Bill Maher tells you what he thinks. Although the comedian's got some pretty progressive views on a lot of issues — weed and gay marriage, to name two biggies — he also makes many on the left squirm when he speaks of his disdain for Islam. While he agreed with essentially everybody that Clippers owner Donald Sterling's views on race were appalling, Maher was troubled by the way those views were made public, and his Sterling-inspired riff on the live HBO show he hosts — Real Time — became part of a public debate he's undertaken with Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker (more on that shortly).
In addition to Real Time, Maher hosted the now-defunct Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and ABC, authored four bestsellers and helmed the documentary Religulous. He also still tours, and he'll bring his act to the Murat at Old National Centre on May 31. We spoke with Maher by phone from his office in LA.
NUVO: I have to ask: How do you feel about the million bucks that you gave to Obama at this juncture?
Bill Maher: When I look at what the alternate universe would be with a Mitt Romney presidency, it looks pretty good. ... I mean, it's easy to get down on Obama, and I certainly do not hold my powder that I think he should be doing more, but when you think about what he's working against, and what the world would be if we were going the other route, it's very scary. ... I keep hearing about the big ["Tea Party" versus mainstream GOP] Civil War in the Republican Party but when you look at the polls, mainstream Republicans are kind of crazy, too. I mean, the poll I looked at recently said that 44% of Republicans think that Benghazi is the worst scandal in American history. The second worst, of course, was when Kanye grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift. The same number, 44% — and again, this is not Tea Party; this is Republicans — 44% think that Obama will find a way to stay in office after 2017. That is flat-out nuts if you think that but, yes, the Tea Party is of course worse. There's also an interesting poll about climate change that's out there that's fascinating. [It] shows that 65% of Democrats are very worried; they think it's real, man-made. Only 25% of Republican think it's real and man-made and only 10% of Tea Party people think global warming is real and man-made.
NUVO: I find it fascinating that you still feel the need to go out on the road and work in front of a live room. You probably don't need the money at this point, but there's a handful of guys who still do it.
Maher: It's very important to me to get out in the country and see America because here I am every Friday night talking about America and I feel like if you just sit in Los Angeles — which is not representative of America — and just spout on about America this and America that, I would feel like a bit of a phony. ... I feel like the fact that I do get out in the country does put me in touch with people that I would never otherwise talk to. You talk to them in the cab. You talk to the kid that picks you up for the show, or the hotel lobby, the hotel bar. And when I'm on the ground, wherever I am, I'm always asking: what's the story, what are people talking about? And then I put it into the show a little bit. I always add a little local flavor. I feel like it keeps me in touch with America more. When I hear these Tea Party types who always say, "I want my country back!" I want to say, "You know what? I travel the country, and let me tell you something: It hasn't gone anywhere. You don't have to worry about getting it back because it is still the same Kentucky Fried place it always was."
NUVO: I've seen Real Time get off the rails on occasion. That's got to be tough when you're doing a live TV show.
Maher: Well, you know, you can always use the excuse that it's live. ... There is no net and shit happens. And yeah, there are nights when the panel doesn't meld as they should and you just cant help that. You're mixing volatile chemicals and sometimes they explode. Sometimes a train wreck can be more entertaining. That's the other excuse I have.
NUVO: Do you have one guest that just stands out as your absolute favorite?
Maher: I don't and if I did I probably shouldn't say it because, you know, other guests would say, "Oh, my god, I can't believe you love Martin Short more than me." But there you go: Martin Short. You got it out of me, Ed.
NUVO: But you really do enjoy having people who aren't celebrities or comedians in the traditional sense on the program; people who are pundits and writers and commentators.
Maher: Yes I do. Well, I mean first of all I just love listening to smart people who say things that are surprising. You know, Salman Rushdie is another example of one of my absolute favorites. He's that old-school British witty, you know? It's very often surprising and always couched in some sort of wit that we Americans could never conjure up.
NUVO: Do you ever read what's written about you?
Maher: Sure! Of course.
NUVO: You've gotten into a little bit of a back and forth with a Washington Post commentator regarding Donald Sterling.
Maher: Oh really? Kathleen Parker has commented on what I commented on? Oh, great! Is she especially angry at me?
NUVO: No; she has a retort and I think it's a pretty interesting thing because there are a lot of people who are frankly uncomfortable not just with what Donald Sterling said but the way in which it was made public.
NOTE: At the end of Maher's Real Time program on May 9, Maher offered the following as part of his "New Rules" segment: "Sterling didn't advertise. He was bugged. And while he may not be worth defending, the Fourth Amendment is. That's the one that says we have the right to be secure in our person, in our homes, in our property. Well, not if bitching to your girlfriend in your home loses you your property. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker offered one way of dealing with the modern world's ubiquitous invasions of privacy: give up. She wrote, 'If you don't want your words broadcast in the public square, don't say them.' Really? Even at home we have to talk like a White House press spokesman? She then looked on the bright side by saying, 'Such potential exposure forces us to more carefully select our words and edit our thoughts.' Always editing? I'd rather be a Mormon."
Maher: Well, I gotta tell you, I very rarely do something at the end of the show that gets kudos from both left and right, but that one did. People did not like what [Parker] said and no one had called her out on it. The idea that you cannot speak freely in your own home; I don't care what party you are or who you are or what color you are or what you think you're saying, nobody likes that because as I said in the piece we're not that good. We're just humans. The idea that we have to be perfect all the time? And she was saying, "Look on the bright side! You'll edit yourself and choose your words more carefully. I don't wanna choose my words carefully when I'm home. That hit a nerve. So I'll be very anxious to see what her rebuttal to that is.
NUVO: OK — let's get back to something lighter. Walk me through the process of putting that show together every week. What's the schedule?
Maher: Ironically, it's much more work than when I did an everyday talk show because when you do an every day show you kind of can only make it so good. And that's also the charm of shows like that. Letterman was good for 30 years because it's a "let's throw some shit against a wall and see what sticks" thing, and that can be beautiful. But when you do a once a week show and it's on a paid cable network, you are kind of trying to put out a more polished, finished product, which is why I work so hard on that editorial at the end of the show. That's three minutes in the show; it can take me 8 hours to put that together.
[The person] I'm always thinking about when I put [the show] together is the person who wants to follow the news but is just pressed for time during the week and doesn't have time to get to the paper or watch the news, and they want to get caught up in an entertaining way and in an hour. So I wanna pick out everything that I think is important that that person should be aware of that week and find the right place in the show to put it. Should it be a "New Rule," is it something that we should talk about on the panel, a monologue joke, or is it the editorial? Whatever it is, I want that person to feel at the end of the show that they're completely caught up.