Q&A: Bill Maher
Comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO's multidimensional talk show "Real Time with Bill Maher," brought an evening of stand up to the Shubert Theater in New Haven in January 2010. We talked to Maher in mid-November 2009, around the time an editorial he wrote for his blog was a particularly hot topic.
You're going to be at the Shubert Theater in January.
Ah, the Shubert! Very classy sounding.
I thought you might already have a history with the theater.
I don't think I do-I wish I did, it sounds so classy. I just played Avery Fisher, I've played Carnegie Hall; I'd like to add the Shubert to my credit list.
I was just reading today your recent column on the Huffington Post about your position on vaccinations and the responses you've gotten. I also just read another very recent rebuttal to this piece. I guess my first question to you is: Why do you think what you say and write is taken so seriously?
I mention in my column that I don't want to be the go-to vaccine guy. But I would say that it's because there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, which is not a radical point of view by any means on this subject; I've been a lot more radical on other things. They feel this way either from research, or it's just sort of an instinct. Because I think debate is so closed off by the media-I also mention the fact that all the nightly news programs are almost exclusively sponsored by pharmaceutical companies-well, you're not really going to hear the alternative side to drugs, surgery and vaccines on the nightly news. But there's nobody else talking; they don't interview anybody else. I'm making a plea here: "Don't talk to me about it; I'm not the expert." I can point people in the right direction; there are plenty of qualified people out there. I'm not talking about crazy loons; I'm talking about people with "Dr." before their names, respected board surgeons who feel this way, and a lot more who won't say it publicly, because the AMA and Western medicine are so intimidating about how everybody has to get in line with their views or else. I think a lot of people, as I say in the piece, kind of express it privately. And I think that's why they're asking me: There's nobody else out there who's a voice on this.
The response I read today was a long diatribe about your inaccuracies in the HuffPo piece, by a blogger named Orac. Would you also say this is the reason he'd bother to refute you at such length, because there's no one else for him to refute?
I haven't seen that piece. Again, I shouldn't be a point man in this battle, because I'm not a doctor or a scientist. But I am a person who cares about his own health. We all have to do that. These people who call me a conspiracy theorist . . . I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I just think it's a lot more dangerous to be the one who just says, "We'll do what they tell us." Because I don't think the media is up to watchdogging the medical industry. You're not a conspiracy theorist if you think a particular industry is corrupt. I compared the pharmaceutical industry to the Pentagon. I don't think it's a conspiracy that the Pentagon gets close to $700 billion in federal funds, at least half of which they don't need. I think the money that goes to the "defense" of this country has much more to do with the profits of defense contractors than actual defense of the country. But that's not a conspiracy; it's a scandal.
Do you think this controversy detracts from your role as a comedian, or does it enhance it?
Here's something interesting: My sister teaches at a community college in New Jersey. She asked me if I would come and speak; there were about 300-500 students and teachers. This was a couple of weeks ago, when all this had been going on for a while. The media asks me these questions about vaccines-not one person in that audience asked me a question about this, and there was a Q&A for almost 90 minutes. So I think there's a disconnect between the average person and the media. I think the media jumps on anything they sense as controversial. I don't think people in general are looking to me to fill this role, and I'm not looking to. I don't think it detracts from my role as a comedian-I guess it would if your article came out and it was all about vaccines and we didn't mention the fact that I'm really a funny guy, coming to make you laugh. But I know that's not gonna happen.
It's just been announced that "Real Time" will return to HBO in February. In this last season, there were several changeups-the season ran longer; you had some two-person panels, some on-on-one interview shows; you had a routine where you brought guests into the panel midway through the show and had them stay to the end. I'm wondering, of all these strategies, which you were happy with, which not; which you thought really worked?
We definitely liked having in-studio guests versus satellite guests, that's really what the main difference was. We had previously had the first guest after the monologue on satellite, as well as the mid-show guest. Satellites are great, but there is a disconnect, particularly on a show like this that is a hybrid comedy show. It's nice to look somebody in the eye; timing is so much a key to comedy and that's very difficult with a satellite-there's always that little delay. And there's just something about being right there with the audience that makes it a more intimate, fun interview for the audience.
We also liked the idea of bringing a guest on mid-show, and having them stay to the end. It sort of gave the show a second booster rocket, and we tried to have somebody who was energetic, who would give the panel that had been there for the first 20-25 minutes a bit of a break by taking over and talking for awhile. I think the key to a show that's been on as long as this one-and there are lots of people who see my old show, "Politically Incorrect," as part of one long show; they don't see the difference between that and "Real Time"-is to kind of shake it up and have it not be too terribly predictable.
What about the one-on-one interview shows?
