"You know, I say that I'm a Libertarian sometimes because I think I am. But Libertarians sometimes complain, and they say, 'Well, you're not a Libertarian because you believe that we should have meat inspectors.' Well, yeah! You're right. I guess I'm not that Libertarian."
– Bill Maher
Guy MacPherson: Have you played Vancouver before? In your early days, maybe?
Bill Maher: I never actually performed there, but I did go up once to show my support for the medical marijuana movement. I visited the cannabis...
GM: The cafés?
BM: Well, I had a friend who just got out of prison. His name is Tod McCormick. He was in prison for four years for medical marijuana. He was probably the leading advocate and grower, really. And when we passed medical marijuana here in California in 1996 – this is a guy who was cancer-ridden his entire youth and marijuana is what helped him and he wanted to help other people. And of course our brilliant government threw him in jail four years ago. But at the time he was filling me in on what was going on around the world in this movement, and I just wanted to go up there and see for myself. And it was an interesting trip. I enjoyed it.... I remember I saw the, it was either the Gas Clock in Steamtown or the Steam Clock in Gastown.
GM: The second one... You're known primarily as a comedic political commentator, but I remember you as a young standup on Johnny Carson. Do you think of yourself still primarily as a comedian or has that started to shift?
BM: The thing I love doing... Look, I'm 48 years old. I wouldn't haul my ass out to the airport and get on a plane and travel and go through all the bullshit at the airport – especially these days – if I didn't love doing this more than anything. You do what you're good at. I mean, it's the one thing I can do is to stand on stage. And I give them a really good long bellylaugh-full show now. I do about two hours. I make sure that they come away... Because, you know, comedy tickets aren't cheap these days. And I make sure that they come away thinking, "Wow, when I bought this ticket, I thought, 'That's a little pricey for a comedy, but you know what? We got our money's worth.'"
GM: But you're also very good at sitting and talking in a roundtable situation and talking about the issues of the day.
BM: I try. That's what we're doing here. I know you don't get HBO up there.
GM: No. I saw Real Time once in a hotel in Seattle. But Politically Incorrect for me was the only must-see TV, that I had to watch every night.
BM: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, I mean, it was nine years, and I had a great time. [But] I was ready to move to this new format which is, you know, not completely different. We all are happier over here at HBO and we think it's a little more of an adult show. I mean, I loved Politcally Incorrect but after a while I did get a little tired – I think the audience did, too – of having... some nights you'd have three smart people and one idiot. And the idiots, over time, it just got too much. And on this show, we never have an idiot.
GM: And you have more freedom, I take it.
BM: Yeah. Well, you know, I always said whatever I wanted. The difference is on ABC I got fired for it. (laughs) Now hopefully I'm not getting fired for it.
GM: With 'Politically Incorrect', you'd just start to get into a discussion and you'd have to go to commercial, then the show's over.
BM: And too many commercials. This is just a lot more adult.
GM: People like you and Dennis Miller have really fashioned this nice career coming from stand-up into this sort of political realm. But whereas Miller has become a shill for the right wing--
BM: Yeah. Isn't that something?
GM: Yeah, what do you make of that?
BM: I don't know. Everyone asks me that and I don't know what to tell you. I mean, I've known Dennis forever but I would never lie to you and tell you I really know him. So I just have to take him at his word when he said, "9/11 changed me". But 9/11 changed all of us but it didn't make us do that! (laughs) We all want to be safe. I don't think anyone came away from 9/11 and just shrugged and went, "Oh, fuck it." But we didn't think that the answer – a lot of us – was to attack a country that didn't attack us on 9/11.
GM: And the problem with him, as I see it, is now he's become like everyone else: He just toes the party line. Whereas you – and I disagree with a lot of what you say and I agree with a lot of what you say – you speak for you, not for a party.
BM: Right. Last week we did an editorial at the end of the show which was about gay marriage, because that's obviously a big issue now with what's going on in San Francisco. And I lit into the Republicans because, as I was saying, the Republicans consider homosexuality an abomination because that's what it says in the Bible. So I understand why they're against gay marriage, even though I don't agree. But the people I really disrespect on that issue are the Democrats, because the Democrats are just being whores. They don't believe homosexuality is an abomination but they can read the polls, and the polls in America say that 75% of Americans are against gay marriage and that's why they're against gay marriage. So the Republicans, they're crazy but at least they're not being hypocritical on this one.
GM: And that's what we appreciate from you whether we agree with you or not is that you're just as scathing with one side or the other on any given issue.
