The Comedy Couch

 BILL MAHER - February 17, 2004

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
disprespect 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.

BM: Right.

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'tmean 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 Inititiative, 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.
BM: Kerry?

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.

 

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