Inside Bill Maher’s office in Los Angeles, you don’t need a poli-sci degree to know which way the political winds are blowing. There’s a (fake) Zagat guide to marijuana dispensaries, a bumper sticker that reads HONK IF YOU HATE AMERICA, a studly photo of a shirtless Vladimir Putin and a TV monitor forever tuned to MSNBC. Even for some lefties, Maher is too liberal. And since he also has a pronounced libertarian streak, he frustrates them further. But that’s what makes him one of progressive America’s most audacious comic voices.
Since 1993 Maher has mixed sharp humor with current events, often in conversation with an odd array of athletes, movie stars, pundits and chaired professors. Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher aired on Comedy Central and, later, ABC until 2002. Most blamed its cancellation on the controversy Maher stirred shortly after 9/11, when he dubbed America and its long-range missiles more “cowardly” than the terrorists who rammed into the Twin Towers. A year later, he was back with Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO, a live hour-long commentary-on-the-news show that was recently renewed through 2017. Lately he’s been getting flak for speaking out against Islam, saying the religion itself breeds violence. The University of California, Berkeley briefly disinvited him to give last winter’s commencement address. But once again Maher prevailed and was there with a smirk and a point of view. “C’mon, it’s Berkeley,” he told the graduates in that bastion of liberalism. “I think I can speak freely here; I mean, I hope I can.”
Born January 20, 1956 in New York City, William Maher Jr. grew up in a world of headlines. His father was a news editor for NBC, and family dinner conversations at home in New Jersey touched on the various revolutions shaping the world. Maher studied English and history at Cornell University, but comedy was his true superpower. Still, he spent more than a decade wisecracking his way to prominence. Among his glory moments on the way up: co-starring with Shannon Tweed and Adrienne Barbeau in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.
Anti-theist, pot lover, defender of gay rights and free speech, Maher is every Fox News anchor’s worst nightmare, but he’s a very good interview, reports Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed actor Vince Vaughn for Playboy. “Bill Maher doesn’t do knee-jerk liberalism,” Hochman says. “His views on politics, religion and social issues don’t follow a particular party line. Just when you think you’ve nailed his slant, he’ll throw you in a whole new direction, and usually in the funniest way.”
Are Americans really as stupid as you say they are?
Absolutely. You cannot underestimate how dumb people are in this country, and this is something I say all the time. Everyone jumps down my throat, but it’s true, and it’s dangerous. It’s why politicians get away with so much bullshit. For instance, the American people think the economy is the most important issue; yet when polled last year, the majority of Americans thought the unemployment rate was 32 percent, when it was actually 5.8 percent. If that’s not stupidity, it’s terribly misinformed. Even during the Great Depression the unemployment rate was, at its worst, 25 percent. More than half the Americans polled, when asked what our government spends the most on in its budget, said foreign aid, which of course accounts for just one percent. Only 20 percent got the right answer, which is Social Security. Less than half those polled could name the three branches of government. A third couldn’t name any branch of government. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
So should we just do away with democracy?
[Laughs] No. As Churchill said, democracy’s the worst form of government, except for all the others. In the information age, we were supposed to get smarter with the internet, but we’re somehow getting less smart. People are either in a bubble, getting only the information they want to see, or they’re on porn or playing Angry Birds or whatever else they’re doing. They’re not getting information. We’re slaves to microtargeting. You go to Yahoo and it knows what you click on, so you see only stories about the Kardashians or some guy with a face tattoo—and that’s a problem. You’re not reading about Boko Haram or the latest congressional fuckup. When you’re dealing with an electorate that doesn’t know anything, you can say anything. That’s how you get zombie lies.
Yes, these lies that live forever even though they’re not true. They’re the undead of politics. I noticed Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst referring to the Keystone jobs program in the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this year. Okay, we’ve proved for a couple of years now that the Keystone jobs program would create only 35 jobs. As one senator said, you’d create more jobs opening a single McDonald’s. Trickle-down economics is another zombie lie: Give the rich tax breaks and the poor will thrive. Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, destroyed his state’s entire economy selling that zombie.
