Playboy: They cared about Mark Foley.
Maher: Monica Lewinsky was an adult. Foley went after boys. Actually, I wasn't terribly taken aback by Foley. He was like a college professor, in a job where every year there's a new wave of fresh meat. He would look over the field and decide. He probably had pretty good radar to know which kids were amenable. From the evidence we have, he tried to do something only after they were out of the page program. If a 19-year-old gay kid wants to go out with an older guy, why not? The guys his own age are probably dumb doofuses.
Playboy: But even after leaving their jobs as pages, they were far younger than Foley.
Maher: Look, I'm a 51-year-old man, and I go out with girls in their early 20s. I'd be hypocritical if I said it's ridiculous for a gay man to do that. I'm very libertarian about love. I'm the only guy I've ever heard who defends Mary Kay Letourneau.
Playboy: Are you saying teachers should be allowed to have sex with their 13-year-old students, as she did, and not go to jail?
Maher: I think it's a little offbeat, but you know, I believe in the double standard. If a 28-year-old male teacher is screwing a 13-year-old girl, that's a crime. But with Debra Lafave [another teacher who had sex with a student] screwing her 14-year-old boy student, the crime is that we didn't get it on videotape. Was he being taken advantage of? I wish I had been taken advantage of like that. What a memory she gave him! I would think he's a champion among his friends. Are you kidding? Even with Michael Jackson----
Playboy: Are you defending him, too?
Maher: I'm not defending him, but I do believe his case has a nuance that makes it different from other child molestation cases--not that I'm saying he necessarily did it, but come on. Jackson's worst accusers never said he did anything brutal, like bend them over a table and ram them--you know, like a priest. The worst they said he did was a little grabby-grabby under the covers. Don't get me wrong. It's a crime. You shouldn't be able to grab a kid that age, but when I heard about it, all I could think of was my being brutally beaten up on the playground when I was 12--a kid punching me in the face while another held me down. If I could go back and trade that experience for being gently masturbated by a pop star, I would do it in a New York second. Frankie Valli could jerk me off. Bobby Sherman could. Marvin Gaye could.
Playboy: You're being remarkably open-minded.
Maher: Woody Allen is the one we might have been wrong about. I was pretty hard on him on my show, but how many years has his relationship continued? Maybe that, like Letourneau's, was true love. If you look at him or Letourneau, who is still with the guy after her time in jail--they have two kids--the lesson is love will take the form it's going to take. Sometimes it's at great variance with the mainstream. I don't think teachers should be allowed to do that. I think they should be fired. But to send that woman to jail and separate them all those years?
Playboy: You may think Clinton's or even Foley's personal life is irrelevant, but you apparently draw the line in some cases, such as when you outed Ken Mehlman, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Maher: I didn't know I was outing him. My bad.
Playboy: How could you not have known?
Maher: I guess I'm in a bit of a news junkie bubble. For years everyone talked about him as if it was known he was gay. The truth is I don't know. I never dated the guy.
Playboy: Are you apologizing?
Maher: If I disrupted anybody's life, I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't have said it. I'm not an outer. I don't believe in outing. I mentioned Mehlman because I had a joke about him. I didn't mean to out him.
Playboy: Were you surprised when CNN cut your comments about Mehlman and had YouTube remove the clip from its website? Also, The New York Times wrote about the incident but didn't print Mehlman's name.
Maher: I was surprised because I didn't think I was doing anything out of school.
Playboy: Do you make an exception to your feelings about outing if the closeted gay man espouses traditional family values, demonizes gays and pushes antigay legislation?
Maher: I don't. For years it was an inside joke about Mehlman, but do I really know? Everybody talks about everybody. Rosie O'Donnell said Oprah is "a little bit gay." I'd never heard that before. Everybody makes Tom Cruise gay jokes now. I don't know if that's true, either.
Playboy: You called Katie Holmes Tom Cruise's beard.
Maher: Yeah. There are something like 25 celebrity fragrances now, so on the show we made up fragrances by other celebrities. Tom Cruise's was called Bat Shit--the fragrance to use on your beard.
Playboy: As a comedian, do you rub your hands together when you wake up to news about the misadventures of celebrities like Cruise and Mel Gibson?
Maher: It's gold.
Playboy: What was your opinion of Gibson's arrest and outburst?
Maher: When you say things when you're drunk, it's not the liquor talking. The liquor makes you more honest. He's a bright, talented guy and a despicable anti-Semite. All those people live by the press, then they're surprised when they die by the press. At least Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are clever enough to take a page out of the old John and Yoko book and say, "If you're going to photograph everything we do, we're going to use that for good. You'll have to photograph starving children and AIDS in Africa." I admire them for doing that.
