Bill Maher is in the business of making people angry. Very, very angry. It’s kind of what he does. But unlike a lot of divisive, love-them-or-hate-them comedians, he’s an equal-opportunity offender.
Maher’s got plenty of haters on the Right. He’s been called “vicious, vile, and hateful” by Fox News, and an “invertebrate coward” by conservative bloggers. An Alabama congressman claimed Maher’s humor “borders on treason,” and the Catholic League accused him of being an “anti-Catholic bigot” who “libels priests … with impunity.” The Left haven’t been any more receptive to Maher’s take-no-prisoners satire. Newsweek‘s Tina Brown reminded him via Twitter that he’s hellbound, comedian Wayne Brady said he would “gladly slap the shit out of Bill Maher in the middle of the street,” and PZ Myers, an atheist scientist (a belief system that Maher shares), called him “an awful, ghastly, horrible liberal.”
And yet Maher soldiers on. His HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher, is in its 11th season. (You can catch a new episode live this Friday at 10pm ET/PT.) Every week seems to bring a new demand for Maher to apologize, which rarely happens. Maher made his views on the matter perfectly clear in a New York Times op-ed from 2012, with the unambiguous title “Please Stop Apologizing.” (“When did we get it in our heads,” he asked, “that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?”) The last time Maher gave an apology and seemed to sort of mean it was 2001, when the then-host of ABC’s aptly-named Politically Incorrect suggested that terrorists weren’t cowards.
Maher wasn’t born the William Wallace of satire. Growing up in River Vale, New Jersey, he was a student of comedy, recording stand-up routines on TV with a Wollensak tape recorder when he was just 12, and transcribing Robert Klein albums in their entirety just to study how the jokes were constructed. His biggest influences were his dad—Bill Maher Sr., a news editor at NBC who’d often rant during family dinners about Nixon—and comics who weren’t afraid of making enemies. (Maher once called George Carlin’s comedy albums his “holy grail.”) On Maher’s very first Tonight Show appearance, in August of 1982, back when a spot on Johnny Carson could make or break a comedy career, his act took aim at religion. “That’s what I call picking up the check for the whole table,” he said of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was probably the kindest thing he’s said since about organized religion.
We called Maher—who’s performing live this weekend at the Beacon Theater in New York City—to ask about the Pope, Ann Coulter, The Daily Show, and the haters who occasionally want to punch him in the face. Not surprisingly, he had lots of strong opinions.
Who’s pissed off and demanding an apology from you this week?
I don’t know, I haven’t read my Twitter feed in the last 20 minutes. I’m sure it must be somebody.
You sincerely don’t seem to care when people think you’re an asshole.
I usually don’t. The last time I even slightly cared was the Donald Trump lawsuit. I was sure sweating that for awhile, but it went away.
I’m totally kidding! I wasn’t worried for a second.
What happened there exactly?
This man, who thinks he’s smarter than Obama—oh my god!—he took a one-time joke I made about him way too seriously. He said “I will give Obama $5 million to prove that he went to college.” Well, since I’ve often thought that Trump’s hair is the exact same color as an orangutan, I offered to give him five million if he could prove he isn’t the spawn of an orangutan.
And he found this insulting?
Ridiculous, right? [Laughs.] He took a joke and turned it into a three-month national debate on whether his mother fucked an ape. I mean, you’ve just got to love a guy that smart.
Did he not get the joke, or was he looking to milk your joke for the publicity?
Well he does love publicity, but he’s also the most thin-skinned man in the world. He feuds with everybody. Anyone who doesn’t totally kiss his ass gets a feud.
Speaking of thin skins, I saw that interview you did on The View, with Elisabeth what’s her name.
Holy lord she doesn’t like you.
It was one of the few times when I had the sympathy of the whole world. Usually I’m a polarizing figure. But on that day, even the conservatives admitted she looked bad. It was wonderful.
What was going through your head as she was unloading on you?
Just ‘keep your mouth shut. Don’t ruin this.’ All I had to do was shut up and let her dig her own grave. She had her facts wrong, she had her premise wrong, she had everything wrong. So I was literally thinking ‘Just let this bitch keep talking.’