Did you get your money’s worth from your million-dollar contribution to Obama’s last campaign?
It was a great investment. It’s funny. We invented a character on the show called Mitt McCain, who’s an amalgam of the candidates who could have been president instead of Obama, and it’s not pretty. Under Mitt McCain the auto industry has collapsed because Mitt Romney wanted to let that happen. We’re at war with Guatemala, Finland and nine other countries John McCain would have warred against. And the attorney general is Dick Cheney’s head. You sometimes hear people, even Democrats, say, “I’m tired of Obama because he didn’t live up to his promises.” I say, “Are you sure about that? Maybe they just didn’t cover it on TMZ.” Because Obama is slowly going down the list: Cuba, gay marriage and, I’m hoping before he leaves, pot. He’s trying to finish strong.
Half the country still loves to hate him, though.
Obama should be a better bragger. He needs to start acting like he won the last election instead of lost it. If the Republicans had his record, they’d be riding it like a fuckin’ wild bronco into the 2016 election. Their attitude would be, Why even have an election? We’ve tripled the stock market, unemployment is below six percent, 10 million more people have health insurance, the auto industry is back on its feet. Oh, and he averted a depression.
Who’s your money on for the White House race?
I’d say Scott Walker will be the nominee for the Republicans. Jeb Bush is building momentum, but he’s attached at the hip to Common Core, which the Tea Party despises. True, he’s not the doofus his brother was, but in today’s Republican Party, that’s actually a huge minus. Then there’s Chris Christie. His numbers with Republican primary voters are horrible, close to Sarah Palin level, though if you like small government, he’s the guy for you, because soon half his administration will be in jail. But Walker? He’s a folk hero with the people from the Tea lagoon and with the establishment wing. His father was an evangelical preacher—a huge plus with the snake handlers and flat-Earthers who make up the base. And he won three times, including a recall, in a blue state, and he faced down public unions. The one problem is he didn’t graduate from college—oh wait, that’s a plus too, because book learnin’ is, you know, suspicious.
And for the Democrats?
I’m thinking it has to be Hillary Clinton. And I’d love to see her run with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. They’re the two lefties in the Democratic Party, and we’ve never really tried left-wing politics, at least not in my lifetime.
The real question mark is what the Republicans will run on, because they can’t run on jobs; unemployment is too low. I suspect we’ll see the batshit campaign tactics we saw with the last few Bush runs: John McCain had a black baby; Willie Horton came out of nowhere; John Kerry went somehow from a war hero to a despicable coward in that insane turnaround. It’s going to be some made-up issue the Republicans will harp on. Remember Jeb Bush’s father running in 1988? We had these rumors about Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag and all that shit about Michael Dukakis not cleaning up Boston Harbor. If things are still going well, we’ll have some picture of Hillary scratching her ass at Mount Rushmore in 1975. That’s all the Republicans can run on at this point.
Who’s a bigger threat for liberals, the Koch brothers or Roger Ailes?
Now that’s a Hobson’s choice. I’m stumped. Pass. [laughs] You know, they’re both bad. With the Kochs, it’s like sports. The odds are with the ones who spend the most money. The Yankees don’t win every year, but they’re almost always in it. And if they’re not in it one year, they’ll go out and buy better players the next year. It’s pretty much that way in politics too. In the midterms one out of every $10 spent by the Republicans was a Koch brothers dollar, and now they’re spending, what, a billion dollars on this campaign? That’s kind of a lot.
And yet I’d say Roger Ailes is worse, because Fox News creates the debate for the GOP. Whatever comes out of Fox News, or as I call it, the Alternative History Channel, is chapter and verse for red America, and red America doesn’t go outside that bubble. You can rail against immigration because they don’t know that net immigration to America has been zero for years. The brown people aren’t coming anymore, so why are we building giant walls? Why are we spending all this money? That fact never gets through, because on Fox News they would never report it. But it’s true. In the 30 years following 1980, 12 million Mexicans came to America. And that was in three cars. [laughs] Oh, I can hear the liberals getting mad already! It’s a joke, and jokes are good, so fuck you and deal with it. Anyway, that was when Mexican women were having seven children. Now they’re having two. Not that the people at Fox News like to think about sex.
