On the eve of a rare Santa Cruz gig, we probe the mind of Bill Maher and explore how comedy and politics helped send the comedian’s celebrity soaring into one hell of an orbit.
It’s political hunting season and, man, is Bill Maher on the prowl. Of course, this isn’t “breaking” news. The unabashed liberal comedian has fiercely pointed his creative Uzi toward the American political system—and its mixed bag of politicians—for nearly 20 years now. Back in the ’90s, when Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect first aired (it later moved to ABC), Maher quickly became known for being not just your garden-variety envelope-pusher, but somebody far more crafty (and sane). He was able, through a clever mix of wit, wisdom and insight, to help reinvent the way modern comics and commentators approach the issue of politics and present it to television audiences. In the years that followed, especially when the comic found success on HBO with Real Time With Bill Maher (beginning in 2003), others followed suit. Without Maher, some would argue, the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert may not have been so lavishly embraced by the masses.
Now, with less than a month until the contentious 2012 presidential election, Maher’s main topics are, obviously, Obama, Romney, the Republicans, and, not to be left out, the environment. (Is anybody addressing the fact that the planet is still in a state of enviro chaos?) But here, a few weeks before he hits the Santa Cruz Civic with his “Countdown To The Election” tour (Oct. 21), the New York City-born/River City, N.J.-raised comedian, who first got his start in 1979 only to later rise as a multiple-Emmy nominee, documentary film titan (Religulous) and modern media thrill seeker (CrazyStupidPolitics LIVE), talks candidly about some of his early influences, his current state of mind and the joy of being autonomous (among other things).
Good Times: Great to connect with you. Congratulations on all of your work.
Bill Maher: That’s sweet of you. Thank you.
It’s nice that you’re coming to Santa Cruz. You know … we are very cannabis-friendly, so this might be a good pit stop for you.
[Laughs] Note to self: Good to know.
So here we are, the countdown to the election—where do you think we are and what do you find most amusing, politically, at this point?
Well, the Republicans are always the most amusing. Considering the amount of material they give me on almost a daily basis, I should have given a million dollars to Mitt Romney’s campaign. He’s earned it much more than Obama has. But, as amusing as it is to me … apparently [it is] not so much to the American public. Every time I see some bad shit happening for him, like when he picked Paul Ryan [for a running mate] and then Medicare became the big issue … I thought, ‘Well, this has been the Democratic issue for 50 years, certainly people are going to be afraid of Ryan and his plan to end the program.’ You know, it took them two weeks to make it a draw on the issue of Medicare, and now, a lot of people, especially older folks, think Mitt Romney’s the man on this. Then the whole Todd Akin thing came along—the man with the mystical spermicide theory—and I thought, well, this is going to be bad, but no, it didn’t seem to affect them at all. So, I don’t know. It looks like it’s one of those years where the economy is just in the forefront of people’s minds and they go, well, Mitt Romney is a brilliant businessman and we need a better business atmosphere. Let’s elect him.
It must be great for material. But I am sure you must sit back and ask: When are we going to pull our head out of our ass?
Well, I have been saying that since I got on the air. But it does seem to get worse every year. At least this year, I feel like there is a choice that is exciting both bases of the party. And you don’t always get that in every election. Obviously, Romney for picking Ryan, and that’s all he’s got. It was in the paper that the Romney/Ryan ticket is getting zero percent of the black vote. Zero. So, not a lot of reason to go after that one. And the Democrats, Obama made moves; got the gay vote shored up with gay marriage; got the Latino vote shored up. He’s going after what is basically the Democratic base—minorities, women and sane people. And Republicans are going after their base, which I guess is white people who make sighing noises when they get up. It does seem like it’s the last election for the old white guard. I mean, if Mitt doesn’t pull this one out, they are in trouble. Every year, the white population goes down and the minority population goes up.
You’ve expressed a number of criticisms of Obama, but what is your biggest criticism of his presidency thus far?
The drug war. Well, you mentioned it. You said Santa Cruz is a cannabis-friendly area. Well, if it’s a cannabis-friendly area, they must be shitting in their pants. Because I just reviewed a book for the New York Times book review a few weeks ago, “Too High To Fail,” which described Mendocino County, which is nearby, and how a couple of years ago, it was kind of an Eden of experimentation for legalized marijuana. They were taking advantage of the state laws and there were lots of farmers growing it and the sheriff was cool with it, and everybody was making money and nobody was getting hurt. Crime was down and then Obama came in and the feds cracked down and that Eden went away. Not only is it the wrong policy, but it is exactly the opposite of what Obama promised he would do. Not only is it bad, but there’s a third thing that is wrong with it, which is that it’s bad politics. The Democratic Party could gain so much for coming out for legalization. They would gain so many new voters. You know, a lot of them would probably show up on the wrong day … Thursday. [Laughs] But it would be a beginning. But I am serious about that—that could be a wedge issue for Democrats, like voting for gay marriage was for the Republicans.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. But I don’t sense it changing any time soon, and I sense you agree.
It’s funny you said that because when I was in college in the ’70s, we used to say to ourselves, through the cloud of smoke, that when we became the establishment—when we were in our fifties, when we were the lawyers and the legislatures—of course, marijuana would be legal because it’s us. And now we would be the ones in charge, but somehow that didn’t seem to happen, did it?
It didn’t. So, what is your thought of the day on the religious right?
