Over a three-decade-plus career as a comedian, political commentator and television host Bill Maher has never been afraid of controversy or reticent about expressing sentiments he knows will be unpopular with many people.
The longtime host of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher continues his frequent stand-up tours with the latest, “An Evening with Bill Maher,” coming to the Ryman Auditorium on Saturday night. Maher is back in the news lately due to recent views expressed regarding his disappointment with President Barack Obama and outrage about the treatment accorded fellow comedian David Letterman.
“[Obama is] not standing up to the corporations and the people who’ve gotten us in this mess,” Maher said. “We voted for ‘change you can believe in’ and now he’s cozying up to those very same people. I thought the whole purpose of getting a new administration was to clean things up, and instead the legislation coming out of his office is every bit as weak as what we’ve seen before. That’s not right. You’ve got to be willing to go in there, take names and kick butt, and he’s not doing any of that.”
Maher maintains he likes Obama, but people can’t stand by being Obama idolaters, he said.
“People need health care, they need real economic growth and change, and you can’t get it by being afraid of confrontation. He’s doing things like bailing out banks and going along with past programs,” the comedian said. “This business about giving him time, well FDR did a lot of things in his first 100 days. It’s time for the Obama administration to start doing what we elected them to do.”
Maher is equally upset about the furor over David Letterman’s supposed mistake in his joke about the Yankees star third baseman and Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol. Letterman kidded on his show that 18-year-old Bristol “was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez” during the seventh inning of the ballgame Sarah Palin attended with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow.
“What really upsets me is this whole bogus nonsense that he’s somehow encouraging or suggesting the rape of a 14-year-old girl,” Maher said. “Here’s a situation where you have Bristol Palin going around speaking about abstinence when she’s already been impregnated — a ridiculous situation that she chose to put herself in. David Letterman, who I’ve known for many years and is a really decent mid-western guy, was joking about Alex Rodriguez, who everyone knows is a player in more ways than one. That was the joke, and people know the truth. This other stuff is just bogus.”
However, Maher did have some kind words to say about his friend and CNN broadcaster Larry King. Maher has been a substitute host many times on Larry King Live, and King was a recent guest on Real Time. Maher’s very open in his admiration for the venerable host.
“He’s truly one of a kind, an old-school guy who is a master interviewer,” Maher said. “A lot of people get in the way of an interview, but Larry can interview anyone from the President to the usher in a theater and make it interesting. When he goes, there won’t be anyone around to take his place.”
Maher has hosted Real Time since 2003. It’s an outgrowth of his former show Politically Incorrect, and features a mix of celebrities and news figures. But this week he’ll do a special show that’s already been taped with guests Billy Bob Thornton, Cameron Diaz and Oliver Stone.
“It’s sort of a hip version of <i>Charlie Rose</i>,” Maher cracked.
Before Real Time, Maher had helped take Politically Incorrect from a niche show on Comedy Central to a late-night event program on ABC. But things unraveled Sept. 17, 2001, when Maher, while agreeing with guest Dinesh D’Souza, said the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards.
“We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he said. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Despite his long track record of public support for the American military, the ensuing furor led to ABC not renewing Politically Incorrect after June 16, 2002. Six days later Maher received the President’s Award for championing free speech from the Los Angeles Press Club.
Maher’s highly critical views about religion are another area that’s kept him in hot water. After many years of controversial interviews on the subject, Maher teamed with Larry Charles to make the 2008 film Religulous, a spoof about religious extremism.
“You know about 15 percent of the population are atheists, a larger minority than any of the other minorities in the country. There are a lot of people who agree with my views, even though there are certain times and places where there are more than others. I’m sure there won’t be quite as many Saturday night at the Ryman, but there will be some.”
Maher says he still enjoys doing Real Time, and over the years HBO has been accommodating in scheduling the program so he gets enough time off for his stand-up tours. Maher now expresses interest in doing more celebrity interview programs in the future, though he’s nowhere near ready to exit the political arena.
Yet, despite the fame and his immersion in politics, Maher says stand-up comedy is what he prefers more than anything else.
“When you’re doing stand-up there are no guests, no band and nothing except your job to make people laugh,” Maher said. “If you do that, then you’ve succeeded. If you don’t, then you’ve failed. It’s just that simple.
“I made a conscious decision many years ago to incorporate my political and cultural views into my act and I knew I was deliberately reducing the possible size of my audience,” Maher said. “But I figured that it’s better to reach the percentage of people who agree with me than be bland and try to woo those that don’t. There’s certainly a place in America for non-political humor and I don’t quarrel with those who do it. It’s just not what I’m interested in doing, or will ever want to do as a performer.”
What: An evening with Bill Maher
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Ryman Auditorium, 116 Fifth Ave. N.
Cost: $37.50, $57.50, $69.50
Info: 889-3060, ryman.com