Do you often get confronted by the people you’ve made jokes about?
Never. Well, hardly ever. In all the years I’ve been doing this, it’s only happened maybe twice that somebody’s come up to me in person and stuck a finger in my face and said, “You insulted me, you son of a bitch.” And I know there are people out there who’ve thought about it.
They tweet about wanting to confront you.
I am under no illusion that I am a universally beloved figure. And yet when it comes to actually walking up to me and yelling in my face, nobody actually follows through with their threats. And it’s not like I stay home all the time.
You’re on tour a lot.
I’m out there every weekend. And I’m in the country, in some of the reddest of the red states. But nobody says anything. It never happens.
Why do you think that is?
Well, it suggests that the people who dislike me, the haters, are kind of pussies. They’ll hate you anonymously, but they don’t have the balls to do it in person.
So when Wayne Brady promised to slap the shit out of you, he was all talk?
Oh my gosh, did you Google all my feuds? Did you Google “Bill Maher enemies?”
No. I Googled “Bill Maher.”
[Laughs.] Of course.
You have a lot of feuds, man.
I know, I know. There’s another guy who wants to fight me, who actually challenged me to get punched in the face by him. Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League.
Oh yeah, I remember that. He wanted to do it at Madison Square Garden, right?
That’s right. I still can’t believe that. He wanted to fight me! Because that’s what Jesus would do.
Well, Jesus was a badass.
He was. And he wanted to resolve everything with a fistfight.
Jesus would cut a bitch. Isn’t that in the bible?
I believe that’s in the New Testament. That’s Act 1.
How do you let all the criticism roll off your shoulders? Is that a resiliency you develop over time?
It’s an evolutionary process. There are absolutely times in the past where the slightest criticism upset me. That’s what happens. But you get used to it. Or I should say you start to feel inoculated. Nothing for me could ever be more traumatic than what happened after 9/11.
When you made the “cowards” comment?
The aftermath, those months between when I said it and ABC finally threw me off the network, that was rough. The country was so raw and so mad and they didn’t know who to be mad at. And then I came along and provided them with a target for their anger.
And you survived.
Exactly. Anything they throw at me now, it’s like, “Don’t bother. I’ve been through much worse.”
Did you second guess yourself after the 9/11 comment?
Yeah, a bit. I never second-guessed what I said, because what I said wasn’t wrong. It was true on September 10th, and it was true on September 12th. And it was something that lots of other people had said before me. It wasn’t exactly an original statement to claim that suicide bombers aren’t cowards. But it’s not what people needed to hear at that moment.
Your timing was a little off.
My timing was terrible. But, you know, George Bush said very explicitly, “Go back to doing what you do or the terrorists win.” So, I did. And I guess the terrorists won because I got kicked off the air for doing it.
How do you find that distance? Do you have a relationship with your jokes like a prostitute has with sex? Do you just not make any of it personal?
Well, I love my jokes like I love my children, if I had children. I feel like my jokes are my children. That comes from doing standup on a regular basis. I enjoy tinkering with my act. It’s such detail work, crafting an act. It’s kind of like the people who build ships inside of bottles. Or make cathedrals out of matchsticks. My matchstick cathedral is my jokes.
When you put all this work into your material, and it feels like a part of you, and then somebody says “your jokes are unfunny and vile and worthless,” how does that not affect you?
It does to some extent. No matter what you do in show business, you are the product. If they don’t like your song and you’re the singer, you probably take that personally. And I’m no different. It’s just that with jokes, there are so many of them. If you don’t like one, there’s another one coming along in 15 seconds.
You’ve compared your feelings with something FDR said about the bankers during the Great Depression. “I welcome their hatred.”
That’s certainly the way I feel about people who oppose my core beliefs. Dana Perino, who’s a former Bush mouthpiece, was asked about a recent court case where atheist parents had sued the state of Massachusetts because they didn’t want their kid saying “Under God” in the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Look, I don’t really give a shit if God is mentioned in the “Pledge of Allegiance.” I’m not that kind of atheist. You want to say “under God,” knock yourself out. You want to put it on the money? Great, I don’t really care. Put whatever myth you want on the money. But they asked Perino about this lawsuit and she said, “I’m tired of them,” meaning atheists. She said, “If these people really don’t like it, they don’t have to live here.”
