The host of HBO’s Real Time on cannibals, comedy, and Romney’s curious car claims
By David S. LewisPublished June 1, 2012
Before the renowned comedian, television host, and actor aims his notoriously pithy and liberal cantanker at you from the stage of the Palace Theatre, you might want to get to know Bill Maher a little bit. Get to know his family, some of his professional history … and his macabre willingness to allow all of mankind to be destroyed by vegetarian robots.*
Your father was a newsman, and you are a news-oriented interviewer and individual. How much of your own career skills did you essentially learn from him?
Not really from what he did in his work-a-day world, because he was a true newsman. He lived in the era when radio news was all over the radio; now, we’ve kind of gotten rid of that. Radio stations don’t care, but back in those days, the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, every radio station had news at the top of the hour. And that was what he did; he wrote and read the news at the top of the hour. He was a real news guy. I’m, of course, not a real news guy; what I think I got from him was that news was something that was always discussed in our home, which I think is pretty rare in American life. It’s probably not so rare in Europe or in the Middle East; they are café societies and people actually talk about issues. We (Americans) watch reruns of TV shows when we eat dinner – if we eat dinner together at all. In our house, news was ever-present, so it gave me my interest in news early on, which was invaluable in later life.
Do you remember a defining moment, at which when you became an engaged and aware citizen?
I don’t know. Maybe that hasn’t even come yet. That’s something you are always ever striving for. I hope I’m an engaged citizen, but every week I know I feel like I did not read enough, I didn’t take in what I should have.
Do you feel your father would have been proud of your career, your contribution?
You know, it’s a shame; he died just before we started Politically Incorrect, which was around 20 years ago, so he never saw the exact career that I had. He saw me do The Tonight Show, which I’m glad he saw that, and saw that I wasn’t going to be a failure. Because when you first go into comedy, of course, everybody thinks that it’s just a quaint indulgence, and that you will be having a real job soon. So it was nice to see that I was somewhat legitimized. But I would have loved for him to have seen Politically Incorrect and then Real Time.
Of your earlier work, which do you think he was prouder of, starring alongside the venerable Angela Lansbury on TV’s Murder, She Wrote, or your prominent role in Cannibal Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death?
Heh heh heh … Well, I tried to keep those from him. Yeah, that’s the shame of it; he was around for that era, when I was taking any sort of acting job I could, just to put food on the table, but not around for the era when I came to be doing what I should have been doing, which of course is the kind of shows I’m doing now. But everybody has to find their own way in this town. There’s not a person in Hollywood who doesn’t have some sort of footage of something he did long ago that’s somewhat embarrassing. It’s like the actors that played in porn pictures.
Really, though – Cannibal Women … that was a solid flick. When was the last time you watched it?
I actually liked Cannibal Women. The director of that, John Lawton, is still my friend, and he’s a funny and talented guy. It was a shoestring budget, but it was a campy, cute little movie that actually had a point to make. And, oh boy, it was 1988 and I spent the summer with the cannibal women with my shirt off in the jungle … if I could go back to there right now, I would do it in a heartbeat.
That’s pretty much as close as you’re likely to get to Apocalypse Now, huh? I think you’re more likely to find yourself in a Terminator sequel.
Who would you root for in the Terminator scenario, the intellectually dimmed voters of America, pursued by mechanical assassins, or the savvy, environmentally friendly vegetarian robot overlords?
(*Author’s Note: Maher’s response to this indicates to me that he almost certainly didn’t understand my question, even a little bit.)
I definitely would choose the environmentally friendly overlords. The problem is, I don’t think anybody in America would. I don’t think Americans would ever elect a vegetarian president. I think they would elect a gay president, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think they would actually literally elect a gay president – you know how homophobic this country is – before a vegetarian president. Yes, they would rather have a president who eats other men, than a president that eats Tofurkey.
I’m happy that all of this essentially makes its way back to Cannibal Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death.
You’re a proud member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and an outspoken vegetarian. I’m a little surprised by that, in context of everything else I know about you. Where does that come from?
Well, first of all, I’ve never said that I was a vegetarian.
I am a proud member of PETA, but I never say that I’m a vegetarian, even though I very rarely eat meat. I’m much more about the purity of food than getting into a debate over whether meat is strictly verboten, and the human diet. I do know that a lot of meat is definitely bad for you, but I am not prepared to say that no meat is what everybody should be doing. So I don’t often eat meat, but I’m not in lockstep with PETA on everything. It’s not that kind of party.
Ohio is a weird state, politically. We have lots of lefties here in Columbus, but much of the state is pretty red. You’ve been here before, right?
Columbus, Ohio is practically Berkeley compared to some of the places I’ve been to. I did Huntsville, Alabama, and there were 3,000 screaming liberal atheists there. I’ve been to Nashville; I’ve been to Tulsa, Oklahoma. What I’ve learned traveling this country is that, wherever I go, the liberals come out of the woodwork. It’s not like there are not progressive, freethinking people who are living everywhere in the country. They’re just out-numbered by the rednecks who surround them. But if you give them a reason to come out of the house, even in the reddest of the red states, they will come. I expect no different in Columbus, Ohio.
Do you think we will swing for Romney or Obama in November?
Boy, that’s the $64,000 dollar question. Isn’t it funny how it always winds up coming down to Ohio and Florida? That is something that I would not bet on; you could flip a coin and it would land on its edge. It will probably be determined by where the economy is right on November 6th, because Ohio is that much of a swing state. Look, I could make the case that Mitt Romney is probably not the right guy for the job, because people are worried about the economy. Mitt Romney is running on two perceived strengths: one, a vague resemblance to Brooke Shields, and two, the idea that ‘I’m a businessman, and I’m going to fix this economy by restoring the policies of the party that destroyed it.’ Well, if that’s what they want to choose, that’s what they’ll choose, but I would not.
Ohio is kind of an auto-heavy state, and Romney has declared that he would be happy to take some credit for the amazing recovery that industry has experienced, particularly in swing states like Ohio.
Well, he’s trying, but that’s insane. There’s no doubt that Mitt Romney is probably the most cynical politician we’ve ever had, but this really takes the cake. And I say it’s cynical because he’s depending on the fact that people in this country just don’t know what the f*ck they’re talking about. They don’t read, they don’t research … so he can say anything. So for him to completely rewrite history and say it was his idea that saved the American auto industry – any economist would tell you the automobile industry would not be there without government loans, not that kind of managed bankruptcy he talked about. That happened later. It would not have survived without the government loans, which he was absolutely and definitely against. He is just a straight-up liar.