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Bill Maher makes his living—as the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and as a standup comedian—commenting on the news. But recently, Maher made some news himself, when he ended his CrazyStupidPolitics online comedy concert in February with the surprise announcement that he was donating $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a so-called “super PAC,” whose purpose is the re-election of President Obama.
Though Maher has never been shy about voicing his political opinions, it was a rare case of side-taking for the otherwise equal-opportunity offender. During a recent interview, I questioned him about his donation and its possible repercussions, along with other topics, including Rush Limbaugh, the Republican primary season and Maher’s upcoming show at the Family Arena in St. Charles.
Maher phoned in from the Los Angeles headquarters of Real Time.
So, Bill…your wallet’s a little lighter now, eh? Tell me about putting a cool million in Obama’s super PAC.
It was just lying around the house [laughs]. You know, I’m still eating. I’m not driving a cab at night. I actually was a little insulted that people kept coming up to me and saying, “Wow, you had a million dollars?” I mean, I have been on TV for 20 years, and TV pays well. I don’t have any expensive hobbies like some people. Like, I don’t collect cars, I don’t have 75 cars. I don’t have a heroin habit. I don’t use hookers, I don’t use cocaine. I don’t collect art. And I do a lot of standup, I work a lot. So I just felt like, this was the right moment to make this statement because the Citizen’s United ruling changed everything in American politics.
In the last election cycle, the most you could give was $2300. And now it’s infinity, which seems like kind of a big jump to me. And as we know, most of the millionaires and billionaires are on the right wing, and Mitt Romney’s going to have an enormous war chest. I think people on the left, especially people in the entertainment community need to get the message that, if we’re going to be in the game, the game has changed. And that’s the point I was making. That there are a lot more people like me that could step up, and by the way, they have.
Have they? Because it seems like some of the people who would be termed “Hollywood liberals” are the ones who say they are disillusioned that Obama hasn’t done everything they wanted him to.
There is that. When the candidate becomes the officer in the government, obviously, they can’t do everything they aspired to. But, look: we only get two choices in this country. So it’s always the person that you don’t dislike the most [laughs]. And I think when push comes to shove, when you look at this president versus the clowns who have been running against him, I really don’t think it’s a big choice.
What do you get for a million bucks? Do you get a coffee mug? A tote bag?
You get nothing. You get absolutely nothing. First of all, it’s not to him, it’s to the super PAC. And…no, you just get [laughs] that good feeling in your heart from doing something that hopefully will make the country a better place. I’m worried about the state of our country, and a lot of people say to me, “Well, couldn’t you have made more of an impact by giving to this specific charity, or that one?” My answer is, “Not really.” The problems we face are so big that, really, most of them only the government can deal with effectively.
And look, I’ve been one of his biggest critics. But that’s my job. And when you look at some of the things that have happened in the last four years, like preventing a depression and forcing insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions; and stopping the banks from being the useless middlemen on student loans; the credit card bill of rights; stem cell research; getting out of Iraq. You know, it has been a fairly successful liberal administration. I’m hopeful in the second term, he would be ever more free to pursue the policy areas where we have been disappointed.
I don’t think anybody would be surprised to find out that you’re more for Obama than for the other side. But one of the things the super PAC money did was to put you on that side. When you’re perceived as a comedian that favors one side or the other, how do you make sure that humor stays at the forefront of what you do? I’d bet that the last thing you’d want would be mere “I agree with you” applause.
No, in fact, I stop it constantly on my show. I literally put my hand up and make a face at the audience when they start to turn the show into a rally. But the question you’re asking is something I did give a lot of thought to. Should I do this? Because, in my role as host of the show, I’m a moderator. But I came to the conclusion that, who’s kidding who? People know, at this point, who I’m for. That doesn’t mean I’m for everything he says.
Lately, you know who’s been up my ass more than anybody has been the liberals. There’s a conspiracy theory out there that I’m somehow tacking to the right because I defended Rush Limbaugh’s right to stay on the air even after he said things I don’t agree with—and hardly anybody agreed with. But I don’t like it when people are made to go away. I believe in the first amendment and free speech…having lived through that sort of thing myself. But that’s par for the course. Sometimes I am on the side of the conservatives. But as far as a country where you only get two choices…and having watched this cavalcade of nonsense for over a year with these Republican debates, where they all sound alike, except Ron Paul on some of the issues, I’m very comfortable doing this, and I don’t think it changed anybody’s view as to who I am.