Wow. “These people.”
Can you imagine saying that about any other minority? Can you imagine saying “I’m tired of them” if you referring to Jews or gay people or Latinos? So when you ask me, do I welcome their hatred? Somebody like that, Dana Perino dismissing atheists as “those people,” yes, I welcome their hatred. And I will gladly return it.
What about when you might be in the wrong, like when you purportedly called Sarah Palin’s son retarded?
Well, first of all, I never called her son retarded. That’s a rumor started by people who weren’t there. It’s not as simple as “Hey, Sarah Palin’s son is a retard.” It’s not what the routine is. Nobody should be commenting on it if they weren’t at the show.
You can’t have an opinion on a joke if you weren’t at the theater where it was said? That doesn’t sound right.
Here’s the deal. When I do my stand-up show, I do it for a very specific community of people. If you don’t like it, if it offends you, don’t see the show. If you don’t want to hear some racist creep on the radio every day, don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh. But if you don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh, you can’t comment on it. And you can’t prevent other people from listening to it, if that’s what they enjoy. I don’t like Rush Limbaugh or what he says at all, but I will defend him and his right to be on the air and not be thrown off because somebody who doesn’t listen to him doesn’t like what he says.
You’re not just blowing smoke out of your ass. You actually have defended Limbaugh’s right to say whatever he wants.
You came to his defense when he made some unpopular comments about Sandra Fluke.
I will defend anybody’s right to be able to speak to their audience. Their audience is their community. When I go on Jay Leno, that’s a much broader audience. There are things I say on HBO that I would never, ever say on Jay Leno, because it’s not the same community. Things I say in my stand-up act, I would never say on HBO. Because that’s a bigger community than my stand-up. And then there are things I would say to my friends that I wouldn’t say in my stand-up. And there are things I think to myself that I wouldn’t say to my friends.
Those are the dark places we want to hear about.
Those are the dark places everyone has and nobody admits to.
Speaking of dark places, let’s talk about Ann Coulter.
She’s become a recurring rival for you, but I get the sense that you weirdly enjoy her.
Oh I do. We had her on last Friday.
I saw that. You called her “the Ivan Drago to your Rocky.” Nicely done.
I’ve been friends with Ann for 20 years. When we’re in friend mode, which is off-camera, we don’t talk politics, because we know it’s pointless. We’re just going to argue. Some of the things she believes I think are absolutely abhorrent.
She once came on your show and tried to argue that there isn’t racism anymore in America.
Oh my god! That’s the one that makes me the angriest. When she goes on that rant, it’s always a challenge for me to keep quiet and not say the things I really want to say to her.
Do you think she really believes that? Or is it a performance?
This is the question people ask me a lot about Ann. Does she really mean it or is she just saying it to get a rise out of people? I cannot get inside Ann Coulter’s head so I cannot answer that question. But if I were to guess, I think that she mostly means everything she says, I really do.
What about you?
Do I believe everything I say?
Or are you playing a character?
I am never playing a character, and I am never saying anything just to get a rise out of people. I mean everything I say and I try to defend it. I don’t really feel like anything I say is that outrageous. I feel like other people’s viewpoints are outrageous. The belief that global warming is a hoax, that’s outrageous. The belief that evolution is not real and the earth is 10,000 years old, that’s outrageous. I’m not outrageous.
Maybe you seem outrageous because you don’t back down from fights with people you consider outrageous? You’ve never agreed to disagree.
Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s much more the perception of combativeness than the actual content of what I’m putting across. I think politics has changed around me more than I’ve changed. I used to be more even-handed as far as my criticisms of the two parties. It’s the Republicans that have changed. Twenty years ago, when I started doing Politically Incorrect, the Republican Party was a completely different party. It was led by people like Jim Baker and Bob Dole and George Bush the first. These were not unreasonable people.
You still disagreed with them.
