Bill Maher, on the Edge

Bill Maher, by his own assessment, is not long for this world.

“The truth is, at some point, everybody gets put out to pasture in television,” he says about his weekly HBO show, Real Time. “I [recently did] my last appearance [on Jay Leno], my last appearance after — I can’t even tell ya how many times Jay and I have done our little dog-and-pony show. They’re putting him out to pasture, they put Johnny Carson out to pasture and they’ll put me out to pasture someday. And when it ends, I’ll still have stand-up. It’s what I started with. It’s what I end with. And it’s really what is still the most fun.”

Real Time, now in its 12th season, was Maher’s follow-up to his long-running panel show Politically Incorrect, which ended in an unceremonious cancellation following remarks he made a week after the 2001 terrorist attacks. (“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”) Both on Real Time and in his stand-up routines, Maher is unrepentant as ever, and takes a certain glee in provocation, in going over the top.

Maher distinguishes between his two audiences (the studio audience versus his stand-up crowd) thusly: “The audience that comes to the television taping is not necessarily that well informed. I think sometimes they come to the taping to get informed, which is fine. That’s one of the reasons I do Real Time. The person I have in my mind is the person who doesn’t have time during the week to follow all the news. But the stand-up audience, they know everything, and they’re never offended. They’re not too politically correct. And they want me to always go to the edge, so that’s a very different audience.”

Maher has never shied from that edge. His books, take-offs from the “New Rules” segment of his Real Time show, and especially his 2008 documentary Religulous, in which he skewered organized religions of all stripes, embody his irreverence. And it’s not posturing. Personally (yet still very publicly), he endorses the legalization of drugs and prostitution, and he’s a vocal animal rights and gay marriage advocate.

“I think you always have to be a little out front of where the audience is. You are supposed to be the leader, not the follower,” he says. “A lot of people are the followers. A lot of people have a slavish devotion to their own audience’s sensibilities. That’s one way to do it. I don’t disrespect it. It’s just not the way I work. I would rather have the audience sometimes ‘Ooo’ and ‘Ahh,’ because I want to be on the edge. I want to be beyond where they are. Just like a band that puts out a record that’s ahead of its time. That’s OK. That’s what an artist should do.”

Shunned by the church, hated by the GOP and marginalized by many Democrats (who are scared shitless that their name might be mentioned in the same sentence as his), Maher is determined to remain politically outspoken — and, yes, he’s 
still proud of the term “liberal.” Yes, his fellow liberals are moving away from that term, favoring instead the label “progressive,” but he sees this as a wuss move, not unlike the Democratic Party’s slow slide toward conservatism.

Maher understands that centrists are likely to get elected, which is one reason he’s certain that Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. “I think the odds are in her favor,” he says. “I don’t think the GOP has a great field, but I also think that sometimes you are just in the current of history, and she is there right now. This country, now that it’s had a black president, wants a woman president.”

Still, Maher is less concerned about the death of the term liberal than he is about the death of liberalism. He’d like to see a politician stand up and defend true liberal policies. “That’s what I worry about,” he says. “The pull to the right, in which the Democrats always find themselves caught in the undertow.” o