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.
Is it a good or bad thing that many people would rather get their news from you, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert, rather than actual news shows or newspapers?
No, it’s not the ideal. It reminds me of college when they said, “You can read the CliffsNotes with the book.” You remember the CliffsNotes?
If India and Pakistan had a nuclear exchange and fired all their weapons at each other, it would probably be enough to cause what they call a 'nuclear winter' and end all life on Earth. So, Happy New Year!
Read the book—that’s what I would say to the audience. Some people, and I was certainly one of them, only read the CliffsNotes. I don’t think I did ever read Silas Mariner. And sometimes you get away with it, you know? That’s the thing: [Reading the book is] better but there are only 24 hours in a day. Look, it’s better than people who don’t get their news at all. Lots of people only watch Dancing with the Stars. When I was the only one doing it, before those other two shows came along, [critics] were like, “Aren’t you responsible for this downgrading of the discourse?” I guess so, to a degree, but I also got more people interested in it to begin with. It is a trade-off. And it is America. We aren’t the deepest culture in the world. We should be thankful for small things.
Does knowing that people are getting their news from you make you feel responsible?
Absolutely. I do the show for people catching up on the news in the week. And I try and make sure every week that in some part of the show, whether in the monologue, in the panel discussion, [or] in one of the two one-on-one interviews, in the “New Rules,” I mention every one of the stories that I think are important that happened week. Somewhere in the show, I want people to be exposed to the really important elements of the week. So it is a responsibility.
Do you think we will have another global icon of Nelson Mandela's stature anytime soon?
I don’t see one on the world stage now but one does always come along. I mean, before him there was [Mikhail] Gorbachev. I would put Gorbachev on a level with Mandela. He didn’t suffer like Mandela, but he achieved like Mandela, I think. And it’s funny, in his own country, they hate him. But that’ll change over time. They shouldn’t. He was a major figure who did a major thing. It would be great to have somebody like that.
On the flip side, which politicians or world leaders scare you most right now?
Well, I’m with Obama. When somebody asked him, “What keeps you up at night?” he demurred, and they pressed him again, and he kind of scuffed it off again. The third time, he said, “OK, Pakistan.” That’s what I would say. Two of the biggest problems we have are nuclear weapons that are not secured and crazy Islamic fundamentalists. And that’s a place where they are together. Not to mention the battle they have going on with India. Who knows who’s crazy enough to use them, but even if India and Pakistan left us out of it—say they had a nuclear exchange and fired all their weapons at each other, it would probably be enough to cause what they call a “nuclear winter” and end all life on Earth. So, Happy New Year! [Laughs.]
James Hanson, the NASA scientist who’s one of the leading experts on this, said, 'If we don’t do something drastic [about climate change], in 10 years we will reach a tipping point after which we can’t solve this problem.' Unfortunately, he said that over 10 years ago.
Speaking of ecological disasters, you mentioned that this is one of the issues we are not as fearful of as we should be. What do you envision the world looking like by the time your life ends?
I shudder to think. James Hanson, the NASA scientist who’s one of the leading experts on this, said, “If we don’t do something drastic [about climate change], in 10 years we will reach a tipping point after which we can’t solve this problem.” Unfortunately, he said that over 10 years ago. [Laughs.] And I never see a headline on the environment that doesn’t include the idea “It is worse than scientists thought.” It’s always worse than their predictions. The ice is melting faster than they thought it would; the seas are more acidic than they thought they would be; the fish are dying quicker than they thought. It’s never good.
I don’t understand young people who don’t get involved in this issue. I’m almost 58 years old [and] I’ve had my fun with the Earth. But if you’re young and you’ve got kids, I just don’t get why they don’t seem to be on a state of red alert on this. I mean, it’s time to go to DEFCON 1. But like they always say with the frog and the slow-boiling pot, we don’t notice it because it’s incremental. I’ve heard idiots [sarcastically] say, “Look at all this cold weather we’ve had. Yeah—global warming.” Well, of course it’s climate change. Scientists always said a warmer atmosphere would create more moisture and worse winters, blah blah blah.
Here’s something anecdotal: Michael Moore was vacation with me this year. He said, “I’m not going in the water because I’ve been looking at this website on my computer of where the sharks are around the hotel.” They tag the sharks; they have a GPS on them and you can look. There’s a website that will show you where the sharks are in real time. Little red dot and they’re, like, right there in front of your hotel. It was very scary. And I kept going in the water every day, but it was kind of like living in Israel in the ’60s. It was a heightened sense of “I could get killed at anytime now.” [Laughs.] They will attack somebody in, like, two feet of water. The hotels don’t want to acknowledge this. It’s like the movie Jaws. You say “shark attack” and we’ve got a problem on our hands. The reason that they come in to kill people is because all the fish are dead in the ocean. They say that there will be no fish in 50 years. A lot of the fish are already extinct or almost extinct because we fished them out. A lot of the fish you eat are mislabeled. You’re not really getting the Chilean sea bass; we’ve already killed those motherfuckers. That’s a tile fish that they’re calling sea bass to mollify you.
