Bill Maher performing at Auditorium Theatre
02:16 PM, Jul 12, 2013
If you go
What: Progressive-minded comedian Bill Maher.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 885 E. Main St.
Tickets: $38 to $78 at ticketmaster.com and (800) 745-3000 and the box office.
As Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and his mullet haircut on Murder, She Wrote faded from the pop-culture consciousness in the late ’90s, Bill Maher entered a period of startling transformation.
As an actor even he might admit that is a loose use of the word Maher was no longer playing male chauvinist jungle guides in movies or murder suspects on television. In one TV show after the next film, including this summer’s Iron Man 3 and the Netflix drama House of Cards, Maher is credited as only playing Himself. And Himself again.
Yes, Maher is now typecast as a sarcastic political comic pundit. He owns the role. He has since 1993, first on Politically Incorrect and, now in its 11th season, HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher. Saturday night at the Auditorium Theatre, expect nothing different. Maher not only owns the role, he seems to live it as well.
Liberal comic? “Of course,” Maher says, not denying the obvious. But less obvious is that his often-notorious views are actually far more complex.
He is probably rightly actually, that should be leftly seen as a Democrat, particularly after donating $1 million to the re-election of President Obama last year. Yet he is critical of Obama’s performance. Maher sometimes has identified himself as a Libertarian. Yet he takes un-Libertarian views such as the government spying on its citizens may not be such a bad thing. And it is impossible to see Maher as a Republican. Yet he believes in the death penalty and owns a gun because, he says, he needs it.
First, we’ll turn the stage over to the Maher that you know. He’s calling from Los Angeles actually, his Real Time publicist is calling, and transfers the call. Let’s start by throwing him a bone that he can really chew on: Where are all of the conservative comics?
“Dennis Miller is the one who comes to mind, and he is a skilled comic,” Maher says. “The problem is, he’s stuck with material that doesn’t really ring true. He’s a friend of mine, but I’ll watch him doing 10 minutes on how stupid Nancy Pelosi is, because he wants an equivalency with Sarah Palin. The problem is, Sarah Palin really is stupid. That’s the problem with false equivalencies. You can hate Nancy Pelosi, you can disagree with her politics, but it doesn’t ring true when you say she’s an idiot. Look, Democrats are no prizes, I’ll agree to that. But they’re not funny, they’re not crazy, like Republicans are.”
So what jokes do conservative comics riff off of Obama administration antics?
“They don’t really have one, they’re just hysterics,” Maher says. “Go on one of those Republican websites. I’m not talking about the crazy ones, I’m talking about one of the mainstream ones. They’re selling gold to each other, and things called ‘survival seeds.’ “
Pause … what are survival seeds? “Exactly!” Maher exclaims. “The Kenyan socialist is going to destroy America, and they’re down to selling gold and seeds to each other.”
Maher’s right. Glenn Beck sells gold and survival seeds, which he claims we’ll need as we lose our country to the “emerging totalitarianism.” These seeds will allow you to emerge from your fallout shelter and harvest fruits and vegetables to feed to your family. But, as hysterical as these ads might be, they seem to be selling nothing more than … seeds.
“They want their country back,” Maher says. “Well, I’ve traveled this country for years. Under Obama, it’s the same Kentucky Fried place it has always been.”
Maher may be a comic, but he tries to be a fact-based one: He is on the advisory board of Project Reason, whose aim is to promote science and secular thinking in developing public policy.
Born and raised in New York City, Maher is the son of a network news producer and radio announcer, so journalistic instincts were always at hand. His mother was a nurse and, interestingly, Jewish: We say interestingly, because Maher apparently wasn’t aware of this until he was a teenager. The family was Catholic until his father, disagreeing with the church’s anti-abortion policy, pulled the plug on the Vatican when Maher was 13. Perhaps this was the seed for Religulous, his 2008 documentary. It’s typically sarcastic Maher, but he pleads innocent to any malice. “A lot of the interviews we did with rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics, we didn’t debunk them,” he says. “We let them do it to themselves.”
It is on this question of government spying where Maher tips to the right. He’s uncertain of what value, or danger, is presented by Edward Snowden’s recent whistle-blowing on the National Security Administration’s spying on U.S. citizens. “Anyone who was paying attention absolutely knew the government was doing this,” Maher says. He points to a Washington Post series three years ago written by a team of journalists led by Dana Priest. It explored a post- 9/11 world of government programs so top secret that no one seems to know how much money they spend or how many people they employ.
“I think that was real whistle-blowing,” Maher says. “Oliver Stone asked me to sign a petition for Snowden. I said ‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about this guy.’ “
“The espionage the NSA doing is over the top. I’m sure it is, with those guys it always is. There’s no doubt we are absolutely shredding the Fourth Amendment,” he says. What tips the scale for him, he says, is that some of this spying could involve nuclear weapons.
Maher is similarly cautious about taking the left road on gun control. Yes, he owns a gun. “There have been a lot of home invasions in my area, and there are a lot of people who don’t like me. I’m not going to go quietly if they come into my house.”
Pro-gay marriage, pro-gun, pro-legalization of pot, Maher’s road takes unexpected turns. Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and his Murder, She Wrote mullet are wreckage in the rear-view mirror. And successful as his was, he is through with documentaries. “Religulous was my Moby-Dick, if you will,” he says. “Now that it’s done, I don’t feel the need to do another one.”
Yet always, Maher circles back to his past.
“My mistress is stand-up,” he says. That’s where he got his start. The difference then from now being, “I was much worse,” he admits. “I definitely had ambitions when I started to do the same kind of material that I am now. When I started, all of the comics wanted to be on TV and get in a sitcom and keep it clean. I said, ‘Oh good, I’ll take it.’ “
Alas, the audiences didn’t always take it from him. “I was 25 years old, people think you have no gravitas,” Maher says. “And they’re right. I didn’t.”
At 57, his clown pants are loaded with gravitas. He and his staff feed off of the day’s news; the jokes that are predisposed to be disposable.
Then he’s onto the next joke or provocative comment. A busy, multi-platform comic, one who admits that he pays attention to the rules for his many circles of audiences. “When I go on Jay Leno, that’s a very big circle, a lot of people with very different beliefs are watching,” Maher says. “When I go on HBO, I can be a lot freer. But it’s still not as free as stand-up. I say things the stand-up audience appreciates, just as there are lots of things I would say only to my friends.”
And here, Maher adds yet another circle to his Divine Comedy: himself. “Actually,” he says, “there are things I wouldn’t say to my friends.”