What are you suggesting?
They’re all super repressed. Remember when Bill O’Reilly settled that harassment suit claim that he was trying to get some on the side? His response afterward was “I will never speak of it again.” And Sean Hannity seems especially corked. At the same time, I read somewhere that Fox encourages Megyn Kelly to wear sleeveless dresses so the old horny white men who watch can get off on it. It’s part of something larger in this country, actually, which is people who don’t have satisfactory sex lives hating on people who do. Someone once said the definition of sleazy is someone having more sex than you, and you feel that when you watch Fox.
Do you think Americans are repressed in general?
Listen, America is built on two fault lines. One of course is race—that all men are created equal except the ones we keep as slaves. [laughs] The other one is sex. This country was founded by Puritans and also by libertarians. That dichotomy was explored beautifully in Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the book by Gay Talese. It goes to that notion that we are built on a fault line and are schizophrenic about it. We pride ourselves on being a modern country, but we are big fucking babies when it comes to sex.
Puritanism is one of those dominoes that have to fall, along with pot and gay marriage. The way the media and the population respond to these so-called sex scandals, I mean, Jesus! Celebrity sex videos, sexting scandals, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, slut-shaming from the left and right. People! Eliot Spitzer made a mistake, a private mistake, and we’ve exiled him. He’s a brilliant guy who is now toxic? This is horseshit. More than any other Democrat, he went after Wall Street, which is much more important than this nonsense about who he’s fucking. He can’t have a place in public life anymore because he was with a prostitute? This is what I mean about stupidity.
So live and let live.
Absolutely. I wish there were an entire party in politics called the Pervert Party. It could be Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and the ghosts of Martin Luther King Jr., JFK and FDR. Look at all this talent that we exile and persecute, as we did with Clinton, because of sexual peccadilloes. This is a domino that has to fall. The idea that the mayor of New York’s spokeswoman, Lis Smith, couldn’t keep her job because she dated Spitzer? She was dating an adulterer, a guy who went out with hookers. Oooh, the humanity! And that’s New York City. When did New York become Salem on the Hudson? Sex has nothing to do with job performance. It’s nobody’s business.
Do people ever think you’re a journalist?
Yes, definitely. I’m not, though I have great respect for journalists. The difference is, journalists break stories. I don’t break stories; I break new ways of looking at stories that have been broken.
You’re certainly a free-speech advocate. Is there anything you find yourself holding back on?
I guess it depends on which circle I’m in. There are things I wouldn’t say on Jimmy Kimmel that I’d say on HBO, things I wouldn’t say on HBO that I’d say in a live stand-up performance. Then there are things I wouldn’t even say in stand-up that I’d say to my friends. The ninth ring of hell is the things I wouldn’t even say to my friends that I think only to myself, and of course I can’t say what those things are. When that movie Noah came out, I said on my show, “What’s really disturbing about Noah isn’t that it’s silly, it’s that it’s immoral. It’s about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God. Hey, God, you know you’re kind of a dick when you’re in a movie with Russell Crowe and you’re the one with the anger issues.” But it was said with humor. People do need their minds blown, but not everywhere all the time. That would be like doing it in line at Starbucks.
You took major heat last fall when you told Ben Affleck on your show that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Even liberals said you were painting a vast global population with too broad a stroke. Then the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened. Did you somehow feel vindicated?
Not vindicated, no. It was just another terrible example. My reaction once again was that if there are this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard. The fact remains that Islam is a uniquely intolerant and violent religion at this point in our history.
But Islam itself isn’t the problem. People are the problem. Extremism is the problem.
