Bill Maher: anti-Christ or the Antichrist?

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" />Irascible, contemptuous, even anti-American &#151; people have called <a href=

Bill Maher all these things and worse, and despite his reputation, he probably wouldn’t dispute them. “I’m all for unsettling people’s opinions,” Maher says. “For my money, that’s the best kind of comedy.” The former host of Politically Incorrect (ABC canned him in 2002 for refuting the supposed cowardice of 9/11 hijackers) and current mastermind of HBO’s live-format Real Time with Bill Maher (9 p.m. Fridays) brings his incite-ful standup routine to the Mahalia Jackson Theater tomorrow, and Gambit rang just to push his buttons. Easier done than said. (Full transcript after the jump.)

What’s your reaction to the reaction to (your film) Religulous?

Very few religious people saw it. I didn’t really hear a lot from them. There were some people who said, “I’ll be praying for you.”

And they were serious.

They’re very serious. But the people who saw it adored it, I have to say. I know that sounds immodest, but you asked me the question — I’m not going to lie. We did what we set out to do. This was my Moby Dick, if you will. This is something I’d been trying to make for over 10 years. It’s the one subject that really has always fascinated me, that I thought deserved to be made into a feature-length movie. There’s never been a movie like that. And I do think we harpooned that f—ing white whale. [Laughs] Having done so, I have no desire to ever make a movie again. This wasn’t a gambit to start a new career. I’m not interested in that career. I was interested in making one movie about this one subject.

Does your act — or the reception to it — change in heavily Catholic cities like New Orleans or Boston?

You know, it really doesn’t, because wherever I go, the people who appreciate what I do come out of the woodwork. I’ve played Salt Lake City and Tulsa, Okla., places you might think are hostile, and I have no illusions — probably a good percentage of those places are hostile to what I have to say. But those people don’t come out to the theater. That’s the good thing about charging.

Kick open the doors and it would be a different story.

Right — it would be a very different story, and I’d need firearms. Actually, they’re very grateful that someone came to their town who thinks like they do. The redder the state, the more excited the crowd. And, really, the funnier the show.

Ever performed here?

Never. So I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been in the city before, pre-Katrina, and of course, how can you not have a good time. I’ve been bugging my agent for the longest time: “When can I get to New Orleans?” Finally, they got it.

Will there be any New Orleans-specific humor in your act?

[Laughs] I think there might be. I haven’t really thought about it yet. But if you have any tips on what’s going on there locally that I don’t know, I’d love to hear it.

Nagin’s always good for a laugh.

Oh yeah, Mayor Nagin. I should call my friend Harry Anderson.

(New Republic editor) Leon Wieseltier said about you and Ann Coulter recently, “They share the assumption that the most extreme formulation of an idea is its truest one.” Your retort?

My retort would be, he sounds like he’s expressing one of the problems with the media, which is what I call “fake fairness.” Sometimes the truth is all on one side. One of the problems with our media is that they don’t really know what’s up, so they always have to posit the idea that everything is a 50/50 situation. You’ll see a cover story in Time or Newsweek on legalizing marijuana, and they’ll give the pros and the cons. Well, you know what, be honest with yourself. There really aren’t any cons. It’s one of the most benign drugs in the world. Pharmaceuticals and liquor kill hundreds of thousands of people a year; marijuana doesn’t kill anybody. This is, I think, the biggest cash crop in America. But of course it’s all going to drug dealers and illegals instead of the government. It’s really a no-brainer issue, but it’s not treated that way in the press. So I would say to this guy, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, “Extremism in the defense of truth is no vice.”

Is legalizing pot the quickest way out of the recession?

I don’t think it would completely solve the recession. But in a time when we do need revenue, and desperately, it’s absolutely a great way to do it. I live in California. This state is facing a kind of economic meltdown that I don’t think any state in modern times has faced. I mean, we are really desperate. They’re talking about releasing prisoners and closing schools. It’s ridiculous.

Are you still on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)?