Do you see mankind addressing the natural issues first, or fleeing the planet in space shuttles?
Oh, well that’s really not an option.
I spent Christmas in Toronto and it was snowing. I was worried I wasn’t going to get out, but I did because there was good plowing. And I thought, ‘When there’s this big storm maybe it’s not the worst thing to have a mayor who’s up all night on blow.’
You don’t think we can figure out a way to just orbit in shuttles?
Just orbit? Oh my God—really? I don’t see 7 billion people orbiting. I know people think, “Let’s just go to another planet.” Are you fucking kidding me? I know scientists—Neil DeGrasse Tyson could tell you much better than I could—talk about Goldilocks planets. They discover these planets that are not too hot [and] not too cold. Yes, and they’re hundreds of light years away. I mean, so what? [Laughs.] They exist. We can’t get to them. Certainly not within the next 100 years. We do not have the technology to accomplish that—not even a little bit. And there’s no living on Mars. We have to make our stand here. This is the one planet we have.
What are your thoughts about Rob Ford seeking re-election?
I love him. I actually spent Christmas in Toronto and it was snowing. I was worried I wasn’t going to get out, but I did because there was good plowing. And I thought, “You know what, when there’s this big storm maybe it’s not the worst thing to have a mayor who’s up all night on blow.” I mean, if you saw that video of him in the hotel room where he’s ranting and raving about who he’s going to kill—just channel that energy towards keeping the roads clear and you’ve got something. And honestly, a lot of people in Toronto feel the same way. Obviously smoking crack is not something you would want to recommend to children—or even adults. I’ve never smoked crack and I’m very libertarian about drugs. But I do like the fact that Canadians are not just completely blown away by it, as Americans would be. Canadians don’t seem to have that gene that Americans have of needing to be “the good people.” And how do we know we’re the good people? Because we point our fingers at the bad people and we say, “You have to go away. Now I feel good about myself because I made you go away.” They don’t do that. I also like that Rob Ford sort of threw it back on them and said, “You know what? Don’t we all do something? OK, maybe crack isn’t the best but, come on, who in this room didn’t smoke pot?” I’ve never seen an American politician do that. I had Anthony Weiner on and I was trying to rehabilitate him. [Laughs. ] Because I thought, God—the guy was just basically jerking off, OK? Is that really such a capital offense in this country? He didn’t even get laid. It’s like, “Come on, man, put your chin up. You just jerked off; you’re not a mass murderer.”
Is this fascination with scandal unique to America? Would Canada or other countries around the world view these issues differently?
I think so. I don’t live in those countries, so I don’t know as well as someone who does, but it sure seems that way. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Europeans are more mature about sex. Somebody like Berlusconi in Italy. They did of course get tired of him because not only was he always involved in some sort of sex scandal, he was also the richest man in the country. It would be like if Trump—not that Trump is the richest man, but say Trump’s “great wealth” were true, and he owned the three biggest television stations, and he was the President. That’s the situation they had in Italy. I think the sex part was the least of it with Berlusconi. They got it, you know, he’s a baller. He was in his ’70s and he was still having bunga bunga parties. They were like, “Hey, La dolce vita.” [Laughs.]
What scandal do you think has been the most blown out of proportion?
[The attack on the U.S. Embassy in] Benghazi. It’s funny—the media tries to sell this story that there is a giant cleavage between the Tea Party and the Republican Party. Not really. I saw a poll: 44 percent of Republicans, not Tea Party Republicans, said Benghazi was the worst scandal ever. Really? The worst ever in American history? Fuck you. Trail of Tears and slavery and genocide and internment of the Japanese and purposely giving Guatemalan mental patients syphilis to study them? [Laughs.] No, it’s Benghazi. The worst thing ever.
Aside from the environment, what other big issues do you feel are being woefully ignored?
Well, Obama is getting on the income and inequality situation. That’s obviously something that has been ignored. We haven’t really heard politicians even mention poor people for decades. It was always the middle class, the middle class, the middle class. They had these phrases: working families. And people on both ends were kind of left out, I guess. Because poor people don’t vote, partly because they’re working. We have a stupid system—unlike so many more intelligent countries—where we vote on a work day. And lots of people just can’t get to the polls. Or they’re living in grinding poverty and are they’re just disillusioned with the system, like, “Why does it matter who gets elected?” So they weren’t voting and therefore they weren’t pandered to. That looks like it’s finally changing a little bit.
Speaking of the President, what do you think his overall legacy is at this point?
