As his HBO show Real Time begins its twelfth season with higher ratings than ever—4.1 million viewers, high for a premium-cable talk show—the iconoclastic comedian and political commentator Bill Maher spoke to The Atlantic about why he likes doing comedy shows in red states, how his show is different from Jon Stewart's, why the God of the Old Testament is "the most psychopathic character in fiction," and why he believes most opposition to President Obama is racist.
Let me start by asking the question you're probably most sick of answering, so we can get it out of the way. The infamous episode of your ABC show Politically Incorrect, on September 17, 2001—
The tragic events of 9/17?
Yes, The tragic events of 9/17. [Ed. note: Maher said, in response to President George W. Bush's comment that the 9/11 hijackers were cowards, "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. Not cowardly." Advertisers withdrew and the show was cancelled a few months later.] You've said the aftermath of that was the most traumatic period of your life. So I'm curious, what has it been like moving over to HBO, where there are no advertisers? And, second, why does everyone forget that when you made your remarks, you were just agreeing with a guest, Dinesh D'Souza?
Yeah, I had Dinesh on our show last season, and brought that up to him. You know, I was just agreeing with what he said. I was concurring, as a good host does, you know? And maybe extrapolating a little. But yeah, I could have used a little cover from Mr. D'Souza.
Are you tired of talking about the events of 9/17?
It's now been 13 years. Do you feel like HBO has your back in a way that ABC did not?
Absolutely. They always have. And, of course, let's be honest, it's easier for them to have my back because they don't have to deal with advertisers. You know, I was never mad at ABC for firing me. I totally understood that I was on a broadcast medium that depends on advertisers, and if the advertisers pull out there's really not much you can do. I was only pissed at them because they lied about it. They said we lost our audience and we never did! We always had good ratings, and we retained good ratings, and very high retention ratings from Nightline. It took a long time for Jimmy Kimmel to come up to the ratings that we used to get in that timeslot. So, that was the only thing that pissed me off about it.
You're a comedian. But Real Time is somewhere between a pure comedy show and, say, Morning Joe. When you sit down to write your show, are you thinking that your job is to generate laughs, or are you trying to convey a perspective on the news? It's been observed that many young people now get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Who's your intended audience, and what are you trying to communicate to them?
Part of it is what you just attributed to those other two shows. You said people get their news from those two shows, but I'm guessing at least as many people watch my show. So, I think I'm trying to do the same thing. Give people news. The main thing I'm thinking of, because we are after all a weekly wrap-up show, is I'm doing this show for people who are interested in the news, but don't have time to follow it like I do. They have lives. They have kids. They have jobs. They can't read the paper every day. So, Friday night at 10 o'clock when they sit down in front of the television set, I want them to be able to feel as they watch it—an hour of Real Time—in one section of the show, either the monologue, in the New Rules, in the panel, in one of the one-on-one interviews—I want them to feel like every important issue, or at least what I feel is important, that happened that week got in some way mentioned. And then, of course, I do want to make it as entertaining as possible. And we have enough prewritten stuff that I know there's always going to be laughs throughout the show. And the panel is lively too, but the panel, you know I have no control over what three other people say, or how amusing they're going to be.
How do you view Stewart and Colbert? Do you see what you're doing as kind of comparable to what they're doing? Or are you doing something different?
I'm more comparable to them than to, say, Dancing With the Stars. But I see vast differences. I don't think we're as predictable. I will disagree with my liberal audience. I will challenge them. Sometimes I'll even yell at them. I'm real about it. I treat the audience like real friends, and sometimes we argue. And sometimes they need to be educated about something. Sometimes liberals can be in a bubble too. And, you know, there's just a host of issues that I think our show and the old show has been out front on, that are more and more becoming mainstream. Things like atheism and marijuana legalization—but not just those—that I've been talking about for years; somehow things get into the mainstream after somebody has been pounding away on it for a long time. And then they just seem normal.
You famously gave a million dollars of your own money to the pro-Obama super PAC. From the perspective of where we are now, do you feel that was money well spent?
If you look at what the alternative universe would be under a Mitt Romney presidency, I think it's money very well spent. There's not an issue I can think of where Mitt Romney would be better. And I can only imagine what sort of cavalcade of nutcases would have followed him into Washington. Because he basically promised his soul to those hard-right groups that control the party now. And Mitt Romney never has had much of a backbone. So I'm very happy with that, because I did some research on it and it seemed to make a difference. At least that's what the people who run the PACs—like Paul Begala—have told me. Until we had that little bit of publicity, the big-money people on the left were kind of sitting on their hands. I got scared at that point, because I remember talking to a lot of liberal people who were saying Obama's reelection is in the bag. And I said, you know you don't get outside of your circle of people. Out there in America, it's not in the bag! Not in the bag at all.
