If you want to see the phrase “preaching to the choir” in action, attend an evening of standup with Bill Maher. Just like on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the unabashedly liberal comedian wastes no time skewering all things right-wing, religious, and hypocritical. Because of his weekly TV production schedule, he hits the standup stage only two days a month, almost always back-to-back. For those too-infrequent appearances, though, the gloves come off, the fangs come out, and the rapid-fire back-and-forth of his Real Time roundtable gets sharpened to a devastating point tailor-made for his audience.
“The people who come to the standup show are the real fans,” he told the Memphis Flyer back in January. “They have to be — they have to pay. The people who come to the studio audience [are] fans, but they are much more politically correct. And sometimes that pisses me off. I have political correctness, obviously. I’m a liberal, and I love my liberal brethren, but they can just really be fucking annoying about not being able to take a joke.”
Therein lies Maher’s greatest power: his ability to piss off anyone, left or right, sympathizer or detractor. Unlike most left-wing figures, he gleefully embraces sexist humor. On May 1, he tweeted about all-time low U.S. pregnancy rates with, “It’s so hard to find knocked-up teens MTV is doing a show called ‘16 and Fingered’.” And on the May 6 episode of Real Time, he repeatedly called Donald Trump “Lady Trump” while accusing him of being “a whiny little bitch.” If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, he added, “I’ll be voting for the only one who has balls.”
And that represents just one strain of Maher’s pugilism. He spent months calling Ted Cruz a “douchebag” and a “loser,” while conceding that the country would be #BetterTedThanDead. Last November, Maher went toe-to-toe with Stephen Colbert over the CBS host’s faith. He has no qualms about cracking Holocaust jokes. His perpetually foul mouth can make even the most open-minded bohemian cringe. And his authentic American abrasiveness chaps plenty of our overseas friends’ collective asses: Last May, after a one-off UK show, The Telegraph critic Rupert Hawksley described Maher’s style as “mockery masquerading as intellectualism.”
No matter what you think of his attitude, you can’t knock the New York native’s rapid-fire thoughtfulness and complex positions on thorny issues — or the roots of his cynical skepticism. In 1969, his Irish-American news editor/radio announcer father stopped taking Maher and his sister to Mass to protest the Catholic Church’s doctrine against birth control. And as an English and history major at Cornell University in the mid-’70s, Maher bucked the Ivy League system by selling pot to get by.
Today, Maher is an avowed supporter of environmental and animal rights, and pro-cannabis causes. But he also owns guns, sides with the Israelis in the Middle East conflict, and supports the death penalty and racial profiling at airports. Although he’s critical of all religions — his 2008 documentary Religulous is one of the most scathing takedowns ever created — he reserves special wrath for Islam and its “illiberal ideas,” which he has repeatedly claimed are not just extremist views held by a small minority. In October 2014, Maher said Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book,” a diatribe that resulted in a public dustup with Ben Affleck, serious Islam scholars like Karen Armstrong, and even the University of California-Berkeley.
But as usual, Maher wasn’t fazed, using the shock value of his humor to make a prescient (if stinging) political point. “You know, I’m a liberal,” he told Vanity Fair in December 2014. “My message is: Be a liberal. Find out what liberalism means and join up. Liberalism certainly should not mean squelching free speech … [Liberals] should own the First Amendment the way the right-wingers own the Second.”