“I feel exhausted by this man and by working so hard every week to try to find some new angle,” Maher told Variety of his frustration over how much Trump now consumes his show — and his life. “The prospect of another four years of having to do it looms over me like the sword of Damocles. I cannot tell you how much anxiety that causes me.”
Maher has hosted his Emmy-nominated weekly HBO series “Real Time” since 2003, and the show (now in its 17th season) celebrates its 500th episode this Friday, June 21. Born less than a year after ABC canceled “Politically Incorrect,” “Real Time” evolved from that format to focus more on conversations, mostly about politics, with guests from both the celebrity and political world, and from all sides of the political spectrum.
Right now, that means most of the conversation revolves around Trump — and whether the Democrats will be able to organize enough of a message and a strategy to take him on next November.
As he prepared to host his 500th “Real Time,” Maher spoke to Variety about the evolution of him and the show, as well as how he often angers liberal audiences as much as he does conservatives (and why he wears that as a badge of honor). He also addressed a recent on-air debate with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), how he doesn’t encounter conservative audiences, whether anything has changed under HBO’s new WarnerMedia/AT&T leadership and whether he fears saying or doing something that gets him canceled — like what happened with ABC in 2002.
The host has often courted controversy — including a 2017 episode that got him into some hot water for referencing a racial slur — but he also notes that controversy is part of the Bill Maher brand. “If it ends with me getting canceled or fired, I’ve been through that before,” he said. “All I know is the technology keeps changing, and every time it does, all I hear is, ‘But they need content.’ Well, I’m content, so I think I’ll be okay.
A transcript of that interview, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Anniversaries can be arbitrary, but what does 500 episodes of “Real Time” mean to you and the show?
It’s my life just going way too quickly. I feel like I just began, so I don’t know how we got to 500. I guess that there is a niche that I’ve been filling. My theory on show business is always do something no one else is doing. Don’t try to do something that other people are doing and don’t put out a jazz album if you’re a rock band, don’t do a serious dark drama if you’re the funny guy. Do what they want. It’s not that complicated, show business.
“Real Time” evolved into much more sophisticated conversations than you had on “Politically Incorrect.” How would you say the evolution of you in late night has coupled with your evolution as just a person and as a comedian?
It is an evolution. When you think about the fact that I’m 63 and when “Politically Incorrect” went on, I was 37. You’re just a completely different person. Your character hopefully is the same, but I always tell younger people when they’re asking me about the future, “Look, don’t stress it too much because you’re going to be in a completely different circumstance basically every decade of your life.”
In my twenties, my goal was don’t fail, don’t be one of the comedians who is not going to get a career out of this because you’ll be miserable through your whole life. You’re always growing and evolving, so I’m such a different person at this age than I was in my thirties and that can only be reflected in the show. “Politically Incorrect” was designed to be a train wreck. It was supposed to be almost a parody of a talk show. It was confrontational by design and it was on every night.
And then when I moved to this show it was a whole different thing. It was less celebrity-oriented. [Viewers] want a good serious conversation, and I think what’s different about our show is that it is a conversation that invites all points of view. And mostly what you see when people in the entertainment side of political discussion are doing it is a complete 100% pandering to the liberal point of view no matter what it is, and I’m a liberal. But I’m not afraid to take them on, and I think that is the difference.
On last week’s episode, you and George Will both lamented that there just aren’t many open minds anymore.
I think the frustration for me is more the studio audience than the people on the panel. The audience is more part of the problem. I think we have in this country extreme tribalism, meaning, “I’m on the blue team, I don’t even listen to what the red team is saying. Whatever they’re saying is abhorrent to me and I don’t even entertain it.” So when I go someplace that’s even a little outside the completely approved group think of the left there is always pushback. That’s frustrating to me because I would like to have a more open conversation. It’s very hard for me to even get the conservatives who come on our show to stick to their guns because that audience is so intimidating. No one likes to be booed, no one likes to be groaned at, no one likes to be laughed at.
What is it like for you when you encounter conservative audiences?
