If comedian Bill Maher wants a title, it could be "Mr. Opinionated." From his breakthrough role in 1993 as host of "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central to his current gig on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," the 58-year-old New York City native built his career on the strength of his often stridently liberal points of view.
Love him or hate him, Maher is informed. Between having a network news editor for a father and a double-major bachelor's degree in English and history from Cornell University, he's articulate on a wide range of topics. And he embraces controversy, which follows him around like a happy, drooling puppy. His snark might have you shouting at the TV, but it's unlikely to be boring.
Maher spoke with the Jackson Free Press in anticipation of his first appearance in Mississippi at Thalia Mara Hall Nov. 15.
Mississippi isn't exactly a bastion for liberal, progressive thought. What's the appeal?
I do love going to the conservative places in America, because I've yet to find a place so conservative that I can't find two or three thousand screaming liberals to come out (and) have a great time.
I don't think people understand how diverse America really is, politically, because what happens in most states is that a lot of elections aren't even contested. We just assume that certain places are not in the game, and so politicians don't go there. No politician campaigns in California because it's reliably blue. No politician (on a national level, of course) goes to New York or Texas. It doesn't really pay to try to win for the Democratic candidate in Mississippi. But the people are there. ... I've been to Alabama already twice this year; I've been to Mobile and to Birmingham. When you go to places like that and the progressive people come out, they're like doubly excited to see you, because I think they're gratified that I did not write off the whole state and went, 'Oh, you know, that's just a bunch of hicks down there.' Because I know better. It's not just a bunch of hicks. ... In this day and age, it's not really about region so much as it is about city versus country. When you're in a fairly large city, it's like everywhere else in America. They have Thai food. They have a Pottery Barn. It's not the 1950s any more.
I'm looking forward to coming to Jackson. This may be the last state that I've never played.
A lot of your fans here are upset over Alexandra Pelosi's video that depicted Mississippians as ignorant, toothless, hick rednecks.
She did a documentary ... called "Red (vs.) Blue America." I know what you're talking about. Yes, she absolutely talked to—how else could you put it—toothless hillbillies. But there are toothless hillbillies there!
But let's be honest: She also talked to black welfare recipients in New York City who—I don't know if you saw that one—but they looked just as bad as the toothless hillbillies.
You've been getting a lot of pushback about your stance on Muslims. Did the vehemence of the reaction surprise you?
No. Actually what has been gratifying and surprising is quite the opposite. I've been talking about this for years, well over a decade. In the past, I've had almost no liberal support, and that has changed. Now, I have at least half. I mean, the audience is literally divided, you know? Yes, there are still a lot of people—and I'm talking about liberals now—there's still a lot of liberals who, if you say the word Muslim, they have a very knee-jerk reaction, and just see it as, "That's an attack on a minority." And then, I think, there are a lot of liberals who have come over to my point of view, which is, "Hello. I'm the liberal in this debate."
What Sam Harris and I were saying that night on the show and what I've been saying is not even really controversial. The liberals who get so mad at me, they don't even stop to listen to what we're saying. These are not really controversial comments; they're just facts. If I say that it is a widely held view in the Muslim world that death is the appropriate response to either making fun of the Prophet or leaving the religion, that is not a controversial statement. That's just how it is.
It's unfortunate, but we can't seem to start the debate from the point of, "Well, let's agree that these are the facts." They contend that we shouldn't even say that, and that's just crazy, because again, I'm the one defending liberal principles—like, you shouldn't kill people.
Reza Aslan on CNN said, essentially, Maher's talking about generalities. Let's talk about specifics.
It's a silly proposition, because all knowledge is based on generalities. You cannot interview 1.5 billion Muslims. And this idea that you can't say the term "Muslim World" is so silly.
Read any history book. They always use the term Christendom. They didn't interview every Christian. You have to make generalities to advance knowledge.
... I've said my piece, and everyone else should now talk about it. I put it out there, (and) I'm glad we started a national debate. And now, the rest of everybody else can argue about it. I think I've said it. I don't want to keep talking about it. No doubt we'll come back to this in the years to come, but I just feel like I'm saying the same things over and over and over.
A couple of years ago, you said that Bill Clinton turned Democrats into "soft conservatives" and that Democrats just don't brag about their wins.
Yeah, like health care. They should be running on health care. They should be bragging about it. ... It is crazy, especially since there are millions of people whose lives have been altered for the better by the fact that they don't have to be worrying and stressing every day of their lives that they're going to get an illness which will either kill them or bankrupt them. That's just huge in so many people's lives. It's sad, more than anything, that people cannot make the connection between something that actually, viscerally makes their lives better and voting for it, or voting to reward the person that gave it to them.
People say all the time when they do polls about Congress, "Oh, they haven't done anything that affects my life positively." Well, this is actually something that affected your life very positively, very personally, very up front. It's right in front of your face. You used to have to sh*t your pants because you didn't know what would happen to you if you got sick. That burden has been lifted from your shoulders. You can go through your life now without having to worry about that. We're talking about 10 million people who have that now, and it's just going to get more.
