Bill Maher has been hosting “Real Time,” his HBO comedy/commentary show, for eight years and been doing standup for decades before that, and all along his unabashed views — mostly liberal, strongly atheistic, always expressed bluntly — have been front and center, and so has the criticism.
Earlier this year, he gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Barack Obama’s re-election, and in a recent phone conversation, Maher says, “I thought a lot about it, and at the end of the day, I came up with, ‘Who am I kidding? No one who’s ever seen me talk for the last five years has any doubt which side I’m on in this race.’ ”
He says that doing standup and “Real Time” make up “a full-time plate,” and that the two disciplines require different approaches.
“Real Time,” the Friday night talk show that takes a summer break after this weekend, toggles between serious and funny. It has panel discussions as well as Maher monologues, but standup comedy is “strictly for getting people to laugh for 90 minutes to two hours, and to feel like when that comedian leaves the stage, they can’t laugh anymore. I’m very serious about that.” He calls standup comedy “the last bastion of freedom,” adding that even on HBO there are places he can’t go.
Of course, Maher, the son of a newsman, brings the news, and his opinions on it, into his standup act.
“I try to give them a complete covering of the entire waterfront — everything that’s going on in this country. And there’s a lot to talk about, especially in an election year.” He says he’ll incorporate the newest events of the day into a show right up until showtime, all with the help of his ever-present onstage notebook. “I hate comedians who have dead air. They tell a joke and then they stop and think, and say, ‘What else? What else?’ I hate that. I always know what else, because I write it down.”
Part of the slant of his humor, Maher says, comes from the sense that an essential element of comedy is mocking the stone-cold certainty of people who believe they have it all figured out. “And there’s nothing like religion for being certain. You’re selling an invisible product, so you have to be pretty sure about it.”
The key, Maher says, is taking anger and turning it into humor, which he calls “a cathartic experience for the audience. Because I think the audience is angry at where this country has been taken, and angry about being poisoned and ripped off and lied to. And I think they want an experience that turns that into something positive.”
The alternative is turning that anger into more anger, which he says is Rush Limbaugh’s territory.
“I kept saying when they were comparing me to him (in the recent kerfuffle over Limbaugh’s comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke): When Rush Limbaugh can go out in this country — and I mean all over this country; I don’t just do the blue states — and stand up there for two hours and make people laugh their guts out, I will call him a comedian, and I will give him a lot more latitude about what he says. But he doesn’t, so let’s end that discussion right now.”
Of course, Maher has done shows with the conservative commentator Ann Coulter, and he proudly points out that he doesn’t ensconce himself in the blue states when he hits the road. “Nothing (ticks) me off more than political correctness, and that’s mostly on the liberal side. And yeah, we agree on certain issues.”
It also gives him a chance to win converts: “I see lots of conservatives at my show. They’re right in the front row, and it’s usually the guy who was dragged by his wife, and he’s got a scowl on his face when the show begins and his arms are folded and he’s trying to stare me down, but by the end of it he’s laughing his (expletive) off.”