Real Time With Bill Maher April 6, 2018. photo: Janet Van Ham
Credit: Janet Van Ham/HBO

Bill Maher

This is not a surprise: Half of Bill Maher’s upcoming 11th stand-up special for HBO, Live From Oklahoma debuting July 17, is focused on one person: President Trump. The special’s other half, however, is perhaps unexpected. “It’s much more personal than I’ve been in my stand-up specials for quite a long time,” Maher says. “I was finally ready to talk about topics like aging, and sex, and children — stuff like that.” Below we ask the provocative Real Time host about an array of current news topics such as controversial author Jordan Peterson, the Chris Hardwick allegations, Roseanne Barr’s Twitter meltdown, his on-air colleague John Oliver, what liberals need to do to win, and, of course, Trump. Naturally, he doesn’t hold back.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Comics on the road have been wrestling with this era of increased sensitivity. Since you’ve literally built your brand on being politically incorrect I would think you’d be immune to that. Do you still get offended people in your crowds heckling or walking out?
Bill Maher: Not on the road, no. The audience that comes to a stand-up show is a paying audience of your true fans. And you’re right, they know exactly who I am and they want me to be that guy, and I want to be that guy, and I am that guy. The audience that comes to the television show, that’s a different audience. First of all, it’s L.A. Second, it’s free. So, they are sometimes more politically correct than I want them to be, and I let them know. I think that’s how you handle a friend, you’re honest with them.

I’ve been — as many people in the media have pointed out — almost as tough on the liberals as the conservatives this year. Not because I want to join the conservative tribe, but because I want my people to be better. I want them to clean up their raggedy s— so that we can win the next election. It behooves you to have some humility when you are a loser. We control nothing now. Not the White House, not the Congress, not the courts, and that’s not mostly our fault, but partly. Trump is partly a backlash to people choking on political correctness.

If you had to bet on one outcome: Trump removed from office, Trump declines to seek reelection, Trump runs again and loses, or runs again and wins, which would you bet on?
I have been saying on my show: He’s not going anywhere. Not even because of an election. That’s what people have to start wrapping their minds around. He’s leaving when he wants to leave. He’s already got 52% of Republicans saying that they would be okay if the next election was canceled. That’s before they’ve even started a campaign. They could easily get that number up to 80% once they get Fox News on the page. He said the last election, when he thought he was going to lose, he kept saying it’s rigged.

People are way behind the curve on this. They really need to listen to me. I have been right about Donald Trump from the beginning. When everybody said he will never run for president, he’s just doing it for publicity, or to sell a book, I always said, “Nope, this guy thinks he should be president. He’s got a giant ego. This is what he is looking to cap his life and career with.” And he did. I also said that he could win when everyone was making fun of me for that. So, really, listen to me. This guy is not going anywhere until he wants to go.

The worst thing that happened to us is that he started to like that job. When he first got there, he didn’t like it. He missed his home. He called the White House a dump. He just missed his old life and he was moaning about that. Well, he got used to this and now he likes playing president. He’s above the law. That’s another thing that people say on TV that I’ve taken issue with. I hear it every day. “The president is not above the law.” Yes, he is. Especially this one. The Constitution is not particularly helpful with this, and then when you have a guy like Trump who doesn’t care about the Constitution, it makes it even worse. If you don’t think that he’s above the law, next time a cop pulls you over, tell him you’re pardoning yourself. Tell him you don’t have to answer a subpoena.

Rudy Giuliani, last month, said Trump could’ve shot the FBI director and not been prosecuted. He’s totally above the law and he wants to make it known.

Do you ever find it exhausting to have to keep focusing on a person whose behavior you find so maddening? I would think you get Trump fatigue more than most because you focus on him so much.
You’re right. I do, and we all face that issue. If we give him all the oxygen in the room, that’s wrong. But if we don’t cover what he’s doing, that’s wrong. Yeah, you do wind up having to always face that dilemma and all you can do is make the compromise.

Is there a specific joke you’ve written recently for the HBO show or your stand-up act where you were like, “No, that would be too far”?
“Too far” in what way?

Too far in terms of your being too offensive, or too politically incorrect, or too vulgar, or whatnot.
Well, I try never to be vulgar. It’s a dirty world that I sometimes have to reflect. Vulgar is not what I’m going for. Politically incorrect is not what I’m going for — it just happens to be that way when you tell the truth. The enemy of good comedy, and of truth very often, is political correctness. I am committed to the proposition that the “nothing is funny” people are not going to win. I do talk about that.

