The Cable Guy

Bill Maher on stand-up, terrorism, and turning 50

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Edel Rodriguez

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Bill Maher’s come a long way from his first stand-up gig at a Chinese restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey. The 49-year-old comedian got his big break back in 1993, when he launched the roundtable show Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and unveiled an uncanny ability to riff on and satirize the day’s headlines. 

In 1997 the popular show moved to ABC, claiming the plum spot after Nightline, but was canceled in 2002, soon after Maher made his now-infamous comment that “cowardly” was not how he would describe the 9/11 terrorists. (“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—is not cowardly.”) 

All’s well that ends well, though. In 2003 the self-described libertarian (and patriot) debuted Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, a critically acclaimed weekly show that combines roundtable discussions and one-on-one interviews with Maher’s patented one-man rants—the “New Rules” segment from the show—on just about everything under the sun. Best of all, in the promised land of pay cable, Maher is free to go where his mind—and his mouth—take him. Witness just a few snippets from the show: 

Airport safety: “Did you hear the latest? As of next month: no lighters on the plane. This, of course, will do nothing to change the safety equation, but it will ensure that if the passengers enjoy the terrorists’ work, they still can’t bring them back for an encore.” 

Oil: “How come we have cars with global positioning systems, satellite radio, and voice-activated Web access, and we still power them with the black goop you have to suck out of the ground? Well, I hate to tell you this, folks, but gas doesn’t cost too much; it costs too little. Ooh, I know, I know. You hear about gas prices over two dollars a gallon, and it makes you nearly choke on your four-dollar latte. We bitch about gas, but adjusted for inflation, it’s the same price it was back when the Pope was a Nazi.”

Anthems: “Stop wallowing! Three years after 9/11, ballparks still insist on a giant seventh-inning buzz with a somber rendition of ‘God Bless America.’ You know, there’s a thin line between loving America and stalking it. Please, we’ve already sung the National Anthem. Now let me honor America the right way: by getting drunk on over-priced beer and yelling obscenities at millionaires on steroids.” 

Pills: “Stop fucking with old people. Target is introducing a redesigned pill bottle that’s square, with a bigger label. And the top is now the bottom. And by the time grandpa figures out how to open it—his ass will be in the morgue. Congratulations, Target, you just solved the Social Security crisis.” 

Hollywood values: “There’s no such thing as Hollywood values. Let me just say that every time I see some pundit say that Hollywood is out of touch, I just want to take my big-screen plasma TV and march it right down to the end of my private road and throw it over the big iron gate!” 

Lawmakers: “Stop claiming you have an ‘agenda.’ It’s not an agenda. It’s a random collection of laws that your corporate donors paid you to pass. The American people were not clamoring for a cap on medical malpractice awards. If a surgeon leaves an Altoids box in my chest cavity, I want to see him in debtors’ prison.” 

Milquetoast he’s not. But he is busy: HBO will air his comedy special, “I’m Swiss,” in July and Maher’s latest book, New Rules: Polite Musings by a Timid Observer, will be published this September by Rodale. Maher recently spoke with Utne senior editor Anjula Razdan by phone from Los Angeles. 

Where do you get your daily news? 

I have such a thing about the media that I hate to plug them. 

What are the most important stories that people need to learn about right now? 

The environment and the shoddy state of homeland security: Those are the two things that are most likely to kill us. The environment is definitely going to kill us if we don’t do something quickly. And why the terrorists haven’t hit us again has very little to do with what we’ve done and everything to do with the fact that they’re just slow and patient and work on a different timetable than we do. 

What about the idea that 9/11 was an isolated incident, perhaps not as big a deal as we’ve been led to believe? 

I think it is a big deal. We haven’t really changed at all because of it. What changed in this country was the rhetoric; as far as how we do business, both in government and with the civilian population, absolutely nothing changed. The only people who are fighting the war on terror are the soldiers in Iraq—if you even consider that the war on terror. 

