Have you ever pondered the question, “Who would you most like to sit down and have a conversation with?” Most of us have a list of famous individuals with whom we would love to have a chat. For me that would include the likes of Jerry Garcia, Woody Allen, Magic Johnson, John Lennon, Jerry Seinfeld — people who have inspired me in my life in various ways and for very personal reasons.
When I learned that Bill Maher would be visiting Boulder for an April 9 show at Macky Auditorium, my first impulse was to invite him to join me for a mountain bike ride in the beauty and serenity of the foothills of the Rockies. Hey, stranger things have happened, I thought.
“That is not going to happen,” my adoring but far more sensible wife, Mari, offered from the next room when I revealed my plan to my friend, Raffi, one evening. And when the regrets expressed by Maher’s publicist confirmed my wife’s bold prediction (“Thank you for the offer but Bill will only be in town for a few hours.”), I decided to settle for a 30-minute telephone chat about humor and politics, attire, the recent AOL purchase of the Huffington Post, the future of print, religion and spirituality (yes, he does make a distinction), Israel and, of course, weed.
Bill Maher is one of the few people for whom I would dust off my now rarely donned interviewer cap and run the risk that I would wind up feeling disillusioned after having a one-on-one conversation. I wasn’t. My hope that he would come across as the kind of no-bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is, down-to-Earth, regular guy that he portrays on TV and in his stand-up shows was firmly fulfilled. This only added momentum to my plan to get him on a mountain bike, so I decided to give it one final try, which led to my only disappointment: “I don’t think that’s in my future,” he laughed. “I’m very susceptible to poison ivy, so I stay away from mountains.”
Aside from that one minor mar (get it?) in the conversation, Maher was everything you would expect him to be — funny, smart, affable, bold, insightful and even humble. Given that he is a comedian (and half Jewish), I thought I would lead with a joke of my own, so I conjured my best Woody Allen voice and said, “I was just sitting here thinking, I haven’t been this nervous since my Bar Mitzvah.” Predictably (in hindsight), he quickly one-upped me: “I don’t know why. I mean I know why you’re nervous for a Bar Mitzvah. That’s not the one where they cut off the end of your dick is it?”
Stewart Sallo: What kinds of things do you like talking about when you do an interview?
BM: Well, I mean (laughs), usually they ask about what can we expect in the show, to which I say they can expect a great show.
SS: To laugh their asses off.
BM: Laugh their asses off, they will.
The thing that most people say is they found it very different than the TV show. And I like them to know that because why go to see something you can see on TV, and you really can’t see this on TV.
SS: That’s true; you do tone down even for HBO a little bit, right?
BM: Of course, because you have, you know, governors and senators sitting on the panel and so forth. And you want them to come back and not, you know, spread the word that “that show is so outrageous we can’t even be seen on it.” And it’s just a much purer art form. I mean, the show is great, and it’s great to have guests and everything, but I definitely know from doing this for a long time that people leave the standup show thinking that that was a totally different kind of experience.
SS: There’s a noticeable difference between your apparel when you do the TV show and when you do your standup show. Does that represent what you just said?
BM: You know, I think it’s symbolic of the difference. It is looser, it is more raw.
SS: Is it more you?
BM: For me and for them.
SS: Is that how you dress normally, with the Ed Hardy T-shirt and the jeans? This is how I dress when I go to work. At my day job I don’t wear a suit and tie like you do on Friday evenings, which I’m very proud of.
BM: As well you should be. Anytime you can avoid wearing a suit and tie [you should].
SS: So you would prefer to not to have to do that on Real Time?
BM: I’ve never been crazy about suit and tie. Women love them. You know, women love a man in a suit and a tie.
SS: Maybe that’s my problem.
BM: (Laughs). Yeah, it’s never been my favorite. I started out doing standup comedy right out of college when all I had was T-shirt and jeans, and that’s what we wore in the comedy clubs, and we felt comfortable with it. We were very often wearing the T-shirt of the comedy club we were in because they gave us one for free. And just something about dressing like that — and I don’t always, sometimes I wear a different kind of shirt — but I certainly never would feel comfortable doing standup comedy in a suit and tie because you’re just moving too much, you know. I mean the difference between a monologue that you do like I do at the top of Real Time and standup comedy in a theater is sort of a passionate difference. When you’re doing a monologue on Friday night you’re sort of the observer commenting on the parade going by. It’s not terribly personal, although I try to make it a little more raw than what you would see on other talk shows. But when you get a chance to really let it out, when you come to somebody’s town and they came to the theater to see you, you want to be as passionate about it as you can. You do not want it to be at all bloodless.
SS: Let’s talk about AOL’s recent purchase of the Huffington Post. I couldn’t help but notice that you had Arianna Huffington on Real Time the same week that this occurred.
BM: Sure, she was a newsmaker.
