Spending some real time with Bill Maher
Stand-up comedian and talk show host Bill Maher thrives on politics, cultural satire and provocation. Maher, 55, has hosted "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO since 2003 and, before that, "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central and ABC from 1993. Maher also wrote and starred in the 2008 documentary "Religulous," making his case for the absurdity of organized religion, and is the author of four books. He'll perform Saturday in Austin and spoke with us recently by phone.
American-Statesman: Why do you feel the need to head out on tour at this point in your career? What do you get out of doing live stand-up that you don't get in your studio in L.A.?
Bill Maher: Well, I do it for two reasons: one, because it's fun. The other reason is I would have a very hard time doing the TV show as effectively. You're kind of in a bubble (in L.A.). I just find getting out in the country to be an essential part of coming back here and reporting on the country.
Your father was a radio newsman on WOR in New York and you credit him for helping you appreciate topical humor. Have you always been interested in current events as a springboard for stand-up?
Yes, always and because of that very reason. My parents were people who took an interest in politics; they read the paper and they talked about it with their kids. In that respect it was more of a café society, European situation. Europeans don't watch TV at night.
Do you think your shows have played a part in making it hip and sexy to be well-informed about politics and current events?
(Laughs.) That's flattering, if it were true. I think what can be said is that if you make something entertaining, you're opening up a pathway for information to get into people's heads. It is very hard to get information into people's heads. In the information age, as they call it, you'd think it would be easy, but we also live in an age where people are able to just go to what they already believe and listen to that. Have lunch with Rush and dinner with Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and never hear a word that contradicts.
Do you think conservatives watch your show?
Conservatives do watch; I'm not going to say they're my biggest fans. They are on our show a lot, and I think they find me to be less predictable than many so-called liberal commentators. Sometimes it's liberals I'm arguing with the most. This was never intended to be a show where people are yelling at each other. I wanted it to be like a good dinner party. People don't yell at each other at a dinner party.
Are you disappointed in President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for not being more openly supportive of the demonstrators in Egypt and the other Middle Eastern countries where the revolts are happening?
Actually, I think they handled it beautifully. One thing you have to say about Obama, he is not a news cycle president. He works at a slower, more deliberate pace, and I am very, very loath to involve this country in bombing another Muslim country, even if we're on the right side. If (the rebels) do win, it's going to be so much better without our help. People have to do things on their own. When we knocked down the statue of Saddam in 2003, if that had been a resonant moment, that's when all the uprisings in the Muslim world would have happened. But nothing happened, because it was seen as an American revolution and was seen as tainted.
Isn't it like the feeling many Americans got witnessing the upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989 \u2013 'Why can't we do this?' How far do Americans have to be pushed before they'll be storming the gates?
Well, that's a great question. Why they're not storming the gates is worthy of someone writing a whole book about \u2013 in fact, someone did, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" (by Thomas Frank). They seem to be constantly fighting against their own interests. There's this TV show, "Secret Millionaire," where the millionaire goes and helps people — the millionaire is not your friend. The union is your friend. I call that Joe the Plumber Syndrome. Americans, sometimes their optimism works against them and they wind up basically trying to make the American dream come true, but it's really the American fantasy, and it's not going to come true. As far as overseas (is concerned), I don't think Americans pay enough attention. Half of Americans think foreign aid is a huge part of our budget. It's not.
In the age of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, not to mention yourself, comedy and political commentary are mixing to such a degree that it gets hard to tell where the joking stops and genuine political influence begins. Do you find that people sometimes take yourself more seriously than you think they should, or are you comfortable with your role?
People have a hard time understanding hybrids sometimes. What I don't do is believe my own press about how influential shows like this are. Most people watch people they already agree with, for one, and celebrities much bigger than I find that they do not much sway people. Celebrities don't change George Bush getting elected. Politically, I almost think people are born who they are.
Do you have any special material for the Austin crowd?
Always. I love Austin. We'll be keeping it weird.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: ACL Live, 310 W. Second St.