Sure, but they weren’t unreasonable. The health care plan that we just passed was basically Bob Dole’s old health care plan. Twenty years ago, Cap and Trade was the Republican idea, now it’s the Democrat idea, and the Republican idea is now “Let’s just pretend global warming doesn’t exist.” I liked the old Republicans, the Republicans from the early ’90s, because like I used to say, “I need a mean old man who’ll watch my money.” But they’re not mean old men who’ll watch my money anymore. Now they’re just mean, and they only pretend to care about the money while spending more of it on things I don’t want, and wars we don’t need.
Why haven’t you won an Emmy yet?
I have no idea.
You’ve lost how many times now? Nine?
Nine just for Outstanding Variety Series. We’ve gotten 32 nominations in various categories and never won.
Any theories on why that might be?
To get nominated by your peers that many times and never win, there must be something going on with those 10 people.
What 10 people?
The 10 people who actually vote on the winner. It’s only a committee of like ten people. Some of it is undoubtedly because I say things those other nominees don’t say.
Like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?
They’re not atheists, they don’t speak against religion, they didn’t say those comments after 9/11 which a lot of people haven’t forgiven me for. You have to understand, my criterion for being the best show is probably not the criterion of the 10 people who pick the Emmy winners. My criterion is, be brave, smart, and funny. Their criterion might be, who didn’t say anything that really put me off.
The bar is a little lower?
It’s much, much lower. We also have to understand that winning an Emmy is not like winning the Super Bowl. When you win the Super Bowl, it’s because one team actually beat another team. It’s not somebody’s opinion that the Ravens beat the 49ers. They did beat the 49ers. But the Emmies, that is 10 people’s opinion, and they’re not 10 people I tend to agree with.
Do you feel any competitiveness with The Daily Show or The Colbert Report?
I think we’re friendly. We’re on different coasts and we don’t really cross paths a lot. I’m very glad that there are smart political shows that people want to watch. When I went on the air with Politically Incorrect in 1993—which was on Comedy Central, by the way, so I kind of paved the way for them—there were no political comedy shows. Not on Comedy Central, not anywhere. I remember thinking at the time, “This is going to be a failure because people are never going to be interested in politics. It is the ultimate toxic subject.”
How wrong you were.
I think we opened a door, and I’d much rather people be watching those shows than watching a fucking dance contest or the Real Housewives of Paramus or whatever the hell is on.
Bill Clinton’s been a guest on The Daily Show every year since 2004. You haven’t been able to get him once, and not for lack of trying. Why is that?
Because he’s not challenged by The Daily Show. Because Bill Clinton’s not afraid of (Jon Stewart). He’s not going to get confronted with the truth. Bill Clinton only goes where he’s adored. I like Bill Clinton, but he’s a giant egomaniac.
He did promise you he’d come on Real Time, didn’t he? When you were both on the final Larry King Show?
Yes, that’s true. But as we know, he’s also a very good liar, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he just lied to my face. He was like, “Oh, uh, I wasn’t aware I’d been invited.” Well, right there I was like, “That’s a lot of bullshit coming at me.”
Are you holding out hope?
I don’t think about it. If it happens, it’ll be great. But I would much rather it not happen and I’m able to retain my ability to speak about him and everybody else with utter candor. Utter candor is so much more important to me than any one particular guest.
As a nation, are we just going through a rough patch, or are we actively getting dumber? It can be difficult to tell sometimes.
It really can. Well, I’m not a great American historian like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who could probably answer that question from a position of knowledge and historical perspective. But I can say that in my lifetime, people are getting dumber, yes. At the same time, the younger generation are, I think, getting way savvier.
They say that about a third of Millennials have no use for religion. I always associate religion with stupidity. It is in my view superstition. It’s an embarrassing anachronism from the Bronze Age, before the bow-and-arrow and mankind entering into the age of scientific reasoning. I sort of understand why the bible says some of the things it says, because they didn’t know where the sun went at night. But we know where the sun goes at night now.
So the Millennials blowing off church encourages you?
I find it very encouraging. But there’s also a lot of numbers and statistics that’ll just make you throw up your hands in defeat. The latest one I read claims some astounding number of high school students did not know what the Emancipation Proclamation was. Which is kind of important.
Did you grow up with religion?
Oh sure. I was raised Catholic.
Was it a slow transition for you from not being religious to being actively anti-religious?
