It was a bad week for President Barack Obama, which meant a good show for standup Bill Maher and his politically driven HBO series "Real Time with Bill Maher."
The trio of escalating and unfolding scandals ensured there would be highly flammable fuel for debate for the host and his panel of guests for this mid-May episode. But only two days before the show aired live, Maher wasn't hearing any of it.
"It's been a bad week perception-wise," he said of the president's mounting troubles, "( but) I am not on the page of conventional wisdom that there's a lot of 'there' there with any of these so-called scandals. I don't think people pay attention very much and I think the media -- especially the television media -- is very culpable about not really informing people. It's just we have an atmosphere of scandal. And people don't look into that closely. They just get this sense, 'OK, it's his second term, and like all the presidents he (messed) up and it's a lot of scandal,' and it really isn't a lot of scandal."
Full disclosure: Maher is an Obama supporter. Last year he donated $1 million to Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA. He's also a libertarian and pot-smoking atheist who doesn't hesitate to criticize the Obama administration on many issues, including the president's reluctance to back the legalization of marijuana.
A 1978 graduate of Cornell University with degrees in English and history who launched his standup career in the late '70s, the 57-year-old Maher brought smart, acerbic political and topical half-hour discussions into living rooms with his "Politically Incorrect" years before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The show was canceled in 2002, nearly a year after Maher opined that the Sept. 11 terrorists were not cowards -- "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly" -- and so he took the format to HBO in 2003, where it's aired ever since.
Besides politics, Maher loves to talk religion -- more specifically, denounce it. In 2008, he co-wrote and starred in "Religulous," a humorous documentary that was, unsurprisingly, highly critical of organized religion and many of its rabid believers.
As for his standup, most weekends Maher can be seen at a theater somewhere in the country. The comic chatted with the Toledo Blade in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office.
Q: For fans of "Real Time" who have never seen you perform, how does your standup act differ from what they see on your show? Is your standup also politically driven?
A: Yes. I think what's the same about it is the kind of subject material that I'm interested in will not be a shock to people who come out to a standup show. But it is very different. The show is a hybrid of comic and serious. It's a panel and I'm all for it getting serious at times, but that's not what standup is. Standup is like laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. I'm not in the school of the Lenny Bruces or the Mort Sahls or these people who don't take the laugh as seriously as they should have and got lost in the weeds of messaging. I'm not a professor or humorist. I'm a standup comedian and people, when they come out to see a standup show, they want to laugh really hard for a long time, and that's what I will make them do. (Laughs)
Q: You've mentioned that it's difficult booking conservative pundits as guests ...
A: We do pretty well with the pundits. We don't do so well with the politicians.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think they feel like the deck is stacked. Part of it is the audience. We have tried, but we cannot get a bipartisan audience. We tape in a blue state and it's a liberal crowd. And I don't blame them for that. I've been in that situation, where you are talking to an audience who is hostile to what you say before it comes out of your mouth. Look, I have problems with our audience. I don't like the fact that they cheer for everything the blue team does and boo everything that the red team does. That's not the kind of tack I take or the show that I want to do, but you can't control a crowd. But I think that's a lot of it. And the other part of it is, if you're a conservative from a conservative district, you don't want to be on an attack ad: "He went on that atheist, pot-smoking Bill Maher show." And I can see why just being associated with me. I mean, Democrats won't associate with me. Obama won't. ...And that's fine. I wear that as a badge of honor.
Q: The perception of you is as in the liberal camp, but you've been known to break from progressives on many issues. During a recent "Real Time," you got into a ferocious debate with a college professor and terrorist expert when you said that Muslims are the leading terrorist threat.
A: Yes, the liberals hate me for that and I'm not fond of them on that issue because they don't listen to me. Here's what their problem is on that. They see Muslims (as an) equal minority. I'm a good person so I'm always on the side of minorities. Therefore, anyone who criticizes a minority is bad and a racist, which is so silly and just nonsensical.
First of all, Islam is a religion that encompasses people of all races, so I can't really be a racist. What I'm railing against is people's beliefs. Beliefs matter. Their beliefs -- and I'm talking about Muslims around the world as well as Muslims here in the United States -- disturbing numbers of Muslims in both camps if you look at polling, if you look at people who have done surveys on this, believe things that are just not compatible, and it's so ironic, with the liberal point of view from the enlightenment.
These people who pride themselves on being liberals, don't even know what liberalism means; otherwise they would be against people who believe, for example, in disturbing numbers that if you leave the religion, you can be killed for it, that if you insult the prophet. What is this, the First Amendment pauses now because somebody made up a god and I'm going to get killed in reality if I say something about that god? This is madness. There is a small group -- Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens used to be in it -- there's some of us who I call "9-11 liberals," as opposed to "9-11 conservatives," who just want to defend the liberal way of life and the liberal point of view. Again, beliefs matter.
Contact Kirk Baird at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.