Islam is absolutely the problem. Of course it is. It’s on every page of the Koran to despise the unbeliever. It’s in the Bible too, but I don’t think to that degree. I mean, even Jesus, the prince of peace and a pretty friendly guy, gets cranky at the thought of there being another god. Occasionally he’ll say, “Dude, you either go through me or you burn.” But that sentiment is in the Koran in spades. You can’t talk to fundamentalist Muslims about this, because they’ll always tell you that you got the translation wrong. All I know is there are very bad beliefs in Islam that are mainstream beliefs, like you can’t make fun of the Prophet. That’s not just a few bad apples. That’s what everybody believes in this religion.
Not every Muslim is a terrorist.
That’s what the other side always says. Okay, fine, but I don’t have the time to interview all 1.6 billion Muslims individually, as fun as that would be. [laughs] No knowledge is ever advanced without some generalization. When people talk about Christendom in the Middle Ages, they didn’t interview every Christian.
But you need a statement? Here’s a statement: The vast, vast, vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. But here’s the point people don’t bring up: They’re not terrorists, but they share some very bad ideas with terrorists, and bad ideas lead to bad behavior. You couldn’t put the Muslim equivalent of The Book of Mormon on Broadway. You can’t write a book like The Satanic Verses without millions going jihadi on you. You couldn’t have an art exhibit like Piss Christ, which made Giuliani mad in the 1990s. Hundreds of millions of Muslims believe that if you leave the religion you should get killed for that. Try walking down the street in Muslim areas—even in more tolerant places like Amman, Jordan—wearing shorty shorts or a T-shirt that says HEY, I AM GAY. That shit is not going to fly, not at all.
Aren’t you being as zealous as the zealots you’re accusing of zealotry?
Here’s the long answer. I was raised a liberal by two liberal parents, and liberalism springs from one thing above all: compassion. In my family we were always on the side of the underdog and those being treated unfairly. I grew up in an all-white town in New Jersey in the 1960s, but my parents made sure I knew even as a little kid whose side we were on in the civil rights battles. We were with Kennedy and against Southern governors standing in the doorways of schools to prevent black kids from going. What they taught me has stayed with me my whole life, be it blacks, gays, the poor, veterans, immigrants, women, people who are bullied, the disabled, people getting raped in the military, victims of police brutality—you name it, the only thing I don’t have tolerance for is intolerance.
I saw on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show a story about a kid in Pakistan saying to his father, “Please don’t send me to school; the Taliban will kill me,” and I thought of blacks in our South getting killed back then for trying to go to school. My point is, there is a civil war going on in the Muslim world, and liberals can’t be so worried about multiculturalism that they come off as equivocal in this fight.
So liberals are too afraid of being seen as politically incorrect.
Liberals get confused. They think, Okay, Muslims are a minority and they’re brown people, and I’m a good liberal, so I always have to be on the side of minorities and brown people. That’s what some call the soft bigotry of low expectations. Somehow in the Muslim world we accept things we never would in the Western world. People go crazy over the tiniest violations of liberal values here at home, while horrid atrocities elsewhere are ignored. Jonah Hill says “Suck my dick, faggot” in anger to a paparazzo and has to go on an apology tour, but in 10 Muslim countries you can get the death penalty for actually sucking a dick.
So what’s the fix for this centuries-old issue?
Well, at this point we probably need to take out a few bad people. But the long-term solution to radical Islam is to let them have the civil war they need to have between themselves. Let the people who want to walk into the 21st century stand up against the people who want to stay in the seventh century. And as long as we’re droning them, it gives everybody an excuse to hate us as the common enemy.
After this Charlie Hebdo thing, you saw a lot of Muslims stick their heads out and express their revulsion. You wonder if we hadn’t opened Guantánamo Bay after 9/11 and started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whether disaffected Muslims would have settled this differently. As long as our armed forces are in their countries and in their lives and killing them with drones, they don’t get to have this internecine warfare that intelligent observers agree they need to have. They need to take out their own trash.
By the way, does it hurt when the haters on Twitter and Facebook call you a bigot?
That’s why I don’t look at Twitter or Facebook anymore. Of course it upsets me. How could it not? If I say anything, people attack me. If I say, “Good morning,” they say, “How dare you say good morning. That was Reagan’s word. Morning in America! You don’t get to use that word, Bill Maher!” Anyway, be mad at the people who are perpetrating these acts of terrorism, not me. This just doesn’t happen with Episcopalians.