I don’t. I never do. When I play my concerts around the country doing standup, the entire audience is an audience that hates Trump and they’re going to laugh hysterically at all the Trump jokes. I love playing the Midwest, the south, because wherever I go, I’m going to get liberals. I played Alabama, I’m going to get a liberal audience. There’s liberals everywhere. You just don’t hear about them because they’re outnumbered. But in a lot of those places in the middle of the country and in the south, they’re more old-school liberal. They’re more in line with my thinking. They’re not part of the ultra woke left that I feel has become a kind of a cancer on progressivism.
Do you wish you had more conservatives in your audience?
I do face liberal audiences who, when I go outside those group-think boundaries, there is groaning and booing sometimes, and I don’t care. That’s my brand. It’s always been that way. The show was called “Politically Incorrect,” and they don’t really hold it against me, and I don’t hold it against them. My bond with my audience is that I’m always going to tell you what I think. I’m not going to pander or be intimidated by what you think, and that’s okay.
When I first went on TV, they said, you can’t even host a show if you give your political opinions because that was the template that talk show hosts had always gone by. That was Johnny Carson. That was Steve Allen. Even Leno and Letterman were doing that. You don’t tell the audience your politics because you’ll alienate half of them. I said, “Let’s give it a try. Maybe people can hear an opinion they don’t agree with and still like you,” and it turned out they can.
You had a bit, recently, where you said that the Democrats, they need a coach. Comedians have come up with some great ideas that, if these campaigns actually used them, could actually impact messaging. Why aren’t they listening?
Some of the things I’ve said just this year, or the last few years, they have picked up on. For example, I’ve been saying since before Trump took office that he was not going to leave if he didn’t win the 2020 election. Well now, they’re all saying that. Michael Cohen testified to that. Nancy Pelosi said that.
When I first went on the air, I was always talking about things like, pot should be legal. Especially when we got on ABC, they went ape shit over that. “You can’t say that.” Religion, again, something that I think a lot of the country has come around on. All you can do is put these ideas out there and slowly, over time, I think people come around, and I think we’re seeing that.
You often say you wish you didn’t have to constantly talk about Trump, but he takes up all the oxygen these days. How difficult is it not to talk about him and everything going on?
It’s the question that’s on my mind every week doing this show. I think I have a bonding with so many people in America now because we find ourselves in the same place, which is you don’t want to ignore it because that would mean you’re a bad citizen. You can’t just let it happen. You have to try your best to pay some attention because you can’t let it become normal.
But on the other hand, you can’t watch it all the time or else you go crazy. The more you see something, the more normal it becomes, and you can’t let it become normalized. So you’re caught in this terrible middle ground. I don’t have a great answer for that. All I know is if he wins a second term, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
What would happen?
Obviously, I’m against it for all the right reasons, as far as what’s good for this country. But, I also have very personal reasons why a second term would depress me so much. You can only make so many jokes, and I feel like I’ve already made them. I don’t want to write another four years of bad hair jokes.
There’s so many things about Trump, and yet we’ve exhausted all of them. Most politicians have one thing. Bush was stupid, and Clinton was horny and Chris Christie’s fat. Trump has everything. He’s fat, and he has a mushroom penis, he has terrible hair, he’s a racist, he’s corrupt, he’s stupid, and he’s horny. He’s everything. And yet, I still feel like we’ve exhausted it because we were making jokes about him before he was president. I looked back, we put it in our anniversary show. There were jokes about Donald Trump being president in the ’90s that we were doing.
I feel exhausted by this man and by working so hard every week to try to find some new angle. The prospect of another four years of having to do it looms over me like the sword of Damocles. I cannot tell you how much anxiety that causes me.
You mentioned that you get in trouble with with liberal audiences when you take on the “social justice warrior” issues and how Democrats manage to shoot themselves in the foot. But you seem to wear riling them up as a badge of honor.
Very much I wear it as a badge of honor, and I feel very vindicated because, in the last six months, there have been two long studies-slash-articles, one in the Atlantic, one in the New York Times, that found out that the vast majority, not only of people but of liberals, don’t like this bullshit. They don’t think it’s good. The people who are supposedly being protected by the social justice warriors, they themselves don’t like it.