For me it always comes back to the environment issue. He’s not been good on that. Rolling Stone just did a good article kind of summing up his tenure and I understand why he couldn’t do some things, like legalize marijuana. As the first Black President, that’s kind of a tough one to come into office and go, “Hey, spark up everybody.” [Laughs.] I can see why he had to be more conservative perhaps than he really was in his heart, in certain instances. But the environment, that’s the one that’s not coming back. And he’s talked a good game at times but all this carbon under the earth that we’re going after now with fracking and what they call “clean coal”—bullshit. There is no such thing as clean coal; it’s just two words that they strung together. Frank Luntz, the evil master of language, probably did that: “Just say clean coal.” Oh great, problem solved!
Tea Party people hate it when you accuse them of racism. They hate this President from their deepest core, but please don’t say it has anything to do with race.
But if we extract all that shale and all that clean coal, it is really game over. He also opened up more drilling in the ocean. As you may recall, it was only a few days before the well blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Remember in April 2010, when he was saying, “This is more safe than ever and we should open more rigs offshore”? He’s not been a good environmental President and that is the one thing he really needed to be.
I remember when he made that speech at the 2012 convention and he said “We will stop the rise of the oceans…”’ Remember that? And Mitt Romney mocked him. His answer was “He says he’ll stop the rise of the oceans. [Eye roll in the room, big laughs] I pledge to help you and your families.” Not connecting that maybe the two are the same thing. And that’s the choice we have. People say to me, when I complain about Obama, “Well aren’t you sorry that you gave him id="mce_marker" million?” No! Because at least he knows what the right answer is and might do it. Mitt Romney mocks the right answer.
How much of Obama’s issue is, as you said, the limitations of being the first Black President, and how much is just the reality of politics?
It’s both. I mean, they treated Clinton horribly. Clinton was not Black, as we recall, and yet they treated him as illegitimate from the beginning and they were always looking to find something to get him with. They got him with the blowjob. But I don’t remember anybody ever saying about Bill Clinton: “I can’t stand to look at him,” as a Republican Congressman said about Obama last year. Remember that? I think it was Pete Sessions. “I can’t stand to look at him.” They didn’t say that about Clinton—and his cum was on the furniture! I don’t remember anybody ever heckling another President at the State of the Union. Remember Jan Brewer sticking her finger in his face? I mean, there has been an “in your face” kind of disrespect. Bill O’Reilly interviewing him and interrupting him every two seconds as if he’s just some other schmuck who’s on his show.
I know that Tea Party people hate it when you accuse them of racism. They hate this President from their deepest core, but please don’t say it has anything to do with race. OK, let’s look at the facts. First thing he did was a giant tax cut—a third of the stimulus program they hate so much was a giant tax cut. He lowered the taxes of almost 98 percent of Americans. You think a party that’s called Taxed Enough Already would appreciate that? No, they’re not even aware of it. If you ask them they will all say, “No, he raised taxes.” He cut the deficit in half. His stock market has doubled. He shrank the size of government, many less government workers—something George Bush never did. All these things he did that are literally their wish list, he did. But they hate him. So gosh, what could it be? What could it be? I can’t put my finger on it but it’s just something they don’t like about him. I guess it’ll remain a mystery.
Race is definitely part of it, but whichever party is in office, the other party is always trying to get in. So even if you agree with their policies, it seems you have to shit on them one way or another.
It used to be a little different, though. It was not to this degree. Yes, there was a bit of kabuki theater that went on with the debt ceiling. Obama railed against it when he was in the Senate. But they didn’t take it to the point where the Republican have taken it. They actually made agencies like Moody’s downgrade [the U.S.A.’s credit rating]. That affects interest rates and money and people lose jobs. Back in the Bob Dole era or the Ronald Reagan era they didn’t hate each other. They were sort of like me and Anne Coulter: After work they wouldn’t talk politics. They’d bond over being Irish, whatever the fuck it was. It was different than somebody saying, “I can’t stand to be in the same room” or thinking the President is Muslim. It gets worse all the time, and it’s gotten way worse because he’s Black—no doubt about it. Nobody should ever underestimate that the racial element is still alive and well in this country.
The whole Constitution needs a page one rewrite. It’s not sacred and the Founders said that themselves. Jefferson said every 20 years you got to re-look at this sh*t. He didn’t foresee assault weapons but he did foresee the fact that things would change enough that you can’t treat this like it’s the Bible. And don’t even get me started on the Bible.
If we needed any more evidence, we had the George Zimmerman trial last year and the divide over Trayvon Martin. Speaking of gun violence, you have spoken out as a gun owner saying that the real issue is the irresponsibility of people who own guns in this country.