Are you ever afraid of violence personally? You’ve outraged a lot of people by speaking out.
I feel inoculated because I’ve dealt with this my whole career. I’ve been accused of being anti-Catholic, anti-women, anti-everybody. I’m not anti anybody. I’m pro the truth. And some people’s feathers get ruffled more than others’ by the truth. Everybody wants free speech except when it’s about them. For me, there are no waivers on free speech. It has to be across the board. I’m not afraid.
You own a gun, though.
Two guns. They’re for protection. We live in gun country, even in Los Angeles. I’m not expecting anything to happen, but I want to be ready for it. So I have a lot of security measures at my house. If somebody gets into my bedroom, wow, they really did a lot to get there. They got past gates, bodyguards, dogs. If I have to shoot somebody in my bedroom, that was a commando raid on par with the SEALs getting Bin Laden. My gun is my last line of defense.
It’s strange to think of you as a gun lover.
I do not love my gun. That’s the fucking problem with these Second Amendment people. They love guns. For them, it’s not just that guns should be available; it’s that they’re seen as awesome. They go into Chipotle with their rifles. They go on dates with their guns. They take selfies with their guns. They teach their kids to kill with them. They give them as gifts. It’s a sickness. It’s a fetish. I call them ammosexuals.
You’ve been mixing comedy and politics for more than 20 years. You launched the format that gave way to Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Stephen Colbert, among others. You should have patented the idea.
I don’t care about that. I didn’t invent the roundtable; I think King Arthur did that. But I did put my twist on it. What I think we deserve credit for was, in 1993, nobody wanted to touch politics as an entertainment vehicle. It was the ultimate poison. Trust me, the only reason Comedy Central put that show on the air was because they needed something; they had nothing and this cost $3, or whatever it cost them to pay me and push a piece of furniture into place. Everybody said, “Are you crazy? Politics? Are you kidding? We hate politics.”
Now you have 34 Emmy nominations, though you’ve never won for your show.
I think it’s because when you say things that are uncomfortable you make all sorts of enemies.
People in Hollywood don’t like you?
You never hear from the ones who don’t like you. The ones who come up to me are the ones who say thank you for speaking the truth—for me, that’s better than an Emmy. But it would be great to live in a world where you could tell the truth and also get invited to the White House and have all the politicians come on your show. The Clintons are still the big fish.
Jon Stewart is quitting The Daily Show. Colbert is taking over for David Letterman. Why have others burned out on this beat and you’re still going strong?
I don’t know that they burned out so much as wanted to try something new. It also might be that those are two very bright guys, and maybe the shows they were doing just weren’t challenging for them after a while. Mine is still an enormous challenge: I do an hour that’s live—live!—and goes from a stand-up comedy monologue to a serious newsmaker interview to a political panel discussion to a celebrity one-on-one interview, with no commercial breaks to reset. I don’t think there’s a workout like that anywhere else on TV, and if that doesn’t keep you engaged, nothing will. I get off on challenging the conventional wisdom, not just from the right but from the left as well. My entire youth I dreamed of nothing but being Johnny Carson, but that kind of show would drive me nuts now. Too easy. I like being on the high wire.
Do you watch network news?
I do watch network news, even though I’ve wanted to throw my shoe at the set for years now. When Brian Williams got suspended, we did a piece that started out “Brian Williams shouldn’t have to go away because he lied; he should have to go away because the nightly news sucks.��� I thought people would boo because it was so harsh, but they cheered forcefully—it really hit a chord. Of course I was talking about all three network newscasts, because they’re exactly the same. You get about five minutes at the top of actual news—unless it snowed anywhere near where they live on the East Coast, and then that’s the only thing happening in the world that day—before we’re into “Making a Difference” and the medical segment and then the human-interest nonsense at the end: the autistic kid making a three-pointer and such. ABC devoted only 13 minutes all of last year to climate change, NBC only 25 minutes—this is journalistic malpractice.
