Bill Maher: The Politics of Comedy

Bill Maher. | John Russo, HBO

March 11 | Bally’s Lake Tahoe | Stateline, Nev.

“I don’t like careful,” says Bill Maher. “I like bold. I like honest. I like surprising.”

For more than four decades, the controversial comedian and talk show host has walked a tightrope of honesty and mortality.

“If you asked me what I’m most proud of, that would be it: survival,” he says. “Every week is a test. Sometimes people say to me, ‘How’d the show go?’ If I haven’t been cancelled by tomorrow, then it went great.”

Maher’s willingness to take risks has paid off. Aside from staying in the media spotlight, he’s attracted a steady current of well-informed, fascinating guests to his weekly discussion panels on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” since 2003.

“I could be cancelled very easily,” he says. “Anybody could. But you don’t stay on TV for 30 years unless somebody likes you. There’s definitely an audience for what I do. It’s not like anything else. If you want to hear real honest talk, not tribalism, different points of view, people who talk with each other, listen to each other, there are not a lot of places that do that.”

Maher was born in 1956 in New York City and grew up in River Vale, New Jersey. The son of a radio announcer/news editor and a nurse, he knew by age 10 that he wanted to be a comedian.

“My father was funny,” he says. “My mother was, too, but my father really was. I liked seeing him make his friends laugh. This was back in the day when families watched TV together. We’d all see the same kind of comics. You had that power if you could make people laugh. Even at 11 or 12, I remember transcribing comedy routines I saw on television just so how I could see how they looked written down. It was always on my mind. I never really considered doing anything else.”

After majoring in English and history at Cornell University, Maher moved to New York City to work at the comedy clubs.

“It’s certainly a lot more dangerous to be out there now,” he says. “When I was starting there were no cell phones, so you could be as politically incorrect as you wanted to be and no one would know about it. We always hear the notion of crossing the line. Comedians would say, ‘How do we know where the line is unless we cross it?’ The comedy club was a place where everyone understood you were experimenting. Now I hear a lot about comics who say something and someone tweets it out and that’s it. I’m kind of glad I came up when I did.”

Maher’s original, boundary-pushing talk show, “Politically Incorrect,” first aired on Comedy Central in 1993. He’s advocated for free speech, civil discourse and good comedy ever since.

“At the time, ‘politically correct’ was a big phrase in the news,” he says. “I always thought it was the opposite of honest. Politicians say what people want to hear. It was never meant to be liberal or conservative; it’s just the opposite of bullshit. You might think people want you to say this or that, but what do you really think? What’s the real truth? It’s sort of revolt against that. Unfortunately, I thought I was going to drive a stake through the heart of the beast and it only grew worse. George Carlin had the seven dirty words you can’t say. Now you can say pretty much all those words, but there are seven ideas you can’t say because they go against the one true opinion, which is a much more dangerous place to be in society.”

In his standup, Maher goes far beyond the political topics for which he’s best known to deliver intelligent, meaningful life discussion paired with old-school laughs.

“Standup comedy is about making people laugh hard,” he says. “Do I deal with serious subjects? Yes, but I go over the place with the stuff I talk about. If you’re faint of heart, don’t come to my show. If you want to laugh your ass off, come to my show. If you want to hear someone not pulling any punches, come to my show. I’m not a humorist. I’m a comedian.” |