How would you characterize yourself politically?
I think everybody thinks they make sense. I don't see issues ideologically. I see what makes sense. You know, I've tried to identify this new category called "the 9/11 liberal," because after 9/11 there was a category that sprung up called "9/11 conservatives." These were people like Dennis Miller, who became very, very conservative. Ron Silver was another one. We were all freaked out by 9/11, as we should be. It was a horrendous attack. But I think at a certain point, the liberals turned a blind eye to the singular threat that is radical Islam. This is something I've had a lot of problems with my liberal audience over, and we talk about it quite frequently on the show. That's a good example of something where I just think it makes common sense, and if you don't understand that there are disturbing percentages, often majorities of people across the Muslim world, who believe in things that are anything but liberal. You know, rule of law isn't just different than theocracy. It's better. Free speech, respect for minorities, and equality of women. Separation of church and state, freedom to practice any religion you want, or none, without the threat of violence. All of these issues, if anyone in their own country stood up against, the liberals would be incensed about. But somehow because they see Muslims as a minority, they want to defend them for the very things that are illiberal. I hold a number of positions that I think would be seen as conservative—but, again, I don't see them as liberal or conservative. I see them as "that's what I think makes sense."
Speaking of Dennis Miller, what happened to him? Did 9/11 break him?
First of all, I've never been a close friend of Dennis's. We've been colleagues for many years. Dennis is a very private guy, but we certainly were friendly. We shared the same manager for 30 years. And I'm a fan of Dennis as a comedian. I think he's a terrific kind of comedian. He really knows how to practice the art of standup comedy. That being said, yeah, he became a lot more conservative. I understood the national-security side of it. That's the "9/11 conservative" moniker that was hung on him and some other people, and that makes sense. What I didn't understand was why he became a down-the-line right-wing conservative on a number of issues. He's Fox News's go-to guy now. Maybe it's just the money, you know. People want to work, and he found an audience. But it doesn't really follow that you have to be conservative on every issue just because of 9/11. I cannot tell you what goes on in Dennis Miller's mind, and people ask me that all the time.
It seems to be what happened to David Mamet too.
That I think is religion. David Mamet is seriously influenced by religion. Very orthodox religion. And religion warps thinking. It's impossible to worship superstition on Sunday or Saturday and just be a normal person every other day of the week.
Another area where you've sort of broken faith with the liberal conventional thinking is on the right of the NSA to be collecting all this metadata in the service of protecting us from what could be a really horrible nuclear catastrophe. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
I never said that I was outright in support of the NSA. I'm certainly on the page of most Americans in that we need to know more. I think Edward Snowden did the country a great service by opening up this can of worms. What I did say in one of our editorials that we did this year is I used the quote that so often is bandied about in the media by Benjamin Franklin who said that those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. Well, Franklin didn't live in the 21st century. Franklin didn't live in post-nuclear-weapons times. The worst that could've happened in his era is that the gunpowder blew up, or the musket went off. We live in a very different era, and I live very close to the port of Long Beach, and the port of Los Angeles, where almost half of the cargo comes in. It'd be a very likely place for them to sneak in a dirty bomb. My day would be much more ruined a dirty bomb going off than it would by the NSA knowing when I masturbate. Now I don't think the NSA should know when I masturbate, but I'm just saying, we live in different times than when Benjamin Franklin said that, so let's get real. What I did say is, I am willing to give up some liberty for some security.
If the NSA's knowing when you masturbate was directly correlated with their ability to stop an attack, that would probably be okay, right?
[Laughs] That would be okay, yes.
I was looking at your standup schedule for the next couple of months: Mobile, Alabama; Corpus Christi, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama. Do you have a death wish? Or are you trying to find the liberals there or are you trying to speak to the red staters? What's your goal in picking those venues as opposed to on the East or West Coast where it would be easy to sell out theaters?
Yeah, but I can sell them out in Corpus Christi and Mobile too. The thing is, I don't have to seek out the liberals in those cities. When I come to town, they seek me out. I guess we're seeking each other out. I've learned this over the last 10 or 15 years. There are so many liberal people in conservative areas. There's a lot of reasons why people live where they live, and it's not often, or certainly not always, because that's where they're politically aligned. So there's lots of progressive, free-thinking, liberal people in all these states, and what makes it so fun to go to red areas, if you will, is that those people there are so, I think, gratified that I didn't write off the whole state, go "Alabama, I would never go there!" No, I understand that there are smart people living in Alabama. Yes, they're surrounded by a bunch of rednecks, but when I come to town, there's something more magical than when I go to San Francisco or New York, which is predictably liberal.
