Bill Maher, the country’s most visible and irascible left-wing comic, has no illusions how many minds he’s changed when it comes to politics. He’s been beavering away at it for a while now, starting in 1993 when he hosted ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.” He refurbished his act in 2003, creating HBO’s roundtable politics-and-humor show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
“In 23 years of being on television,” says Maher from the “Real Time” offices in Hollywood, “the number of people who have come to me and have said, ‘You know, Bill, I used to be a conservative and after listening to you, I’ve become a liberal,’ — yeah, that happened like once. I have conservatives come up to me all the time and say, ‘I don’t agree with you but I watch you, you’re funny,’ but they never switched.”
Where he has affected viewpoints most, Maher claims, is with his adamant avowal of atheism — on his show, in his standup act, and in the 2008 documentary he wrote and starred in, “Religulous.”
“The people who have switched to atheism, I couldn’t count the number and the reason is: It’s so easy to do. All you have to do is point out a few different things and they go ‘Ooh-uh, that’s a really good point.’ And the internet is doing it too. Even Mormonism, which was climbing steadily decade after decade, even that’s down because people can Google this s--- and go, 'You people are f------ nuts.'"
Maher avers that his "Best-Known Atheist" status is largely by default — “because people don’t read books,” referencing Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Nevertheless, he adds, “It feels awesome. I feel like I’m doing a public service. Whenever I’ve been asked what person I identify with most in literature I always say Toto from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ because he’s the one who pulled the curtain and it was just a guy saying ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’”
Maher was prepping for his final TV show before an August break when we talked. He was looking to get away from TV and looking forward to taking his act to theaters, including three in New England, Aug. 26 at Cape Cod Melody Tent, Aug. 27 at the Wilbur Theatre (sold out, except for resale sites) and Oct. 22 at Foxwoods.
When he’s out there in the theaters, Maher says, “Nothing is off limits content-wise. What’s off limits to me is boring; what’s off limits to me is obvious; what’s off limits to me is saying anything just to make liberals applaud like seals.”
Which, of course, can be the case during "Real Time."
“I’ll give you a great example,” Maher says. “Last week in the monologue, I ended with a joke about Hillary’s convention speech and I said, ‘The great thing was she came out for legalizing pot.’ I was setting this up for a punch line, [but] they all applauded as if it happened. Of course Hillary didn’t come out for legalizing pot. Wouldn’t that have been big news?
“And that’s one reason I like to do standup because my standup audience, the people who actually pay to see you, they’re so different from the TV audience. First of all they’re, well-informed and they’re not politically correct, like the audience that comes to the show here in LA.”
For those who’ve just seen the TV show and have never seen him live, Maher offers this: “It’s the difference between having a cup of coffee that gives you a nice jolt — that’s the TV show — and then when you see me live, it would be more like crystal meth. The great thing about standup, from my point of view, it has be about getting those big belly laughs. Making people laugh and laugh until they’re like no mas.
“Of course, the subject matter that interests me is the same stuff that interests me on the TV show. I’ve never been the kind of comedian who talks about trivial matters — some people do it brilliantly, but that’s not me, I like to talk about what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the country, religion, weighty issues. I like there to be some nutrition. If you took the jokes out someone would think, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of interesting ideas.’ Of course, I don’t take the jokes out.”
Maher’s main subject of attack, of course, has been Donald Trump — first his improbable ascendancy and now his constant spew of incendiary comments and tweets.
“Obama, I thought, really nailed it,” Maher says, “when he said, ‘you know this isn’t an episodic thing.’ This happens daily and I think one of the really scary things about Donald Trump is that there are so many gaffes they all kind of meld into one another and then we don’t even hear half of the crazy things he said.”
Trump is a comedic feast, but also easy pickings. Maher feels a bit stymied because there are so many diners at the banquet, both amateur and professional.
“Much as I love my job and I love to do what I do,” Maher says, “this Trump thing has been going on since June of last year and it’s gotten to the point where it’s so easy. Everybody can do it so everybody is on the same page: It’s like the sane against the insane so the joy is a little gone from it when everybody can be making Trump jokes.”
“I never go against the grain for just that purpose, just to be a contrarian. My show doesn’t break stories. What I look for my show to do is to break new ways to look at stories. But there sort of is no new way to look at Donald Trump, it only gets worse. He’s somebody who’s looking more and more like a mental patient. I know people have been literally elected to office from jail; this guy could be the first one to be elected from the loony bin.”
It’s pretty clear who Maher’s antagonists from the right are, but he says he gets it from segments of the left, too. “I’ve been going after political correctness since 1993 when I named the show that [Politically Incorrect],” Maher says. “Of course, that’s where political correctness lives — on the left — so they don’t like that.
“The other big one is Islam. I feel like I defend Muslims; they defend Islam. I understand what a liberal is because I was raised by two liberals and always on the side of people who were oppressed, whether it was black folks or Cesar Chavez and the lettuce pickers or the women’s movement or the poor, immigrants, gay people, the disabled, the bullied, the molested, rape victims, police brutality victims. And then, you know, a woman who was forced to wear a head-to-toe covering? To me, this is oppression and if you can’t see that that’s oppression, I don’t know what good liberals are for.”
On a recent “Real Time,” Maher set two prominent lefties against each other, Dr. Cornel West and former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. It was a shouting match, not that that was a surprise to Maher or anyone else.
“I thought it was important to have the discussion between him and Barney because that is exactly the argument the left is having at this moment,” Maher says. “Purity vs practicality. … I don’t want to be fracking and Hillary is for fracking and Hillary is also too cozy with Monsanto and Wall Street. I get it, but when the other guy is Donald Trump, it’s like an infection. ... I’m with Barney on this one. Change happens because people do the boring detail work, which is why Hillary Clinton is an effective person. I don’t agree with her on everything; I agree much more with Bernie Sanders, but we had our idealistic moment. Bernie ran. He didn’t win. Now we’ve got to throw in our lot with the practical person.”
Maher's dream guest for “Real Time” is President Obama, whom he’s invited many times and even instigated an online petition. Maher shows some exasperation that Obama can be on all the nightly chat shows and even Marc Maron’s podcast, but hasn’t graced the “Real Time” stage. And now, as the year winds down, Maher says, “It doesn’t look good but who knows. He’s been known to surprise people. But we have only eight shows left in 2016, he better hurry up.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post had a typo in the last paragraph. The post has been updated to reflect Maher is indeed the one working on his TV show. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on August 22, 2016.