When more than 320,000 people petitioned the White House to urge President Obama to appear on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” just as he has guested on a slew of other late-night shows, the administration’s official response was publicly non-committal.
The president’s team did, however, praise Maher’s show “for spreading the science on climate change, asking tough questions about money in politics and trying to burst ‘the bubble’ where some of our politicians — and too many of our nation’s critical political debates — exist.”
That’s a good list of reasons why Maher’s show is a must-see among political junkies, along with its spirited conversation and the host’s audacious humor. Maher is equally biting to the GOP and to some on the left, including those in the entertainment business, on issues like Islam, the futility of certain gun-control measures and what he calls “tokenism” in liberal boycotts.
Maher, 60, also diverges from Bernie Sanders — whom he has endorsed — and many of his supporters over problems with Hillary Clinton’s high-dollar fundraising. “I think everyone agrees, including Hillary Clinton, that we would be better served by getting money out of politics,” Maher says. “It’s a reasonable argument that Hillary makes that ‘Yes, we should do that.’ But until we do that, I am not going to unilaterally disarm.’ ”
In other words, it’s not a good idea to refuse to collect, on principle, high-dollars sums from donors while conservative figures like the Koch brothers commit to spend $900 million to support Republicans. “It’s going to be kind of hard on Bernie’s army of small givers to match what the Koch brothers can do,” Maher says.
Maher — who in 2012 gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a SuperPAC backing Obama’s reelection — is not sure he’ll contribute again. “I would have to see what the race is going to look like,” he says. “I am not as inspired by [Clinton] as I was by Obama. But I also think that the stakes are even higher. I was no Mitt Romney fan, but the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is enough to scare money out of my bank account.”
Trump and Maher have a contentious history that famously includes the mogul filing a $5 million lawsuit after Maher challenged him to prove that his father wasn’t an orangutan. But Maher does credit Trump the candidate for perhaps changing “the idea of political correctness being a third rail” in this election cycle.
“I mean, what does this guy have to do to get people to turn off to him — fart in Jesus’ face? It’s crazy,” Maher says. “He could end a rally by f—ing a pie with his tiny cock. I have always attributed that to the fact that America has been choking on political correctness for 20 years or more. Back in ’93 is when I started a show called ‘Politically Incorrect’ because I was sick of it way back then, and it hasn’t gotten any better since.”
Maher adds that America has embraced the idea of somebody who doesn’t take back everything he says that makes someone, somewhere in America, uncomfortable. “And, by the way, that is a very attractive stance to take,” he observes. “It is just unfortunate it is being taken by someone who is an idiot.”
He is skeptical of Trump’s chances to win in November, explaining that the American people are “playing a game of chicken with the establishment, and are saying, ‘Look, we are so fed up that we might actually go ahead and drive this car right off the cliff with this insane person at the wheel.’ But I think at the last minute, they won’t do that. I think they are going to turn that car around before they go off the cliff, because you know what? The truth is, as much as the Republicans talk about what a shit hole this country is, it is actually in better shape than it has been in a long time.”
Maher diverges from the standard liberal take on the topic of Islam, maintaining that it is the extremists who practice it who should be condemned, not the religion itself. He got into a famous 2014 debate with Ben Affleck when he said Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia — that will f—ing kill you if you say the wrong thing.”
Since then, he has “noticed a big change in attitude -— a change coming over to my point of view,” Maher says. “It is a complicated issue, because Muslims are oppressing other Muslims. I think liberals would like to believe it is governments who are oppressing the people, when unfortunately, actually it is often the reverse.”
Meanwhile, he suggests a double standard in the Hollywood boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, which started in 2014 when the Sultan of Brunei, who controls a company that owns the hotel, began imposing Sharia law in his country. The boycott is “the perfect example of the kind of tokenism that I despise,” Maher says. “I mean, there are a hundred restaurants besides the Polo Lounge where you can get a great gazpacho soup in L.A.
But by not going to this one restaurant, they think they are contributing somehow? Sharia law is not just in Brunei; it is in 40 different countries, including Saudi Arabia. So if you really want to boycott something, why don’t you stop driving and using oil?”
Maher opposes legislation in Southern states that restricts transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificates, but says such “bathroom birther laws” are “just for show” and “nonsensical,” as they would be tough to enforce. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “It doesn’t change anything. But this is what [liberals] get [enraged] about, as opposed to 9-year-olds getting married in Pakistan or women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive or leave the house without a man or hold a job.”
Although Republicans have attacked liberal Hollywood figures for speaking out on issues such as income inequality, climate change and immigration, Maher says such discussion highlights differing self-interests.
“George Soros is a liberal billionaire, and people compare him to the Koch brothers,” Maher says. “The difference is the Koch brothers are fighting to have their taxes lowered. And George Soros is fighting to have his taxes raised.”
Compassion for people who are not as fortunate, Maher notes, “is the essential difference, I think, between liberals and conservatives.”
For more for from Variety’s Politics and Hollywood issue, click here.