“You can unfriend someone’s politics you don’t like, but you can’t unfriend 47% of America,” Bill Maher explained in November. “Roommates can move out. Patriots can’t. America needs you more than ever, right here, with me, and the rest of the resistance, until we can figure out how to really make America great again. And don’t ever let them forget: We’re still here.” With that, the 60-year-old host literally capped off his epic season of Real Time with Bill Maher by tossing on a blue baseball hat embroidered with those last three words. It was only 72 hours after the election, everyone looked dazed but him.
Why should he be? None of this is surreal or surprising to Maher; after all, he’s been painting this exact portrait for years. Like Churchill and his infamous Iron Curtain Speech — or, even better, his early warnings of Hitler and the Nazis to Prince Bismarck — the veteran comic has been the most prescient voice in the political spectrum, rallying against the inherent stupidity of this country and how its many shortcomings can and will lead to outright instability. Not surprisingly, he’s drawn ire from both sides of the line, but that’s partly why he’s been such a trustworthy voice: He values logic over anything else.
Logic is in high demand these days. As the truth continues to dissolve in tandem with how complicated the world gets — from vitriolic politicians, from the ravenous media elite, from the endless stream of hyper-illiterate social networks — logic may be the only thing that keeps our institutions alive and in check. That’s forever been Maher’s strength, and one he’s flexed time and time again with Real Time, having delivered 14 exceptional seasons on HBO, starting way, way back on February 21, 2003, and continuing next month on January 20, 2017, aka the day President-elect Donald J. Trump takes office.
This past year felt like an exception, though. Granted, Maher has always been on the frontlines, spewing out New Rules and taking down politicians with aplomb, but there was an urgency to his actions. Each week, he had a proper response to every major event and with the type of clarity that felt refreshing: He brought on Senator Bernie Sanders to rally behind Hillary Clinton, he questioned in-fighting among progressives, he exhaustively covered the RNC, he sparred with Kellyanne Conway, and, finally, he sat down with President Barack Obama in what felt like the big guy’s true exit interview.
Outside of Real Time, he was just as busy: He challenged police culture in New York City of all places on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and later called out Jimmy Fallon for essentially humanizing Trump on The Tonight Show, arguing “it’s not funny,” a sentiment he similarly echoed on his own show when he stated: “I know this is a comedy show, and I’m going to try and keep it on that level, but it’s not fucking funny. There is a slow-moving, right-wing coup going on. Media, do your fucking job.” Maybe it was his inner doomsayer, or maybe he was just fed up, but Maher never stopped playing with fire in 2016.
Earlier this month, Consequence of Sound’s President and Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman spoke with the comedian over the phone to discuss his marathon year. At the time, he was three weeks removed from filming the last episode of Real Time and enjoying a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles. Still, he brought all of his expected trademark wit to the conversation, commenting on everything from the disastrous election to the pitfalls of political correctness to the state of political comedy. It’s a sobering conversation that should hold fans over until he starts the clock again next month.
Looking back, do you think this has been your hardest year as a comedian?
No, it’s one of the easiest, actually. You know, movies are good when there’s a villain, and Rocky would not be much without Mr. T or Clubber Lang or Apollo Creed or whoever the fuck he has to fight, and you couldn’t have asked for a better villain than Donald Trump. The problem is, of course, the movie had the wrong ending and the villain won and Rocky’s dead, so that’s not good. As far as comedy goes, it’s always the case, where what’s bad with the country is good for comedy and vice versa. We were looking down the barrel of a down year, comedy-wise, with Hillary elected, and it was going to be good for the country. She’s not that interesting, and she’s not that funny, and what she was going to do was probably not going to be that critique worthy. But now, obviously, as everyone keeps saying, we’re in completely uncharted territory. But my guess is that the interest level will be high.
Do you feel anxious being off the air as the madness keeps piling on?
No, I like having time off. I think it’s necessary to get away a couple of times a year for a month or so as we do — usually August and December we’re off. That’s okay; people don’t have to hear me, what I have to say, every second, every day, and we’ll have plenty to go at when we get back. Inauguration Day is the day we come back on the air, it’s a Friday, and it so happens to be my birthday, so it’s a small birthday present, and then we’ll take it from there.
Do you find it hard to turn off right now? Are you constantly writing notes as this is unfolding?
Yeah, of course. I can’t help but follow the news. I was a news junkie before I got into it as a profession; my father was in news, and it’s just something I’m interested in. There was a little period there … I think many of us just couldn’t help but turn off right after the election. I don’t remember that ever happening, at least in my life, where there was a small period there where I just didn’t want to know what the heck was going on. I’d turn on the TV and think, Let’s just check the basketball scores because I just can’t deal with this right now. I feel that’s kind of the way it’s gone. I remember doing shows up in northern California — my final stand-ups of the year were in, I think, San Jose and San Rafael, which of course is very liberal territory — and it was only three, four days after the election, and my opening line was, “I’m Bill and I’ll be your grievance counselor.” Because that’s how people felt. We sort of commiserated together.
