October 2011

Q+LA Bill Maher

HBO’s curmudgeon in residence inspires many adjectives—clever, cranky, commonsensical, confrontational—and that’s fine by him by ROBIN SAYERS


In the run-up to any interview, profilists imagine both best- and worst-case scenarios. The latter: Subject doesn’t talk or recorder breaks. The former: Revelation after stunning revelation.

The intro to my fantasy, shocker-filled article with Bill Maher goes something like this: “I’d never met anyone more passionately committed to the further criminalization of pot,” he gushes of his fiancée as we idle at a light in his Humvee. “I knew instantly she was The One.”

Intensive therapy sessions with Dr. Marcus Bachmann, PhD, helped him conquer his acute gamophobia, traditional vows will be exchanged at Mel Gibson’s church in Malibu, and he and his bride will honeymoon in Alaska, a concession to Maher’s love of both icy climes and aerial wolf hunting.

Hey, a writer can dream, right? The host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher is, as always, a confirmed bachelor, resolute nonbeliever (or apatheist, to use his preferred term for an “apathetic atheist”) and proud PETA member who drives a hybrid, supports the legalization of marijuana and loathes cold weather. If any of my fiction became Maher’s reality, friends would rush him to Cedars, because some catastrophic medical condition would surely be cutting off his blood supply. That’s not to say the guy who wrote The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass—the recent follow-up to his 2005 bestseller, New Rules—doesn’t surprise in his own way...

What’s your earliest memory of making someone laugh?
The Smothers Brothers had a sitcom in the mid ’60s. Tommy played an angel, and his shtick was that he stuttered. I distinctly remember cracking everybody up at our Christmas party when I was six or seven doing my Tommy Smothers.

And were you hooked kinda from then?
You know, without consciously knowing it, I think I was.

So, who was the first comedian to make you laugh?
Probably the Three Stooges. That’s what you love when you’re a kid.

The physical comedy?
Yeah—at least the boys. I was never a cartoon fan. The only one I ever got into was Family Guy. I think I was a comedy snob even at the age of five.

Did you go to the movies a lot?
Not a lot. The first movie I was taken to was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

That could actually be the subtitle to your career.

What would 18-year-old Bill Maher think of Bill Maher 2011?
I think he would be impressed! It isn’t that far afield of where I wanted to go. Eighteen-year-old Bill was enamored of Johnny Carson. As I got older, that morphed into a different kind of talk show—one that is more fulfilling, more challenging.

I also ask about you as an 18-year-old because that’s the year you were briefly religious, after your first girlfriend broke up with you.
I was 17, actually, and I was seeking something to assuage the horrible blow of being dumped in high school. I certainly didn’t turn back to Christianity or the Catholicism of my youth, but I was on a daily basis saying, “God, whoever you are, please stop the pain!” Some philosopher said, “You have to have the memory of outlived sorrow.” After you’ve done it once, you know it can always get better. But the first time... I remember waking up for months and months, thinking, Is this the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life? I think a lot of your first love is you’re in love with love. I mean, love is always a fog—but that fog is thick.

Can people change?
That’s a real chestnut, isn’t it? Who hasn’t gotten stoned or had a bull session in the dorm room and gotten into that one? That is one of the eternal questions, and I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer. I mean, the usual answer is, not fundamentally—character doesn’t change. I think events can be so cataclysmic people take a different direction. So, people can, yes, but most people don’t.

I ask because your work seems to be about challenging people to consider changing their positions on big topics.
My experience with that is, politically, we are mostly preaching to the converted. A lot of conservatives, for whatever reason—possibly because I have conservatives on the panel or because the show is funny and they like to laugh—don’t agree with me, but they do watch the show. I can’t remember a time when a conservative said to me, “Boy, I watched your show, and I changed my mind.” But I’ll tell you where [people] do change is with religion. Since Religulous came out, I’ve heard thousands of times, in every forum, “I’ve changed. You’ve convinced me. I was kind of thinking that, and [the documentary] put it all together.” Or even, “I wasn’t thinking that, then somebody made me watch it, and I’m an atheist now.” That’s the one area where people are ripe to change, because part of them knows it’s the 21st century, and these religions are peddling old myths and fairy tales.