It’s insincere. Most of the stuff on Twitter and in a lot of these so-called mainstream websites, they’re not really interested in the truth or justice. What they’re interested in is clicks, getting people to click and getting scalps, finding somebody who somehow stepped a little out of line, social justice warrior-wise, and we could disappear that person. We’ve seen so many people who have been disappeared for it. We’re coming to live in an age where no one can ever make any sort of mistake, even in the past.
It’s also lazy. I think people see that. You’re not really doing anything when you get on Twitter and say, “Oh, this person was fat shaming, or this person said this 20 years ago, and it’s not acceptable anymore.” You know what? You want to do something? Go down to Georgia and join Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity and build somebody a house.
I wanted to ask you about Rep. Katie Porter’s guest spot from a couple of weeks ago [she took on Maher’s comments about abortion]. You were criticized for your reaction, which definitely got a lot of attention.
I would say there’s an example of me, a liberal, just differing by degrees with the group-think and not acceptable among the liberals. They, again, are … they got diversity except with ideas.
I’m always happy when the Democrats have a witty, personable new star, and she is. All I can tell you is the next day I came into the office and I said, “Book her again as soon as possible.”
You have new bosses with WarnerMedia, AT&T. Has anything changed? Are they keeping a little more tabs on you? What’s going on with your new corporate bosses?
It’s all very new. I have no idea what they think of this show. I talked to our new head of entertainment, Bob Greenblatt, he seems like a great guy, but he’s done this before. He’s not new to this. He’s just somebody AT&T brought in. So that seems like it’s going to be a nice relationship, but I’ll never have a better boss than Richard Plepler. He was a news junkie, so he loved a show like this.
And HBO’s model has always been if they like you and believe in you, they leave you alone and that’s why HBO has always turned out such amazing programming and got the best people to come on-board. But it’s always been a boutique network, and I understand the thinking, I’m just guessing here, of the new corporate overlords that in this new atmosphere we’re in with streaming networks like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, that have a great deal of content, that it’s going to be harder and harder to survive if you only have six shows on at a time.
I am assuming they’re going to probably want more content. I’m hoping that’s good for me. I’m hoping that they’ll leave me alone and just want more. And that if you want more, then you don’t want to start getting rid of people. But I have no idea and if we never talk and we can just continue to do this, that would be fine with me. I certainly have nothing bad to say, I just don’t have anything to say because I don’t know.
Given what happened at ABC and how “Politically Incorrect” was canceled, do you ever worry that you could say one thing one night on the show and that could potentially change everything?
I can’t think about it because if I think about it, I’ll never do the show that I want to do. It’s completely antithetical for me living up to what I consider the charter, the bond between me and my audience. If I start pulling punches and playing it safe, well, safe you can see on every other channel. Everybody else is very safe, they are never going to say something that upsets you. It certainly doesn’t upset the overwhelmingly liberal audience that watches these shows. I might. I mean, I’ve said things that upset both the conservatives who were upset after 9/11, and I was a liberal free speech martyr then, and the reverse.
If it ends with me getting canceled or fired, I’ve been through that before. There’s something great about being canceled or fired in your past because you live through it and you realize, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad. I just went to a different network.” And if it happened again, I think I could get a job somewhere. I know is the technology keeps changing, and every time it does, all I hear is, “But they need content.” Well, I’m content, so I think I’ll be okay.
Any standout moments from the 500 episodes that come to mind?
I would say what I did on my 60th birthday. I don’t usually talk about my personal life, and I thought, “Well, I’m 60, I got to make something out of this.” I put out a petition for Obama to come on the show, which eventually worked. He had done every show, it was near the end of his term, and I was like why not us? I’ve been pretty damn supportive, and I get it that we are a much more dangerous show. Anything could happen, anything could be said, and that’s why politicians, a lot of them, stay away. It is risky. But considering that I gave him a million dollars, that’s a pretty big show of support.
I treat the audience as if they are my real friend that never got married and never had kids, and I said, “This is the relationship of my life, me and the audience. Do this one thing for me, get Obama to come on.” That was a real meaningful moment for me.