BM: Yeah, when they deserve it.
GM: Whereas I saw Dennis Miller lately put down Wesley Clark.
BM: Yeah, for no reason. I saw that, too.
GM: And then he came to Kerry and said, "Well, I won't say anything bad about a guy who went to Viet Nam." Well, this guy was a general!
BM: Yeah, he was in Viet Nam.
GM: And then he just lets the Bush things slide.
BM: Oh, yeah. Bush gets a pass. How can you do a news show and give the president a pass?
GM: I was just looking at an old book I have of yours, Does Anybody Have a Problem With This?
BM: Oh, the old one.
GM: Yeah, yeah, the old one.
BM: I gotta get you the new one.
GM: Which one?
BM: The new one. I wrote a ... Well, it's not that new now.
GM: Oh, Osama?
BM: Yeah, When You Ride Alone, You Ride with bin Laden.
GM: Yeah, you gotta get me that because I can't afford to buy it!
BM: I will have it sent, how about that?
GM: Beautiful. In this preface, you said – and this is still true – you wrote about people who say that they're politically incorrect and want edgy humour, but not about their point of sensitivity. Now, I know your point of sensitivity, but you probably allow joking on it, is animal rights.
GM: And I saw you on Leno once get very pissed off with Jay.
BM: I tell you, I took one for the team that day. Because the audience is like, "What an asshole Bill Maher is. We're having a good time watching the tiger show, and then Mr. Asshole has to come on and piss on our parade." But you know what? It is what I feel deeply about. I feel so strongly about animals. I don't know, it's either something that's in you or it's not. I know I'm not going to change a lot of minds but, boy, it felt right to stand up for what I thought.
GM: But you wouldn't stop someone from making fun of that.
BM: And I also believe that the animal rights organizations, including PETA, which I'm a board member of, do things that I don't agree with sometimes. I think they go too far sometimes in their campaigns and lose people who might be on the fence about this issue. I think they turn off the people who are sort of in the middle sometimes, and would be more sympathetic. You're not going to get people to come over to this issue by hitting them over the head or making them feel guilty or anything else. I mean, Americans are a bunch of spoiled babies. It's not the way to move them. And sometimes PETA does that. And I also think that I reserve the right to have my own views on animals that aren't described word-for-word by an organization. For example, PETA doesn't believe in eating meat. Of course, they're all vegans. I'm not a vegan. I don't really eat a lot of meat, especially red meat, but I believe that People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals means *ethical* treatment of animals, it doesn't mean animals can't die. Animals kill each other. If they kill each other, is it wrong for us to be on the top of the food chain and kill them? No. It's just wrong to torture them on the way to killing them. And that's what we do with animals in this country. That's what factory farming is – it's torturing animals. Give them a life before you kill them.
GM: You're being consistent. Because it's this organization and you don't agree with everything, just like political parties – you can belong to a party without having to agree with every little thing.
BM: Exactly! You know, I say that I'm a Libertarian sometimes because I think I am. But Libertarians sometimes complain, and they say, "Well, you're not a Libertarian because you believe that we should have meat inspectors." Well, yeah! You're right. I guess I'm not that Libertarian.
GM: I know you had great respect for Steve Allen, as I did.
BM: Oh, yeah.
GM: Is he someone you admired because he was able to have his comedic side and this serious side and people took him seriously? So you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can be a comedian and you can also be serious.
BM: I don't aspire to be as much of a Renaissance man as Steve.
GM: Well, I guess nobody could.
BM: Steve was truly a Renaissance man. He did everything. I only do a couple of things. And I'm lucky I got those. Standup comedy, that really is my thing. Everything else, I always realize, could go away. In the first half of my career, I did stand-up comedy and I was an actor. And in the last 11 years, I've been a stand-up comic and a political talk show host. But TV shows and acting, they can always go away and what will always be left on the beach as the tide goes out is the stand-up.
GM: How often do you get a chance to perform stand-up?
BM: You know, I do it as much as I can. I mean, obviously when the show is in production, as it is now, I can't travel very much during the week and on the weekends, I don't want to go too far because I don't want to get caught in New York and not be able to get back for the show. Um, I would say that I'm on the road about every other weekend.
GM: When I spoke to Bob Newhart, he was telling me he doesn't get these comics who forget about the standup. He said if you have the ability to do it, it's your duty to do it because not everyone can do stand-up.