As to why it hasn’t happened again, I think the Arabs like us to think they’re crazier than they are. I don’t know how many people they can actually get over here to take on a suicide mission, but I’m sure they will find some. And I do believe they work on a very different timetable. For example, when [former Serbian president Slobodon] Milosevic went into Kosovo, when he stirred up that whole hornet’s nest, he was invoking a battle that took place 600 years before, in 1389, and to the people in that part of the world, that resonated—1389 was like it happened yesterday. 

I always say that if Al Jazeera had sitcoms, they’d give them, like, 50 years to catch on; we give them three weeks. They’d put on a sitcom for 50 years and then they’d go, Well, we put it on after Friends and we gave it 50 years, but what can we say, it didn’t catch on, we finally had to cancel it. 

What kind of person should the left run for president in 2008? 

The short answer is: a better speaker. It has to be somebody who has the ability to make the counterargument, the ability not to fall apart when the Republicans say whatever they’re going to say about you. The lesson of 2004 is that it really doesn’t matter who you are or what you say—Karl Rove can make it look bad. He can make a war hero look like a war criminal, and he can make a draft dodger look like a war hero. 

The Democrats constantly fall apart in front of an argument that intimidates them, and it seems like the Republican Party these days governs by baiting the Democrats into making an argument they can’t win, like Social Security. It seems like the whole thing was to bait the Democrats into saying, Well, we have to raise taxes. They have to find somebody like Bill Clinton who was able, with a smile on his face, to understand what they’re saying and counter it to the American public in a way that makes sense, that makes foolish what really was a foolish argument to begin with. 

Do you think the American people have a responsibility to try to separate truth from spin? 

Of course they do. Does that mean they’re going to do it? No. And, to get back to the media, a lot of people are saying these days that it is the media that have let us down and led us to this place, that there are three branches of government, but really we always had a table with four legs and that fourth leg was the media. As I always say, the media’s job is to make interesting what’s important, and if they don’t cover things like the environment, it makes it harder for the politicians to do so. If they cover the horse race and not the substance, it’s going to be tough. 

Your 2002 bookWhen You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism was inspired by World War II conservation posters. What can average Americans do now? 

The big thing would be oil conservation. That would help in many ways: We wouldn’t be sending money to the people who send it to schools where terrorists are born, it would be good for the environment, and we wouldn’t have to hold hands with the Saudi Arabians. 

Another big thing Americans could do is just learn something! Get savvy. In Israel, where the terrorist threat has been many times as severe as it is here, they handle it brilliantly. They’ve never had an airliner blow up. 

But Israelis have also had to give up some civil liberties. 

So have we. At least when they give up civil liberties, they get something for it. As we learned from the report that came out recently, our airports are not safer than they were before 9/11; just as many bombs and guns and giant wick-laden suitcases get through as they did before 9/11. It’s ridiculous. We’re getting the worst of both worlds. 

When I think of average Israelis, I think of savvy citizens, people who understand the threat they’re dealing with, who know the difference between a real threat and something that is not a threat. They say in Israel that every citizen is a soldier on the front line; it would be nice if we could instill some of that in this country. 

There’s a poster in When You Ride Alone with a tagline that says, “They Hate Us Because . . . We Don’t Even Know Why They Hate Us.” I think a lot of the world feels animosity toward America because we are so inward-looking and self-centered and narcissistic. This is, of course, exemplified by no one better than by George W. Bush. Before he became president, he knew nothing about the world outside of the United States—practically the world outside of Texas—and this was not considered a detriment to someone who was proposing to be the leader of the free world. It was actually considered kind of cute and charming: He don’t know nothing about no foreigners? So what! Well, you should know something about foreigners because it is becoming a global village. 

You recently said that religious people suffer from a neurological disorder that “stops them from thinking” and that the 21st century does not belong to religion or to evangelicals . . . 

Well, that was very hopeful on my part. I meant the future—I wouldn’t bet that we’re going to get rid of them in the 21st century. The good thing is on Star Trek, I never hear a word about Jesus. On any of those shows set in the future, you never hear people say they can’t go to the next planet because they have to go to Mass. 