My position is I’m not going to disarm unilaterally because there isn’t a party in this country that defends my point of view. The Republicans love guns and the Democrats like guns. And both of them agree that we need guns to shoot animals for fun. That’s a given. You can’t take them away. So you have somebody like Joe Biden, who’s supposed to be from the one progressive party in this country, saying, “We want to get rid of these assault riffles; buy a shotgun.” Remember when he said that? So he’s [Laughs.] telling people to buy a gun. I’d love to live in a country like Canada and then I wouldn’t have a gun. But this is the gun country, it’s seeped in our blood apparently. Lots of blood, you know, we’re soaking in it.
And we have a Constitution that defends it. People say, "Why don’t we do what England did or Scotland did?" They don’t have a second amendment over there. So the thought process about guns in America has to change and it has to change with the Liberal Party. The Party that’s supposed to stand up for the liberal point of view has to come to the fore and say, “Right from the start this was fucked up.” And from the start, I mean the second amendment. That’s where the whole thing has to begin. Let’s read that amendment and really get to what they were talking about and the time frame we’re talking about. But they don’t do that, because that’s sacred. That was delivered directly from Jesus with the rest of the Constitution. I mean, the whole Constitution needs a page one rewrite. It’s not sacred and the Founders said that themselves. Jefferson said every 20 years you got to re-look at this shit. He didn’t foresee assault weapons but he did foresee the fact that things would change enough that you can’t treat this like it’s the Bible. And don’t even get me started on the Bible.
Could you talk about social media and everybody having a voice—and whether or not that’s a good thing? You’ve said before that it’s odd we don’t want the elite to be our politicians when clearly those should be the most intelligent people amongst us.
That certainly wasn’t affected by social media. We were picking people we wanted to have a beer with well before Twitter. I don’t think there’s any harm in having millions of voices out there. If we’re talking about good ideas, the cream will still rise to the top. This is a big country of 300-plus million people, so we kind of lose sight of the fact that there is within this big, giant amorphous nation a very smart, progressive thinking—almost like a Western European democracy. It’s just surrounded by a bunch of rednecks. Germany is about 80 million people and England is, I think, 70 million. If we were a smaller country with a different tradition and we were older and wiser I think we would be more like them. And we’re getting more like them. You know: gay marriage, Black Presidents, pot’s legal now in a couple of states—that’s going to keep going. We are slowly but surely moving in the right direction. And the worst of this country—I mean, let’s face it, what’s going to solve a lot of problems in this country is that the worst sort of thinking, the people who are responsible for this sort of thinking are mostly older White people and they will be dead. Death will solve a lot of problems in America. [Laughs.] We must root for death, root for death to come.
I live very close to the port of Long Beach and the port of Los Angeles where about half the cargo of America comes in. We’re the easiest place to get a dirty [bomb] in and that would ruin my day a lot worse than the NSA watching me masturbate.
How are you feeling personally in terms of safety and terrorism in 2014, after all the policies enacted post-9/11?
I don’t think about it day to day; I think most Americans don’t. I guess we owe a certain debt of gratitude to dedicated people at all levels in the national security apparatus who are responsible for that. Obviously this country, especially under the Bush Administration, made a lot of decisions that exacerbated the problem, recruited terrorists, made the situation worse. But we’ve also obviously done some things right. It’s page-one of the New York Times today. Islamic extremists in Syria are trying to identify, recruit, and train Americans to carry out attacks when they return home. So to these people who say, “No drones and let’s totally reign in the NSA,” I agree that drones do some bad things. And I agree, the NSA probably went too far. But on the other hand you can’t do nothing. Invading Iraq was a really stupid thing to do. It is not the correct weapon. Drones are a better weapon than the Army and they’re not perfect and we’ve got to get that better. But you can’t do nothing.
When it comes to the NSA, I’m really glad Mr. Edward Snowden started this debate. I think he’s heroic for doing it. I don’t think he’s a traitor at all. I think he’s sincere. He also, as Lawrence O’Donnell keeps pointing out, never fails to say something completely batshit whenever he opens his mouth. So he’s a strange amalgam, Mr. Edward Snowden, but you do have my thanks. On the other hand, we did an editorial last year and we took that quote from Benjamin Franklin which says, “Any man who is willing to trade liberty for security deserves neither.” And I said, well, that was fine for Ben Franklin but there were no nuclear weapons back then. The worst Islamic terrorist he had to fight were the Barbary pirates. We live in a very different world and I live very close to the port of Long Beach and the port of Los Angeles, where about half the cargo of America comes in. We’re the easiest place to get a dirty [bomb] in and that would ruin my day a lot worse than the NSA watching me masturbate. Not that I think they should be able to watch me masturbate—and I do want to know a little more of what they’re doing, but they’re a spy agency after all. If we know everything, they really can’t be what they are. So I guess the upshot of what I’m saying is, unlike Mr. Benjamin Franklin I am willing to trade some of my liberty for security. Not all of it, but some.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)