A few weeks ago, the Times chatted with comedian and host of HBO's "Real Time," Bill Maher. Maher will perform Saturday at 8 p.m. at Robinson Center Music Hall. Tickets are $60-$86.
I saw that you're going to Alaska this weekend.
Is this your first time to go there or did you finally decide to take the fight directly to Sarah Palin?
I was last there in 1996, so it's been quite a while, I've been anxious to go back. And of course it's beautiful this time of year. I'm not just going to be working, I'm going to be enjoying a little bit of the sights. I've got a helicopter ride organized for Saturday so I can see it from the air and hopefully spot some of the people who were trying to shoot the wolves.
You're not going to do any wolf-shooting yourself?
No, not myself, I'm a wolf lover. I'm on the side of the wolf.
You're on the board of PETA too, right?
That's right. But yeah, I'm really looking forward to that.
Looking at some of your show dates from earlier this year I see you've been to Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas — some of the reddest of red states. How do the crowds differ there versus some progressive utopia like Portland or San Francisco?
The truth is they're the same anywhere. This is true of anyone who does personal appearances. You know, like if you stand outside a Prince concert you'll mostly find Prince fans?
So a Bill Maher crowd is a Bill Maher crowd is a Bill Maher crowd?
Yeah, however there is an extra bit of enthusiasm in these states you've mentioned, what they call the red states, because I think it's more unique for someone like me to be in a state like that and the progressive people who live in those states, I think they find it more of a special event that someone who thinks like them who they don't usually see comes to their state. I also want everybody to know in states like that I don't write off the whole state. You know, just because North Carolina is going insane, I understand that there are lots of people in North Carolina who don't like it that their state is going insane. So yes, I come to every red state I can and I have fun.
Are there jokes that you just know aren't going to fly in Oklahoma? Do you ever tailor it a little bit?
No, I feel like the people who are progressive, free-thinking people, they want that even more. The stand-up crowd is so far superior to any crowd I could ever get anywhere else. They're different than the HBO studio audience — they're a good audience, but they're not nearly as freethinking and tolerant as the stand-up audience. Those people are the real fans, they want you to go to the edge, and I will.
Is the material you're performing now as political as the stuff on your show? Is it more general-purpose laughs?
I think for folks who watch the show, they would be very comfortable and familiar with the type of material that material that I'm interested in. I was never, even when I was a young comedian, I was never interested in trivial stuff, I never did dogs and cats and all that stuff.
Isn't it funny when ...?
Yeah, "Have you ever noticed that ..." I was never that kind of comedian, so I think that the subject matter is similar but the difference with stand-up is that, unlike the show, which is a mixture of the serious and the funny, the stand-up is supposed to be just funny. You should just really make it your business to get them laughing, laughing, hysterically laughing and then "Goodnight." So nothing gets through a stand-up performance that isn't ... if I want to talk about a subject and I don't have the jokes, then I'll just wait until I have the jokes.
Gotcha. So, you're in Little Rock Sept. 14 and you've got a TV show the 13th, so it's not like stuff from the show would work its way into the act?
Not really. I mean, there are a few jokes like that that people want to see again, but in general, a stand-up act is a different animal, it's just a different kind of creature. It's more passionate and more direct and it's more laugh-driven.
Getting back to the show, the arguments can get pretty heated, obviously when you've got people on there who disagree pretty strongly about things, but it all seems pretty agreeable even when there are disagreements. But have you ever had a guest on the show who you just really ended up disliking or were like, 'That asshole is never coming back?'
I've felt that way. There are definitely people who we would never have back, but not really for that reason, because it's a show that is supposed to be putting on different points of view. And what we are looking for are different points of view. Now I don't want the yelling, you are correct about that. That I think is very '90s. We did that on my old show "Politically Incorrect," you know, put the snake against the mongoose and watch them fight. That's not really what we're trying to do here. It's a little more of an adult discussion. People can have different points of view, but they should really keep it civil. Now there are people whose opinions I find loathsome. But that's not really a reason not to have them back. If they can articulate what they have to say well and they're sincere about their point of view, that's not a reason I would ever ban them from the show.
I wanted to ask you a little about some local Arkansas politics. A few months back you called Arkansas's 4th District Representative Tom Cotton an asshole, which he most certainly is. It was regarding his statement about how "There were no terrorist attacks under Bush if you don't count 9/11." But now he's running for Senate against another Arkansas politician you had some interactions with, Mark Pryor [who was featured none-too-flatteringly in Maher's film "Religulous"].
Ah yeah, Mark Pryor, Mark Pryor...
I think it's fair to say he's been nothing but a disappointment to liberals in Arkansas, but I think most of us will end up voting for him. So what I wanted to ask you opinion on was, do you think holding your nose and voting for the lesser of two evils is the right thing to do, even when the lesser evil is a buffoon?
Yeah, unfortunately it is. I think I learned that lesson with Ralph Nader in 2000. I think a lot of people were disenchanted with Al Gore for a lot of good reasons — No. 1, he didn't stand up for his own signature issue, which was the environment, but what we learned I think was, the lesser of two evils does make a difference. And when you sit on the sidelines or you vote for someone who has no chance of winning, you wind up electing the person who you like the least and I think the world would be in a very different place if Al Gore had been elected in 2000. I don't think we would have fought a war in Iraq, just for one giant reason.
I loved your New Rule from earlier this month about Art Pope and the insanity in North Carolina. Obviously nobody's going to mistake Arkansas for North Carolina in terms of being progressive, but it was a similar thing that happened here where Koch brothers money just flowed into the local elections and the Republicans took over the state legislature for the first time in 138 years. And I was shocked at how quickly things turned horrible, with some of the worst legislation we've ever seen immediately. So getting back to that New Rule and what you were ribbing Jay Z about a little bit, are we at a turning point now with regard to political spending, where it's really going to take sensible rich people to step up because that's the landscape now?
Yeah, that was the point of the editorial on that. Sure, we had our fun with Jay Z, but the point that we were trying to make that I hope people heard amid the fun was that, Citizens United, which got a lot of publicity on a national level, really didn't have that big of an effect on a national level. Yes, Obama was outraised by the billionaires and the Republican party, but it was not enough to defeat him obviously, and eventually a lot of the liberal rich people finally stood up and gave enough money to Obama that he was able to pretty much square off against Mitt Romney. But on the local level, that's what we were trying to make people understand, because I have not seen that reported anywhere in the national press. On the local level, Citizens United is having a tremendous impact, and when you talk about Art Pope, he took over the state by only spending like $4 or $5 million. It's pocket change. Nicolas Cage spends that on castle insurance.
I just think that's a story that the press really needs to get into is how, on the local level, the Citizens United ruling — and I didn't know this thing you were just telling me about was happening in Arkansas, but I knew it was going to happen in other states because it's inevitable that it will.