By all appearances, Bill Maher has never had too much trouble drawing attention to himself.
As an aspiring comic in the late '70s, he began hanging around New York City's Catch a Rising Star comedy club, where he would eventually land a job as emcee. More than 30 years later, he still packs good-sized venues with at least 50 stand-up comedy dates a year, and will be coming to the Pikes Peak Center on July 28.
Maher has also had a film career that ranges from 1989's Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (opposite former Playmate of the Year Shannon Tweed, no less) to his own 2008 documentary Religulous, in which he takes on religion with a tenacity that's earned comparisons to Michael Moore's political filmmaking.
Of course, Maher is still primarily known as a political talk-show host, having begun with the 1993 debut of Comedy Central's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Following a four-year cable television run, the show was picked up by ABC, which aired it until a post-9/11 comment — in which Maher condemned the acts of suicide terrorists but disputed the characterization of them as "cowards" — quickly led to its cancellation.
But Maher bounced back, returning to the less-restrictive realm of cable via HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, where his recurring guests have included evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, civil rights activist Cornel West, and altweekly sex columnist Dan Savage.
Through it all, Maher has developed a persona that's typically revered or reviled — polarized reactions that are often, but not always, determined by the degree of alignment with his political views.
That he's widely regarded as a left-leaning Democrat may say less about Maher himself than it does about the culture that surrounds and sustains him. Many of his views, if not his way of expressing them, might in the past have been considered centrist. But times change, and most of today's pundits and politicians know that giving everything an us-against-them veneer translates into higher ratings.
For his own part, Maher still clearly identifies as a stand-up comic. Go to the "About" page on billmaher.com, and you'll find three politically neutral Maher quotes in perpetual rotation:
"I'm the last of my guy friends to have never gotten married, and their wives — they don't want them playing with me. I'm like the escaped slave, I bring news of freedom."
"I can't take people who say things like 'we built this country.' You built nothing. The railroads were pretty much up by 1980 [sic]."
"That's what's so great about the Internet: it enables pompous blowhards to connect with other pompous blowhards in a vast circle-jerk of pomposity."
In interviews — or at least in this one — Maher's contentious attitude rarely lets up, whether he's addressing characterizations of himself as the left's equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, or the degree of difference between atheism and agnosticism, or even the quality of other comedians.
The result is not always pretty, to be sure, but then what is?
Indy: So you're coming to Colorado Springs, which, as I'm sure you know, is the home of New Life Church and Focus on the Family. Do you feel like you're kind of stepping into the belly of the beast here?
Bill Maher: I hope so. I love going to conservative areas. I do it all the time, because I always find that, even if they're known to be a conservative area, there's always a lot of very progressive people who live amongst them.
Indy: Oh, there's 12 or 13 of us.
BM: Oh no, you'll find out there's a lot more. Because, I promise you, they will come out of the woodwork when I come to town. And that's what I love, is the fact that, you know, you discover people in the community, like, "Wow, look at all of us, I didn't realize there were so many of us, and then here we all are, under one roof."
Indy: And we all have $55!
BM: That's right. [Laughs.] And they do tend to be rather well off. Because they're smart. They know how to make money.
Indy: I was thinking it would be good to get Ted Haggard to open for you. Would you be up for that?
BM: I love Ted Haggard. We tried very hard to get him on the show. Is he still in the area?
Indy: He's still in the area.
BM: Yeah. Oh yeah. No, I love Ted. That little moment he has in Religulous, when he says hi from the pulpit to somebody in the audience? "Good moooorning, Wayne!" Yes, I mean, Ted, he's a sweet man. He's a victim. That's really how I see it. He's another victim of religion.
Indy: On the subject of religion, you've made comments that seem to fall more in line with agnosticism than atheism. But you did receive the Richard Dawkins Award, and you're kind of on your way to becoming America's most famous atheist.
BM: Oh, I hope so. There was a poll that came out a couple of weeks ago that said a third of the young people under 30 in this country now are either atheist, agnostic or leaning that way. And I of course raised my hand and took all the credit for that. I mean, not really, but ...
Indy: I know the atheist thing is kind of your cross to bear now. But when it comes to atheism or agnosticism, which one do you identify with more?
BM: You know it's so hard to — we're talking such nuanced differences ...
Indy: Not really...
BM: Really? Well, Richard Dawkins, for example, in his book, says he can't tell the difference. So therefore, he made a scale. He said there's a scale of 1 to 7, where 7 is utter certainty that there is no god, and 1 is utter certainty that there is.
Like, Carl Jung was a 1; he was utterly certain that there is a god. And Richard Dawkins said — and who's more of a famous atheist than he? — he said, "Even I'm a 6.9." Because, you know, we don't finally know. I mean, if we were to claim utter certainty, than we would be just as bad as they are...
Indy: So it's really 1 and 7 that are virtually the same.
BM: So yeah, you know, Richard Dawkins famously said: Yes, there could be a god, and there could be a spaghetti monster between here and Alpha Centauri. Ultimately we just don't know.
