"I don't believe life is necessarily precious, I don't believe everything happens for a reason, and I don't think people necessarily have goodness in them. Life is precious? It can be. It can also be a waste of protoplasm."
"I can probably come across as bullying--especially since it's my show and I have home-court advantage. I should watch that. The real bullies are O'Reilly and Hannity, though. They never let you finish a sentence."
"Barack Obama is exciting. Everyone says he's a rock star, which is one of the most overused phrases these days; everybody's a rock star. You know what? If you're not getting blown after the event, you're not a rock star."
In an age when millions of Americans turn to late-night TV and YouTube videos for satiric commentary on the day's news, Bill Maher is, as he has put it himself, the godfather of political humor.
An "acid-tongued comedian" and "one of the establishment's most entertaining critics," according to The New York Times, Maher sends up the nation's movers and shakers on his HBO hit, Real Time With Bill Maher, a freewheeling and funny roundtable discussion of national and global issues. His guests have included George Clooney, Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Robin Williams, Drew Barrymore, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, General Wesley Clark, Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan, Ben Affleck, John Edwards and George Carlin.
On the show, which has received multiple Emmy nominations, Maher has continually attacked George W. Bush--calling the president "a catastrophe that walks like a man" and the "retarded child emperor"--and criticized the war in Iraq. But Maher is no knee-jerk liberal. He is pro-death penalty and pro-Israel, supports a powerful military and has strongly libertarian views on sex and drugs. For Maher there are no sacred cows. This past Halloween he angered the entire continent of Australia by dressing up as TV's Steve Irwin just weeks after a stingray fatally speared the Crocodile Hunter. More recently Maher was embroiled in controversy when he outed Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, as a homosexual; Mehlman later quit his job. Christian groups also frequently assail Maher for his cracks about religion, which he calls stupid and dangerous.
None of these storms compare to the hurricane generated by one of his comments following the 9/11 attacks. The president had called the terrorists cowards, prompting Maher to respond on his late-night ABC talk show, Politically Incorrect, "Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away--that's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building--say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Maher was denounced by the White House and vilified by the media. Advertisers such as Sears and FedEx pulled their ads from the show, and it was soon canceled. Many people assumed it marked the end of Maher'scareer, but they were wrong. Six days after the cancellation, he received an award from the Los Angeles Press Club for championing free speech, followed by a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award. In 2003 he returned to television with his smarter, funnier, hipper and, thanks to HBO, uncensored new show.
Besides working in television, Maher, 51, has written a number of books, including When You Ride Alone You Ride With Bin Laden, New Rules and Does Anybody Have a Problem With That? He was also one of the first TV stars to have a regular Internet show, on Amazon.com, and his blog appears on The Huffington Post. He is currently producing and directing a documentary about religion.
After the 2006 election, as Republicans lost control of the House and Senate, we decided to track Maher down for his second Playboy Interview. Contributing Editor David Sheff, who interviewed the comedian a decade ago, traveled to Los Angeles for the follow-up. Sheff reports, "Maher hasn't mellowed. On the contrary, he is more emphatic and confident--and funnier. The sessions, which took place at an L.A. hotel (Sylvester Stallone was hanging around) and at Maher's Beverly Hills home (yes, there is a stripper's pole in the club room), began at two P.M., which is early morning for him. He started off sleepily but quickly warmed to the subjects at hand, including the war in Iraq, past and upcoming elections, and the Hollywood trend of starlets eschewing underwear."
Playboy: After the Democratic upset in the midterm election and with a year and a half left for the Bush administration, are you feeling more optimistic about the country's direction?
Maher: Are you kidding? It's a disaster. Unmitigated. Every day we're killing more American soldiers for an immoral and unwinnable war based on lies. We're killing innocent Iraqis. The environment is disintegrating. It's one debacle after the next. Much of the rest of the world loathes us. We're infinitely less safe than we were before 9/11. Other than that, everything's great.
Playboy: President Bush may disagree. He maintains the world is safer now.
Maher: The world is not safer. We took Saddam Hussein out, but the idea that he was in league with Osama bin Laden was a direct lie, a bigger lie than the weapons of mass destruction. Being a power-hungry dictator, Hussein would never have given somebody a nuclear weapon, especially someone like Bin Laden, who hated him because he was a secularist. Even three years ago the world wasn't safer because we'd gone into Iraq. Now even Iraq isn't safer. We want to keep Muslim extremists who hate Americans from coming here and hurting us, so what do we do? We go into the heart of the Muslim world and start this cockfight. Muslims around the world do not look at our invasion of Iraq as an attempt to install democracy and freedom. They're far more cynical, and they have reason to be. America has meddled in foreign affairs many times, usually for its own self-interest. We meddled in Iraq in 1963 under Kennedy and put a young assassin named Saddam Hussein on the case of killing its leader. We abandoned the Kurds in 1991. When Bush's father encouraged the Shiites to rise against Hussein, we pulled a Bay of Pigs and didn't show up; they were massacred. In their view we went in for oil and perhaps just to fuck with Muslims. There will be angry Muslims for generations. To those on the right who say Muslims hated us anyway, yes, a certain number of them did. But I don't see how taking that hate and raising it from a simmer to a boil has helped matters. We were having a picnic and a couple of hornets were stinging us, so we went over and hit the nest with a stick. Exactly how is the world safer?