I don’t explain to the audience how a joke works, because that would destroy the joke. I do something in this show on the idea that there are no protected species in America when it comes to making jokes. Nobody is off limits and everybody has to understand that no jokes are completely fair. If they were completely fair, they wouldn’t be jokes. If Germany is in the news, and I make a joke and the punchline is “something-something Nazis,” everybody laughs, [even though] there really aren’t very many Nazis left in Germany. Here there’s plenty. But not there. [The joke’s] not fair but everybody laughs and that’s the way humor works. Everybody should really just accept that and calm down.

But no, I haven’t come up with anything where I’ve pulled the punch and said, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” First of all, when it comes to Trump, look what’s going on with the backlash to his border policy. People want someone who is mean to Donald Trump. I think that’s a lot of the reason why they want me to do what I do, is because there’s no holds barred. It’s not a gentle takedown, and he deserves it.

Having said that, I also was committed to the idea that this show was not going to be all about Donald Trump, because then he wins. It’s about half of that, and then it’s kind of a departure for me.

You’ve said on your show that Roseanne is a friend of yours, yet have also condemned what she tweeted.

Do you have advice for what she should do now and can you imagine any major media company will ever hire her again?
No. She should enjoy her macadamia farm. Look, part of the reason why I was sympathetic to her, although of course not to what she wrote, which was abhorrent. But is that she [pauses] we’ve all known this for 30 years, that she is mentally…I don’t know what the word is…problematic? She’s had mental issues. I don’t know if you read Michael Moore’s column that he wrote about her, but he reminded us all that she was in a horrible car accident when she was a child and has never really been completely the same since. She told us back in the ’90s she had multiple personalities.

So, my point is, no one would ever hire her again because they thought that issue had gone away. But that issue has never gone away, and never will go away, and so they know that if they hire her again, it’ll just happen again. You can get Roseanne to say, “I’ll never do it again,” but you can’t get the other six personalities to agree.

Last year you got into some trouble over a joke you made [using the n-word]. If that happened now, post-Roseanne, do you think HBO’s reaction [keeping your show on the air] would have been different?

You’ve praised the #MeToo movement and also said it’s creating a “police state” for sex. Any thoughts on the latest case on social media, Chris Hardwick?
I started to read the post by his ex-girlfriend. I know Chris a little. I don’t know him well. None of us really knows what a person is like inside of a relationship. So, I don’t know. I mean, when you read her accounting of the relationship, it certainly seems believable. I’m sure he could write one and that might sound believable to me too. The oldest cliché in the world is that every story has three sides: Her version, his version, and the truth.

There’s a show on — I shouldn’t plug it because it’s my network rival — but there’s a show on Showtime called The Affair. Have you ever seen it? It’s a Rashomon-type show where the first half hour is his story, then the second half hour is her story. So, they’re showing basically the same sequence of events through the eyes of two different people. And, of course, what you see is how differently people remember the exact same situation. They didn’t invent that, but it’s an interesting way to look at a relationship.

So I have no idea. What I do know is this: It’s got to be different when you have 30 accusers than when you have one. When it’s a Bill Cosby, when it’s a Harvey Weinstein, when it’s any of these situations where dozens and dozens of people come forward, then it’s almost preposterous to say, “Well, there’s nothing to see here.” But when it’s one person, I have no idea. And of course, it’s probably wrong to condemn someone based on one person, because relationships touch our rawest nerves, and people then sometimes do remember things wrong, or sometimes have personal revenge motivations. We just don’t know. Should we believe the woman? Yes, of course. But also every case is an individual case. I don’t think anyone should be arguing that women, ethereal creatures though they are, are infallible.

And by the way, when you talk privately with people — privately, not our public avatars, which are a whole different kettle of fish — but when you talk privately with people, you know who’s the most suspicious of women? Women.

Jordan Peterson has been on your show. Do you have an overall take on his work? Depending on who you ask, he’s either an advocate for male empowerment and responsibility or a sexist provocateur…
He’s Canadian. I still can’t find what he’s saying that’s so controversial. I think it’s much more a comment on the times we live in than on Professor Peterson himself. That people are apoplectic about some of the things he’s saying, like, “men and women are different.” In another generation, I just don’t think people would even notice who he was. He would be who he is — a quiet academic in a small Canadian village.

I tried to watch one of his classroom lectures on YouTube and I was like: I sat through four years of college to not have to watch this stuff anymore.
Yeah, where’s the there there? Where’s the monster? I can’t find it.

Other current news: Celebrities employed by 20th Century Fox like Seth MacFarlane and Modern Family creator Steve Levitan are condemning Fox News. Is that welcome or like: “What took them so long?’
I saw that from Seth, which I thought was great because something has to change as far as the concept of State TV. One reason why I’m so concerned about the future of this country is because one of the pillars of the slide into fascism is the dictator having control of the media. And in Fox News, he has his own media outlet. I call it State TV. That’s what it is. It’s a loop. They do a show for him, which he watches. He repeats things they say, then they feed it back to him. And the people who watch Fox News don’t see any other media, which is a lot of his fans. They have no way of knowing what the actual truth is. That’s a very dangerous situation.