And do you find that the people who turn out are, as it were, the liberal base? Or do you get more hecklers?
Oh, no … I mean, I do see sometimes there's very often somebody in the front row scowling at me with his arms folded, but that's invariably a husband who was dragged there by his wife.
I've seen you talk about how 25 years ago, there were Republicans you respected—like Bob Dole, Howard Baker. Who in the Republican Party now, if anybody, do you respect?
Oh, that's a great question. [Laughs] I don't know, do you have a few minutes while I think that over? I mean, name some people, and I'll try to…
Um, yeah, Joe is more of an honest broker. Joe will attack his own party, which I think is the key. You have to be willing to, just like when you're an artist, edit your own best jokes, or you make an album and you cut 16 tracks and you gotta take away four. You gotta be able to kill your own children. That's the same thing with politics. You have to be able to be ruthlessly self-critical and turn on your own people. I've seen Joe do that, so yeah, whenever somebody does that, I do respect them. What I do not like is people who just know how to cheer for their own team. That's the problem I have, again, sometimes with my studio audience in L.A. They only know to cheer for the blue team and boo for the red team. And it's not as simple as that.
How about John McCain, who's intermittently maverick?
Right. John McCain, it's almost like alternate side of the street parking. One day, he kind of takes hits and reminds you of the old maverick John McCain from 2000, the guy we all liked so much. And then he's also capable of just being as bad as anybody in the Senate.
How about John Boehner?
No. What? John Boehner? Very recently, I think he's got fed up with the Tea Party finally and maybe has shown signs of bucking them. But until very recently, this is the guy who wouldn't call votes because he was afraid of the Tea Party. He's not exactly been a profile in courage.
How would you characterize your foreign policy? You came out after being an ardent opponent of Iraq, but supported the Libyan intervention. Are you a liberal interventionist or a realist?
Number one is I'd love to see us end the empire. And stop getting into every war that comes along. If you Google "wars in America," I think that in 216 of our 237 years, we've been at it with somebody. At some point you gotta look in the mirror and say, "Maybe it's me." Of course, this is because our defense industry, as Eisenhower warned 50 years ago, warning us about this idea that we have to watch out for this greedy maw that is the military-industrial complex. Of course we're always in a war, because we create endless amounts of armaments that have to be used up somehow. I think if you take the 13 countries who spend the most behind us on defense, and you add up everything they spend, we still spend more than all of them combined. That's insane. Even deficit hawks like Paul Ryan want to add $500 billion more to the defense budget, which is already the most bloated part of the budget. So that's number one. Can we get the troops out of Germany and Japan? Jesus Christ, how long do these wars have to be over? Do we ever end anything? I think that would solve so much in this country if we stopped having an empire and stopped spending so much money on blowing shit up. And then, to be smart about the war on terror, which I think Obama has been much more than Bush was. It's not a war that needs to be fought with armies, and cannot be won with armies. It's a war that needs to be waged with good police work and spy work. And that's more of how we're doing it now. If you want to ask me about drones, yeah, drones do some bad things, but again there are no great answers to this war. I'd rather fight the war with drones than with armies.
What is your view of Obama now? I know you've expressed disappointment with him on some issues. How would you grade him a year into his second term?
Well, I always grade him with an eye to knowing that there was probably no president in history that had more opposition, irrational opposition, to everything he tried to do.
By irrational, do you mean racist?
Absolutely, racist. We all remember that as soon as he was elected, Mitch McConnell, and Boehner, they all had a meeting and they said they would not, in any way, support anything that had President Blackula's bite marks on it. You know, he's had to deal with that from the beginning. Yes, it is racial. I know that's the one thing that they hate to be called. They just cannot stand to be called racist. Okay, but let's look at the facts. So much of what he has done is the exact thing they asked him to do. He lowered taxes. That was the first thing he did, he lowered everybody's taxes. A third of the stimulus package that they hated so much was a tax cut. You'd think a party that's called "taxed enough already," that's all about lowering taxes, would've liked that. Nope. When they did polls, over 90 percent of Teabaggers didn't even know he did that. He cut the deficit in half! He has shrunk the size of government and reduced the number of government workers, something Bush never did. The stock market has more than doubled. And yet they still don't like him. I can't put my finger on what it is, but it's certainly not his record. If they think he's a socialist, they really need to think again because he's not even a liberal. He's got Mitt Romney's healthcare plan and George W. Bush's foreign policy. What do they want from the guy?