And I would like to be gathering more people over to this side, anything that's not, "I believe in an old man in the sky, who had a son, and there was a talking snake in a garden 5,000 years ago." Anything that's not that is a bit of a victory.
So I don't want to alienate by being doctrinaire. I think it's a lot better just to say, I don't know, but let's not be silly about it, because we're never gonna find out, and it really doesn't matter. Just be a good person for the sake of it. And get them in the tent that way.
Indy: I actually interviewed Peter Gabriel right after his dad had died. You know, the musician...
BM: Of course, yeah, Genesis.
Indy: Right. And he told me his dad had been an atheist for decades. But right toward the end of his life, he got back into the Church of England and, as Gabriel put it, he was "hedging his bets." Is there even an outside chance that could happen to you?
BM: I do not think so. You know, well, first of all I would hate to pussy out like that. I mean, um, my friend Christopher Hitchens died recently, and he went out strong. He didn't go out recanting.
There's a famous story about WC Fields, one of my favorite comedians of all time. He was a lifelong atheist, and the story goes — it might be apocryphal — but the story goes that, on his deathbed, he was looking at a Bible, and his friend came in and said, "Oh my god, Bill, what are you doing?" And Fields said, "Looking for loopholes." [Laughs.] Yeah, that's probably something somebody made up.
Indy: So, if you could have dinner with [comedians] Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks, who would you pick and why?
BM: Well I've had dinner with Mort Sahl. Or at least I've talked to him.
Indy: OK, so he's ruled out.
BM: Yeah, uh, [lowering his voice] I don't think he likes me.
Indy: Why not?
BM: I can't remember. I think he was on Politically Incorrect years ago and, I don't know, I can't remember. But I remember him not liking me.
Indy: If it's any consolation, my mom didn't like him, either.
BM: No, it's not mutual. I like him fine, and I think he had a great moment. I think, you know, he obviously didn't take it very far because he got lost in the weeds, but maybe he would disagree.
I would like Lenny Bruce, you know, he's a fascinating guy. I never knew Bill Hicks. He was a good comedian, but I don't know his work as well as I know the Lenny Bruce stuff. I don't find [Bruce] laugh-out-loud funny, mostly. But maybe, you know, people who were there say he was laugh-out-loud funny. To me, it doesn't survive in that form.
But he still was an amazing pioneer who I personally owe a great debt to, because Lenny Bruce, after all, was arrested nine times for doing what I routinely do every night when I'm out there doing stand-up comedy across America. So he was a pioneer who took a lot of the arrows.
Indy: You've obviously been no stranger to controversy throughout your career. Do you mind if I ask about a few of them?
BM: No, of course not.
Indy: Good. The obvious one was after Rush Limbaugh was criticized for his bizarrely lecherous condemnations of Sandra Fluke. And then I'm sure you saw the conservative response ad, with the nightclub routine in which you make some pretty mean characterizations of Sarah Palin and her daughter.
BM: Well, not her daughter. Just Sarah Palin. Yeah, I mean, you know, this is not new for the right wing or FOX News. Every time one of theirs gets in trouble, they trot me out as an example of an equivalency. But of course it's a ridiculous false equivalency. Nobody, I think — nobody who's intelligent — would really believe it.
Of course, the people who hate me to begin with are gonna leap to anything that characterizes me unfairly and unjustly. But you know, first of all, Rush Limbaugh is not a comedian, OK? I'm a stand-up comedian. What they were quoting from me is somehow an equivalent to the disgusting things he said about Sandra Fluke? That was in my stand-up act. Yeah, I called Sarah Palin a cunt in the context of a routine, OK? I'm sorry, but...
Indy: But didn't you include her daughter too, something sexual...
BM: I mean, we've made jokes on our show. There was a joke we had in a New Rule [segment], I think. Something like, she had sex until a baby fell out or something.
Indy: Yeah, that's one of them.
BM: SO WHAT?! I mean, this is not intimidating me at all. And again, to get back to the point I was making, I'm a stand-up comedian — in the tradition, by the way, of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin...
Indy: And Bill Hicks.
BM: OK, and Bill Hicks. But I was around, I think, before Bill Hicks. I don't think I'm in his tradition. And frankly, I think he's a good comedian — I don't think he's in the same league with George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, but he's a good comedian.
I think when you die [laughs], your image is enhanced. No matter how good you were in life, if you die young, you know, they put you on a pedestal. Which is not to take anything away from him. But my point is that, this is the kind of comedy I do. I don't do dogs-and-cats kind of comedy. My comedy is edgy.
And it's not like I walked onstage and went, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, Sarah Palin is a cunt." Although if I want to, I will. It was a very carefully crafted routine, and when that word came in, it made sense in the context I had built up. And by the way, it got screams of laughter all around the country from my audience.
Now, my audience is the first to tell me if they think something is out of line. They obviously didn't. So there is no equivalency to what Rush Limbaugh was doing, which was castigating a civilian as being a slut because she used birth control.