He has already effectively destroyed the concept of independent, verifiable facts. That’s always the breeding ground from which fascism takes root. You have to kill truth first, which he’s pretty much done, and then the path is smoothed over. We should be very concerned about this at a level that in your and my lifetime have never ever had to be concerned.

You’ve been doing your weekly HBO show for 16 years. Over the last four years, there’s been another provocative weekly HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. What’s your take on his show? I’ve never seen you comment on it.
I don’t comment on other people’s shows.

Oookay. Let’s see then… You’ve said before that you don’t think you’ll ever win an Emmy, that being an outspoken atheist probably puts you out of the running. Does that bother you, do you see that ever changing?
I don’t know if I said it was because I was an outspoken atheist. I think I might have cited atheism as one of many areas that people find off-putting. I think whenever you are really keeping it real, really telling the truth, you alienate people. I’m like pretty much everybody else who does any sort of political comedy commentary. They all have a very reliable team who they never upset — which is the liberals, who are the voters in this field. I don’t have that. I don’t have a team. My team is telling the truth. Liberals are wrong, sometimes. Not as often as conservatives, for sure. I’ll call them on it when they are.

There was an interesting article in The Daily Beast recently. I can’t remember the author, but the title was something like “The Democrats Need Bill Maher’s Tough Love.” People who render tough love generally don’t win awards. For that, I don’t care anymore. There was a time when I did. But after, I think it’s 40 nominations that we had? What I would say to the Academy is: After 40 nominations [and no wins], is it really me? Or is it really you?

So many comics are doing specials on Netflix, you’re married to HBO, do you have any streaming envy?
Because they get incredible money?

The money, and the exposure of playing in 200 territories around the world at once…
I like Netflix, like everybody. Netflix doesn’t release numbers though, right?

You don’t really know how many people are watching it. They’ve done an amazing job in recreating the entire media landscape. I think I’ve met [Netflix chief] Ted Sarandos many times. I think he’s a great guy and my hat’s off to him. But HBO has been very generous to me and I’m not doing this anymore for the money. Even still, the money is good, but that’s not why I go to work every day. I’m 62 and I could retire. As much as they talk about the new media, I still think HBO is a pretty good place to be.

You just said you could retire. Do you ever think about retiring? How many more years do you think you’ll continue to do this?
No, no, no. I’m not going to do it. Honestly, there are too many people that come up to me everywhere I go and say, “You’re the only thing that keeps me sane.” Now I know that sounds like a humblebrag, but it’s actually true, and it affects me a lot. Every time I think, “Oh, I don’t need this s–t,” usually because of something in the media, [retirement is] what I think of. If I felt like I was doing just what everybody else is doing, then I might. But I feel like I’m doing — and always have, but even more so now — things no one else is doing and saying that needs to be said. Especially about what’s going on with our possible president for life.

I did think about [retiring] last week because I said something about how I was rooting for a recession because that’s one of the few things that could undermine Trump’s popularity. Of course, the right-winged nutsphere went apes–t, and somebody pulled out of their ass this number — their ass is the only place they could find this number — somebody wrote I’m worth $100 million dollars. Then everybody wrote it because they’re sheep. I was like, “Wow, I am? That’s awesome! Maybe I will retire because that’s a lot of money.” But no, I’m not worth $100 million and I don’t know how they would even begin to get a number like that. They don’t know what I make. They don’t know what I spend. They don’t know what I’ve saved.

We don’t even know what the president is worth, let alone you.
Yeah, exactly! Well said.

So you laid out some dire concerns about Trump, the state of our country, the media. What would you suggest people do?
Certainly, vote — and hope that Putin is not counting the votes this time. I don’t think he will try to overturn people’s elections other than his own. The 2020 election, like I said, I don’t think Trump will leave even if he loses, but we’ll see about that. Until then, a block on his legislative abilities by electing a Democratic Congress would be helpful.

The other thing liberals can do is don’t make it so easy to hate them, which is part of the reason why Trump got elected. The political correctness bulls–t, you know? If Matt Damon says, “I think we can all agree that a pat on the ass is different than rape or child molestation” — which is what he did say — and then there’s a big liberal backlash to that; a backlash to perhaps the most uncontroversial statement I’ve ever read. That’s when gettable voters in the middle say to themselves, “Yeah, Trump is crazy, but you people are crazy too. At least he’s fun.”

Bill Maher
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