I’m sitting in the dimly lit screening room of Bill Maher’s Beverly Hills home, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to concentrate. Maher’s dog, a Chihuahua-greyhound mutt, has taken to humping me with reckless abandon. (Chico, I later discover, is notorious for this sort of thing.) The room is reminiscent of an old movie theater—the kind of place where metal springs protrude from paper-thin seat cushions, piercing your ass when you sit. Here, though, the seating is quite comfortable, albeit a bit awkward for an interview. Maher is sprawled out on a massive, fully reclined La-Z-Boy while I’m perched on an adjacent ottoman, Chico panting feverishly on my lap. “He takes a long time to warm up, huh?” Maher cracks with his signature wry delivery.
In person, Maher is strikingly similar to the guy who appears every Friday night on HBO—trim build, prominent nose, hair slicked in place by an inordinate amount of styling gel. He’s dressed plainly in black slacks and a black T-shirt, both soiled with Chico’s fur. Despite his fancy mansion—and the 32 Emmy nominations he’s racked up over the course of his career—there’s something decidedly un-Hollywood about Maher. He’s outspoken, politically incorrect and unapologetic for his polarizing views on everything from gun control to global warming. He doesn’t seem to care much about what people think of him (he identifies as a “pot-smoking atheist”) or whom he pisses off (“Generally, congressmen are not bright,” he tells me). Like it or not, Maher’s brutal candor has proven to be a winning formula—his HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, now in its 12th season, averages more than 4 million viewers an episode.
Even with the show’s continued success, Maher speaks conservatively about the future. “I didn’t think this whole thing would last this long, so I feel like I’m always playing with the house’s money. Every day I get to do this job is a lucky day, and when the time comes that they tap me on the shoulder, I will have no bitterness about it. I don’t think it can go on forever. They put everybody out to pasture,” he says, citing Jay Leno and David Letterman as recent examples.
Maher has strong feelings concerning Letterman’s Late Show replacement, Stephen Colbert. “It’s a mystery. I have never seen him as himself, you know? I’ve only seen the ‘character.’ So I have no clue… and I don’t think many people do,” says Maher, adding that Craig Ferguson or Chelsea Handler would have been a better choice. Still, Maher questions the longevity of late-night talk shows regardless of the host. “It’s amazing to me that the whole industry is chasing this model that’s dying… that kind of show is just not for a younger generation. The idea that they’ll sit down at an appointed time and watch a show for a whole hour and absorb the commercials—I just don’t see people doing that.”
Being opinionated is clearly something that comes natural to Maher, who grew up surrounded by the strong views of his parents. His father, Bill Maher Sr., was a radio announcer and network-news editor at NBC, which meant political discourse was commonplace in the Maher household. As a kid, the New Jersey native dreamed of a career in comedy, but was painfully shy. “I never said a word [about it] to anybody. I didn’t have that kind of confidence. I was so afraid that people would laugh at me,” he admits. “Comedians are shy people in general—it’s actually not that uncommon. Johnny Carson used to say, ‘I feel uncomfortable when I walk into a party, and I wind up in a corner talking to one or two people that I know. But put me in front of an audience and suddenly the dynamic shifts and I’m in control.’”
It took years of practice and “a lot of pain,” but eventually the dynamic shifted in Maher’s favor. He parlayed his successful stand-up career into a variety of roles, including filmmaker, author and TV host—first on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, which was cancelled after eight seasons in 2002, followed by the launch of Real Time with Bill Maher the next year. He wrote and starred in the 2008 film Religulous, has penned four New York Times best sellers and is currently the executive producer of the documentary TV series Vice. Today, the 58-year-old still finds time to tour the country for stand-up gigs, estimating he’ll do 75 shows this year. “I’ve been doing this my whole life so it’s kind of in my blood. If I’m home for more than a few weeks I get antsy,” he says.
Maher is tight-lipped about future projects, but it’s safe to say that a film is not among them. “I was happy to do it once, but movies aren’t my cup of tea. In the ’80s I was working a lot as an actor. It didn’t suit me—sitting around all day in a trailer with makeup caked on your face. Those things just really bug me. It’s a special kind of person who fits being an actor. I’m not that person,” he says.
“Many actors who are fascinating on camera are actually quite boring unless they’re playing a character. I’m not that different off camera than on camera,” he says. “I pride myself on being exactly who I am.”
Bill Maher Sounds Off…
On getting politicians to appear on his show:
“I’d like to get every political person, but I understand why so many of them resist… I think they’re afraid that I’m not going to kiss ass, which most questioners do. That’s the sort of unholy deal that is made: The media trade their souls for access.”
On guests that annoy him the most:
“It annoys me when they present themselves beforehand as believing and saying one thing, and then wilt under the pressure. I am sympathetic, especially to my conservative guests, because it’s a difficult show to do when you’re in front of a liberal audience. But we expect them to stand up for their conservative point of view. I just want people to stick to their guns no matter what.”
On the backlash from his recently launched “Flip a District” campaign:
“I’m not concerned. There are no rules, so it will be dirty. But I’m not sure what they can do. What can they say? ‘You’re a pot-smoking atheist?’ Exactly! I say it every day.”
On the general (lack of) intelligence of congressmen:
“Generally congressmen are not bright. Of all the qualifications you might need for office, that is absolutely not one of them. And not one that the American public holds against them in any way. Of course there are some who are very bright… but I think they are a minority. It is sad and shocking. At first when you meet these people, it’s like, Wow, nobody home there.”
On his years as a struggling stand-up:
“It’s just horrific at first. It’s one thing to learn something in front of a computer—if you make a mistake, nobody sees it and then you call up the IT guy for help. But to do it in front of two drunks at three in the morning who are heckling you… those first few years are hard. The next ten years are not great either.”
On being intimidated by women in college:
“There were bigger problems than that. There weren’t many women to begin with, and I certainly didn’t know how to get to the ones that were there.”
On the most important lesson he’s learned about sex and relationships:
“Not to talk about it.”
On the interview question he hates the most:
“I hate ‘Who would you have at your ideal dinner party?’ It’s cliché. They are dead. They are not coming.”
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