You mentioned the Rush Limbaugh flap, which you somehow got pulled into. How come every time he does something that causes a firestorm, suddenly your name comes up as being Rush’s evil twin?
Because they need an equivalency. It’s a false equivalency, though. It’s a way to divert attention away from the real problem, which is what he said. And that’s okay. I’ve also become used to that. As long as I’m able to inform people that there really is no equivalency here. What they tried to get me on was somehow being a misogynist, and as I explained on my show, I’m a potty mouth, but that’s very different from being a misogynist. Rush Limbaugh, we’re talking about somebody who’s in a political party that is involved in, truly, a war on women. There’s an entire party dedicated at every level—local, state and federal—to rolling back reproductive rights. And I once called the governor of Alaska a rude name. There’s really no equivalency. And by the way, it got a big laugh. This is a joke I used to do in my act. I didn’t just walk out onstage and say, “Hey, Sarah Palin’s a ****.” This was a funny routine that used that word, and, please, I’m a comedian. I’m a standup comedian, and a comedian in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. That’s the side of the street I work. I’m not Jerry Seinfeld, I’m not Wayne Brady. If you want that kind of clean humor, there’s a place to go for it. That’s not what I do, that’s not what I’ve ever done. And my audience understands that. And by the way, I go by my audience. If they found something that was untoward or mean-spirited in what I was doing, they would have booed. They’ve done it to me plenty of times. But they didn’t. And standup comedy, I’m sorry, but that has to be the last bastion of free speech. It’s nothing like what Rush Limbaugh was doing.
You recently wrote a New York Times op-ed that said everybody should stop apologizing. Give me the thumbnail argument of the piece.
That really hit a chord, I think. The timing on that was really good because, as a nation, we have come to that point where, it’s all become a big gotcha game. Somebody says something that, in another person’s wildest dreams could be considered offensive, and we all have to go to DEFCON 1. What I said was, “Look, let’s just pull back from this. Let’s stop with the apologies, let’s stop pretending that your life can’t go on unless somebody makes an apology about something they said that upset you for five seconds. And I was suggesting that, if this happens again, just go on with your life. Turn the page, flip the dial, take your roll of quarters and leave the booth. There’s a simple way to avoid these kind of confrontations, as I do with Rush Limbaugh, who I find obnoxious. I just don’t listen to him. The only time I hear him is when I’m at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.
You also mentioned the Republican race. Has this been a best-case scenario for you in terms of mining the primaries for comedy?
It’s been fantastic. I feel like I should have written them a check for a million dollars. And I’m sorry to see it end. It went on for so long, and we thought that maybe we would luck out and go all the way to the convention. Now it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, which is a tremendous disappointment. Because it was like watching bugs fight in a jar. I mean, if one bug was a Mormon stiff and another bug was a fat liar who only gets exercise from adultery. But yeah, it was probably the most entertaining political season I can remember, and I’ve been covering this on television for 20 years now.
Because of the show, you have to follow current events and not everything is ripe for comedy. How do you handle something like the Trayvon Martin case? Does it become something you can comment on once Geraldo Rivera blames the hoodie?
Yeah. I got an awful lot of response from my joke, “What was he supposed to wear, Capri pants?” It’s not funny, but there are ways to get at some of the issues around it that will yield humor. Our editorial for the coming show is about the “stand your ground” law. You can talk about that law and the way the NRA has been so dominant in politics that they basically are writing laws that make no sense, because their entire agenda has been realized, so they have to make up an agenda. And that’s how you got the stand your ground law. And there’s humor in that. Obviously, the central issue of a dead teenager, no. No one is laughing at that.
I have to ask you about the gig. You’re aware that you’re playing the Family Arena (Maher laughs), right? Which is in St. Charles, a pretty staunch Republican stronghold in an already red state. Why are you such a glutton for punishment?
Because it’s no punishment. It’s pure pleasure. I mean, Dan, I just got back from Huntsville, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, and, as usual, had a great time. What I think people do not realize is that, in the reddest places of America, there are a lot of progressive liberal people. They just don’t come out of their hiding places very often. They’re in their homes and they’re thinking, “I’m surrounded by a bunch of rednecks.” And then when I come to town, they all gather in one building and we have a great time. It’s more fun than playing in San Francisco, for that reason.
Bill Maher appears at The Family Arena (2002 Arena Parkway in St. Charles), on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $38-$61. For more information, call 314-534-1111, or visit familyarena.com.