This year you had 38 episodes. Do you think you’ll do even more next year?
It’s been that way. We’ve had the same number of episodes for probably eight years, maybe; it seems like more. But our schedule has been pretty constant for quite awhile. In our early years, we did have a massive break in between, and we didn’t do enough episodes. It took awhile for the network to understand that a show like ours, we’re not The Sopranos, we’re not True Blood, we’re not Westworld. We’re an every-week-kind-of-habit show, and people want us there most of the time. But then they got that, and we’ve been on 36 weeks a year for quite awhile now.
What was your biggest triumph of the year? Obviously, getting Obama was a huge deal.
I didn’t have a huge triumph because Trump won the presidency. If I could take some solace, I would say, among commentators, comedic and not, I think I was pretty much the only one who ever said: “This guy is serious about running for president.” Everybody else said, “Oh you know, he’s not even serious, it’s just a publicity stunt, or he’s trying to raise his profile, he’s trying to sell books or whatever it was.” I said, “No, no, no, this guy is very serious and thinks he should run the world.”
And then when everybody else said that he couldn’t win, I was the one out there saying, “Fuck yeah. I don’t put anything past this stupid country.” I was never complacent and I was always telling people it was possible and they had to get involved and they had to vote and they couldn’t take this lightly and they shouldn’t just sit back. I convinced people, like Michael Moore, of that on the air. People who came in and said, “Oh, I think it’s going to be a Hillary landslide.” Rob Reiner said that. I was like, “Guys, shut the fuck up. This could happen.”
During your 2015 interview with Playboy, you said, “When you’re dealing with an electorate that doesn’t know anything, you can say anything and that’s how you get zombie lies.” Do you ever hate being right all the time?
That’s a line I’ve said many times. The actual line is “Politicians can say anything because people don’t know anything,” and that is Trump times 10. And what was scary yesterday was seeing him keep doing it now that he is the President-elect. I thought, and I think many people thought, hopefully, looking for a bright lining here, Oh man, maybe, maybe that was all an act when he was running, and now he’ll be a more sober person and he’ll go by the facts.
Apparently not because he was, once again, last night at that rally in Ohio, spewing utter nonsense — just whatever pops into his head, whatever he sees on Fox News, whatever a passing mental patient whispers into his ear, I don’t know what. He certainly doesn’t get his information by reading. He’s said many times, “People are saying,” like that’s a way to get information; “I’m hearing.” We live in this post-fact world, and yeah, if the people aren’t going to check it, you can get away with saying anything. It’s terrible; it’s terrifying.
Do you think that changes after this election?
I see the media finally calling him out a little more on his lying, saying “baseless,” using words like that in headlines. “Donald Trump’s claim that two million people voted illegally; baseless.” That has to happen across the board and unendingly for it to sink in to people, that this guy is making baseless accusations and referring to his own version of reality, which is not a reality based on facts.
A few weeks ago, Michael Stipe talked to Alec Baldwin about his Trump impersonation and how his time on Saturday Night Live more or less added to the mythology of Trump. Do you think it’s harder or perhaps even dangerous to mix politics and comedy at a time when facts continue to be distorted?
No, because my comedy always has a point, and I don’t think people are ever wondering what I’m trying to say. Yes, there are jokes because I am an entertainer and this is an entertainment show and certainly stand-up comedy, you’re trying to go for the belly laugh every time, but it’s been a long, long time since I did comedy that didn’t have a point. When you start out in comedy, of course, you’re saying anything that’ll get a laugh because you’re just trying to survive on stage and get that oxygen of laughter so you can keep breathing. But it’s been a long time since I was doing that, and any time I’m saying something, it has a point. I think that’s why we have a large and loyal audience; they want to hear a point of view, not just a joke.
I agree with the premise that the media and comedy, comedians in general, helped Trump, they humanized him. Alec Baldwin did a funny impression, and of course was in many ways, scathing, but I think to a lot of his fans, they looked at it and went, “Oh, there’s that guy we like. Look, he’s authoritative and he’s taking charge.” All of us coastal elites, we saw Donald Trump as this clown from the ‘80s, who was “ha ha running for president,” and a lot of the country saw the guy that they’d been watching on The Apprentice for 12 years, who was an authority figure and told people they were fired and made tough decisions. That’s one thing about elections; they sure re-align your thinking and let you know what the country is thinking.
It’s really split right down the middle.
That’s the scarier part. What I kept saying in the weeks leading up to the election is that it’s not just Trump — I mean, that’s one man, and I thought he was the most vulgar person, not only to run for president ever, but the most vulgar person I’d ever seen in any walk of life — but the fact that he had so many fans. That’s what blew my mind; that’s what made me so afraid. The fact that so many people were okay with a guy who doesn’t share my values at all or any values. I was raised a certain way, and I thought most of the country was.