You know, that’s a good question. I haven’t had much contact with them in recent years. I was a little disillusioned. I’ve always said, one of the reasons there’s been so little progress on the marijuana issue front is that what the movement needs more than anything is some kick-ass, take-no-prisoners, Karl Rove-type lobbyist, you know? And that just never happens, because it’s all a bunch of stoners. You got to get up for that 8 a.m. breakfast meeting with the congressman on Capitol Hill!

What about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)? Are you familiar with (president) Ingrid Newkirk’s support for breed-specific legislation against pit bulls?

I am not. Really, she wants a pit bull genocide? She’s the Hitler of pit bulls? I’m hearing about this for the first time. You’re sure about this? I’m going to have to look into this. I know Ingrid very well, and I’m a great admirer. I think she’s taken a cause that was not even on the agenda in America and moved it to a place where even if it’s sometimes mocked, at least it’s on people’s minds. … But look, I’ve never been in lockstep with PETA. I always refer to the title: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. That’s what I believe. But I’m not a strict vegetarian myself. Animals do kill each other. I just would like them to be treated ethically.

I read that you have an “eccentric diet.” Can you elaborate?

It’s a diet that should not be eccentric. The American diet is what’s a disaster. I think people, when they hear the word diet, they think of something that makes you lose weight or eliminates carbs, something like that. My diet, without going into the details that would bore you, is just about purity. It’s about eating things that don’t have all the processed nonsense that goes into American food production.

The Michael Pollan plan.

Exactly. Not chemicals, not preservatives, not red dye No. 2, not steroids, not hormones, not antibiotics. Not all that stuff. It’s mostly raw, and it’s mostly chemical free. Now, I don’t always stick to it. You can’t. You’ll drive yourself crazy. You can kill yourself easier with the stress of trying to stick to a diet that makes you unhappy. So I eat that mostly. But if I want a pizza, I’m going to have it.

I’m curious of your take on — I hasten to call them your colleagues — Daniel Tosh and Carlos Mencia, Comedy Central alums who recently got into hot water with their insulting bits about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. [Reads quotes] Is comedic value the only standard by which comedy should be judged?

This is not making a point. I get booed all the time, sometimes by my own audience. But I hope it’s in service of making a point that has to be made. I’m all for unsettling people’s opinions. For my money, that’s the best kind of comedy. But I don’t know what point they’re making here. I don’t know what this is in service of. If the point is to just let New Orleans go, I think that first of all, that’s just ridiculous and impractical. It’s a major American city. There’s too much history. And it can be protected, for crying out loud. They protect Amsterdam. Venice, the whole city is underwater. It can be done. The problem is that in America, we forgot how to do stuff. We forgot how to accomplish stuff. We forgot how to build roads and bridges and infrastructure. Mostly, this happened because all the money went to the richest 1 percent in the last 30 years. So this country is dilapidated and falling apart. I don’t understand this view that the conservatives have that we can’t spend money now. We have to spend money. Yes, we’re spending a metric f—k ton of money. It’s not for shits and giggles. The idea that you would just cut loose a major American city, it’s just ridiculous. If you’re going to do that, it better be a little funnier than that. We did a thing two weeks ago on autoerotic asphyxiation.

Ah, the David Carradine tribute.

Well, we never mentioned Carradine. We did a little sketch at the beginning of the show — we had been doing kind of a running gag with the Snuggie, and it was a Snuggie with the rope built into it: “There’s got to be a better way to masturbate while strangling yourself.” [Laughs] I was touchy about the subject, because the guy had just died. But it just made us laugh so much. And when we showed it, the audience laughed. I mean, they couldn’t help it.

If it’s funny enough, you can get away with it?

If it’s funny enough, and if there’s enough sentiment from reasonable people about a point you’re making. I don’t know what point [Tosh and Mencia] are making. It loses me.

What about your friend Arrianna Huffington? She’s drawn the ire of the journalistic world for not paying contributors and lifting content from other sites.

She also never picks up the check for lunch.

[Laughs] You contribute to her site. Do you think there’s anything wrong with that business model?

