Accused of cheapening political discourse when he began hosting the celeb-filled Comedy Central talk show Politically Incorrect in 1993, today Bill Maher is one of a few important figures preventing it from slipping completely into nonsense. At a time when social media, the 24/7 news cycle, and ratings/pageview crunches contribute to a clusterfuck of misinformation and distracting triviality—seriously, the line between news and entertainment is blurrier than the pixelation of an Anthony Weiner dick pic—the sarcastic 58-year-old comedian uses his long-running HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher (Fridays, 10 p.m.), to shine a light on issues of actual import. And he does so while splitting sides, so suck on that, Fox News.
Maher, who is currently hosting Real Time’s 12th season and producing Vice, HBO's ballsy docu-journalism series with Vice magazine, sat down with Complex in his office at CBS Studios for a wide-ranging discussion of today's biggest issues, from NSA surveillance and gun laws to politicians on crack and the potential for nuclear war.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
How can society have an honest discussion about politics when news shows rely upon salacious and sensational stories to get ratings for advertisers?
That’s one argument for going back to what we used to have in the media, where the news didn’t have to make a profit. When William S. Paley ran CBS, he kept the news department separate. Moneymaking—that was the job of The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore and whatever else was feeding the coffers. The news was a loss leader. It was about prestige. None of the news departments had to turn a profit, so they didn’t have to worry about eyeballs.
Prisons certainly should not be for profit. That is the main reason why we put more of our people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. More than Iran, China, Russia—you name it. The prison guard lobby is very powerful. They love the three strikes law—anything that gets them more customers.
We once did an editorial about a number of things in America that should not be for profit. Healthcare is still fucked up because it’s still for profit. These morons that say there’s too much socialism in it are wrong; there’s still too much capitalism in it—that’s why it’s still so hard to get it to work. Prisons certainly should not be for profit. That is the main reason why we put more of our people in prison per capita than any other country in the world. More than Iran, China, Russia—you name it. The prison guard lobby is very powerful. They love the three strikes law—anything that gets them more customers. That’s so sick that we think of prisoners as customers. The news media is another. And I would also say war. You know, Halliburton should not be doing the laundry of the troops and selling the $9 sodas and all this bullshit.
Is that socialism? Yes, every modern country is a quasi-socialist country. And so are we—and we have been for 100 years. It’s not a bad word. It just means some things are done by the government, leaving out the profit motive. And yes, elections themselves and the media—that should all be taken off the table and done without any sort of profit motive, in my opinion.
With journalists being treated as celebrities and the way social media works now, do you think it’s possible to get back to the point where news is not for profit?
I don’t know. When you’re talking about journalism, there’s such a wide range. There are some amazingly good journalists and some really brave ones. We’ve lost well over 100 in Afghanistan and Iraq—not just Americans but journalists from all over the world who put their lives on the line. And they do some incredible stories. When people talk about the media, they tend to right away go to TV media, which is the worst because that is about catching eyeballs and jumping on the silliest story. I remember in 2010, when we had our little fun with Christine O’Donnell and the “witch” story, I had no idea when I played that tape that it would turn into the most reported story in the 2010 election cycle. 'Cause it certainly was very, very, very far from the top of the list of most important stories. She was going to lose anyway. But they just loved a witch! [Laughs.] C’mon, it’s great! A witch! That’s where they go. It’s like water rolls downhill. That’s what you get when you put the money motive in there.
You seem to have civil disagreements with people who don’t share your opinions. Is there anybody who you could not stand to be around and might slap open-handedly?
[Laughs.] No, people always ask me, “How can you be friends with Ann Coulter?” I’m guessing when you say “people you can’t stand to be around,” it’s your sly journalistic way of saying Ann Coulter.
No, I'm aware you two are friends.
Yeah, we are friends. We just stay away from the areas we know we will argue about, which is a lot. But it’s amazing how much we can talk about and agree on, like the media.
So there’s nobody you’d like to slap?
No, I can’t think of anybody like that. Because the Republicans are funny. They say the worst things but when you talk to them off-camera, and it’s not about politics, they’re almost always very nice people. They’re never, like, nasty. The real tragic flaw that Republicans have—it’s a lack of empathy for anybody who’s not like them. They can’t extend it out, you know? [Laughs.] If you put a little starving black kid right on their lap, they’re like George Bush, who used to only talk to soldiers and toddlers for a while because everyone else would boo him.
Magic Johnson was a great basketball player, but why is he going to be a good talk show host? It’s a little insulting to those who have worked on the craft of comedy for years to think that anybody can go up there and do it. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t try and play point guard for the Lakers.
Is there a secret to your longevity?
It’s different for everybody in the business. I mean, every career is a snowflake in show business. For me, what worked was never wavering from the key bond with my audience, which was always telling them what I really thought—never pulling a punch, taking the blows, and doing it my way. Whatever that song lyric is. 'Cause they do boo me sometimes, in my own audience. I don’t always say the things that even the liberals—and I’m mostly liberal—but very often, they don’t like what I’m saying. But I don’t think they ever feel that I’m lying or posing or saying something I don’t believe—not even my enemies. Of course, it also helps to be entertaining.
When I started Politically Incorrect, I had been doing comedy for almost 15 years. So I had that bag of tricks. That was very helpful. A lot of people think a talk show is, “Oh, you just have to talk.” [Laughs.] Well, they’d give anybody a talk show! They’d give Magic Johnson a talk show. I mean, he was a great basketball player, but why is he going to be a good talk show host? It’s a little insulting to those who have worked on the craft of comedy for years to think that anybody can go up there and do it. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t try and play point guard for the Lakers. Without the entertainment element, it all goes away.