Let’s move on. Were you popular with girls growing up?
Oh God, no. I had a crappy adolescence with girls. Most people have fun with girls starting in high school and definitely in college. I didn’t get laid at all in college. Later, I made up for it. I did stuff people do in college when I was in my later 20s, 30s and probably 40s. I did some stupid things and said some stupid things, but it’s good to look back and be ashamed of yourself sometimes. It means you’re growing.
I dated a lot of girls, but I was never Wilt Chamberlain. Like, I always loved the Playboy parties, but if there were orgies going on, they weren’t inviting me. I wasn’t the guy in the Grotto. I never had sex in the Playboy Mansion. I wasn’t hanging out with Bill Cosby with his little vial of go-to-sleep juice. [laughs]
Did the Cosby scandal catch you by surprise, or had you heard rumors on the stand-up circuit?
I was not shocked. In the early to mid-1980s I did a movie—that was during my acting era. There was an attractive young black actress in the movie who told me she had just come off a film with Mr. Cosby, and she said, “He tried to fuck me the first two weeks, and when it became clear it wouldn’t happen he made every day thereafter a living hell.” I had no reason to doubt it. We had no relationship; she was just telling me. And that always stuck in my mind. Since this shit has come to light, you talk to people who have had dealings with Bill Cosby, and it comes out not that he drugged some girl but that he did some super fucked-up shit. He’s a crazy fucker, is what he is. What is it, 30 women accusing him now? He could turn out to be the biggest serial rapist in history. Also, I never thought he was funny.
Who is funny to you?
I love Jerry Seinfeld’s show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Leave it to Seinfeld to deconstruct the talk show and do it in a way we haven’t seen before. I did my first episode this spring. There’s lots of other good stuff. Veep is very funny. Mindy Kaling. Everything Key and Peele say is so spot-on. They’re the funniest laugh-out-loud comedians out there right now.
You continue to perform stand-up in towns around America. But why do a gig in, say, Macon, Georgia, when you could be kicking back on a beach somewhere?
It’s a strange obsession, but there’s nothing more fun than owning a room and making people laugh, if that’s in your DNA. I feel like I’m redeeming myself for all the years I did stand-up and didn’t enjoy it, because it was terrible at first.
It’s also my civic duty as a liberal. I tend to go to red states, and it gets liberals especially hyped up to find me there. They look around and see 3,000 people and say, “I’m not alone. I thought I was the only one.” Then again, in some places in the South, you wouldn’t even know it was the South. I was afraid to go to Alabama and Mississippi for a while, but have you seen Birmingham? They have Thai food and Pottery Barn and fancy coffee now.
Those sound like gateway drugs to legalized same-sex marriage.
[Laughs] Same-sex marriage has been sweeping across the land very quickly, that’s for sure. What is it—37 states right now? I think the Republicans will be thrilled when the Supreme Court takes that off their plates. America has moved past the point that it cares anymore. America progresses. That’s not to say we don’t have holdouts. Christians still talk about gay marriage as if it puts their marriages in danger. The gays are the enemy. Things are changing, whether these pious, self-righteous Christians like it or not.
The church is changing too, though you’ve given the pope mixed reviews.
Pope Frank has done a lot. He’s been a breath of fresh air on a lot of issues, and he’s been an old-school asshole on a bunch of them too. He’s a good politician. Every time he comes out with something progressive, he’ll come out with something completely backward. Like he just came out strongly in favor of exorcism to keep his base happy. He’s like, “You know what, I’ll throw them some red meat. It doesn’t hurt anybody. I’ll just say I’m for exorcism.” Oh, come on! You’re this sophisticated Argentinean. You know damn well the devil isn’t inside there. Do you really believe that shit, Frank?
You must be thrilled about the changing marijuana laws here in the U.S. Did you think we’d actually be legalizing pot across the country?
[Laughs] I’ve been on the front lines of that fight for a long time. It’s amazing how things have shifted. People used to say, “Aren’t you worried you’ll be arrested for saying you’re going to smoke after the show?” They were honestly living in fear for me. And now the idea that you could be arrested. In Los Angeles! It’s de facto legal in California.