So you don't think it's his policies that cause him problems?
It's personal. Who was the guy who said, was it Pete Sessions, was that the congressman, the Republican, who said, "I cannot stand to be in the same room with him?" [Ed. note: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin claimed Sessions told Obama, "I cannot even stand to look at you," though Sessions and the White House denied it happened.]
I can't remember.
I can't stand to be in the same room? They hated Clinton, but they never said anything like that about Clinton, that they couldn't stand to be in the same room with him, and his cum was on the furniture.
How delicious do you find the prospect of a Hillary presidency or at least a White House with Bill Clinton rattling around as first husband? How do you balance your excitement about that as a comedian versus your enthusiasm for—or terror about—the politics of it?
I am not afraid of Hillary as president. She is really smart and very capable obviously. Unfortunately the Clintons are centrist Democrats, they are corporate, centrist Democrats. They are in a lot of ways part of the problem, a lot of our problems that we face now are because in the ‘90s the Democrat Party gave up on being the liberal party. And a lot of that was Bill Clinton. Glass-Steagall was repealed under Clinton. [Robert] Rubin was the treasury secretary and you were left with a country that did not have a left party. And we still don't. We have a far-right party, and we basically have a center-right party. And we don't have a left-wing party. That is why things like Obamacare are really Republican plans that were repackaged—and as soon as Obama put his name on it, they didn't like it, but it is really Bob Dole's old plan. Or cap and trade! Cap and trade is somehow the Democratic response to global warming now, whereas 20 years ago, that was George [H.W.] Bush's plan to fight acid rain. So you know I am not thrilled with a Clinton presidency, but as a comedian, yes, Hillary and Bill Clinton are always going to be good for comedy.
Who would thrill you politically in 2016 from either party?
Elizabeth Warren would be somebody I would be very excited about. A true Democrat, a true progressive, and somebody who I think has the right ideas about everything. I love her.
Obviously everybody knows your staunchly atheist views. But do you ever think about Pascal's wager, which is that, as crazy as a lot of religious doctrine may seem, and as bad as it can make people behave, what if you're wrong and you're dooming yourself to eternity in hell? Do you worry about that?
Of all the reasons to be religious, that is the one of the dumber ones. What if I'm wrong? If it is the God of the Old Testament, I am so fucked already, and you and everybody else. A more psychopathic character you will not ever find in fiction. Just the idea that people worshipped the God of this Bible is insane. There is no more psychopathic mass murderer than God, so good luck with worrying that you picked the wrong religion, you're going to suffer for it. As far as the question of how do we know? No, we don't know. Am I a billion percent sure? Nobody is a billion percent sure of anything. I don't know how it all began, no one does. But I am pretty sure it's not that God had a son. [laughs] You know he's this orb of perfect energy, this powerful beyond imagination, but he's got kids. That would drive him fucking nuts, let me tell you. So you know we don't know the answers but the answer to that is not to make up stories. If you don't know something, just say, I don't know. That's your gospel right there. The gospel of "I don't know." I combined apathy and atheist, and I came up with apatheist. I don't know what happens when I die, and I don't care.
Is your primary goal to get people to laugh or to get them to think?
I have never been interested—even when I was a young comic starting out—in material that didn't have some bite to it. That didn't have some nutrition to it. I never did the "men do this, and women do this, and dogs and cats." Jerry Seinfeld is a genius because he can talk about trivial subjects in a way that everyone will know what he's talking about and the most intelligent people are not insulted at all and are in fact delighted. But I am not that guy. I always wanted to talk about stuff that mattered. So if my joke doesn't have some meaning behind it, I am not going to be doing that, I am not going to be interested in that subject anyway.
You're a George Carlin admirer.
Yeah, Carlin was pretty much the same way. But Carlin would do 20 brilliant minutes on society and then 10 minutes on farting. He mixed it up. I don't. I just do the society.
What's the significance of being over 50?
I just think when you're under 50, and of course you're stretching it a little into your 40s, it's okay to sort of play that, hey, I'm the swinging-bachelor type. And we did used to do jokes on Politically Incorrect, and maybe on the early years of Real Time, that ended with me in the hot tub with twins or something. There were some of those punch lines. I just think when you're over 50, I can't explain it, maybe it's not logical, but I just think it is time to just not talk about your personal life. Unless you're married and have kids and grandkids or something. There is something about it to the average person that if you're not married, you're either gay, or you're a dirty old man, and I don't want to be any of those things.
You've acquired dignified reticence in your old age?
Yes, beautifully put Scott, a dignified reticence.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.