SS: Right, but there was no mention or any discussion of, “well, there goes another one, being sucked into the big corporate takeover of our culture.” I know Arianna’s a friend of yours, but at Boulder Weekly we are very troubled by corporate ownership of the media, and the consolidation of big corporations into even bigger corporations is troubling for people who are champions of free speech. I’m wondering, does that trouble you, and is the AOL purchase of HuffPo any different than, you know, AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile?
BM: Well we don’t know yet. I would just say I have so much faith in Arianna — maybe I’m naÃ¯ve — but I think she can change them more than they’ll change her.
SS: That would be nice.
BM: Yeah. I don’t really know what the corporate culture [of AOL is like]. Not all corporations are the same. You know, Ben and Jerry’s is not the same as (pauses) Mobil. We’ll see what happens, but it’s a little too early to tell, and like I say, I really think Arianna Huffington is somebody who is probably always underestimated, and if they think they’re going to mold her into some sort of corporate shill, if that’s what they need from her, I don’t think that’s going to happen.
SS: All right, well that’s comforting. So, staying with the media, do you think print is dying, literally dying, as in eventually there will be no books or newspapers?
BM: No. I think just the way they said movies were dying in the ’50s when television came in, and they never did, because there’s something in the experience of going to the theater that people like. I also think there’s something in holding a book that some people just will always like. Now movies, of course, have always thrived. They’ve always stayed big. Something like vinyl records didn’t, although there’s a cult following for them. Where books will be in that spectrum, somewhere in between, probably. Somewhere in between where vinyl records are, which is like a smaller cult, but probably never as big as they used to be, whereas the movies did stay as big or got bigger than they used to be. But I don’t see people ever not wanting to hold something, a certain amount of people.
SS: So you feel that applies to newspapers, as well?
BM: Well, you know, it’s funny. I used to say that if they had invented the newspaper after the computer, we would have all thought that was a genius invention. If somebody came in one day and said, “Wow, they found a way that I can take what I used to have to, you know, I used to have to take my computer and you know it got all sandy at the beach, and now I can take this thing and I can throw it away at the end of the day,” it would seem like maybe that would be the advancement.
SS: I hope you don’t get asked this question a lot, but are you first and foremost a comedian or an activist or even a journalist?
BM: I do get asked that and it’s a valid question. I definitely think comedian first, but it is impossible to separate them because [in my case] comedian goes along with politics — you know, the fodder for my comedy is politics mostly, so, you know, if that’s the clay you’re dealing with of course you’re also by definition something of a commentator. And that’s fine, too. When I was younger I didn’t really have the gravitas — and the audience treated me that way, as a comedian — to be talking about some of the subjects I was talking about. But, you know, I’m certainly not a kid anymore, and I’ve been doing it a long time. When I look back at some of the things we’ve talked about and some of the points I’ve made over the years, I don’t think I was terribly wrong about everything. So I think I have just as much merit to render my opinion as the next guy. When you look at some of the bloviators who are on television, and what I always say is, “You know, even if I get something wrong, at least I’m funny about it. Glenn Beck isn’t even funny.”
SS: So your primary objective is to make people laugh, not change the world.
BM: Absolutely. I do not have great faith that any commentator changes the world, or certainly any celebrity. Bruce Springsteen went on a giant tour to get John Kerry elected in 2004. Puff Daddy said “vote or die.” It still didn’t stop Bush from getting re-elected. I don’t think people vote on that or change their mind. I think mostly you’re talking to people who already mostly agree with you. In my case, it’s a little different because I’m not quite as predictable, as far as politics on every issue, as most people are. So people tend to be surprised sometimes, and if they’re surprised and it’s not the way they thought I was going to think, maybe it’ll make them think about it differently. Also, I would say on the religion issue, that’s the one issue where nobody else really in comedy-slashpunditry talks about religion the way I do, and I have had too many people come up to me over the years, especially since Religulous was out, who have said, you know, “You’ve changed the way I think about religion and about God and stuff,” so I think that is a very ripe area where people are open to change.
SS: If you can change that one, that’s probably the big one, isn’t it?
BM: That is the big one. That is absolutely the big one.
SS: Some people have said you changed their thinking about religion, but a lot of other people have said you go too far with your anti-religion agenda, and specifically that you make no distinction between being religious and being spiritual.