Playboy: What would you have the U.S. do at this point?
Maher: Get out of Iraq. Having troops and bases in the heart of the Muslim world is a thorn in the side of the people who live there. Throughout the region, we are building giant bases with Pizza Huts and car dealerships, stuff that goes over really well in that part of the world. Next there will be a Spearmint Rhino gentlemen's club.
Playboy: If we pull out, there will likely be increased chaos and slaughter.
Maher: The sooner we get out, the sooner it will end. Turkey will come in? Iran will come in? Maybe, maybe not. It's Allah's will. Who knows? Maybe it will shake out in a not so horrible way. The country of Iraq has existed only since 1932. It's seven years younger than Paul Newman. So what if it breaks apart into three countries? It's not worth one more dead American to uphold a line on a map that Winston Churchill drew, probably when he was drunk. We disbanded the Iraqi army, which was not a great idea because now there's a group of Sunnis who know how to use weapons, have no future and have reason to hate us because we put the Shiites in power. We created a massive insurgent guerrilla army. We painted ourselves into a corner, and Bush still doesn't get it. The Iraq that was is gone and will never rise again. It has already partitioned itself into three countries: Kurdistan is completely autonomous in the north, the Shiite southern part is a theocracy mostly allied with Iran, and the middle is a mess. The Sunnis are still trying to hold on. They're never going to put it back together again. When we went in, we were told Iraqis would throw flowers at us. Anyone who was of a mind to throw flowers is either dead or gone. Moderate Iraq doesn't exist anymore.
Playboy: Did the 2006 election vindicate your views on Iraq?
Maher: It was a breath of fresh air. Democrats may differ from Republicans only in that they are bought off by a slightly less scary group of special interests, but at this point a slightly less scary group looks pretty good.
Playboy: What will a Democratic Congress do better?
Maher: Put pressure on the administration to end the war. Barbara Boxer said she's going to hold hearings on global warming. With scientists! In America! Wow. Bush's theory is we should teach intelligent design along with creationism--treat stupidity as if it's a competing school of thought. In addition, in medical school, along with what ob-gyns normally learn, we're going to teach that storks bring babies.
Playboy: You once said that if we get any stupider about science, soon we won't even be able to make our own crystal meth.
Maher: Look at our leader. He doesn't believe in evolution. I'm embarrassed by the cretins who have taken over. Luckily they're on the way out. In the next election, even if the Republicans win the presidency, at least it won't be Bush.
Playboy: What Democratic candidate would you support?
Maher: Barack Obama is exciting. Everyone says he's a rock star, which is one of the most overused phrases these days; everybody's a rock star. You know what? If you're not getting blown after the event, you're not a rock star. But okay, Obama is a rock star. Fine, if that's what it takes. He seems articulate and serious and thoughtful and electable.
Playboy: Some people say he's inexperienced and unprepared to be president.
Maher: Bush was woefully unprepared. It obviously doesn't prevent Americans from voting for you. If Obama wants it, he's one of the Democrats' most viable candidates. John Edwards too. In America you can't get elected president unless you can pronounce all four e's in the word shit. Clinton, Carter and Bush could. Edwards can.
Playboy: Can you?
Playboy: You'd be a great candidate.
Maher: Yeah, right. I think religion is bad and drugs are good. You want to be my campaign manager?
Playboy: Sure. We like a challenge, especially when dealing with your checkered past.
Maher: Who has more of a checkered past than Bush? He was a drunk until he was 40. He wouldn't answer the cocaine question, which was a way of saying, "Yeah, I did it, and go fuck yourself." That's one of the few things I admire him for. He basically said, "I was a sinner, and now I'm not." Americans love that. What they don't like is when you get blown in office.
Playboy: Speaking of Bill Clinton, you have said he should be allowed to run again.
Maher: In a democracy, the people should be able to elect whomever they want. It's not a very clever tribe of Indians that prevents its greatest warriors from taking the field of battle.
Playboy: The Constitution would have to be changed for him to do so.
Maher: We'll change it so both he and Arnold Schwarzenegger can run. Can you imagine the interest if Clinton ran against Schwarzenegger? The debate could be on pay-per-view.
Playboy: Would you support Clinton?
Maher: Sure. He has a reputation as a party animal because of the Monica Lewinsky situation, but basically he's a wonk. He can do Monica and run the country. He's a multitasker. If he had been president when Katrina hit, he would have been in New Orleans three days before the storm. He wouldn't have slept. Yes, he would have been getting blown--come on, Slick Willie in the Big Easy? He would have had some excellent étouffée. But he would have been working the whole time. I think the country has learned a lesson: If he can do the job, let the guy be who he is. People don't care about sex.