How has the quality of weed improved?
When you’ve been smoking pot for 40 years, none of it works great. I don’t smoke that much—just enough to make me high. But it must be getting better, because once in a while I’ll smoke with some newbie and they’ll be bouncing off the walls, saying how amaaaaaazing the pot is.
The pot experience is improving somewhat. I now get pot with a card, which is better than the old way, when you had to make conversation with your dirtbag drug dealer, but still sort of ridiculous in a free society. Now I can get it if I go to a “doctor” and get a “prescription” that says I have a “disease.” But this is really just “don’t ask, don’t tell” for pot. It creates a culture of dishonesty and gives a bad name to people like me who genuinely suffer from whatever it is I told them I had. [laughs]
Who’s your favorite guest?
Oh, I never answer that question, but okay. Salman Rushdie. I feel he is the epitome of what my show was supposed to be about from the beginning. He’s a witty public intellectual. Unafraid, he’s great on every topic. He’s the perfect mix of intelligence and witty repartee. It’s a shame we don’t have more people in America like that. Again, I suppose people are spending too much time on Instagram and porn.
Speaking of porn, any opinion on what it means that every pubescent kid with his mother’s phone now has access to a limitless video library of outrageous sex?
I know. It must be strange and a little confusing to be a teenager now. My introduction to sexuality was Playboy and the magazines I would spirit away when I was babysitting. When I was 12 to 14, the dad at the house would have a stack of Playboys and we would steal them and bury them in the woods, dig them up later and look at them. We liked to look at boobies. Was that such a terrible thing? And by the way, as we got older, we’d read about the issues of the day. It’s amazing to me. Even at this point you sometimes have to defend Hugh Hefner to people who think he’s a pornographer. I go, “Really? Have you seen the magazine?” He’s been on the forefront of so many issues and really stuck his neck out on feminism, civil rights, free speech, gay rights.
Today, the stuff kids have access to is fucking unbelievable. The idea that you can sit in the backseat on the way to school with an iPhone and watch six Japanese businessmen coming on the face of a girl who has a squid up her vagina—I mean, Jesus! These kids must be so jaded. We should be afraid. What does it do to relationships, how you relate to a girl? That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have watched that stuff if it was around when I was a kid.
When did you first know you were a comedian?
I remember making my relatives laugh at a Christmas party when I was six or seven by doing an impression of Tommy Smothers from the Smothers Brothers. By high school I was already years into plotting to be a comedian. After taping Johnny Carson’s “Tea Time” movie sketches with my little Wollensak tape recorder, I would transcribe them word for word. I still have them, in pencil on loose-leaf paper. Later, I lifted material from Johnny when I emceed something called “The Pop Show” as a senior, my first hosting experience—and the last the school would see of “The Pop Show,” since many parents were upset with some of the jokes. I did not, at 17, realize Carson’s late-night humor was inappropriate for introducing teenage girls whose parents were in the audience. I remember doing the lines “She’s going to do the Dance of the Virgins—which she performs from memory” and “She squeezed a lemon into a man’s drink with her knees.”
That’s talent. Now she’d probably do something with a selfie stick.
I’m all for selfies or whatever will get people to stop asking for pictures with me. My life got a lot better when I learned to politely say no to that. It always seems like it should take just a few seconds, and it never does. I like to look people in the eye, say, “Sorry, no pictures, but how about a handshake and let’s live in the moment.” I’ve almost never had anyone who was too disappointed by that and many who were happy to be reminded that there’s such a thing as the present.
You’ve done very well for yourself. Do you overspend on anything?