BM: That’s certainly not true. I certainly make a distinction. All these terms have to be defined before you can start throwing around accusations. What do you mean by religious? If you’re talking about the traditional [definition] — Richard Dawkins addresses this in his book. He says that the term “religious” has taken on so many meanings that it’s almost meaningless anymore. If you say, “I’m religious,” in the sense of a deist believing that God is basically nature, well, that’s very different than someone who — I was just in Missouri last night and was protested by the Westboro [Baptist Church], you know, the “God hates fags” people. And, you know, their version of religion is what we’ve traditionally thought of as religion, what it says in the holy books, what it says in the Bible. God is a figure who we can picture, and he created the world in six days. All I’ve said about spirituality is I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about when they talk about it, and I don’t think they do either. I don’t know what that term means to people. Americans throw it around. I think it just means — it’s just a way of being cowardly about religion, of saying, “You know what, I really don’t want to let go of this stuff even though I kind of know, because I’m an intelligent person in the 21st century, that it is bullshit.” I was that person myself for a long time, and I point that out in Religulous. I did not spring out of my mother’s womb an atheist. I was raised Catholic, then went through a long period where I really didn’t think about a lot of this stuff at all, but I certainly wasn’t renouncing God. I hated religion right away, but I didn’t renounce God or any of that. It’s an evolution, and people are at different phases in their evolution, and that is absolutely the way it should be. So I do make a distinction, but for everybody they have to define it for themselves, and they’re all on their own journey at different points in it.
SS: So, do you have spiritual beliefs of your own then?
BM: I don’t know what that means.
SS: By your own definition.
BM: It’s so nebulous. I’m an ethicist, which is someone who believes you should be a decent person just for the sake of it, not because you think there is some reward. I don’t think there is any reward system in the afterlife. I don’t know if there is an afterlife. It doesn’t seem like probably there is. I think it’s probably just you live and fade to black, and it’s over. When people talk about a soul, you really believe in ghosts. I mean, come on. I don’t believe in ghosts. No.
SS: But it’s OK with you if people do believe in ghosts as long as they don’t try and legislate it or ram it down anyone’s throat.
BM: Of course. They can believe anything they want.
SS: You’re one of the few progressives I know who has expressed a pro-If Israel point of view. Do you feel abandoned by your fellow progressives on the subject of Israel?
BM: First of all, I don’t care. I say what I believe. If they agree, great; if they don’t, that’s fine, too. But you have identified an area where I think progressives — liberals if you will — are the most fuzzy-headed and embarrassing. For example, a couple of weeks ago I had on [Real Time] Congressman Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in Congress, and a really nice guy, and all for freedom of religion and whatever. And I was most supportive for four-fifths of the interview. I told him I thought the hearings that Congressman King was holding were McCarthyism and that they were making the problem worse not better and yada yada, and that he held the hearings wrong and didn’t invite the FBI or the CIA to testify — people who would know what’s going on with radical Muslims in America. But I also wanted to get to the point that there is a unique problem with Islam. And that is that we’re talking about a religion that takes the holy book very seriously, much more seriously than Christians and Jews take the Bible. We read the Bible — actually we don’t read the Bible, but we put our hand on it, and it says some crazy shit in there like “stone to death your neighbor if you see him working on a Sunday.” But nobody really does that. There is a fringe, and again it is just a very small fringe, in Islam who take that book very seriously, and if you read that book as Sam Harris, who I was quoting, said, there’s a call to violence toward the unbeliever frequently throughout the book. Well, liberals don’t want to hear this kind of thing. They don’t know anything about it; they just have this fuzzy idea in their heads that all religions are the same, and there are many ways to God. They’ve heard catch phrases like, “Islam is a religion of peace.” To most people maybe it is, but if people take the holy book seriously, you kind of have to address that central issue. And the same thing with Israel: They want to believe because what they see on the news, in the media, which loves a victim — and at the moment it’s the Palestinians who are losing in that battle — they want to believe that Israel is the bad guy here, and the poor Palestinians. And of course the Palestinians’ plight is horrible, and I believe in the two-state solution. I’d like to see the Palestinian situation get a lot better, but it’s a very complicated situation, and if you haven’t studied the history of Israel, if you don’t know that they were just established as a very tiny piece of land and they were attacked by seven Arab armies and then they were attacked five years later by five Arab armies and then they were attacked again by three Arab armies — it’s not exactly like they’re just keeping the Palestinians down for no reason.
SS: One last question. I would never be able to live with myself if I didn’t ask you something about weed. Are the laws that have been passed recently in your state and mine with respect to medical marijuana a gateway to the full legalization of pot?
BM: Yes, I think so. But it’s taking so much longer than we thought. When we were in college, we thought, “Oh, you know what? When we get to be the people who run the world, when we’re the lawyers and the congressmen, of course this will be legal because, come on, we’re here in the dorm now and we’re smoking it and we know it’s OK.” What happened to that? Obviously it didn’t work out that way. But, yes, just the fact that marijuana, the legalization of it, was on the ballot here in California, and it was a serious issue, means that it’s inevitable. And of course if there had been one Democrat who had the balls to get behind that, as I always say: If you only have two political parties in a country, shouldn’t one of them be for pot?
You Go Bill Maher performs at Macky Auditorium on Saturday, April 9. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $66.55 and can be bought at ticketmaster.com. 1595 Pleasant St., 303-492-8423.]