Bill Maher

Emmy, Jun 2011

The Believer: If TV was like the Olympics, Bill Maher’s show would be the decathlon. 

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“I’ll tell you why they should give me an Emmy, now that I think about it.”

Bill Maher pours a second coffee in his office, in Bungalow 37 on the CBS Lot, where HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher is produced. It’s Wednesday March 9th, only two days before the show tapes, and he’s already prepared to discuss Climate-gate, the Catholic Church’s new ad campaign, Congressman Peter King’s hearings about Islam and a proposed no-fly zone in Libya. But of all the issues he has to grapple with, for now, Maher has another subject in mind – the record that he holds for the most unsuccessful Emmy nominations in history. (Twenty-six—he sailed past Susan Lucci’s 21 in 2008).

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “Nobody else has to do a one hour show with no commercials which goes through so many disparate elements. I don’t get to rerack at the commercial break. I have to be ready at 7pm on Friday night to do a monologue, right into a newsmaker interview, a panel discussion, a comedy bit, and then I bring out the mid-show guest before going to the last section which is ‘New Rules’. And that ends in a three minute editorial!”

It’s true. If Late Night were an Olympic sport, Real Time, now in its 10th season, would be the decathlon – except without breaks between events. It combines scripted comedy segments with all the high-wire challenges of live TV. And above all, it’s smart. Intellectually demanding and brazenly so. To helm a high-powered political debate on a controversial subject with the likes of Jimmy Carter, Salman Rushdie or Gloria Steinem is no mean feat. Particularly when the studio audience has been known to become unruly.

“Oh, and I don’t wear an earpiece. It’s just me up there.”

So why no Emmy?

He grins. “Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist, pot-smoking radical?”

Certainly Maher is an original. A tad quieter and less pugnacious in person than he appears on television, but otherwise, no different. Slim, spry, brazenly intelligent. And in good shape for 53, thanks to his health-conscious vegan diet. Instead of sugar for coffee, he offers organic honey.

Maher is a comedian who could pass for a journalist. A social libertarian who would decriminalize pot and is well known at the Playboy mansion. And a prominent atheist whose merciless assaults on religion began long before the books by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. An atheist radical indeed. Except his achievements are considerable.

It was Maher who created the first show to fuse politics with comedy and celebrity guests. When Politically Incorrect launched on Comedy Central in 1993, it arguably paved the way for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and the subsequent rise of the political entertainment genre, whose influence on actual politics is hard to overstate. But Maher’s style is distinctive. While John Stewart is amused and satirical, and Stephen Colbert plays the buffoon, Maher takes a stand and fights his corner. He articulates his position and defends it against all comers. And he’s clear not just in it for the laughs. As his long time producer Scott Carter says, “Bill never posits a viewpoint for the sake of argument. Every view he takes, he actually believes.”

As a result, Real Time has a cherished position on the air. The way Maher frames it, he’s just providing an entertaining recap of the week’s news every Friday for people who are too busy to read the papers. But it goes beyond that. Some of the views expressed on Real Time are not found anywhere else on television. The view that Americans are stupid, for example, or that God is a fantasy – two rich sources of Maher’s material.

And this is the true value of his contribution. He belongs to a tradition of great American stand-ups who have served as the culture’s polemicists-in-chief. Like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce before him, Maher says the unsaid, breaks taboos we’ve barely noticed before and often lands himself in trouble as a result. Not that he minds a little trouble.

“There have been so many kerfuffles over the years,” he chuckles. “I’d go through them but it’ll just give people ammunition.”

The most notable kerfuffle was when ABC famously fired Maher from Politically Incorrect for saying that the hijackers were not cowards – six days after 9.11. He was forced to install bodyguards in his home.  “It felt like the whole country was going to get torches and march on my driveway,” he said at the time.

But as it was, HBO hired him, and his new show – Real Time – was on the air in 2002. Still the kerfuffles continued. Like the time he compared the Catholic Church to a Mormon polygamist cult in Texas. “I’m not looking to be provocative, I’m looking to be truthful,” he says. “It just turns out that the truth is provocative because it’s rare.”

The kerfuffles are rarer these days because, according to Maher, society is less hysterical than it was. “People aren’t so shockable.. America is actually more liberal than we think. In the 1990s, drugs was a big no-no  we weren’t allowed to do a sketch called Harry Pothead! But now look. Marijuana was almost legalized in California last year.”

But Maher rather likes ruffling feathers. It’s why he loves doing stand-up in red states most of all. When protestors greeted him in Oklahoma recently, he tweeted: “as always, an honor to be protested”. 

Maher was 10 when he decided to be a stand-up. He grew up in New Jersey, in what he has called “the last ‘Leave it to Beaver’ upbringing in America” and longed to emulate his late father, William,  an NBC radio news broadcaster. “He was a great living room comedian,” he says, “always being funny about current affairs with his friends.”

It’s also possible that bullies contributed to Maher’s urge to be a stand-up. “I was beaten up,” he says, “but my bullying was mostly in the form of ostracism. No one would talk to you for weeks. People say kids are innocent but actually they’re very feral and cruel. I definitely I became a better person when I got older.”

When he graduated from Cornell, he set out to become the next Johnny Carson. And during fifteen hard years on the stand-up circuit he did the Tonight Show many times. He moved to LA in 1983 to star in the movie DC Cab, alongside Gary Busey and Mr T, and for a while, he thought he would be an actor, get a role on a sitcom like his comedian friends. But while Seinfeld and Larry David were blowing up, Maher languished in movies like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle Of Death.