Playboy: Who are your favorite celebrities to make fun of?
Maher: We don't usually talk about celebrities much, but occasionally in the monologue we mention the brat patrol--the Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan contingent. I feel no guilt about whatever joke we do, because these people exist only to be made fun of. They don't otherwise contribute. I guess Lindsay Lohan is an actress, but Britney Spears doesn't seem to have a career anymore except as tabloid fodder.
Playboy: That group is continually photographed without underwear. What do you make of the trend?
Maher: I would never discourage it. Girls not wearing underwear is a wonderful thing.
Playboy: Have any of those girls been on your show?
Maher: Are you kidding? I don't know what we'd talk about. Paris Hilton is an amazing phenomenon, though. Did you notice that the second Britney Spears was free of her husband, she came under Paris's spell? Paris is the head-honcho cheerleader who decides who's cool and who's in her group. You can make fun of her, and I of course enjoy doing so quite often, but you have to give her her due. Somehow she is the head bitch in the high school of America.
Playboy: What is it about her?
Maher: I think it's confidence. She's a rich kid. I compare her to George W. Bush, a rich kid who really didn't accomplish anything but had the confidence rich kids often have--an attitude that the world should come to them because it always has. It's very attractive to a nation of followers. Britney Spears, who nominally should be the leader of the pack--she actually had a career, has sold millions of dollars' worth of records--and Lindsay Lohan, an actress who does movies, understand who the boss is: Paris Hilton. It's because she does what the Democrats don't do and the Republicans have consistently done. They let the country come to them. By standing their ground and standing by their principles, they have successfully moved the country way, way to the right. When Barry Goldwater ran in 1964, he lost by a landslide, but they didn't care. Ronald Reagan was a laugh-out-loud joke when he first ran for president, in 1968. But he stood by what he thought was right and true, and the country came to him.
Playboy: Why do Americans find that appealing?
Maher: Most people in this country want to follow. They want to be told what to think. It's an attribute that has served Bush well, too. He seems resolute. He seems as if he knows what he thinks. People like it when he says, "I don't follow the polls." To them it says leadership. Of course they forgot that his ideas are stupid and he's a moron. Finally they woke up to that in 2006. Resolute became stubborn. But by standing their ground, Republicans brought the country way to the right. It's why you had John Kerry closing out the election in a goose hunting outfit and why Hillary Clinton talks about a flag-burning amendment. Hillary Clinton, valedictorian at Wellesley, doesn't think we should be able to burn the flag? That's hard for me to believe. But they have put the idea into the Democrats' heads that to win you better move closer to where they are. As a result, nobody in Washington is suggesting programs and policies I would consider left-wing. Nancy Pelosi is not going to say we should legalize drugs. She's not for socialized medicine. She's not for a gasoline tax. Part of the genius of Karl Rove and the far right is they have convinced the rest of America that the center is way over to the right. It's one reason so many people don't vote. In the 2004 election 78 million people who could have voted did not. My guess is most of those 78 million would have voted liberal. Meanwhile conservatives vote. They're organized. They're squares. They get up in the morning.
Playboy: As opposed to...?
Maher: Us. We're sleeping it off from last night's clubs. If there were a draft and the Supreme Court outlawed abortion, you might see liberals set the alarm clock that Tuesday.
Playboy: Did the most recent election indicate that the religious right has been discredited?
Maher: No. From what I read they came out in about the same numbers as previous elections. This time, however, independents who were energized by Republican ineptitude outvoted them. The religious right is still there. The election just taught us that there is a counterweight to it.
Playboy: Do you agree that the election was a referendum on the war?
Maher: Mostly on the war but also on corruption. Also it was about Bush giving most of the treasury to his rich friends. People finally realized our money could be going to better things than Paris Hilton so she can gargle with diamonds after she blows a guy. The Democrats won this time only because people were fed up. The challenge now is for Democrats to see if they can win an election when the other party has not completely disgraced itself in every conceivable manner.
Playboy: People have said the results might have been different had Donald Rumsfeld been fired before the election rather than after. Do you agree?
Maher: People were looking for the president to make a change, to show he could be flexible. Rumsfeld was the face of a failed program. Bush had done nothing but stand by him. In fact, the week before the election he said Rumsfeld was going to be there until the end of his term. I think people just rolled their eyes at that. It was a political blunder.