Your mother was Jewish, but you and your sister were brought up in your father’s religion, Catholicism.
Well, Irish-Americans were especially Catholic. It never entered his mind that he wouldn’t raise the kids Catholic. My mother was raised Jewish but not very—culturally Jewish, but her family didn’t go to temple. They were, you know, New York Jews.

You’ve said most religious people are nice and trying to do the right thing. “Most” would technically be 51 percent.
Well, plenty. Certainly I don’t tar religious people as evil—they’re just caught up in something that’s evil. The question the movie asks in the beginning is, “How can otherwise intelligent people believe in a talking snake?” How can smart people still believe in stuff they must know is nonsense? Given that, certainly a Christian, if you really followed the example of Jesus, would be a good person. Of course, you know hardly any Christians do.

Do you have an internal struggle in that the comedian in you is hoping for a President Palin, Perry or Bachmann, while the American in you is pulling for someone perhaps more closely aligned with your politics?
Yeah, sure, they’d be very easy pickings. It’d be better for business, that’s true. But I hope I’m a good enough citizen that I outweigh it by the desire to see this country—which is in such bad shape, with so many people suffering so needlessly—righted. Yet I don’t even have hope that the people I vote for do that...because they don’t.

Tell me if I’m wrong with this guess: At your stand-up shows, I bet you get the biggest laughs in the reddest states.
That’s exactly right. They’re appreciative because somebody like me doesn’t come to their states that often, and they’re grateful I didn’t write them off, that I didn’t say, “Oh, you know what? All of Oklahoma is a bunch of f--king hicks.” Because I know better from doing this. There are hip people everywhere. You just gotta be the guy who makes them come out of the woodwork. And so, yeah, sometimes when you walk onstage in Tulsa, you get a five-minute standing ovation just for showing up, which you wouldn’t get in San Francisco.

You were raised in the most picked upon state in the country—New Jersey. At one point, did you realize your state was sort of a punchline?
Later I did, but it didn’t bother me because what can you do about where you’re born? I always thought that pride in things you have no control over is silly. I’m not proud that I’m Irish. I’m not proud that I’m from New Jersey. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. But I didn’t “achieve” being born Irish-American. That just happened.

And now you live in Los Angeles. It seems kind of in vogue to pick on L.A. in the same way people pick on Jersey.
True, but the city I’ve always had a problem with is New York. I’ve paid a price for that, because the press is mostly in New York, and they’re very thin-skinned. Anything you say other than the conventional wisdom—that New York is the greatest city in the world—is treason. I don’t like living in an urban setting. I don’t like living in a building. I don’t like the weather. I know a million people who started in New York and moved to L.A. I don’t know anybody who did it in reverse. It’s nice out here. This life is just easier. It’s very seductive. It rained a lot the first three weeks I was here, but it didn’t take long before the sun came out, and I realized I was wearing a very light jacket in January. That said a lot.

Tell me about your first time ever in L.A.
It was the classic cross-country trip: with my college roommate in an $800 car in, oh Lord, 1977. We were so bereft of funds we couldn’t afford hotels. It was summer, and we used to go to colleges and sleep on couches in the communal rooms of dorms.

Did that sour you on this city, or did you like it even then?
It was exciting. I was in California! We went to see The Tonight Show. There I was. Johnny wasn’t there, but it was still extremely exciting to be in the cathedral, the temple of all things holy. At some point, we ran out of money and energy for roughing it. We took six weeks to get out to California and two days to get back. We drove [east] like truckers. We just wanted to get back to a f--king sandwich and Mom doing our laundry. I remember one day we were driving, and it was the day Elvis died—August 16, 1977.

When Elvis died, was that toilet thing reported—you know, that he died on the toilet?
Sure, all the greats do—Elvis, Lenny Bruce. If you don’t die on the toilet, you’re nobody.

GROOMER: Lisa Zimmitti