank as the 15th-highest-grossing documentary of all time. He mentions anecdotally that he’s converted few people politically but remains constantly deluged with appreciation from people who he helped (no longer) see the light.
“I could speak to someone about religion for five minutes and” — he snaps his fingers — “get them,” Maher says. “I’m not trying to go out there and convert people, but it’s just so glaringly stupid — such an obvious intellectual embarrassment and an obvious myth from the pre-science era.”
That antipathy has predictably earned substantial criticism from the faithful. It’s compounded by a penchant for controversial jokes, including one recent tweet that compared the terrorist organization Hamas to a crazy woman whom you eventually have to slap.
“Over the last four years, he’s become much more anti-religious and, specifically, anti-Muslim,” says Rabia Chaudry, a Maryland-based fellow at the New America Foundation, who recently wrote an open letter to Maher in Time magazine. “He’s basically assumed the same perspective that you’d expect from someone in the tea party.”
But Maher steadfastly maintains that all religions aren’t created equal.
“Muslim people get it the hardest — as they should. Almost every day, there’s an atrocity committed by Muslims, where if it was any other group, it would be a much bigger story in the paper,” Maher says. “Israel isn’t perfect, but they’re held to a different standard than everyone else. If Hamas had the means, they’d kill every Israeli — nor are they shy about saying it. The moral center of the conversation should be: What would you do if you had the means?”
The willingness to breach lockstep left-wing politics gives Maher a bizarre form of political street cred: Alienating both sides lets him be a self-described “honest broker.” And on issues such as gay marriage, religion, marijuana legalization and the environment, his once minority views have become mainstream opinion, or at least close to it. It’s no stretch to say that he laid the groundwork for “The Daily Show” and “Vice,” the lauded HBO news show for which he is executive producer.
“I certainly don’t think I’m changing America, but you do what you can,” Maher says. “I try to inject thoughts into the dialogue that people aren’t into yet and eventually become mainstream. I’m never the mainstream guy; I’m more the pioneer who gets the arrows.”
In conversation, Maher comes off the ideal dinner party guest — if you ignore dinner party rules that instruct you not to talk about religion or politics. He’s as passionate about the environment and redressing economic imbalances as the New York Mets (his beloved baseball team, in which he purchased a minority stake two years ago).
Maher has no illusions that HBO will keep “Real Time” on forever but notes that comedy is one of the few fields where they don’t push the elderly out on an ice floe. As for his legacy, he hopes that people remember his fearlessness and candor.
“I’ve never pulled a punch. I might have been wrong on some things, but I never didn’t say something because I feared the response of anyone, including my own audience,” Maher says. “That quality isn’t always recognized or appreciated, but sometimes things aren’t in your lifetime.”
When asked what things he has been wrong about in hindsight, Maher stops to ponder.
“I can’t think of any at the moment,” he says, laughing. Smirking. “But I know I’ve had that feeling in my head before.”
Weiss is a freelance writer