Although Bill Maher is a comic by trade, a quick survey of political pundits would reveal that he's one of the most serious analysts in the business. Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin before him, Maher barks with no muzzle every time he mounts his soapbox; unlike those First Amendment flag wavers, however, he tackles issues with fact-first ferocity. Representing the nihilistic-libertarian end of the left-wing spectrum, the host of HBO's Real Time was famously canned from his former ABC show, Politically Incorrect, after shattering the superficial silence that paralyzed post-9/11 discourse. In anticipation of his latest stand-up tour, I asked Maher (pre-Obama Nobel Prize) about everything from his crusade against folks who believe in talking snakes to how he can stand to sit within stabbing distance of Ann Coulter without rearranging her intestines.
In seven years at HBO, it doesn't seem that you've ever held back a thing. But behind the scenes — are there any ground rules?
I didn't hold back before, either, but I got fired for it. I have producers who will give me their opinion, but at the end of the day, it is my call. It's never about us being afraid to say something, though — it's more about us having a congressman on the panel and asking ourselves if we should really use the word "cunt" in the editorial because he's from a conservative district.
Where does your figure that 70 percent of Americans aren't completely crazy come from?
In polls, when they talk about support for Obama, and whether he's a socialist or a Kenyan, about 30 percent of the answers come from the real wing nuts. Bush retained about a 30 percent favorability level. Three out of 10 seem to be with the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs who think this country is going to hell in a hand basket. These are the people who are saying that they want their country back, and we don't really know what changed or where it went. It's just a feeling they have — part of it is racism, there's no denying that. But it's not just that — they simply don't think it's the country they remember, though we're not exactly sure of what that means, either. It's not like Obama has made Shaft the vice-president and Dolemite the secretary of state, so we don't really know. Seventy percent aren't necessarily with Obama, but they're at least willing to listen to what he has to say.
Last time you were in Boston, a fistfight erupted in the audience during your debate with Ann Coulter. What is it about you two that makes ordinary people assault each other with plastic wine glasses?
I don't know what those people were fighting about, but usually what drives most people crazy is when they find out that we're friends. Neither the left nor the right can handle that. I did that series in March, and I hadn't seen or talked to her in a long time, but we can still sit down and have a conversation and laugh, and laugh at each other. Then we can walk off stage and leave it there. It's all fun. I know people hate to hear it, but when you're not talking politics with her, she's not the fire breather that she is when she's doing her act.