That they are wrong. [Laughs] Well, I mean, you see them always rearing their ugly head, certainly in Republican politics. Certainly with Mr. Akin. That was our little editorial at the end of the show (recently). I was trying to make the connection between the party that is basically fundamentalist in their religious views and also the party of fantasy—and not just about the baby-making, although that’s a great example. This idea that if you don’t like the idea of a rape baby, then just imagine that it is impossible. Imagine that a woman has a shutdown valve, and, if she is raped, there can be no such thing as a rape baby. That is real fantastical thinking. That is magical thinking. And you see it many of their issues. You see it economically. You see it in global warming—that’s just another thing that does not exist in their mind. It’s a hoax—that it’s something out of Al Gore’s imagination. And it’s very dangerous, especially in this world we live in, with the kind of problems we deal with, It’s very, very dangerous not to attack problems realistically and scientifically. And this is what they are constantly doing.
So, take me back a little bit. There you are, Bill … 10, 11, 12 years old. Who were your inspirations? Who were you influenced by?
I already knew I wanted to be a comedian when I was 10 years old. That was a big advantage. A lot of kids are very smart, very great. They are ambitious but they get to college and they go, ‘What the fuck do I do? Where are the jobs? I don’t know what I want to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do and that was great. And my heroes that I wanted to follow into it were Johnny Carson, [and] Robert Klein.
Yes. And George Carlin. Those were the comedians that I looked up to and wanted to emulate.
A few years back in a Vanity Fair questionnaire, you noted your biggest extravagance was hope and that your current state of mind at the time was cautiously pessimistic. So, how about now?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, right, The Proust Questionnaire.
Is hope still your biggest extravagance?
Yeah, I think so. It’s so hard to hope. It’s kind of hope against hope. Because the things that you read in the newspaper … they don’t seem to be going in an upward direction. I read today that the ice melting in the Arctic Ocean has been constantly more than the scientists’ worst predictions—more than it has ever done before [before the end of summer]. It’s like the guy who in baseball has 75 home runs and it’s only August. Where is the melting going to go? And on top of that, nobody is really doing anything about it. It’s not really an issue. It’s not really on the table. You didn’t hear anybody in the Republican and Democratic conventions talking about the fact that the planet is catching on fire.
Nobody is talking about it anymore. Greenland melted a few months ago. So then … what would you say is current your state of mind?
Well, my current state of mind is … hanging on. [Laughs] It’s funny. I’m 56 years old. So on the environmental issue, I kind of feel like, if younger people don’t care as much as I do, fuck ’em. I’ve already had a good time with the planet. You know? You got to care at least as much as I do, because you are going to be on the cleanup committee. And this shit is only going to get worse. I just don’t understand younger people who don’t care. I guess they buy into this theory, the Republican’s theory, of ‘Oh well, we’ll just adapt. So what if the sea levels rise and it wipes out New York and Los Angeles. We’ll adapt.’ We’ll move inland. We’ll be in St. Louis. We’ll wear a Hazmat suit when we go down to the mailbox. I mean, so what if the ocean is all fished out and there are no more fish left, we’ll eat eels and cockroaches and make protein shakes out of bugs. I guess that’s what we will do, but it’s not really what I want to do.
You also mentioned once, and I hear this a lot from comedians and performers, that you had a desperate need to be liked. Is that still true? Care to expound?
Yeah, I think I can open that up. [Laughs]
Good for you.
I think that’s the motivating factor when you are young and you want to succeed. First you want that with a girl; having a girl like you. Of course, you want to be liked by the audience and I still want to be liked by the audience, but after doing this for 20 years, come on, if it all ended tomorrow, I would still feel like it was a great ride and [I would be] thrilled that I basically got to say what I wanted to say without having to pull any punches for this long. And, in a way, it’s surprising that I have lasted this long. I feel like I am playing with the house money.
What is something most people might not know about you?
That if I were a foot taller, I would be a great NBA basketball player; that I play basketball every day.
What is some of the best advice you’ve been given about life?
I have not been given a lot of great advice. I never had an older brother. I didn’t really have a comic mentor that I can think of. I had idols, and we discussed them. But I didn’t know them personally. I feel like I have had to learn most of my lessons myself, and it depends on your personality. For me, I am kind of a warrior and I think the most important advice I’ve learned to give myself is: ‘Stop worrying; you’re probably doing it already. Whatever you’re worrying about, you’re probably already doing everything you could.’ It’s just really ridiculous to be stressed out about stress, which I have sometimes done to myself. Stressing about stress.
What is one of the most interesting things you have been learning about yourself lately?
Oh, it’s too late, Greg. It’s too late to learn. This is like asking me what my New Year’s resolutions are. You know, when you’re 56 … you know what my New Year’s resolutions are? To do the ones from 1980 that I haven’t gotten to yet. One area that I am always trying to learn and improve upon, and this is always for self-interest, is matters of health. I am always reading health books and health articles … whatever the latest findings are because once the body goes, there you have it.
Try aloe vera juice.
I don’t know about aloe vera juice, but I juice every day; vegetables in a juicer and I put the aloe vera in it—the big leaf, prickly thick.
So, you’re a bit holistic?
Very much so.
Nice. Moving on … gay marriage. What do you think?
I hardly know you.
[Laughs] You have a good voice, though.
We just met. Come on—gay marriage? Sure. I am for it. Whatever they want to do. As long as I don’t have to get married, I am all for anyone else who thinks they would be happy getting married. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve never been anti-marriage. I know lots of people who marriage works beautifully for—and good for them. It doesn’t work for me. But that’s the nice thing about living in a country of choice. Certainly gay people should have that choice.
What is it about marriage that doesn’t work for you?
I am too autonomous. I just want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. And you can’t be married that way, you know?
I can relate. So, yeah, maybe we wouldn’t make a good couple after all. Or …?
[Laughs] Yeah, well.
Bill Maher hits the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. in Santa Cruz, in a Rick Bartalini Presents production at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. Reserved Seating: $58 & $79. For more information, visit rbpconcerts.com, cityofsantacruz.com or log onto billmaher.com.
Photos: Steve Jennings