Who has had the most significant influence on your comedy? 

From when I was about 12 to when I graduated college, I never missed Johnny Carson. Robert Klein also was a big influence, not just on me but I think also on most comedians in my generation. He was the one comic who bridged the gap between some of us postmodern comedians and the old-school Borscht Belt types. I loved Alan King, but I never saw myself as being like him, with a cigar and talking about my wife. 

There weren’t that many comedians when I was in my formative years and thinking about becoming a comedian. Today there is a whole landscape of comedians and comedy clubs all over the country. Klein and George Carlin—that was about it. You know, George Carlin did a big turnaround; he used to be the corporate, short-hair, skinny-tie-and-suit guy. He had an album called FM & AM that we played to death. Side one, AM, was the old George Carlin, the skinny-tie guy doing his clean TV material. Then you turned it over to FM, which in those days was very out there and daring. The FM side was him with long hair, wearing a T-shirt and saying bad words and getting freaky. That encapsulated how we all felt about how far we’d come in five years. 

I recently sawComedian, the documentary about Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up comedy after Seinfeld went off the air, and I was stunned that it took a year to come up with one good act. 

And that’s after you’ve been doing it for 20 years. 

I can’t think of another art form where you have to hone that much for what appears to be so little. What’s your writing process? 

I never was able to purposely sit down and write stand-up comedy, but I was vigilant when I was out with my friends; when I was having fun and we were riffing and I would think of something good, I’d write it on a cocktail napkin, and I’d take those cocktail napkins and write them into a notebook—now it would go into a computer—and there’s the fount of your next act. 

But then you have to go back and work on the rhythm, take a word out here or three words there . . . 

Absolutely. It’s finding out how to take an audience word by word along a little journey so that when you get to the part where you want them to laugh, they’re exactly where they should be. Sometimes, a joke tumbles out of your mouth fully formed and that’s great, but a lot of times, it’s just a matter of placement, of words and of jokes next to each other; sometimes a joke doesn’t work here, but if I move it five minutes later, it’s a huge scream. I can’t explain why, but it’s very delicate. It reminds me of putting together a big jigsaw puzzle. 

How do you rest and recharge? 

On HBO, I have an on-and-off rhythm. It’s a very different rhythm to my life than I had for nine years on Politically Incorrect, which was a nightly show. When you do a nightly show, you work every day, but you can only work so hard and you can only prepare so much—you don’t have all week to make it perfect. So I actually worked less hard than I do on this show. 

This show’s in production for 12 to 13 weeks at a time. I don’t go out at night; I work every night. I write or prepare for guests. There are so many elements to the show, I don’t want to look like an idiot with any of them. I want to be able to talk to Madeleine Albright and then Jane Fonda and the people on the panel. It has to be great because it’s only once a week. It’s the difference between football and baseball. In baseball, you play every day, and if you go zero for four one day, it doesn’t matter because there’s a game tomorrow. In football, you only play once a week, so you’d better be good. 

So you don’t rest and recharge?  

No, what I’m saying is that when I’m doing the show, I’m on this rhythm where it’s all charging ahead and then when the show goes off, I do a fair amount of stand-up on the road. In general, I travel enough doing stand-up so that, for me, the pleasure is just staying home and sitting by the pool. I’m very lucky. I have a beautiful home that has a lot of toys for a boy, like a basketball court and a pitching machine and a sauna. I feel like I live on a resort, so I don’t really want to go anywhere. 

You’re 49 right now—any thoughts on turning 50? 

No, 49 was the big one for me because I’ve always been a proponent of the number 7—and this was 7 squared. I threw myself a birthday party this year, not a big one but an important one, just my 15 closest, greatest, and bestest. I’ve never done that before, and it was a wonderful evening. Turning 50, I don’t care about—50 is only good because there’s something about starting back at zero, as if 51 is somehow younger than 49.