BM: No. And certainly not everyone who even does standup well, I feel, does standup with a strong point of view. And that's what I'm trying to do. I think a lot of people who come to the show... I want them to come to laugh and I want to give them the laughs primarily, but I also want them to be able to see something that's intellectually challenging. You know, when I first started doing comedy, I would do any joke that got a laugh. Well, I'm not that guy anymore. I won't do any joke that gets a laugh. I gotta raise the bar a little. And I'm only going to do jokes and introduce subjects that are also saying something. At least, what I think is something.
GM: Speaking of respect for the masters, when I used to watch you on Johnny Carson, you kind of had a Jack Bennyish thing about you. And now I see some Johnny Carson in you.
BM: You know what? I think that's the same lineage.
GM: Yes, it is.
BM: You see, Johnny Carson was doing Jack Benny. And I was doing Johnny Carson. So I was kind of doing Jack Benny through Johnny Carson.
GM: Is it a conscious thing?
BM: No. When I was a kid, I lived for Johnny Carson. First of all, it was on at 11:30 at night, which meant it was wrong. Which meant that I wasn't supposed to be seeing it. So whenever I was seeing it, it was like delicious. And then when I got into high school and college, I was able to watch it every night. I must have seen Johnny Carson do thousands of monologues. And I realize today when I'm doing a monologue, it is the Johnny Carson monologue.
GM: And you get the chin movement.
BM: Yup. It's that whole rhythm. And I don't feel comfortable doing it any other way. Now, when I do standup, as opposed to a monologue on the TV show, that's different because stand-up is more like my other hero when I was growing up, which is Robert Klein. It's more personal and more passionate. It's not just telling a series of jokes. It's really getting into a subject with your full passion. So it doesn't look like Johnny Carson when I do standup.
GM: Do you think Bush can be beaten now? People are criticising him finally.
BM: Absolutely. If you had asked me six months ago do I think Bush could be beaten, I would have said, "Only if he starts drinking again." But, boy, things have turned around. You know, Americans, I'm the first to say all the time, are just dumb as wood. I mean, most of them, anyway. They're so easily fooled. I did a stand-up HBO special in 2000 and the name of it was 'Be More Cynical', which I wasn't kidding about. My point was everybody says we're too cynical and I was saying, "You know what? We're not too cynical; we're too naive! We need to get more cynical." And for the first three years of this Bush presidency, we were not cynical enough about him. When he said that he was instituting a Clear Skies Initiative, we thought, "Oh, great! Clear skies. That's his pollution program", not realizing that it was Orwellian and it was the exact opposite of clear skies. Or healthy forests. Or the other bullshit that he tries to pass off. But now, finally, after three years, people have caught on. People are catching on to this guy. They're realizing, no, he's not Mr. Honour and Integrity. He's a bigger liar than the last guy. I mean, I never thought Bill Clinton lied about anything that was really important. But George Bush does lie about things that are very important, and I think people are catching on to things.
GM: And badly.
BM: And badly!
GM: But I don't know if Kerry's the guy to do it.
GM: Yeah. He kind of looks like the whole Dukakis thing all over again.
BM: No, I don't think so. First of all, he's a veteran, which means a lot. I also think he's a lot meaner, which is good. Because you gotta be mean to take on a prick like George Bush. You gotta be as dirty as they are. And I think John Kerry... Everything I've heard about him from people in the Boston area say, "The more you get to know him, the less you like him." Which is fine. I don't need to love the guy. You know what? I don't care if he's a prick. If he's a prick who can beat George Bush, if he's a prick who can get things done, then I say let's have a prick in the White House.
GM: That's what I always felt when celebrities were always gushing over Reagan, going, "Oh, he's such a nice guy!" I go, "Who cares?! Irrelevant!"
BM: Back when I was a much younger comedian in the '80s, I used to have a whole routine about that. And the joke was, "People say Reagan's a nice guy. Let him get a little store."
GM: Exactly! Okay, last question because I know you gotta run: If a major network like ABC, or whatever – okay, probably not ABC – came to you with more money to take you away and do the same show you're doing now, would you do it?
BM: No, I'm pretty loyal to HBO.
GM: Well, if HBO said they're not getting the numbers. The point of the question is, would you trust these major networks again?
BM: Look, every network nowadays is owned by a huge corporation, so I think you are always subject to some decision that is made on a corporate level far, far, far above anyone who really cares about content in show business. But having said that, I still think HBO... I know the people longer and better than any other executives in the business. And more than any other network, I feel at home and I feel trusted, so... check back with me.