Then, at the age of 35, he found his niche. He performed an Election night comedy special for Comedy Central in 1992 and it went so well, the network asked him to pitch a show. So he pitched Politically Incorrect, a concept which had been gestating for some time. He was introduced to his producer, Scott Carter, and he never looked back.

“Then I didn’t want to be Johnny Carson anymore,” he says. “After talking about interesting issues with interesting people, I couldn’t go to talking about a model train collection with the third lead on a sitcom. That’s not a knock on those shows, but why do something that other people can do, when I do something that other people can’t do?”

Typically Politically Incorrect was criticized for deteriorating the culture – people would now get their news from entertainers, it was said. And Maher agrees. “You should watch a political entertainment show in addition to the news, not instead of it. But of course people don’t. And my audience are the educated ones. They’re politically savvy, they know who Newt Gingrich is. Half this country are so clueless, they think Obama’s a Muslim.”

Still, the more people that get their news from political entertainment, the more influential Maher becomes – and no entertainment show takes its politics as seriously as Real Time. As a result, Scott Carter says “people don’t see this as an entertainment show but as a service we are providing for the democracy. When we go on hiatus, people feel a sense of loss.”

Even though Real Time is a weekly show, and Politically Incorrect was nightly, Real Time was  much more challenging to produce. “With a nightly show you throw shit against the wall to see what sticks,” says Maher. “It’s not meant to be polished. But Real Time is once-a-week and it’s on a pay-cable network. It had better be really good.”

Maher employs six full time writers, almost all of whom have been with him since the dawn of the show, one  even going back to the start of Politically Incorrect. According to Carter, “there aren’t many people who are both funny and know what’s going on in the world. But it’s a great job. We tell writers, the one way to fail is to play it safe. We want to hear thinking that isn’t heard on other shows.”

Certainly the weekly format gives them time to hone the material. Maher himself spends six hours crafting just the three minute editorial at the end of the show – “it’s a funny essay with a point, which I don’t think you see anywhere else.“ Occasionally, late breaking news on Friday – like a tsunami in Japan – will require a chunk of new material at the last minute. And very rarely they’ll have to drop a joke because one of the other late night shows has already made it.  “But that happens so seldom,” says Maher. “Which tells me that we’re doing the right thing. We’re not doing a show like anybody else.”

It’s more common for Maher to drop jokes that don’t feel Real Time enough. At the height of the Charlie Sheen drama, for example, his writers wanted to do a skit about a salad dressing called Sober Valley Lodge – Maher nixed it.  “If I can picture it on Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel then I don’t want it,” he says. “It’s not a knock on those shows, but I want this brand to be unique. Our jokes have a strong point of view.”

A case in point, his favorite Real Time sketch which is about a fashion show in Saudi Arabia. “The girls all come out in head-to-toe burquas and you can’t see anything, while I’m reading, ‘Here’s lovely Anan who’s wearing a plunging eye-slit!’” He laughs. “No other show would do that.”

A further challenge for the show is booking guests, especially for the panel discussion, arguably the greatest test of smarts on late night television.

“It’s true, you have to really know your shit,” says Maher. “With Politically Incorrect, anyone could get on. We had 20 guests a week – there aren’t 20 smart people in the whole country! But the Real Time panel are really smart, and if I put somebody up there who the audience thinks isn’t up to it – somebody who should be sitting at the child’s table at Thanksgiving – the audience punishes me for it. That’s why we don’t have many celebrities on the panel.”

Some celebrities can handle themselves like Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin or Sean Penn, for instance. But others, like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, opt for the safer, individual interview at the start. Others still prefer to be the mid-show guest, who arrives towards the end and sits to Bill Maher’s left.

“Don Cheadle was the first mid-show guest,” says Maher “So now we go through the list and say ‘we could Cheadle him.’ It’s the perfect spot for a celebrity like Matthew Perry who’s very smart and funny but not quite right to talk about the deficit. I do a few minutes one-o-one with them and then turn back to the panel. And if they want to join in, then great, but if not, that’s OK too.”

The calibration of who’s right for which slot is tricky. When Charles Ferguson, the director of Inside Job, sat on the panel, he said practically nothing for the whole show. “We all felt sorry for him,” says Maher. “He just froze. But this show is intimidating – people are scared to fucking death of it.” Then there are those guests whom others flat refuse to appear with – Ann Coulter, being the best example (someone that Maher considers a friend). And the guests who who have promised to show up but then never commit. Donald Trump is one, and Bill Clinton another, both of them in the top two on his wishlist. “I defended Clinton all through impeachment!” says Maher. “We’ve asked him every week since he’s been out of office.”

Real Time aired its 200th episode earlier this season, an important milestone and an indication of how firmly esconced it is now in the schedules. But Maher knows better than anyone how quickly these things can end. And there have been times since 2001 when he has wondered whether he might have overstepped. When your job requires you to test the elastic, it’s always a concern that one day it might snap.

“Look, if it all goes away, then I had a fantastic run. But I’d rather go out guns blazing, and I think that’s always the bond between me and the audience. They might get angry with some of the things I say but they never feel like I’m pulling a punch. And that’s how I want it to stay till the end, whenever that may come.”

He waits a beat. “As I sweat under the sword of Damocles!”