Indy: It's true that the Palins are obviously publicity hounds, and Sandra Fluke is not.
BM: Right, and by the way, Sarah Palin has called people names that are worse than cunt, in my view.
Indy: Really, like what?
BM: Well, she called the president a terrorist. She basically called David Letterman a child molester for making a joke about her daughter, which was not really about her daughter, it was a joke about [baseball player] Alex Rodriguez. So it's not like she's somebody who is an innocent civilian on the sidelines. We're talking about Sarah Barracuda here, after all. We're talking about a mean, vindictive, vengeful, political gutterfighter.
Indy: On to another controversy, then. In your film Religulous, you featured politician Geert Wilders, who among other things is known for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf. I don't know a nicer way to phrase this, but wouldn't your hatred for racist xenophobes trump your hatred of religion?
BM: Uh, well, I don't know why we have to frame it as a contest between the two.
Indy: I'm asking because of your decision to include him in the film.
BM: OK, but you know, you're trying to distill two very complex, nuanced issues into one simple contest. That's ridiculous. I am certainly not prejudiced against race, religion, whatever. I do think religion is stupid and dangerous, so, yes, I have disdain for religion. But I don't have disdain for people who are religious. Nor are my eyes, you know, looking through rose-colored glasses about people who are influenced by religion to do horrible things. As many people are. And this is the point Geert Wilders is making.
Now, I mean, that was six years ago that we interviewed him. I know a lot has happened in the Netherlands since then. I'm not sure of everything he's said. I don't stand by everything he's said, I'm sure. But he's somebody who is saying: Don't look at religions, and especially the Islamic religion, through rose-colored glasses. And I would totally agree with that.
We interviewed a lot of Muslim people for this movie and, you know, the liberal point of view here in America is, "Yes, all religions are the same. They all try to reach god through the same ..." — Not true! All religions are not the same.
If you ask a lot of Muslim people, and I'm talking about people who are considered moderate Muslims, "Do you think it's OK if violence comes to somebody who insults the prophet?" a lot of them will say: You know what? If you insult the prophet, you get what's coming to you.
OK, that's not how we roll here in the West. And I don't just roll over when I hear that and go, "Well, you know what? That's their religion." Well, maybe that is their religion, but I don't have to agree with it.
If you don't understand that you're allowed to say anything — that's how we do, that's free speech — without expecting violent reprisals, then you don't understand what it's like to be a Western man.
Indy: In that regard, your comment about suicide bombers not being cowards — which I think if you look up "coward" in the dictionary is, by definition, true — basically resulted in your show being canceled.
Indy: How did you feel about what happened at the time? And do you feel differently when you look back on it?
BM: Well, the comment was true then. As Arianna Huffington said at the time, if it was true on Sept. 10, then it should be true on Sept. 12.
Indy: I'm more interested in how you feel about the reaction to it.
BM: Well, you know, I mean, it came out great for me, because six months later I was at HBO doing a show that I enjoy a lot more. And I've been doing that show for 10 years. So it was a blessing in disguise, is the upshot of it.
Indy: It seems like among liberally inclined commentators, you're pretty much up there with Jon Stewart and Michael Moore by now. Do you feel...
BM: What do you mean, "by now"? I was there way before.
Indy: OK, how about, they're up there with you by now?
BM: Well, I'm just saying I was doing this well before. I mean, I think Michael Moore put out his first movie [1989's Roger & Me] before Politically Incorrect, but Jon Stewart certainly wasn't doing what I was doing before I was ... I'm going to have to get off the phone in one minute, I'm sorry, I've got another interview, but go ahead with your question.
Indy: Let's move on, then, to a question about your feelings on media in general. I heard an interview on NPR about Social Security and Medicare where the reporter was asking her subject, "What can be done about all these out-of-control entitlements?" And, of course, "entitlements" is a word that's said with the kind of disdain used for words like "handouts."
BM: Right, exactly.
Indy: How conscious do you think the media is when it embraces those kinds of terms as well as the underlying assumptions behind them? Do you think any media is useful at this point?
BM: Well, you make a great point, in that the media is so often a part of the problem because, first of all, they swallow the nonsense about false equivalency. No matter what is put out there in a press release, they'll kind of just put it in their prompter directly and not question it.
And now — we were just saying this on our show Friday night — I was saying that the Democrats did a horrible job selling health care. So it really does have to start with them.
But my god, you know, this should not have been something that was a hard sell to the American people. They were just trying to tell them, we want you to be well. [Laughs.] Is that really such a hard thing to sell to people? "What do you mean you want me to be well, isn't that gonna infringe on my FREEE-DOM?"
Indy: Freedom to be dead.
BM: Freedom to be dead, exactly. Get your government hands off my jobless, cancer-ridden body. You know, it's amazing that you can get people who are literally sick, who need health care, to stand there and say the last thing they want is Obamacare, because you know what? You subsidize one kid's inhaler, and then every kid is gonna think breathing is an entitlement.
Indy: That's good. Have you said all that before?
BM: No, but I'll use it again.