Playboy: Have we heard the last from Karl Rove?
Maher: I don't know if people in the party blame him for that election. I think they blame Bush. Rove has proved he could win with a weak hand, but this was pretty much the weakest hand anyone had ever been asked to play in modern politics. Add up the war, Hurricane Katrina, Mark Foley, the debt--there was very little he could run on. Mostly, Bush lost the war. Mr. Kick Ass and Take Names lost. I'm sure Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he never learned about Iraq. Everybody in this country thinks praying is great, which to me is childish. But even if it isn't, it doesn't replace knowledge. [impersonating Bush] "Saddam bad. Freedom good." Well, the Iraqis saw something else. Sunnis out, Shiites in. In most of the Muslim world, Shiites are close to apostates. In the minds of most Muslims, it was impossible to imagine Shiites in power. That's what threatens them now. They see America enabling this impossible event. We went into their country without knowing anything about them. Half the people they originally got to go over there thought, We've sprinkled the freedom dust on them, and now everything's going to be cool. We don't need troops; we don't need a plan. Another problem is something we seem never to learn: You can't just instill democracy. You can't just graft it onto a society that has no institutions of public law. As I said, Saddam was a secularist. Now we have these crazy fundamentalists warring--a model democracy.
Playboy: How many of the problems in the Middle East are due to religious fundamentalism?
Maher: Religious fundamentalism is the root of problems everywhere. I could just as easily go on about the crazy Christian God-hates-fags types who have killed abortion doctors. I don't know if any religion has the monopoly on crazy factions. I've been brushing up on my Eastern religions, and they're crazy too. Their big superiority is supposed to be that they're peaceful, but Japan was Buddhist before World War II, and that didn't stop it from raping Nanking and bombing Pearl Harbor. People use religion to justify what they want to do. Some Mormons use biblical passages to justify the genocide of the Indians, as well as their longtime prejudice against blacks.
Playboy: Your views about religion have gotten you into trouble.
Maher: Like the old saying goes, the two things you shouldn't talk about in a polite dinner conversation are politics and religion--the two things I love to talk about. [laughs] At my dinner parties we talk about them.
Playboy: Have you been affected by religious organizations' angry reactions to you?
Maher: When ABC canned me for my 9/11 comments, a lot of it was because of what I had said about religion.
Playboy: But your show was canceled not because of anything you had said about religion but your comment that the U.S., not the terrorists, was cowardly.
Maher: A Houston disc jockey started all the mob action against me, but he had been trying to get me fired for 10 years because of my position on religion.
Playboy: Do you regret your remarks?
Maher: I was sorry it upset people at a time when they were traumatized anyway, but what I said wasn't wrong. Listen, after 9/11 Bush said the terrorists win unless we continue to do exactly what we've been doing. So go shop. Go back to work. Well, I went back to work. I was host of a show called Politically Incorrect, which prided itself on pulling no punches and saying the truth. The terrorists did not win with me.
Playboy: Did the reaction surprise you?
Maher: Oh my God. I don't think most people, even people in show business, will ever know what it feels like when that super-white-hot light gets turned right onto you in a negative way. I thought I was headed to Abu Ghraib. I was afraid to go out. I thought people were going to punch me or something. It was as though all of America was enraged about what had happened to us, but because the enemy was amorphous, people had nothing to turn their rage on until I stepped up. I provided a service for America. I gave people a target for their rage for a while. You're welcome, America.
Playboy: Were the sponsors who pulled out offended or just succumbing to your critics' reaction?
Maher: They reacted to money. They got letters saying, "We will boycott your product if you advertise on this show."
Playboy: Did you worry that the damage was irreparable?
Maher: At first, yes, absolutely.
Playboy: You have been at the heart of many controversies. Have any of the others compared?
Maher: No. None. And nothing ever will, which is kind of good. It's as if I've been inoculated. I know what it feels like to have people try to make me disappear.
Playboy: After that experience, were you bothered by the flak about your Halloween costume of Steve Irwin pierced by a stingray?
Maher: I didn't even flinch. I defend that, by the way. If you get killed by an animal, it means you were doing something to an animal that you shouldn't have been doing. Steve Irwin loved animals the way child molesters love children. They really do love them, but they also go too far.
Playboy: Who will you dress up as next Halloween?
Maher: I'll have to see what tragedy has struck the heart of most Americans. That's what Halloween is for. I don't understand why people don't get that.
Playboy: Clearly your political incorrectness still pushes many people's buttons.
Maher: Yes, America is still a place that wants to make people disappear if they make someone the least bit uncomfortable. What 9/11 should have done was toughen America up, but it didn't. We just absorbed it into our vast web of narcissism and general softness. I see things all the time that offend me or that I don't like. I turn the page or change the channel. I don't need to hear an apology. I'm like, "What an asshole. Fuck you. Next." But instead, I dress up like the Crocodile Hunter and people want me to apologize. At least I piss off Democrats as well as Republicans. I'm bipartisan.