Every time we see Bill Maher on TV, he’s either arguing with conservatives using his snarky humor, or he’s in your face with his liberal lifestyle choices, from pot smoking to atheism. So I was taken aback—even a little disappointed—to discover that the Real Time host actually sounds like a nice guy. Not that he lacked conviction during our discussion, he just presented his case in a surprisingly calm manner for a guy who admits to being good at screaming the loudest. Maher, who will be in town to perform stand-up July 2-3 at The Orleans, knows how to push buttons, too, especially when it comes to topics such as global warming (“No. 1 problem facing America”), gay marriage (he’s for it) and universal health care (it’s a right). But, overall, his show (on HBO Friday nights) has become a forum where liberals and conservatives alike can talk out their differences uncensored and uninterrupted. Except, of course, when Maher decides to jump in with his take, and usually there’s not a long wait for that.
Do you prefer to do stand-up or your HBO show?
They feed each other. I would never try to do my show on HBO if I didn’t get out into the country and do my act because it clarifies a lot of things. Also, it allows me to leave Los Angeles, which can kind of be an ivory tower, and get out and talk to people. I do probably 75 or 80 stand-up dates a year all around the country, and I consider Vegas part of that. When you travel, you talk to people; you’re in airports, you’re in cabs, you’re in shopping malls. You just get a feel for what’s really going on in the country, which you can’t do here in Hollywood.
What part of the country teaches you the most about America?
I love the South. People think I wouldn’t like places where you would guess I wouldn’t be as popular. I’m sure I’m not as popular as a whole, but what I have found is even in the reddest of red places there are a lot of very progressive-thinking people who are marbled in the population, and they love it when people who think like them come to their town—because it doesn’t happen that much. There is sort of a very intimate celebration that goes on when I go to Salt Lake City or Tulsa, Okla., or Greenville, S.C., because these people, they don’t see someone who talks like me very much except on television.
If you were president, what’s your first move?
Well, I’m sure the obvious answer is legalizing pot, but there are many, many more important things. I would say the first thing I would do probably is tax the rich, because we are drowning in debt. I also would love to see Medicare for all, not the half-ass health-care plan that was passed, which is better than nothing. But I would like to see what every other civilized country in the world has, which is a single-payer system where having health care is a right and not a privilege. I would like to bring the troops home. Not just from the places we’re fighting wars, but from all the bases. We have half a million troops in over 100 countries all around the world, and that’s really not something we can afford or America was ever really supposed to be about.
How do you manage to get so many conservatives on the show?
I think first of all, our show has become sort of appointment television for a lot of smart people, certainly people in government. It does take a lot for a conservative to come on here, because we do not have an audience with a lot of conservatives in it—so that alone is an intimidating factor. Our staff is incredibly courteous and welcoming to everyone, so word gets out that those people at Real Time are really nice. We also, after the show, have a wrap party where we invite the guests to have a drink and talk like human beings. That goes a long way. Also, people like being on television. They want to get their message out, and I think they feel like I will at least give them a fair shot to talk.
What guest haven’t you been able to get on Real Time that you really want?
Bill Clinton, for some reason, has resisted coming on the show, and I feel he shouldn’t resist. First of all, I’ve been rather friendly to him. I’m a comedian, I make jokes. And he is Bill Clinton. So there are going to be some Bill Clinton jokes, but I don’t think they’re ever mean. I was on the last Larry King show back in [December], and Bill Clinton was on satellite and we were all talking via the electronic communications system Larry has set up there, and I said, “Larry, ask Bill Clinton why he’s never been on my show.” Bill Clinton said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll come on.” Well that was [December], here it is June and he still hasn’t shown up. I am not going to give up. I’m going to get that man if it kills me.
This year you earned the distinction of being nominated for the most prime-time Emmys and never winning.
Yes, that is true. I’ve been nominated for 26 Emmys, but apparently they find it a little bit beyond their reach to give it to an atheistic, pot-smoking guy.
Do people tell you you’re nicer than they think?
I deal in controversy, and I’m on the air a lot with people who are arguing and stuff. So people sometimes say to me when they meet me, “See, you’re nice,” like it’s a surprise. It’s as if they think I’m going to be some sort of an ogre.