Playboy: Are you a registered Democrat?
Maher: I'm an independent.
Playboy: In 2000 you supported Nader. Many people blame his supporters for getting Bush elected.
Maher: In 2000 a lot of us supported Nader. He represented more of what we were thinking. He still does, but in 2004 we felt it would be better to go the practical route, and this Kerry fellow was a decent man who had a chance of winning. We got fucked both ways.
Playboy: Will an independent candidate ever have a chance of winning?
Maher: No. It's ironic. This is a country that insists on 28 flavors of ice cream. You go down the aisle in the supermarket: Do you want Pellegrino or still water? Lemon? I'm just trying to get some fucking water, and there's a questionnaire I have to fill out. Christ, I don't care. I'll die of thirst before I get it. But somehow in politics it's always the same two choices.
Playboy: One issue on which you and the left disagree is the death penalty. You support it. Why?
Maher: 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. Most people in this country believe those three things. Life is precious? It can be. It can also be a waste of protoplasm. I certainly don't think everything happens for a reason.
Playboy: At least you're consistent. You support abortion, which some people also believe is killing.
Maher: I'm like the antipope. The pope is very consistent about life: Don't fuck with it. I'm that way about death. I'm pro-death. I'm for the death penalty. I'm pro-choice. I'm pro-assisted suicide, and I'm pro-regular suicide. Whatever gets the freeway moving.
Playboy: How about some other issues. What's your view of the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko? Do you think Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind it?
Maher: Would it surprise you if ex-KGB Putin did that? It was priceless when Bush said, "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." I looked into his eyes and saw Satan. Bush's idiocy is amazing. How embarrassing. Like the G8 summit--a graphic illustration of a clown on the world stage. He and Laura arrived like the Duke and Duchess of Hazzard. He was spitting food, grabbing the German chancellor. When he called to the British prime minister, "Yo, Blair," even Fox News had to gasp.
Playboy: How important a force is Fox News?
Maher: It's peaked. And I think the ratings back that up. The American public has caught on, just the way it caught on to the Bush administration. "Oh, just because they're saying it on TV doesn't mean it's not complete bullshit." Now everyone knows it's not really a news organization.
Playboy: But Fox has a sizeable audience.
Maher: A loyal audience not interested in the truth. For Fox, "fair and balanced" means all the news that's shit we print. The audience turns to Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and hears one side.
Playboy: On your side, many liberals turn to comedians: you, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
Maher: We mostly preach to the converted, though on my show we try to mix it up.
Playboy: You have claimed to be the godfather of political humor. Are you proud to have Stewart and Colbert as progeny?
Maher: Absolutely. They're good at what they do.
Playboy: The New Yorker once called you a brainy bully. Are you?
Maher: Yeah, I guess. I can get overexcited. Sometimes I don't realize I'm being as impassioned as I am, and that 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.
Playboy: Where do you get your news?
Maher: I read The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the newsmagazines.
Playboy: Any blogs?
Maher: I go to The Huffington Post. I watch the evening news--all three networks. I flip between the three newscasts, but all you get is about six or seven minutes of news and then segments like "Your Money," "Focus on the Family" and "How to Carve a Pumpkin."
Playboy: How has the Internet changed politics?
Maher: It's a bathroom wall. You can read great wisdom on a bathroom wall, and you can read, "Here I sit brokenhearted. Something, something and only farted."
Playboy: Growing up, did you read the newspaper and watch TV news?
Maher: Much more so than in the normal American family, because my father was in news as a radio staff announcer and then an editor. I can be a silly comedian one minute and then talk to Madeleine Albright the next because I've been reading the paper for 36 years. We had a Republican operative on one of our shows--I won't say who. Afterward we were discussing whether the Democrats would try to impeach Bush. I said, "I think what's impeachable is the fact that he went to war in Iraq without knowing Islam is divided between Sunnis and Shiites." This person said, "Well, five years ago did you?" Yes, I did. It's something you learn from reading the newspapers starting at 15. The people in this administration, however, know only that freedom's good and the other guys are bad.
Playboy: How did having a Jewish mother and a Catholic father impact your life?