Yeah, it was an evolution, not a revolution. I never liked church. It scared me, and the nuns were very frightening and mean. So I was thrilled when my father stopped going to church when I was a teenager. I was not even out of my teens when I had decided that religion as a whole was a crock. But it took a lot longer before I fully said, “Oh wait, I don’t even believe in God as a concept.”
You weren’t an overnight atheist?
For a long time, I didn’t really think about it at all. I was just one of those people who never went to church, never thought about religion, never thought about God, except when I was in trouble. I’d be like, “Please God, just save me from this and I’ll never do whatever I did again!”
What are your thoughts on Pope Francis?
Love Pope Frank.
You love him?
That’s a strong emotion for a religious institution you claim to despise.
Well first of all, he’s an atheist. You know this, right?
I wasn’t aware, no. Is the Pope allowed to be an atheist?
He’s totally an atheist.
That would seem to be contrary to his job description.
The first thing he said when he got into office, he was there like two days, and he said something no Pope would ever say. He said “Atheists can get into heaven.” I swear to god, the other Cardinals were like, “Oh fuck, we’ve got to prepare the poison now.” And then he said we can’t judge gay people. He’s always saying these things that are driving the Vatican crazy. He’s the Joe Biden of Catholicism.
I read that he recently called ideological Christianity “an illness.”
Can you believe that? It’s amazing! On Fox News, they don’t know what to do with this guy. They’re supposed to love him, because he’s an authority figure and he’s religious and all that. But he says things like “Poor people shouldn’t pay taxes.” Are you kidding? So they don’t know what to do with him. But I think it’s terrific. I love this guy.
He’s kind of a gaffe machine.
It’s only a gaffe within the nonsense that the church has been spouting for all these centuries. It makes perfect sense in reality. It even makes perfect sense as far as interpreting the real words of the philosopher Jesus Christ. Jesus never said hate gays. He never said anything about gays. He did say love everybody like yourself.
Is Pope Frank the exception, or is this a sea-change for the Catholic church?
I don’t think we’re going to see lasting change in the Church in my lifetime. Before Frank, there was Pope John XXIII, who was Pope from 1958 to 1963. My father loved Pope John, because he was the Pope Frank of his era, the one who changed things for the better. Before him, they did mass with their backs to the audience. And the mass was entirely in Latin. Pope John was also the one who said, “You can eat meat on Friday,” because poor people couldn’t afford to let their meat rot on Friday. This was the stuff that Mel Gibson and those kinds of Catholics hate. He’s the archenemy to them, because he wanted to open up the windows of the church.
And that didn’t last.
Not at all. After Pope John came Pope Paul, and it went right back to the conservative line. Then we went to Pope John Paul, who was also very conservative, and then Pope Ratzinger, who was even more conservative. That’s typical for the Catholic Church. Popes like Frank and John XXIII are the exceptions. We’ll see how far Frank can go. He’s made a tremendous start. The great thing about being Pope is, fuck, you’re infallible, what can they say?
Michele Bachmann thinks we’re heading for End Times.
She thinks we’re in End Times.
And you of course don’t agree.
Anybody who believes that they’re going to meet and greet with Jesus is not only deluded in a very sad way, but sort of an egomaniac. This whole idea that Jesus has been gone for 2,000 years but he’s going to want to come back to meet me. He’s going to want to do it when I’m around.
Even if we’re not heading for a biblical extinction, are you hopeful for the future of humanity?
I’d like to say I am, but I’m actually not. When Revelations was written, only God had the capacity to end the world. But now man does too, not just with nuclear weapons, but by polluting on an absolutely catastrophic scale. James Hansen, the great NASA scientist, said unless we do something tomorrow, in 10 years we will have passed the tipping point on global warming. He said that more than 10 years ago, and we didn’t do anything.
So we’re fucked?
We’re fucked. There’s not a week that goes by, if you read the paper, where you don’t see an article in which the theme is basically “Situation even worse than scientists formerly believed.” Doesn’t give you a lot of hope, my friend.
Bachmann might be right after all.
And that’s the irony of religion. Because of its power to divert man to illogical and destructive courses, life on earth could actually end. If there’s one thing I hate more than prophecy it’s self-fulfilling prophecy.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)