With comedian and social commentator Bill Maher receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it’s a ripe time to wonder whether Hollywood has caught up to Maher, or Maher to Hollywood.
For Maher, it’s an honor that frankly perplexes him.
“It truly came out of nowhere,” he says. “I have no idea how (the Walk of Fame committee) functions, or if they pulled my name out of the hat and … voila! I guess it’s what I get for being on TV for about 18 years. That’s a long run in a business not known for security, and it’s hard to wrap my head around that fact.”
That continuity — minus the six months between ABC’s dramatic and controversial canceling of Maher’s show “Politically Incorrect” in 2002 and the 2003 HBO launch of “Real Time With Bill Maher” (its eighth season begins Friday) — is even more unlikely given Maher’s position as one of the country’s only genuinely political comedians.
And it goes further than that. Maher is as much as social critic as he is a comic, and his vocal support of everything from pot legalization and atheism to his knack for staking out positions on current issues that you don’t hear on the cable chatterbox shows hardly makes him an everyday taste for the kind of broad general public TV lusts for. Not since the days when Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” for intellectual sparring matches has a TV figure managed to say the things others might think but rarely utter … and get away with it.
“That’s probably the reason I’ve never won an Emmy, because I’m deviant of mind,” says Maher, whose shows have a string of 15 noms without a win.
Consider just one of his zingers, vintage Maher since it’s equally pithy, rings true and shocks: “America causes cancer.” The implications of such a statement are huge, but for Maher in the context of “Real Time,” “it sets off a conversation that we badly need to have. I think that’s the core of what I aim to do on the show — offer a point of view you don’t hear everyday, and get people talking, and maybe just maybe, understanding.
“I’ve never tried to be a provocateur for its own sake, but I do like to say things that they aren’t saying on the left or the right. Look at the BP disaster in the Gulf. I went after BP just like everyone else, but when some people argued that we’ll lose jobs if we stop drilling, no one in any camp questioned the assumption behind that statement. I say, ‘Fuck those jobs if it means this kind of environmental catastrophe.’ Would you also say, ‘Well, we need to keep all these horses and buggies because look at all the jobs we’d lose?’ By that logic, we would never be able to make any real changes because it would affect jobs.
“This spill also points out something I’ve been saying that a lot of friends on the left hate to hear, that we have two political parties and one policy. All you ever hear on both sides and on most of the cable talkshows is that the country is too divided. Really, it’s too conformist. Obama came out for offshore drilling just weeks before the spill, so how different really is he from the Republicans? Look at Afghanistan, gun control, bank bailouts. The parties aren’t too different; they’re too alike.”
Maher readily acknowledges that HBO’s hands-off policy regarding content allows him the perfect safe harbor to say anything he wants, however he wants.
“The proof of their trust is right there on view,” he notes. “For one thing, HBO lets me do it live, and I never know exactly what may happen before we broadcast on Friday. The live element is so crucial for a stand-up comic like me, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have this kind of setting where the unexpected can occur. But because HBO is premium cable, viewers expect a more polished show. So even though ‘Politically Incorrect’ was five nights a week and ‘Real Time’ is one, I work a lot harder on this show because it has to be good every time.”
Another difference: No sponsors. It was “Politically Incorrect” sponsors Sears, Roebuck and Co. and FedEx who fled the ABC show after Maher, in response to President George W. Bush’s condemnation of the 9/11 hijackers as “cowardly,” commented on the air that “we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.”
Maher understood the hot reaction he received, and has never blamed ABC for dropping “P.I.”
“They can’t have a show without sponsors, and if the sponsors walk away, they have no choice,” he explains. “But we also felt a bit liberated after that, and I got a little preview of what would become ‘Real Time’ when ‘P.I.’ turned more serious and less goofy, which fit the country’s mood.”
His position as a kind of contemporary Will Rogers — another funny man who wittily skewered the powerful — wasn’t all that evident in the 1980s, when Maher worked the stand-up trenches in New York and floundered in a string of mostly bad movies with titles such as “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”
“I was always paying attention to the state of the country,” he says, “but when you’re a comedian in your 20s, you don’t have the gravitas it takes to make people listen to you on heavy topics. That’s the main reason why you’ll hear fluff from the younger performers, and then you might grow up and become George Carlin.”
It’s the last taboo — it really is,” says Bill Maher with genuine excitement about his equal-opportunity lampoons and attacks on organized religion, and with them, the coming-out of atheists.
Don’t think of it as missionary zeal on his part, however.
“One of the things that people, especially religious people, don’t get when I talk about the foolishness and dangers of religious belief is that I’m not telling them what to believe, and I’m not telling them to not believe in God,” he says. “I’m telling them to think. Big difference.”
Maher doesn’t parse words in his humorous but caustic critique of religion. It has, in his view, caused divisions among peoples, contrived a system where men are superior to women, and unleashed most of the bloodshed in human history from the Crusades and Islamic aggression to the Christian-based belief in Armageddon.
Mention most of Maher’s movie credits, and he’d rather not be reminded of them. Yet the issue of religion has so consumed him that “I had to make a movie about it. I had to process it that way. This is the only subject that I had to get out of my system as a film, but I’m not making another one.”
“Religulous,” written, produced and starring Maher and directed by Larry Charles, premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival in 2008 to praise for its nerviness and knocks that the film went after easy targets — a division that Maher is comfortable with.
“I had been in this firmament of atheism” — he chuckles at his turn of phrase — “before the wave of books on atheism by authors like Richard Dawkins and (Christopher) Hitchens came out, so I received my share of catcalls. It’s been gratifying for Larry and me, since we get great comments and responses all the time — from every corner of the country people thanking us for making the film and questioning the health and sanity of religious faith. During my tour, when I was playing Greenville, S.C., I got applause from 2,000 people when I talked about atheism.
“This comes from a growing sense among people who don’t believe in a God know that they’re not alone. Most polls indicate that they amount to 15% of Americans, which is a bigger minority than blacks, Hispanics, gays, NRA members — all those minorities who have a lot more clout. I find that you win more people over to your thinking when you’re funny about it.”