When the conservative faction of Republicans in the House of Representatives forced the federal government to shut down for 16 days in October, the shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 government employees and put the brakes on the economy. But it was good for a few people's jobs, and no one is more open about it than comedian and political commentator Bill Maher.
"It's absolutely better for me," Maher says when asked if outlandish Washington D.C. politics benefit him. "I remember when (President George W.) Bush was leaving office — Bush who now looks like a reasonable centrist. I remember the press asking all the comedians, 'Gosh, George Bush, one of the great comedy gold mines of all time, is leaving office. Do you think there will be anything to talk about?' I was like, 'Stop worrying. The Republicans always have a very deep douche bag bench. Mr. George Bush walks away and Sarah Palin steps up. She goes down, Mr. Ted Cruz emerges. Or Mr. John Boehner. Rand Paul. They're giving us plenty of material."
For 20 years, Maher has offered his withering and sometimes flippant critique of news and politics from his shows Politically Incorrect, which launched on Comedy Central in 1993 and moved to ABC from 1997 to 2002, and his current HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. While he serves as host and moderator on TV, he's more freewheeling about his partisanship and personal beliefs in his standup act, which he brings to the Saenger Theatre Saturday.
The GOP is providing him with plenty of fodder, but it's not all about Washington politicians.
"If you look at some of the (Pew Research Center) polling on what Republican voters believe — this is not the tea party, this is rank and file Republicans: 44 percent of them believe (President Barack) Obama will find a way to stay in office after 2017," Maher says. "That's almost half of the people that think this crazy Kenyan socialist is going to wrangle a way stay in office for a third term. Forty-four percent of them think Benghazi is the worst scandal ever — worse than Watergate or slavery or the Trail of Tears or interning Japanese people during World War II."
As factions of the GOP are alarmed by an array of social changes in the U.S., Maher is constantly bemused.
"The Republicans are going through this primal scream phase of their existence," he says. "The things they're exercised about are not that rational. How does gay marriage ever affect any of their lives? Of course, it doesn't affect them at all. It's this notion that America is now a country with a black president, where pot is legal in some places, where gays can get married. It's this irrational notion, this fuzzy feeling in their gut of black and pot and gay. It's that '60s dorm room — that they were probably never invited into — that is the problem."
Maher is not strictly partisan, and on a couple of issues, he's stood outside the mainstream and waited for it to catch up. He's a longtime advocate of legalization of marijuana and supporter of same-sex marriage. His documentary Religulous (2008) presented him as agnostic, though he's frequently characterized as an atheist. He's not shy about criticizing Democrats, but the examples that he offers are criticizing Democratic politicians for being unwilling to buck unfavorable polling, and poor rollout of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
Maher stirred controversy in the wake of the BP disaster when he criticized defenses of drilling in the Gulf based on the preservation of jobs. He echoed similar statements he made that coal miners would be better off with different jobs. Also at issue was the use of the term "redneck."
"It's a comedy term," he says when asked about it. "I know lots of rednecks who are never offended if you call them rednecks. It's not equivalent to the 'n' word."
While Maher has been outspoken, he says he's fortunate to be able to make a living speaking his mind. He draws some distinctions about political theater and presentation of overheated debates.
"The old (CNN show Crossfire) was that '90s style of yelling at each other, which I have some complicity in because Politically Incorrect was one of the first of those shows," he says. "We'd purposefully book a snake with a mongoose back then. But that was the '90s. We got over it."
Although he's focused on politics during his entire 34-year career, Maher notes that it's hard to change people's views.
"In 20 years of doing a show on TV, the number of people who have come up to me and said, 'You know, I used to be a conservative but after listening to you, I have become a liberal,' is like one person. Ever," he says. "You know how many people have reached out to me to tell me that they used to be religious but have given that up? Thousands. I couldn't count the number of people. It happens on a weekly basis wherever I go. You can flip people on religion so easily, but on politics almost never."