"My goal is to tell the truth as I see it and not be afraid. What sort of person are you if you only say things that you know people will applaud?” That pretty much sums up the modus operandi of firebrand left-wing comic Bill Maher, who is rarely out of the news in the United States for causing some controversy or other.
The latest furore came last month after he cracked a silly joke on his HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher suggesting a facial resemblance between former One Directioner Zayn Malik and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The internet went crazy and Maher was accused – not for the first time – of Islamophobia.
Maher remains unapologetic. “The PC police, as usual, read way more into the joke than was actually there,” he says. The following week Maher introduced a new Real Time segment, “Explaining Jokes to Idiots”. “It was so much fun,” Maher says. “Then there was some backlash to that, so we kicked around the idea of doing ‘Explaining “Explaining Jokes to Idiots” to Even Bigger Idiots’, but I generally prefer to move on with stuff like that, so we did.”
We speak ahead of his first stand-up show in London later this month. Conversation with Maher is an entertaining torrent of sarcasm and smart asides. I ask what will be in the show. “I don’t do material about ketchup bottles or putting your boxers in the dryer,” he says. “I’m interested in the big issues of politics and religion, and I’m in London after the election, which is really exciting. I’m going to have some fun with that.” Indeed, his waspish outsider analysis might be just the tonic for the disaffected.
The 59-year-old was born and raised in New York City to parents of Irish origin, and was raised a Catholic – to which he now attributes his atheism. Originally an actor, he started his comedy career in New York and Los Angeles clubs, and did regular guest spots on Johnny Carson and David Letterman’s shows before he was given his own late-night programme, Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central, in 1993.
A vocal supporter of equal marriage and animal rights, and a campaigner for the environment, he nevertheless stokes the ire of fellow liberals with his take on political correctness and religion, particularly the dangers of radical Islam. On a memorable episode of Real Time last October, actor Ben Affleck attacked Maher for his “gross” and “racist” views on Islam, which the host had described as “the only religion that behaves like the Mafia”.
Maher again stoutly maintains his position. “Rule of law is not just different than theocracy, it’s better. If you don’t accept that, you may be a fool or a religious fanatic but the one thing you are not is a liberal,” he says. “Liberal values – free speech, respect for all religions, equality for women, separation of church or mosque from the state, freedom to leave a religion without threat of violence – are what defines modern western civilisation, and the snitty attitudes [of people such as Affleck] shouldn’t be aimed at people like me who point this out, but rather at those who don’t believe in free speech, respect for all religions, etc … to deny at this point in history that this religion is more violent and fundamentalist than ever is just plain stupid. And if this was the 16th century I would be saying it about Christianity.” Indeed, Christian fundamentalism was one of the key targets of his 2008 documentary Religulous.
“The problem with Islam is that it has some bad ideas,” he continues. “There are 10 Muslim countries where being gay is punishable by death and I’m sorry, but believing that cartoonists who draw the Prophet should die or that women are not equal are terrible ideas, and unfortunately are shared by millions of Muslims. Of course most Muslims wouldn’t dream of committing a criminal or jihadist act – rather I’m saying that we need to side with the reformers and stop giving comfort with those who are denying there is a cancer in their religion.”
Not that Maher is impervious to criticism: he remembers the pain he felt in 2002 when he was fired from his show Politically Incorrect after disputing George Bush’s suggestion that the 9/11 attackers were “cowards”, instead turning the word on the US politicians who authorised long-distance attacks on the Middle East. “At the time our country was in a state of panic so they were not in any mood to hear something like that. In retrospect people don’t see it as controversial, and now even conservatives have expressed the same view. It was a difficult time but I wound up at a network [HBO] that is a better fit.”
Has he ever changed his view on an issue? “Of course. I think I used to be against ...” he muses for few moments “... gay boy scouts”, before he creases up laughing. “But seriously I’m a big fan of changing your mind when you get new information.”
Like Lenny Bruce, Maher is an equal-opportunities offender, and sometimes unlikely people come to his aid. After the Affleck episode, for example, Rupert Murdoch tweeted in Maher’s support, and he roars with laughter at the suggestion that his views on Islam may give succour to conservatives. “I’m not accustomed to agreeing with Rupert Murdoch,” he says. “I’m an intellectual free agent and I don’t pander to anybody’s view. So if a conservative occasionally agrees with something I say, then so be it.”
As well as Murdoch, Maher has over 3 million other followers on Twitter. He enjoys the 140-character platform, he says: “I love to tweet … it’s the modern equivalent of writing epigrams – Francis Bacon and Rochefoucauld would have been great on it.” However, he despairs of some of its users. “Political correctness in the States is worse than ever. Little did I know back in 1993 [when Politically Incorrect started], when it was bad enough, that in the age of the internet it would get so much worse. People just sit there waiting for someone to do one little wrong thing.”
When we get on to the current state of US politics, the usually trenchant commentator is upbeat. He’s a fan of Barack Obama – “I gave him a million bucks, so yeah” – and speaks warmly of his record. “There’s a lot of talk about how Obama didn’t fulfil his promise. It’s wrong; he did. I have certain disagreements with him but he’s done a fantastic job … when he came into office America was losing 750,000 jobs a month, we were in an economic panic and on the verge of a depression. Now the stock market has tripled and unemployment is below 6 per cent. He has supported gay marriage and opened up Cuba. I could go on. If I could have him for a third term I would.”
I finish by asking what Maher would do if he were President. “I would cut the defence budget in half – we don’t need to spend a trillion dollars to blow shit up; introduce a carbon tax; pull troops out from wherever they are abroad because America was never meant to be an empire; and I would definitely legalise pot.” Ah, a true liberal.
Bill Maher is at Eventim Apollo, London W6 (eventimapollo.com) on 23 May
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