Maher: My mother's Jewish, but I was raised very much a Catholic.
Playboy: Were you a believer?
Maher: Kids always buy everything. They have no power to resist. It's a form of child abuse. When kids are abused, very often they don't say much because they just figure, Oh well, that's what creepy uncles do. They touch you. I was traumatized even though I wasn't abused by a priest--and I'm a little insulted, because I was cute. Maybe I was just too sensitive as a kid, but I always dreaded going to church. The nuns would scare the hell out of you. I was slumping over once, and a nun said, "The boy who's slumping is going to go to hell." When you're a little kid, you take that seriously. One of the main differences with Eastern religions is that you get more than one shot. You can come back. In Western religions, you're up to the plate once, and you'd better fucking get a hit or you're going to burn in hell forever.
Playboy: Between your Jewish mom and Catholic dad, you must be very experienced with guilt.
Maher: On my first Tonight Show I said I was half Jewish and half Catholic, so I used to bring a lawyer into confession. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I think you know Mr. Cohen." Johnny Carson loved that.
Playboy: In clips from those early days, you have a mullet. Does that embarrass you now?
Maher: Hair was pretty awful in the 1980s. There was something in the water. It wasn't really a mullet, though. I had a big squirrel on my shoulder from this giant flock of hair behind my ear.
Playboy: Now you have a stripper's pole in your home. Has anyone famous used it well?
Maher: It's amazing the way a woman of a certain age cannot pass a stripper's pole without at least wanting to try it. It's like a man picking up a baseball bat. You just want to take a few cuts.
Playboy: Has Paris Hilton tried it?
Maher: No, but if she ever comes over, she would be more than welcome.
Playboy: At the age of 51 are you a confirmed bachelor?
Maher: I know I have that reputation. Marriage never called to me, but I understand it works for a lot of people. You're a different person every decade. I don't know what's going to happen now that I'm 51.
Playboy: You're not pretty much the same guy you were when you were younger?
Maher: In my 20s I was a loser. High school, college--not much. I didn't have the college experience we see on MTV. I went to Cornell. There weren't very many girls, the ones who were there weren't very cute, and I wasn't very good at getting girls. I was in New York in my early 20s and was desperately poor trying to be a comedian. That formula didn't make me a big player. I lived in a horrible roach-infested studio over a bus stop on Eighth Avenue. I came out here to L.A. when I was 27. I felt as though I'd found paradise, because I lived in a nicer place for the same amount of money. I had a little car. I had just enough to be dangerous. That was the era of girlfriends--steady girlfriends, one at a time, some more serious than others. I had a very serious relationship in my mid-30s. When I got out of that I became a real bachelor, a player. I had a good time in my 40s. I had learned a lot about women by then.
Playboy: What did you learn?
Maher: To talk to them as you would talk to anyone you aren't trying to fuck.
Playboy: And then?
Maher: Then you'll get laid.
Playboy: Do you have a girlfriend now?
Maher: Yes, I do. I try to keep it private. What will happen? Who knows? They always say life begins at 40. I understand what that means, especially for someone ambitious and driven. It takes a couple of decades to set up your life. By 40 you've laid the groundwork. You've got your own business or whatever it is. But what they don't tell you about life beginning at 40 is that the next step is 50. I think my 50s are going to be good, but you're always looking ahead. Fifty seems old when you're 40, but at 50 you're looking at 60. Now that seems really old. I'm still having fun, though, and when I get bored, well, thank God for George Bush. He may be the worst president we've ever had, but he's been good for me.
Playboy: Will Bush leaving office be bad for your business?
Maher: Well, there will never be anybody as good as Bush. He provided everything except sex, and dumbness is probably even better than sex. There's a contradiction between what's good for my country and what's good for my living. Between Bush and Clinton, I've been lucky. Since I've been doing this we've had a horndog and an idiot.
Playboy: Which is worse?
Maher: No question. I'd rather have a horndog any day. I can relate to a horndog.
Playboy: And when there's no more George Bush to kick around?
Maher: I hope I'm wrong, but sadly, and given our recent history, there's a better than even chance some other idiot will come along, screw up miserably and provide me with endless opportunities.