Political provocateur Bill Maher has been peddling his brand of smarmy punditry for well on 20 years now, starting with Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and later ABC, before moving to premium cable, where he started Real Time With Bill Maher in 2003. Along the way, he’s done nine stand-up specials for HBO; played himself in politically focused fare such as The Campaign and House of Cards; and crafted the 2008 documentary Religulous (hitting on one of his favorite topics: skewering religion). And last year he even found the time to buy a minority stake in the New York Mets.
Maher has never shied away from a fight, whether it’s cost him his own show or a potential $5 million. That’s the amount for which Donald Trump sued Maher in February after the comedian went on The Tonight Show and said he wouldn’t believe Trump isn’t the child of an orangutan until the business tycoon produced a birth certificate. Presumably one notarized by a cryptozoologist.
Now Maher is about to become the latest comedian to kick off a Vegas residency, headlining the Pearl on March 23-24, then returning for select weekends in June, September and November. (For the record, Maher denies he’ll be meeting with Penn Jillette in a secret cabal of vocally atheist comedians while he’s in town.)
With Roseanne, Lisa Lampanelli and other comics having Vegas residencies, does it feel like this is now a viable setup for comedians when it might not have been two or three years ago?
I hope so. I hope Las Vegas is getting back to old-school entertainment. When I first played there as an opening act for Diana Ross 30 years ago, you could go up and down the Strip, and the [showrooms] were all filled with humans. It wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t Cirque du Soleil. It was Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis and Shecky Green and Buddy Hackett and David Brenner and whoever else were stars at the time. It was actual human entertainment. This is a renaissance of that, I hope.
Did you spend a lot of time going to see the likes of Shecky and Brenner?
I saw everybody when I finished my show, my 20 minutes. Of course, back then it was exactly 20 minutes. They gave you that speech: “Every minute you keep them out of the casino we lose this much money.” They scared you so bad you could be in the middle of a joke—“And then the pirate … Oh! Gotta go.” Usually the shows were at the same time, so I’d hustle my ass to wherever somebody was playing and try to talk my way in as a professional courtesy. “I’m down the street opening for Diana.” They didn’t know who I was, but I talked my way in and stood in the back.
When you first learned of the Trump lawsuit, did it feel like a comedy gift arrived directly from the heavens?
This man is comic gold. I don’t know what goes on in his head. I don’t know if he’s serious. If it wasn’t for the fact that I think it’s actually a deleterious thing in the United States for people to be using the courts for trivial means—it’s abusing the system—it’s just good comedy. I don’t think he really believes you can hold someone to a binding legal agreement because of something they said on television, but who knows what he thinks?
So you have not mounted your legal defense?
It does cost money when someone files. You have to hire a lawyer and all that stuff. They assure me that a judge will get me my money back. They cannot see a way where it isn’t thrown out and a judge says Look, this is ridiculous and you should play the legal fees. So then I will continue to ask for his birth certificate. I’d also like to see some paperwork on whether that ferret on his head has had all its shots.
Even though the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, is it more important for a comedian to be right or funny?
Funny, definitely. No one knows if we’re right or not. But I do know for sure when I’m funny, because people laugh. That’s what people come out for. Ultimately, you’re an entertainer. The show, Real Time, is a hybrid of serious and funny. There are times when we get quite serious, but that is not what people are looking for when they go see live [stand-up]. They want to laugh—they want to laugh every 15 seconds, and they want to laugh hard.
You’ve been in the thick of political commentary for 20 years and seen politicians do the same dumb shit over and over again. So is it harder to maintain a sense of outrage?
Not if you’re Irish. The Irish are born outraged. Over that 20 years, [politicians] have actually become more outrage-worthy. Twenty years ago the Republicans weren’t nearly as crazy. Bob Dole was not a guy that I had a deep-seeded loathing for. I didn’t necessarily agree with him on most things, but I respected him. He wasn’t crazy. My God, we’ve instituted some of the things he was for. Obama’s health-care plan is basically his old health-care plan. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right and so far away from reality that they’re not recognizable anymore. I think if I’m more outraged, it’s fitting.
Given what Nate Silver had been saying all along—that Obama had the election wrapped up early—do you still feel like your $1 million donation was money well spent?
Oh, absolutely. [The donation was made] early on when the election was not decided. That was the whole point of it. … Mitt Romney was not a great candidate, and the Republicans do have sucky ideas, but even still, he only lost by three points. Sarah Palin said after the election that Romney lost because he was identified in key states early on, and that’s what [my donation] went to do. And it was also to inspire other people to give money, and they did. The liberals were very complacent in the early part of the year. They really hadn’t gotten the memo that the world had changed now. The last time a president ran, in 2008, the most you could give was $2,300. This time it was infinity. That’s kind of a big jump.
Was that a better investment than buying a piece of the Mets?
The return I get from the Obama investment is something I cannot calculate financially. Although I do also think that if Romney became president, the money I have left would be much less secure. Republican economic strategies have been proven not to work. We’d be back to trickle-down economics and the rest of that nonsense. The Mets, I don’t think I can ever lose on the Mets. Even if the team sucks, they’re not making any new baseball teams, especially in New York City. Sports in America is hallowed. I’ve never known a sports franchise to go down in value. About a month after I made my investment in the Mets, the Dodgers were sold for $2.15 billion dollars when the highest estimate people were guessing at was $1.5. So it was over $500 million more than the highest estimate that was going around. That’s always, always the pattern with sports teams. Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 for $10 million dollars. It’s now worth north of $4 billion. I bet it would fetch $5 billion.
Does your stake give you the pull to push for a trade in midseason?
Yeah, that’s right. I call up and I tell them, why don’t you get rid of RA Dickey? It’s fun, but I wouldn’t have done it for sentimental reasons. I did it because I think it’s a great place to park money. It’s the one thing that always goes up in value. Back in 2008 I lost a huge amount of money with Lehman Brothers, the one bank the government let fall. I still haven’t gotten that money back. I’ll never get that money back.