It was all in that big book, [Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten], which basically said you don’t lie, you don’t boast, you don’t bully people, you don’t accuse people of things that aren’t true, you don’t brag about your wealth, you pay your taxes, you serve your country, you help protect, and you go to church, you’re not a racist, you don’t assault soldiers and veterans and the handicapped. You try to learn something about a subject before you speak about it; you don’t grab women’s pussies. All of these things that apparently were not deal-breakers for people; that’s what was disappointing.
How does the country recover from this? What hope do you have at this point?
The only hope is that it galvanizes the Left, who have been sluggish, lazy, uninformed, and ineffective at convincing lots of people to vote for them. The hope is that finally this will wake people up, but I wouldn’t hold my breathe for that either. Donald Trump could easily walk around this country in the next year and just take credit for a lot of Obama’s accomplishments, which he’s great at doing: slapping his name on something and saying, “I did it.” He could stand there and say, “ISIS is defeated,” because ISIS is almost defeated. “Look, we’re rebuilding our roads and bridges,” something Obama begged Congress to do. He has a unique opportunity because he is not bound by loyalty to either party or by any ideology, so he could do good things. But based on his appointments, it doesn’t look like he’s going to.
Do you feel that in-fighting was a major component of this election?
No. I don’t think that was the problem. I think that the Democrats had a very civil primary season between Hillary and Bernie; I mean, you have to have a primary. And in a primary, people have to criticize each other somewhat. By standards, it was rather gentle, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem, I mean there were many problems, one, Donald Trump got very lucky, and he wound up being president when he lost the election, which is the second time that’s happened in 16 years, and it seems to be benefiting only one party. This ‘We win the election and they get to be president’ thing? Yeah, that’s got to stop. We have a fucked-up system, and it’s going to be next to impossible to change that.
But let’s not forget, she won the election, by a lot. It’s a little like when you watch a basketball game and it ends 112-110 and they spend the next half-hour on the team that lost by two points saying they have to do this to do that. What do you mean they have to do this and this? If one guy had hit one more three-pointer, you’d be talking about the other team having to do this and this and this. Except in this case, she did hit the three-pointer, and she won by a lot. But okay, they lost the election, and they do need to do a lot of work, but it wasn’t because of the in-fighting; it was because she was a shitty candidate.
What about the in-fighting specifically between liberals?
Oh, this is something I’ve been saying for years, that liberals are lazy and would rather go after a subject that just makes them feel good rather than something that matters. And it’s of course still happening, and it’s going to be a fight that I’m going to have, continuing, as I’ve had in the past. I would invite other liberals to join me, because they really haven’t in the past, because they’re craven, and they’re afraid of saying anything that would make their audience the least bit uncomfortable, whereas I’m always saying things that makes my audience uncomfortable. In the long run, they appreciate it. At the time, they may boo. It’s a little like the teacher who you say, “Oh boy, he gave us a lot of homework,” and then, when you’re a little older, you go, “Wow, that guy taught me how to write.”
Right now, there’s this nagging idea, especially in the media, that you’re always walking on thin ice.
When you talk to Trump supporters, the one thing that comes up over and over again is that he’s not politically incorrect. Now, of course, he’s an idiot. He’s vulgar and vile and many of his opinions are vile, so that doesn’t forgive just not being politically incorrect. When I did a show called Politically Incorrect in the ’90s, we once had a contest called “Politically Incorrect or Just Stupid,” because people were copying what we were doing, but they were just being stupid, and then that was political incorrectness. Politically incorrect, to me, the way I’ve always defined it was … well, I’ll define political correctness first: the elevation of sensitivity over truth.
That’s the problem. That was a problem in the ’90s, and obviously I wasn’t successful in getting rid of it then either. [Laughs.] It’s just gotten worse, especially with the Internet and the virtual vigilantes that are out there now. But that’s what bugs people and there’s a lot of America that has real problems, and they don’t want a party that worries more about that than their real problems, and that’s what liberals have to wrap their minds around. If your problem is that the Vagina Monologues aren’t inclusive enough because of transgender people, you’re not really slaying the bigger dragons, are you?
What is the next plan of action for Real Time?
It’s December 2nd, we’re not on the air until January 20th. Who knows if the world will still be here by then? I guess it will be because he doesn’t take off until then. I don’t know, my head’s not in that game yet, but like I said, I think there’s going to be a lot of interest. We were fearing a kind of down year, relatively, just by a couple of points. But after an election, especially an exciting election, it’s usually hard the year after to get the same-sized crowds. We had record ratings this year, as I imagine lots of news-oriented shows did. But we’re not going to have that problem. We’ll have other more horrific problems, but not that one.