Not really. I don’t have any expensive hobbies. I don’t collect cars or motorcycles. The last big thing I bought was a piece of the Mets. That didn’t come cheap, but I think it’s the best investment in the world. Nothing goes up like sports teams. They never go down. Every time they sell a team, the sellers come with a number and the buyers pay more. They sold the Dodgers for more than $2 billion. If the Dodgers are worth $2 billion, I can’t imagine what the Mets are worth. The Yankees are worth at least $5 billion, and George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973 for $10 million. I read in the paper about the Mets being for sale, and I jumped on it. I’m not sure why more people didn’t do it. [laughs] And when the Mets make it to the World Series this coming season, of course I’ll have box seats for that.
You’re also on the board of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but you still eat meat.
True, but I don’t eat a lot of meat, and I don’t have to be in lockstep with everything PETA says. PETA stands for the ethical treatment of animals, and I believe in that. Trust me, I eat only chickens that have died after a long illness after resting comfortably at Cedars-Sinai. [laughs] I’m actually concerned about what people put into their bodies. Doctors never ask what we eat. The top prescription drugs are digestive aids to put out the fire in our gut. One reason we have such an insanely high national health care bill is we make ourselves sick by eating shit.
You’ve said the same thing about vaccines. Now that measles is making a comeback, are you changing your anti-vaccine stance?
I’ve never argued that vaccines don’t work. I just don’t think you need them. There are so many maladies now that used to be rare and now are much more prevalent—things like allergies, ADD, asthma, migraines, autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, colitis, more colds. I’m not saying vaccines cause any of them, but the modern immune system might be less robust than it used to be because it doesn’t get its full workout going through a disease like the measles. And that combined with environmental factors—pollution and pesticides and eating tons of sugar and crap and God knows what else in the modern world—might be something to look into. We compartmentalize and study pieces sometimes but not the whole. I’m glad vaccines exist, just like I’m glad antibiotics exist, but we’ve abused the hell out of them. Bugs that no antibiotic works on anymore? I worry about that a lot more.
What if you’re wrong? What if terrible, preventable diseases spread because people reject rational science and choose not to immunize their kids?
I’m a rationalist too, and I’m rational about the fact that science doesn’t always add up. They now recommend about 70 shots, plus flu shots, by the age of 18—triple what it was in 1983. Is any number okay? Many vaccines are given simultaneously, sometimes as many as 10 shots per visit, and studies have yet to evaluate such simultaneous shots. Also, a large long-term study comparing the long-term health outcomes of vaccinated and unvaccinated groups of people has never been done. Plus, they’re often ineffective. This last flu shot was only 23 percent effective. So then it’s bullshit. It’s a moneymaking scam for big pharma.
What would shock us about you if the North Koreans hacked into your computer?
Nothing. First of all, they wouldn’t find any incriminating e-mails. I’ve always been paranoid about that. Don’t put anything in an e-mail that you don’t want everybody to see. But I also have several computers: one that I write on, one I send e-mail on. I would never write anything private on something that’s plugged into the real world. Plus, I keep the important stuff in fireproof cabinets—very top of the line. It’s where I store everything: years of jokes and writing, letters, my old baseball card collection, my Beatles wig, the German bayonet my mother brought home from World War II that I wanted so badly and she gave me when I was 13.
You’ve never been married, never had kids. Do you ever wish there were a little Billy Maher around?
No. One of the great things about being my age is that fatherhood is off the table. Oh, you can do it, but I don’t think it’s morally right. You won’t be around. Or if you are around, do you really want to be at the kid’s high school graduation when you’re 80? You also have to feel it. You have to be able to trade your life for your kids. Anything short of that is selfish and a disservice to the child. If you don’t want to do that, don’t make the child suffer with a half-there, half-assed parent, which is what I’d be. I like my life. I don’t want to trade it for anything.
You’ve said you don’t believe in heaven or hell, but do you have any quick ideas for your tombstone?
Yeah. “What Was That All About?” [laughs] I certainly don’t want to be buried. Burn me, cremate me. I don’t want to be worm food or get eaten by maggots. But more than that, I don’t want to fucking die. I want Ray Kurzweil to come up with the singularity in the next 20 or 30 years before I go so I can keep going. I don’t understand these people who say they don’t want to live forever. I don’t want to go! Being dead does not sound like that much fun, and right now I’m having a great time.