Again, this is the first I’m hearing about this. That’s probably because they don’t make any money, do they? I think I’m probably more sympathetic to her point of view in this than the people who are criticizing her. I’ve never been a fan of, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts. I don’t think that’s something the government should be (involved) in. I think if people do something that rises in quality to the point where people want to pay for it, they will pay for it. But, you know, nobody subsidized me when I started out as a comedian.

This is the Republican side of Bill Maher.

I don’t think you should subsidize artists of any kind. If you’re good enough, yes, people will then buy your product. And until then, you struggle. I didn’t get an endowment when I was starting out as a comedian. I lived in a shithole apartment on 8th Avenue over a bus stop, and I kept working it. Eventually, I made enough money to make a living at it. Then, I made a good living at it. But it took years and it took a lot of work.

It took getting punched in the face by Erik Estrada.

[Laughs] That’s the lowlight of my career.

What’s your take on the Obama administration? You were on CNN recently with some harsh words.

I’ve certainly gotten a lot of shit from the liberals, because I have been criticizing our president. I have a nasty habit: I still read the paper. And I think a lot of people stopped reading the paper after he got elected. I happen to love newspapers. They may be dying, but they still have information. And the information about him is not promising, I’m sorry. He’s not standing up to the corporations that have a stranglehold on this country. If you look at almost any of the problems that are besetting us, from health care reform to the environment to the financial meltdown, it’s almost always because the fat cats, the corporations, the lobbyists, won’t let change pass. [Obama] was going to be the hero, and the crusader, I thought, who fought for real change. And he doesn’t seem to be doing that.

Is he playing it safe in his first term to ensure there’s a second?

That’s not how you’re going to get a second term. We voted for him to effect this sweeping change. “Change you can believe in!” “The audacity of hope!” I said the other night, audacity of hope? Hell, I’m hoping for some audacity. I don’t know if you get a second term unless you do it now, in any administration. But especially one that takes office in time of crisis. You got to strike while the iron is hot. They talk about FDR’s first 100 days. This is what amazes me when people say, “He’s only been in office five months.” Yeah — that was the time to do it. Far from being too soon, it may be too late. Things go back to business as usual very quickly. Is there time to get these things done? I hope so. But the pressure needs to come from the left, not from the right.

Now, he has done some good things: closing Guantanamo Bay; we can have stem cell research again; we can talk to Cuba; no more abstinence education; no more raiding marijuana/cannabis compassion clubs; we can talk to countries without preconditions; we’re raising mileage standards. It’s like he’s spraying the country with a big can of Bush Be Gone. I don’t expect the world to change overnight, but it’s good he’s at least getting the smell of stupid out of the furniture.

There is another side to the story, and that’s that every time [Obama] tries to take on a progressive cause, there is a major political party standing in his way. And that would be the Democrats. The Democrats are kind of the new Republicans. They’re the ones who basically stand up for the credit card companies, the banks, big agriculture, the pharmaceutical lobby. The Democrats have been co-opted and bought off by that group. The Republicans, they’re not even that relevant anymore. So we don’t have a good situation in this country, because there’s nobody who’s really standing up for the little guy.

Who fits that bill that is remotely electable? Ralph Nader fell short.

I think somebody like that would be electable if the media would treat them not like they’re not crazy, and if more people would rally around them. Michael Moore is an awfully popular filmmaker. He’s not a politician, but Nader basically has the same platform as Michael Moore, I would say. Nader just doesn’t have the charisma. Or a second suit. [Laughs] But you see in somebody like Michael Moore, there is that potential. People love Michael, and they rally around him and they believe in him in giant numbers. You take somebody like that, with that platform and the right charisma, I think you’d really have something.

Maybe Obama will become that person. Presidents do grow in office. Kennedy, when he took office, was also very conservative. He had no intention of taking on civil rights. But he came to see that this is the moral issue of our time, and he wound up sending troops into Alabama and costing the Democratic Party, basically, the solid South for the next two generations. So that same kind of thing could happen to Obama on the issues of health care or the environment or the banks. But I wish it would happen tomorrow.

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