One-on-ones were done mostly to give us a presence. They were what we call "budget-friendly" because you can tape those shows right after you tape a regular show, take a week off, and then have a new show ready to go-because they're not terribly time-sensitive. Some people loved them; I think it depends on the people who were on. If you loved Jay-Z, or Bill Moyers, or Gore Vidal or Cameron Diaz, it was great. If you were expecting what we normally do, it would have been at most shocking, and at worst a disappointment, because it was not a terribly politically driven show, nor was it supposed to be. But if you were like "Oh, this is a guy I like to watch talk to people, and he can be interesting even when it's not completely politically driven, and this is a personality I'd liked to see in this format, someone I'm curious about," I think it was okay. We did get a lot of nice feedback.
Given all the guests who have been on both this show and "Politically Incorrect" over the years, are there still desired "gets" that have eluded you?
Oh, yeah, many. The Clintons would be good ones. I mention them because I understand why conservatives are afraid of the show-a lot of them are dumb and they'll be exposed as dumb. Sarah Palin doesn't want to do this show. But I've been pretty supportive of Bill Clinton over the years. There's really no reason except, perhaps, a hypersensitivity on his part why he wouldn't do a show like this.
With your long TV career-and "Real Time" is usually broadcast live-why do you continue to do stand up? Why is it important to you?
The main reason is I love it. It's more fun than anything else I could do. When you start out doing stand up it's very painful-it takes a very long time to become a real master craftsman at it. Having put in that time, it would be sort of a crazy waste not to now cash in. I don't mean cash in monetarily; I mean just from the sheer joy of being able to do it at a high level, and in a way that makes people want to come out and see you.
Bob Hope said many years ago that there were three elements to success in comedy: timing, which you're either born with or you're not; material, which itself can take years to develop a kind of voice that determines what you want to talk about; and recognition-which is very true. When I was a younger comedian, and people really didn't know quite who I was or what I was doing, and I wasn't yet attracting "my crowd," it wasn't as good a show for me or my audience. But when you've been around long enough to establish a brand, and the audience knows who you are and what kind of thing you do, then it's a joy for both you and them.
Is the time required to do the show counterproductive to your development as comedian, or has it enhanced it?
I think they feed each other. I know, for me, that without stand up-without being able to go out and tell jokes about the issues of the day, I wouldn't feel as comfortable about going back in the studio and doing what I do there. I feel almost like a politician, who goes out to Washington and legislates, then has seasons where they go back home and talk to constituents and gather information, inspiration and strength from being out in the country.
As someone whose comedy is largely politically driven, what do you feel is the perspective a comedian can bring to current issues that a "serious" pundit cannot?
You can be more daring than serious pundits. A comedian is expected to say what people are thinking but won't say out loud, whereas a politician is always expected to do the reverse. You have to literally be "political." That's why I called my first show "Politically Incorrect." There's literally nothing I can't say, especially to my stand up audience on the TV show-even though there are restrictions on HBO, of course, especially if the panel includes sitting senators, because you can't say certain things in front of them. You can content-wise, but you probably wouldn't want to swear too heavily. Stand up is the single freest format that there is in America. At least I feel that way.
When I see you in guest shots-on "Letterman," for example-I sometimes find you very serious.
Serious? I did get laughs.
But I find you passionate about certain things . . .
Passionate is different. "Serious" makes it sound like I'm not doing my job as a comedian. But sure, I am passionate. And of course, interviewers generally go to the areas you're passionate about-which is smart because that's the most interesting stuff, and I've always thought, and found, that passion leads to comedy. It's what you're passionate about, and you get on a rant-that's good stuff. That's the goal.
Agreed. But you know who you make me think of-this is an observation, not a criticism-is Dick Gregory.
I'm not that familiar with Dick Gregory, he was before my time-but from what I remember, he was funny-he wasn't like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, who at times forgot they were comedians.
Right. That's why I cited him, really.
I never try to forget that I'm a comedian. I think that's a disaster, and another reason why I don't want to get on this vaccine kick too deeply. Now, Letterman asked me about it, and I did get laughs. But it was only a couple of minutes. I don't want to have a whole routine on that. It's not what I do.
Incidentally, who are your comedic influences?
Mine are Robert Klein, George Carlin and Johnny Carson-those are the big ones. I'm going to have to jump off the phone, though-I'm sorry about that; I'm enjoying myself.
Can I ask one more question?
In your Shubert show, will you take on Connecticut senators Dodd and Lieberman, and can you give us a preview?
(Laughs) I can't give you a preview; but yes, when I go somewhere, I do try to incorporate the local politics-sometimes it's easier than not. Dodd and Lieberman are pretty rich targets. This year, just by luck, I wound up doing a show in Greenville, S.C., the day the Mark Sanford story broke. Sometimes you get lucky.Q&A: Bill Maher