As Paul Krugman pointed out (in Rolling Stone magazine), for all those liberals who carp about how Obama didn't achieve this, and didn't achieve that: Of course! No politician ever does. Politics is the art of the possible. We didn't get a single-payer system. We didn't even get a public option. But that was never on the table. It was never possible because there's a very strong opposition that constrained him from achieving what he wanted to achieve. But unlike the last eight presidents who all had dreams of passing affordable, universal health care, or at least considered it, he did it. He got it done. And we have it, and it's only going to get better for more people. And these are mostly the poorest people.
So what's the dynamic that's keeping progressives from crowing achievements from the rooftops?
I guess it's the DNA of the liberal in this country. I always have said that one party has all the brains, and the other has all the balls. The Republicans, of course, have no problem about bragging about nothing. They can foment something out of thin air and make it sound like they've done great things. Like (Sen.) Ted Cruz going around saying, "ISIS? I'd take
Really. And how would you be able to do that? Why would they give up to you, Ted? Because you're a chicken hawk with a law degree?
They're never bothered by facts. Democrats always seem to have trouble with their intestinal fortitude and their wobbly spine. They just don't seem to be able to muster up the courage to stand behind their convictions.
Again, this is not a difficult one, giving America health care. I just want to say to them, "You gave them a good thing. You didn't give them herpes, you gave them health care."
Some media outlets have dubbed you a vaccine "truther."
That's wrong. ... I wrote a long article in 2010 ... in The Huffington Post. I'm sure it's in their archives, detailing what I've said over the years and what I believe.
It all started when I said, "I don't believe in flu shots," and I stand by that. I think flu shots are a real scam because flus are always shifting. By the time you get the shot, the flu has migrated and morphed into something else. I think it's just a way for companies to make a fortune.
Also, I don't think it's great to over-vaccinate. My position on vaccines was, first of all, do we really have any studies on the cumulative effect of so many vaccines? I would liken it to antibiotics. Do I think there's a place in the world for antibiotics? Of course there is. I'm very glad that I came along in a time after there was antibiotics because they're a magic bullet.
Of course, we also know that when you use too many of them, they can be very harmful. I'm just wondering the same thing with vaccines. But to say I'm a vaccine truther is just stupid.
Fair enough. You did a show on Ebola.
(Laughs.) And I have it now.
You seem to have climbed onto the "government can't do anything right" bandwagon.
It does seem that way, doesn't it. It's just so depressing that you live in a country like this that's such a rich country with such a wonderful history, that has done so many wonderful things in the past, and it just seems like we have fallen, and we can't get up. Maybe it was just coming on the heels of the revelations about the Secret Service, but it seemed like the Secret Service and the (Centers for Disease Control), within a couple of weeks of each other—two of the last places I thought we were OK.
When the first Ebola patient came back, not the one who died, but the doctor who lived, I remember seeing the film of him getting off the ambulance, and he was in the suit. He was having trouble walking, but he was still walking. And I just thought, "Wow. There's America for you. We're doing it right." We somehow saved this guy's life. My heart goes out to those poor people in Africa who are dying, but we found a way to save this guy, and we got him to the hospital, and the infection didn't spread, of course, because we know what we're doing.
And then, to have this other guy walk into that hospital in Dallas, and you read about all of the things they did wrong. Just common-sense things. I'm not talking about you had to go to medical school to know this; I'm just talking about you had to have an IQ above 10 to know that when you're dealing with a disease like that, the protective suit has to cover all of you. You don't pile the feces up to the ceiling. Just insane!
Yes, I'm not going to lie: Sometimes I wear my emotions on my sleeve on the show. It just pissed me off so much that we let that happen, and that we, as a country, are so often stuck on stupid.
These days, with all the corporatizing of journalism, a lot of journalists take their marching orders based on what the corporations want.
And nowadays, it seems like people get their news from comedians like yourself and Jon Stewart, or Fox News. As a politically involved comedian, how do you see your responsibility?
First of all, to always try to be true, to say what's true. I don't think Fox News does that, but Fox News has an agenda that's very different from mine. My agenda is this: I do a show on Friday night. It's live. I think about the person who doesn't have time during the week—because people have busy lives, and they have jobs and kids and lots of stuff going on—the person who does not have time to read the paper. They would like to; they're interested in the news. They want to have an interest in what's going on in the world. That's why they're watching my show; otherwise, they'd be watching "Dancing With the Stars" or whatever. But if they're watching my show, they're obviously interested in public affairs. They just don't have, perhaps, the time to absorb it in the way that they would like.
I feel like my obligation, my chief obligation (I mean besides entertaining them; that's number one) ... is to make sure that in that one hour on Friday night at the end of the week, I can catch them up on what I thought were the most important stories of the week. These may not be the stories that the mainstream media thought were the most important stories of the week, but they're the ones that I feel, "People, if you only have one hour to give me, let me make you aware of these six, seven or eight stories." Somewhere in the show, either in the monologue or the panel discussion or the new rules or in the rant I do in the end ... or in one of the two one-on-one interviews, I will make you aware of everything I think you would want to have known about this week, but you didn't have time to read.
Bill Maher performs at Thalia Mara Hall (255 E. Pascagoula St.) Nov. 15. The event starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are from $60 to $90, and are available through TicketMaster and other online sellers.